Experience counts in Formula 1, yet some of the most experienced drivers on the grid have endured difficult openings to the 2021 season. Fernando Alonso, Sebastian Vettel, Carlos Sainz, Daniel Ricciardo and Sergio Perez share 1075 grand prix starts between them and have enjoyed enormous success in F1, yet so far this season all have spoken of the need for more mileage before they are completely comfortable in their new surroundings having all joined new teams this year.
While it has always taken a little time for drivers to settle into new teams, the fact that so many outstanding drivers aren’t yet properly integrated demonstrates that it’s more difficult than it once was to do so. In the process, it reveals much about the modern grand prix car.
But there are also circumstantial factors. Pre-season testing was cut down to just three days as part of the reaction to the COVID-19 pandemic hitting, giving the newcomers a day-and-a-half – plus whatever limited running they can get during the two 100km promotional days teams have available – to become accustomed to their new cars.
That meant just a day-and-a-half of running during serious testing. Alonso notched up the most mileage, completing 206 laps in Bahrain pre-season, whereas mechanical problems that struck on both days Sebastian Vettel was in the car restricted him to just 117 laps.
On top of that, some have had old-car running. While Vettel and Ricciardo didn’t have this benefit thanks to their teams not having machinery ready to run under the rules permitting what is called ‘Testing of Previous Cars’. This is defined as the running of cars designed and built for F1 in “any of the three calendar years falling immediately prior to the calendar year preceding the championship”.
Alonso, Perez and Sainz have all benefited from this, and Sainz has continued to do so even after the start of the season with regular outings in the 2018 Ferrari SF71H at Fiorano. By regulation, these cars must run in period specification, meaning that their primary value is for driver training.
Traditionally, becoming familiar with a new team was about learning the handling characteristics of the car and how to gel with the personnel, but there’s more to it in modern F1. Mastery of the baffling array of tools available to the drivers, including the differential maps, brake shapes and engine settings (within the rules allowing only one map) is essential to extracting those final fractions in terms of lap time. As a result, F1 cars have arguably become more esoteric in recent times.
What’s more, those tools can have a huge impact on the car’s performance on turn-in, which is the key moment when F1 cars are on the limit. To get the best lap time, you need to get the car rotated confidently and decisively to be able to carry the speed through the corner and guarantee a strong exit.
“You cannot imagine,” said Sainz in an interview with Sky Sports F1 when asked of how different it was to jump from a McLaren to a Ferrari. “I’ve changed teams; four different cars in the last six years. It’s like jumping into a different category for you to understand (as a driver). Everything feels different and I don’t understand how, by feeling so different, the cars can get to such a close lap time. I am actually enjoying the experience of having to adapt myself to drive each car in a certain way.”
Sainz demonstrated this in the early laps of the recent Emilia Romagna Grand Prix at Imola. Early in the race, he had a couple of off-track moments as he tried to learn the best settings to make the car work in the damp conditions, but thereafter settled in well. Ultimately, he finished fifth and just behind teammate Charles Leclerc.
Arguably, Sainz has been the most accomplished of those who have moved teams. It’s no coincidence that he’s also had plenty of old-car running to prepare, but he admits that qualifying is the big challenge for him. He’s still mastering how to extract those final hundredths in every corner, how to hit the kerbs, how to carry every last iota of speed.
The same is true of all of the newcomers. The difference was less obvious in Bahrain, largely because pre-season testing ran into the first race weekend. But at Imola, a track with little margin for error where a driver requires absolute confidence in what the car can do to produce the precision needed for the best lap time, it was much more difficult. And when the rain came at the start of the race, it created circumstances Perez described as “brutal”.
The Red Bull newcomer did outqualify team-mate Max Verstappen at Imola to earn his first front-row start in F1. That was thanks to a combination of finding a new turn of speed in Q3 and Verstappen struggling to put together a good lap. Perez himself suggested the race – during which he was hit with a 10-second penalty for re-passing Ricciardo and Pierre Gasly after having lost places under the safety car when he ran off the road, then spun – was a more accurate reflection of where he is.
“It’s certainly a big task to change teams,” said Perez. “To get to drive in the second weekend in these conditions is pretty brutal. So, I think I’m not there yet, you know. Though I do a good lap yesterday, you see today, like how far [away] I was. How difficult and tricky it is still. So, yeah, I am learning, and it is a process that we are making good steps (in), and hopefully we’ll learn from what happened today again.
Perez talks about learning significant amounts every time he jumps in the car. But he has taken a sensible position by ensuring he doesn’t deviate too far from Verstappen’s set-up and approaches, recognizing that his teammate is finding the way to extract the most from the car. That’s an approach his predecessors at Red Bull, particularly Gasly, didn’t always subscribe to.
Based on what happened in Bahrain, Ricciardo appeared to be the most comfortable of those who had changed teams. He outqualified team-mate Lando Norris, who admitted Ricciardo’s driving style worked well with the car. Ricciardo finished behind him in the race and proved slower, but that was blamed on diffuser damage picked up when he was hit by Gasly. At Imola, however, Ricciardo was nowhere near.
While the wet conditions made things difficult, Ricciardo also struggled in the dry throughout practice and qualifying. While he did outqualify Norris, this was only because of the Briton’s wide moment at Piratella that led to a lap good enough for the second row being deleted. In the race, Ricciardo was instructed to let Norris past, which he did, then proceeded to watch his teammate disappear into the distance.
“There is more to adapt to, and I did go to Renault [in 2019] so I’m not naive and know that a new team is a new challenge,” said Ricciardo. “I thought the transition would have been quicker, but it’s race two, so I don’t want to be like ‘I was expecting to be on the podium already’. My pace wasn’t really that spectacular, so I’ll just chip away and do better.”
Despite his pace struggles, Ricciardo did drive a very tidy race to sixth place. He was one of the few drivers not to make a significant mistake and banked valuable points, which at least shows he had accepted where he was and ensured he made the most of it. But it was a different story for his replacement at what is now called Alpine, Fernando Alonso.
Alonso said after Bahrain that he’s not yet at 100% but after a decent weekend there, he struggled at Imola. In dry conditions, he was well off teammate Esteban Ocon’s pace and he had a very difficult race. He had several offs, was twice overtaken by Haas driver Mick Schumacher and even had a spin under the safety car. Things were better in the second half of the race, finishing just behind Ocon, with Alonso himself saying he felt “300%” better after cramming the lessons from several races into just one grand prix distance.
Alonso has been quick to say that the lack of running is “no excuse”, but if a driver of his caliber and capacity to adapt is still taking time to find his feet, even after two years away from F1, it shows how challenging it is.
Perhaps the driver facing the most difficult situation is Sebastian Vettel. He’s attempting to rebuild his F1 career after his Ferrari dream turned to nightmare with Aston Martin and, after struggling for pace and rear-ending Ocon in Bahrain, had a weekend at Imola where everything that could go wrong did go wrong.
Having lapped a quarter-of-a-second off Stroll in qualifying, Vettel was on the back foot immediately thanks to a pitlane start and a penalty for not having the wheels on by the pre-race cutoff. That was because the rear brakes were being worked on after overheating on a reconnaissance lap, but it meant he was never a points threat in the race. That said, his performance was not as bad as it appeared. He kept it clean in the race, and without the penalty and other problems, such as a gearbox glitch, he could have had a decent result.
But Vettel has talked of still needing to build confidence in the car, a challenge multiplied by the fact the Aston Martin isn’t yet working well. He also indicated that Imola, with little margin for error, makes that shortfall more punishing.
“It’s a lovely track so it bites when you get things wrong, but ultimately we need the last bit of confidence,” said Vettel. “Maybe these people [drivers] who are new in their team have struggled a bit more.
“I just struggled [in qualifying] to put everything in that one lap, which is that one bit of confidence. But it’s not great when you have a [race] day like this. When you think about the things that could go wrong, I don’t think you’d come up with our race.”
Given all five of these experienced hands are having the same problems to varying or lesser degrees, the question of how much grace they should be given is difficult to answer. It may be that Imola magnified the struggles given the track configuration and wet conditions in the race, with things less challenging in the next two races in Portugal and Spain.
But in F1, there’s rarely much time given to adapt. Once F1 has completed its Iberian double-header, they will all be expected to be at their best and at one with the machinery. And given the quality of the drivers, don’t be surprised if they are.