Yup, it’s that time of year again. The one where I make an absolute fool of myself by trying to predict what is going to happen based on the pre-season we have seen so far. And then in nine months a bunch of people will use hindsight to tell me how stupidly wrong I was, even if I’m close.
But it’s fun, and I don’t mind being wrong. In fact, aside from my ego being hurt I’d rather be wrong so that it means we have an unpredictable season that nobody could foresee.
And I’m going to caveat this whole column already by saying we are going to have an unpredictable season, because the midfield especially has a massive amount of question marks around it.
I’m also going to point out that — as was the case last year — this guess is for the final constructors’ championship finishing order at the end of the season, not on who will have one good weekend in Bahrain.
OK, I’ve dragged it out enough. Here goes:
• Red Bull
• Aston Martin
• Alfa Romeo
I know, Mercedes wins again. So boring. But I do think we’ll see it recover from the difficulties that it had during the three-day test in Bahrain.
In the past there would be at least one more test starting soon where Mercedes could return armed with plenty of data and analysis and try to understand why its car isn’t performing the way it expected it to. That’s happened a number of times in the past and it has always ironed things out, but this year it doesn’t have that luxury.
Where it does have something positive is in the fact that the first race takes place on the same circuit as the test, so comparisons during the first race weekend can be like-for-like. It might well mean Red Bull wins the first race — or looks quicker — but there are 22 after that for Mercedes to get as comfortable as Red Bull is with its car.
That’s obviously no guarantee, but history tells us that Mercedes never shows anywhere near its true potential in testing, and can address issues quickly and effectively. So that’s still what I expect to see.
All of that said, Red Bull is as well-placed as it has been in the hybrid era to put up a proper fight. The car looks really strong and responsive, doing what the team wants it to do. Max Verstappen highlighted the way it reacts to setup changes and the RB16B just seems to be a car that the team is already on top of. It hasn’t started from that point in a long time.
But it’s still a big ask to overhaul a winning machine in the form of Mercedes, where most of the time both Lewis Hamilton and Valtteri Bottas have combined to score significant points at every event. There were blips for Bottas, sure, but he’s still finished second in each of the last two years and Sergio Perez is going to have plenty of learning to do of his own early on in the season. Right now it’s looking close — this might be the first year of the hybrid era that truly goes down to the wire — but I’m still backing Mercedes to edge it.
Behind that, it gets really tricky. The McLaren looked very solid in testing and if I think back to 12 months ago it actually looks better this time around. We didn’t get to see Aston Martin’s potential in testing, but the smooth transition to Mercedes power with a very good chassis, added to the impressive line-up of Daniel Ricciardo and Lando Norris, gives McLaren a great chance of emulating last year’s third place.
And it’s actually on driver line-up that I’m putting Ferrari fourth. The car looks a small improvement but not the massive one that was being hoped for, and while the whole midfield looks that bit closer to the top two once again, on the evidence so far you’d have to put Ferrari still in the midfield.
But last year, if Sebastian Vettel had scored 75% of Charles Leclerc’s points total — rather than 33% — it would have probably seen Ferrari finish third overall when you take into account the points it would also have taken off other teams. I’m expecting Carlos Sainz to get closer to that level, and pull Ferrari up the order even if the power unit doesn’t quite so much.
And that’s why Aston Martin drops to fifth for me. There’s a lot of change going on at that team and while it looks good visually, it didn’t have the smoothest pre-season and will take some bedding in. Vettel is an unknown quantity at this point — as strange as that is to say about a four-time world champion — but even if we get the best Vettel, I’m not convinced Lance Stroll is yet able to provide the consistency that would allow Aston to get the better of McLaren and Ferrari.
These are all such fine margins though, as they were last year when I called the order of McLaren-Racing Point-Renault correctly but with two races to go it could have ended up massively wrong.
Add to that AlphaTauri now, which looked extremely quick in testing. Those headline lap times from Yuki Tsunoda on the final evening need taking with a pinch of salt as he was gaining time by opening his DRS out of the final corner, but Tsunoda still had a solid run. And more importantly the car looked predictable and consistent, just like the Red Bull. An updated Honda power unit also looks like moving AlphaTauri into the heart of the midfield pack — where it ended last year — but with a rookie in there I think that could just cost it a better finishing position of the course of the season.
Which brings me to Alpine. There has just always seemed to be something missing at Enstone in recent years, and I can’t quite put my finger on it. It’s got another really good line-up in Fernando Alonso and Esteban Ocon this season, and the car looked solid in testing but like it may lack the raw pace needed to qualify ahead of enough of its rivals. The power unit, too, is now an outlier with no customer teams, and unlike Honda, Renault is waiting until 2022 to bring in a new concept.
Amid management changes and with Alonso’s experience returning, I can see Alpine’s focus being on 2022 even more than those around it, and we’re talking tiny margins that could prove costly in such a close midfield fight this year, just like they did last.
Alfa Romeo looked quick on the final day in Bahrain but the gap to the midfield was pretty significant last year, so that’s a team that might end up in no man’s land, racing those ahead on a few occasions but more often than not fighting with Williams. Still, the Williams does look another step forward and George Russell will get everything out of it, so at least Alfa is going to have some racing to do.
Unlike Haas, where two rookies and a car that won’t be developed at all (Williams has already suggested it will do some), is not a recipe for success this year. That’s not to say there can’t be good races and high points — and I agree the decision to rebuild for 2022 is the right one — but over a season I can see Williams getting the better results.
So there you have it, your ammo for all of the times I look completely wrong during the coming season. But if I’m right that the most lonely team is likely to be Haas rather than one dominating at the front, we’re in for a good year.