After three months and 17 days since 2018’s closing race, the 2019 Formula 1 season finally kicks off this Sunday at Albert Park in Melbourne. And it’s a season that oozes promise, because despite their dominance of the turbo hybrid era that started in 2014, last year’s champions Mercedes and Lewis Hamilton, are not the immediate favourites.
That’s mainly down to their (mis)interpretation of this year’s amended rules that were drafted in to reduce wake and enable easier following of cars to ultimately create more overtaking opportunities.
The latter are what’s desperately needed, too, as a study by Pirelli revealed a 49% in overtakes in 2017 (when the current aero rules were enforced), or 435 moves down from 866 – compared to 2016, forcing the sport’s governing body, the FIA, to deem four areas of car design to be simplified for 2019. These include the front wing and wheel hub assemblies, barge boards and rear wing.
The new regulations dictate that the stunningly detailed front wings of yesteryear – each containing in excess of 100 painstakingly crafted and wind-curling flicks, ticks, curves and canards – have been reduced in complexity and shorn of much of their detailing.
This move is intended to limit the outwash of air around the outside edges of the front tyres, the latter of which used to be further channelled along by the blown front axles (sucking in air from the inner side of the wheel rim and blowing it outwards – now disallowed) to first the barge boards (simplified in 2019), across the floor and finally the rear wing (increased in diameter along with that of the front wing).
Calculations conducted by the teams have so far revealed the changes to have a limited effect in reducing turbulence, and the notoriously difficult-to-overtake Melbourne may provide further confirmation of this theory on Sunday. Best to manage those expectations though because it’s not like F1 will turn into NASCAR overnight.
If nothing else the snore-fest factor characterising some races of the last two years will be halted, but never entirely halved. What could possibly change; however, is the order we’ve become used to seeing at the front.
The Mercedes W10’s conservative front wing design interpretation along with the decision to stick with its long wheelbase/low-rake configuration when all the other cars on the grid are purposely following the opposite philosophy has clearly cost them.
Should this design direction prove too costly in terms of points, the team’s management has already confirmed a six-month turnaround time by which time Ferrari could have built an unassailable championship lead.While emerging second fastest behind Ferrari in pre-season testing in Barcelona, Mercedes’s gap to the all-conquering red cars was calculated to be as much as three-tenths of a second.
Here’s how the teams have shaped in testing and their prospects for the year:
Mercedes-AMG Petronas Motorsport
Engine: Mercedes M10 EW Power+
Constructor’s points in 2018: 655
Drivers: Lewis Hamilton and Valtteri Bottas
F1 history seems on course to repeat itself this year as an era of dominance is threatened by the introduction of a new rule set – and the reigning champions are facing the same fate in 2019.
Make no mistake; as in the past two years there will only be two title protagonists – Hamilton and Vettel – but the former starts with a handicap and whose success will be determined by the relentless development war with Ferrari throughout the year.
Scuderia Ferrari Mission Winnow
Engine: Ferrari 064 Constructor’s points in 2018: 571
Drivers: Sebastian Vettel and Charles Leclerc
Undoubtedly the team that undertook the deepest – and most painful – introspection during the off-season.
By year-end, a series of missed opportunities and own-goals, often with the quickest car, had reduced the initial season favourite in Vettel to a sulky also-ran.But failure is the best teacher and Ferrari’s on and off-track shortcomings have been addressed.
The SF90 is painted to the road, sails over kerbs and handles benignly; small surprise it was fastest in pre-season testing. Vettel’s shattered self-confidence has been rebuilt and the dictatorial Maurizio Arrivabene replaced as team manager by Mattia Binotto, who has filled several roles at the Scuderia since 1995.
The prospect of Mercedes initially struggling to find their feet combined with Red Bull still playing touchy-feely with new besties Honda, means this year is Vettel’s best chance at his fifth driver’s title, provided new signee Charles Leclerc doesn’t get in his way – something that the team will need to carefully manage.
Aston Martin Red Bull Racing
Engine: Honda RA619H
Constructor’s points in 2018: 419
Drivers: Max Verstappen and Pierre Gasly
After a messy divorce with the perennially-underperforming Renault, new engine partner Honda has reignited the energy drink company’s thirst for winning. The Barcelona tests showed the RB15 to be on par or even slightly ahead of the Mercedes, which could see it becoming more of a regular title tilt interloper than it had been in 2018. However; question marks remain over the Honda’s outright power and reliability, so apart from a few victories (five is the stated target), Red Bull’s points tally will once again occupy the no-man’s land between the top two teams and the rest at Abu Dhabi in December.
Renault F1 Team
Engine: Renault E-Tech 19
Constructor’s points in 2018: 122
Drivers: Daniel Ricciardo and Nico Hülkenberg
The third (and most invisible) factory team in F1’s inability to close the gap to the top three correlates with its reluctance to spend any more money on development.
While an all-new car and clear revisions and improvements have been made over the off-season, including signing Red Bull refugee and F1’s top overtaker in Ricciardo, it’s hard to see Renault jumping the final hurdle to suddenly become a top-four finisher.
Instead, they’ll be best of the rest again, while having to appease an increasingly impatient board of directors and shareholders. With that said, the midfield is the most competitive area of all in F1, and Renault will be lucky to stay ahead of the ever-hungry Haas and rejuvenated Alfa teams baying for their blood.
Rich Energy Haas F1 Team
Engine: Ferrari 064
Constructor’s points in 2018: 93
Drivers: Romain Grosjean and Kevin Magnussen
Thanks to the use of the maximum number of allowed purchasable parts from Ferrari, Haas have the ability to net results that far outweigh their modest budget. On the debit side, both its drivers have the innate ability to prioritise fearlessness over common sense, which means the team is often picking up bits of crunched carbon fibre instead of points.
McLaren F1 Team
Engine: Renault E-Tech 19
Constructor’s points in 2018: 62
Drivers: Carlos Sainz Jr and Lando Norris
Despite promises of regular podium finishes, the switch to Renault power in 2018 after a most unhappy marriage with Honda between 2015 and 2017, hardly yielded satisfactory results for one of F1’s most storied teams. And their fate is worsened by the departure of double world champion Fernando Alonso, who left the team at the end of last year.
The orange cars hardly set the timesheets alight in Barcelona which means they’ll probably be at the back of the mid-pack in 2019. Surely, Ayrton Senna is rolling in his grave.
SportPesa Racing Point F1 Team
Engine: Mercedes M10 EQ Power+
Constructor’s points in 2018: 52
Drivers: Sergio Perez and Lance Stroll
In 2018 the struggling team formerly known as Force India went into administration before being bought and resurrected by new signee Lance Stroll’s dad, the billionaire Lance Stroll (you read right, he’s bought his son an F1 team). Similar to Haas being a Ferrari B-team, the newly renamed Racing Point is a de facto junior Mercedes team that shares many of its parts with the Silver Arrows.
The RP19, however, arrived undercooked at Barcelona and only the depth of the Stroll fortune well will determine the steepness of their development curve throughout the year.
Alfa Romeo Racing
Engine: Ferrari 064
Constructor’s points in 2018: 48
Drivers: Kimi Räikkönen and Antonio Giovinazzi
Probably this year’s ultimate sleeper team. Räikkönen and Leclerc might have swopped overalls, but the Alfa – formerly Sauber – is another Ferrari in drag and sports the most radical interpretation of the newly prescribed front wing design and that has paid dividends during preseason testing.
Freed from the politics and the pressure of Ferrari, this could be the opportunity for Räikkönen to shake off his journeyman reputation, and enjoy his staples of vodka and ice cream.
Red Bull Toro Rosso Honda
Engine: Honda RA619H
Constructor’s points in 2018: 33
Drivers: Daniil Kvyat and Alexander Albon
The Red Bull B-team solely exists as a test laboratory for the factory team and will no doubt be sacrificed with engine penalties in 2019 as Honda’s tries to claw back the gap to Mercedes and Ferrari. The proverbial borrowed horns, snouts and tails from the works team do however bring the promise of some performance and they’ll be sure to be contenders in the ultra-tight midfield fight. Interestingly, both drivers have been fired as Red Bull cadets before. Second time lucky?
ROKit Williams Racing
Engine: Mercedes M10 EQ Power+
Constructor’s points in 2018: 9
Drivers: Robert Kubica and George Russell
Misfortune is metronomic and damnation eternal. Production issues cost 2018’s worst team three precious days of pre-season testing, and once finally out on track that was more or less the same gap to the front runners. Adding insult to injury, technical director Paddy Lowe left the team last week. Not that it needs saying, but Williams is living proof that the F1 garagista is dead.