Last season saw some very tight battles (Force India being the closest, I’d say) and some less tight battles (Alonso, Leclerc, and Gasly all had very strong years, as did Hulkenberg). In this post, looking ahead to how chaps might stack up in 2019, I’ve split it into sections based on how many drivers change.
Steady Eddies – No Change
Only two teams have unchanged driver lineups: Mercedes and Haas.
Hamilton and Bottas ended up some way apart on points last year, and, even if you take the view that Bottas was significantly unlucky early on, the Finn’s second half of 2018 was not fantastic. It’s also possible he’ll be set back by the Silver Arrows effectively supporting Hamilton as a number one driver (I’ve backed Hamilton to beat Schumacher’s win record [92+ wins], at 9, so that’d suit me). I think Hamilton’s near certain to win this, perhaps by a large margin. Bottas, with Ocon waiting in the wings, may well be driving for his future at Mercedes, and perhaps in F1.
Haas was rather more tightly matched last year. Grosjean and Magnussen are both quick drivers, and reliable, though Grosjean had a shocking start to 2018 (some of it not his fault, most obviously at Australia where the team had a nightmare of a double pit stop failure). I see no reason for the 2018 result to be anything other than pretty tight again.
Half and Half – One New Driver
Four teams retain one driver and change one: Ferrari, Red Bull, Renault, and Force India. Interesting to note these are all either in the first division or the top of the midfield.
Ferrari has perhaps the most exciting pairing and the greatest potential for a bust up. Vettel really liked Raikkonen, and the pair obviously got along well personally (to a very unusual extent for team mates). Against his wishes, the Finn has been replaced by the highly rated Monegasque Charles Leclerc. People are already wondering who will be the fastest and whether Ferrari will overtly back one over the other. Difficult to assess race pace as Leclerc’s a new driver and will be shifting from a pretty good Sauber to one of fastest cars on the grid. I think he’ll certainly give Vettel a lot to think about, and I suspect there’ll be a bit more rivalry and a bit less friendship than there was with Raikkonen.
Red Bull also has a new driver, with Pierre Gasly joining old man Verstappen (their combined age is just a few years older than Raikkonen by himself). The Frenchman drove very well for Toro Rosso and I think he’ll acquit himself well at Red Bull. But, and it’s a big but, Verstappen in the latter half of 2018 was arguably the best driver on the grid. He’s phenomenally fast and, so long as he keeps his recklessness in check, will be very tough to beat. I think Gasly will do well, but I’d be surprised if he can match Verstappen. It’s also possible that Red Bull will have an overt number one status for the Dutchman.
Renault waves goodbye to Sainz and hello to Ricciardo, who joins Hulkenberg. The German had a strong 2018 against the talented Sainz, and the pairing of Ricciardo and Hulkenberg is almost certainly the best of the midfield (assuming Renault doesn’t undergo a startling improvement from one year to the next). Ricciardo’s a very good driver, but on pace he seemed a little way behind Verstappen in the latter half of 2018. I think most people would guess Ricciardo would be faster. But it’s a great opportunity for Hulkenberg to be measured against a very highly rated driver, and, if he beats Ricciardo, that could be his ticket to a top team (although Renault may be aiming for a title tilt in a few years).
Force India, likely to be renamed, retains the reliable and fast Sergio Perez, and acquires new driver/son Lance Stroll. Stroll’s only driven a Williams that was iffy and a Williams that was atrocious, so assessing pace isn’t easy. He does tend to start races very well. I’d guess that Perez will be top dog, simply because he’s performed very well for a number of years.
All Change – Entirely New Pairings
It’s the most turbulent season-to-season change to drivers I can remember, and four teams changed both their drivers. These are: McLaren, Toro Rosso, Sauber, and Williams.
McLaren replaces one Spaniard with another, Carlos Sainz replacing Fernando Alonso. The second seat will be occupied by young Briton Lando Norris. The car has been weak for several seasons now, though the early part of 2018 was pretty good and saw the McLaren matching the Renault (briefly). Sainz should win this. He’s experienced, fast, and reliable. I don’t know much of Norris, but if he can stay fairly close to Sainz for his first year that’ll be a good performance.
Toro Rosso welcomes back Kvyat in an object lesson on the importance of maintaining good relations. Kvyat’s confidence seemed shot when he was demoted from Red Bull, then axed by Toro Rosso, but it’s worth recalling he’s a good driver. The second seat goes to Alexander Albon, a Thai-Briton. Likely Kvyat will win, but intrigued to see the Thai guy try.
Sauber sees Raikkonen return after an 18 year gap (well, 17 if you count the recent testing). He’s up against Giovinazzi, who replaced Wehrlein for a couple of races due to the latter’s injury in 2017. Raikkonen had a strong 2018 season. Giovinazzi, in his brief stint before, showed good pace and a less welcome tendency to crash. I think the Finn, now the elder statesman of F1, will be leading the way.
Williams is joined by Kubica, the talented Pole who last raced in the 2010 season before suffering a near fatal rally crash ahead of the 2011 F1 season. As a result, he now drives 70% left-handed. How much that will hamper him remains to be seen, but prior to the accident he was, rightly, highly rated and mentioned up there with Hamilton and Alonso. Also joining Williams for 2019 is young Briton George Russell, reigning F2 champion and former GP3 champion. He’s in a great position, as if he beats Kubica that may be rated as quite the achievement, but, if he doesn’t, Kubica’s reputation means it won’t be a death knell for Russell’s career. Perhaps less pressure on Russell than any other driver.
One thing to note is that, outside the top six (assuming we retain the two-tier situation we had last year), number one drivers are unlikely to be a feature. The midfield was very competitive last season and may well be again, so teams will be emphasising points for the Constructors’ table over anything else. At the sharp end, teams with a realistic prospect of tilting for the title may jump the other way and have an overt number one driver even if that compromises the Constructors’ position.
This is the last planned post in the inter-season period, but I’ll be posting more news/articles ahead of the 2019 season.