A Dramatic F1 Season: Hamilton Leads Young Guns
Ferrari have some serious soul searching to do
At the end of Formula 1’s controversial 2019 season, two aging champions stared at diametrically opposite fortunes. Even as the reigning world champion, Lewis Hamilton, established himself in the box seat for a record sixth time, he was anxiously watching Max Verstappen follow closely on his heels. Four time champion, Sebastian Vettel, felt the heat as did Ferrari who paid the price of lost opportunities even as the rookie driver at the prancing horse, Charles LeClerc, outshone the German from the get go.
The Abu Dhabi Grand Prix established a few plain facts about the twenty-one race season. Lewis Hamilton led from start to finish from pole to reassert his domination, having already sealed his sixth drivers championship title in Austin, Texas. With this victory, Hamilton is on eighty-four race wins, eleven this season, and is now only one title behind Michael Schumacher’s record seven world championship titles.
However, the Yas Marina circuit, also, revealed the fast approaching change of an era, the winds continuing to blow strongly right through the 2019 season.
The prancing horse has been positively cantankerous. While Ferrari have had a dismal year in contrast to the Mercedes who have been able to close in on six consecutive constructors’ championships by the end of this season, in that regard, the result was a virtual foregone conclusion at the halfway point.
Mattia Binotto, taking over as Team Principal/Technical director for the prancing horse from Maurizio Arrivabene, has had a difficult year.
With the two Ferrari drivers, four time world champion, Sebastian Vettel, and the Ferrari rookie all of twenty-one years of age, Charles LeClerc, going wheel-to-wheel and sometimes head-to-head, the general consensus was that Ferrari could have avoided half the drama if they had established some kind of driver protocol at some point.
In many ways, the collision between the two Ferrari drivers in the penultimate race at the Interlagos circuit in the Brazilian Grand Prix encapsulated the kind of year Ferrari have had with largely self-inflicted wounds and the kind of windfall they were then providing their rivals across the pit garage.
For the better part of the season, the wrangling in the Ferrari pit garage allowed Hamilton to get away with a sketchy year when his own mettle and temperament was put to the test. With Verstappen catching up with Hamilton, and Hamilton hitting back by insinuating the dangers of driving alongside the Dutchman at the starting grid, the Briton had his hands full although the eventual results would not show it.
Adding to this charge of the young guns has been a young Monegasque driver who caught the eye of the team from Maranello after only one season in 2018 with Sauber. With the twenty-one year old fast tracked into Ferrari, the designs were definite.
Ferrari were looking for a younger, faster, up and coming driver. And they were willing to throw their weight behind it. But what followed next has been a series of mishaps, inexperience from the young driver, an old champion unwilling to accept the writing on the wall and a befuddled team who could little but turn the other way.
In another year where apart from the top three teams – Mercedes, Ferrari and Red Bull, none else came close to the competition at the top level, driver drama with Ferrari and Red Bull meant that Mercedes were forgiven at a time when Hamilton has perhaps more even more vocal than ever over the pit radio, often chiding his own team engineer, Peter Bennington, over risks, mistakes and strategy missteps from his perspective.
Red Bull made a switch of their own late season, although in the overall context of things, it was perhaps a case of too little too late. While Verstappen had been the outright top gun in the Red Bull garage, often the supporting act of a team mate has been missing. Red Bull downgraded Pierre Gasly to Toro Rosso for Alex Albon and the results were almost immediate.
The Frenchman took the demotion in his stride and scored his first podium finish and points rightaway for Toro Rosso. Alex Albon almost enjoyed immediate success himself and looked set to finish on a high as well at the end of the Brazilian Grand Prix. But it was Hamilton, who in a frenzy, collided with Albon in the end stages and took the Thai out of contention.
Valtteri Bottas kept to his own all season, though he claims he may pull one back on Hamilton in 2020. But while the Mercedes appear to have their driver hierarchy in order and relative peace, Ferrari’s decision to not make any decision but let the drivers work it out for themselves has only brought them to their knees.
Driver shenanigans joined hands with Ferrari’s development hiccups and missed strategies. Yet despite all of it, a clear winner emerged.
It was only after an aerodynamic upgrade ahead of the Singapore Grand Prix that Ferrari’s prospects started to look up. And it was largely due to the rookie who kept the tifosi on their feet. By then Hamilton and Mercedes scored eight out of twelve wins, making them the clear frontrunners for the 2019 season.
LeClerc, now twenty-two years of age, has shown hunger, enterprise and ambition sufficient enough to match the reputation of Ferrari. Yet dilemma reigned supreme at Maranello as Vettel refused to accept that he must fight to keep his top spot, Ferrari plausibly fearful of dialing down the German and making him work for it.
As a result, while the Monegasque driver tried to tow the company line in the first few races, the seeds of discontent were sown in that very time. An engine failure robbed LeClerc of his first win for Ferrari and in Formula 1 when he looked set for it in Bahrain, only the second race of the season.
Thereafter, by the Belgium Grand Prix, the rookie dug his heels deep, and pulled off a scintillating maiden win for himself and for Ferrari at the Spa Francorchamps, dedicating the win to his friend and former team mate, Anthoine Hubert, who lose his life at the track the previous day while racing in F2.
An emotional victory was followed by a win that would paint the town red, literally. Vettel’s disgruntlement of the rookie not having given him a tow at the Italian Grand Prix at the starting line was set aside by Binotto’s own assertions after LeClerc brought it home once more to the delight of the tifosi.
Maranello’s celebrations drowned the controversies that had surrounded the car, the drivers and the leadership, but only briefly.
LeClerc seemed a shoo-in for a win at the Singapore Grand Prix until Ferrari was so taken aback by Verstappen’s resurgence that while it was too late to pull the Monegasque driver into the pits, they made the call for Vettel. The German, enjoying an undercut more than the Ferrari crew had anticipated, moved ahead of LeClerc and thereafter, kept the young driver frustrated on his heels.
Things might have been different for Vettel if earlier Hamilton had not pulled off a cheeky ‘they’re stealing our race’ move at the Canadian Grand Prix to snatch away the German’s win in controversial circumstances.
By the time the Russian Grand Prix came around, the one-upmanship in the Ferrari garage was there for all to see. Vettel refused to yield the position yet again even as LeClerc was in the lead before his pit stop – seven times LeClerc finished on pole this year and outpaced his senior team mate eleven times.
It became clear that either Ferrari could not make the crucial decision between picking between the established champion or the promising rookie and persisted with wishful thinking that the drivers could establish the hierarchy for the team by gunning it out on the race track.
While the two drivers flooded the radio with their rants all season, their surface façade post race, arguably at the behest of Ferrari, of all being resolved was only betrayed every time they took to the racing track. It did not help as matters came to a head to the point of unprecedented embarrassment for the prancing horse.
If it was palpable that Ferrari appeared to be making a mockery of the “luxury” of having such ambitious and talented drivers as their team principal put it, fewer were even sure that Binotto meant what he said when he thought the two drivers colliding and taking each other out with six laps remaining in the Brazilian Grand Prix was “lucky” for Ferrari in order to figure the way forward in 2020.
Lucky was not how one would describe LeClerc having to cede a 11 point lead to Verstappen in the title race for third spot going into the final race after that dreadful collusion that everyone but Ferrari saw coming from a mile away.
Meanwhile, Ferrari have continued to fuel speculation about a possible Hamilton move from Mercedes after next year by praising the Mercedes driver which even the thirty-four year old Briton conceded was the first he had received from the prancing year in thirteen years. More drama to the mix?
With Hamilton, Verstappen and LeClerc finishing one-two-three in the final race in Abu Dhabi, the writing was clear on the wall for anyone to see.
Hamilton acknowledged the challenge of being caught in traffic as the next generation of drivers are teasing their way to the top. Vettel will ruminate not just on LeClerc but his own challenges with only one year left on his contract with Ferrari, some speculating that the German had had enough.
Ferrari, like most midfield teams after this season, will have some serious soul searching to do.
On the one hand, they have unleashed a future champion in the making. LeClerc is clearly the way. On the other hand, they have grappled with issues of managing their manpower as well as controlling the behind the scenes, evident in the hefty fine they copped after the race control found fuel discrepancies and irregularities with LeClerc’s car minutes before the Abu Dhabi race.
The lack of clarity and quick paced thinking has been missing from the Maranello team. Time to rue and ruminate have been plenty. Vettel and Ferrari had enough time one last time when at the first pit stops at the Yas Marina, Ferrari moved in for a double stacked pit stop wherein after LeClerc, the crew struggled with Vettel’s car.
Caught between technical blunders and rambunctious, querulous drivers, Ferrari conspicuously lacked critical leadership to establish decorum between the two drivers. Until that changes, Ferrari might have to sit uncomfortably between Hamilton and Mercedes wanting to make some dents in the record books and young guns such as Max Verstappen and Red Bull snapping at his heels. Little breaks and long winter sessions in car development and driver management are in store as it is back to the drawing board.