Back after the second pre-season test in Spain, at the very start of March, MotorsportWeek.com looked at 10 main conclusions as Formula 1 prepared for the 2020 season. Now that the campaign has finished just how accurate – or not – were our conclusions?
“Mercedes is clearly favourite for Melbourne – and 2020…“
What was said: “Mercedes looks to have the fastest package. In race simulations Mercedes had the quickest car by a margin best described as comfortable, if not utterly dominant. There is a buoyancy and freshness to Lewis Hamilton; he is not a fan of testing but was so enthused that for the first time in his 12-year career conceded that he wanted to keep driving. Mercedes has a very fast car.”
What happened: It was hardly a ground-breaking prediction to suggest that a six-time World Champion and his team were heading to the new season on the front foot. But few expected such emphatic dominance from Mercedes. It claimed 15 pole positions and 13 wins from 17 races and swept to a seventh straight title in utterly crushing fashion. Hamilton continued to perform at an exceptional level, achieving some remarkable wins, particularly on home soil in Britain and during title-clinching display in Turkey.
“…But Mercedes’ reliability remains a concern”
What was said: “Will [Mercedes] finish the race? All is not completely smooth within the Silver Arrows’ camp. Hamilton’s running on Thursday was curtailed by an oil pressure anomaly that caused a power unit shutdown, while customer team Williams had its programme disrupted by a spate of engine issues. Could Mercedes’ biggest enemy be itself?”
What happened: Mercedes did suffer a failure in the opening round as Williams’ George Russell failed to finish, and then sustained the first engine-related grid penalty in Turkey, while Sergio Perez’s podium in Bahrain was wrecked by an MGU-K failure. But elsewhere Mercedes issues were few and far between for the ‘factory’ team. It didn’t even remotely derail its ambitions with its first (and only) in-race failure not coming until the 11th round of the campaign, when Valtteri Bottas was forced out.
“Ferrari is not yet ready to win”
What was said: “Ferrari leaves 2020’s pre-season playing down its expectations but this does not appear to be a game of canny tactics. The SF1000 looks unremarkable, particularly through slow-speed corners and, while its drivers have pointed to progress in some areas, the team boss has firmly played down its chances.”
What happened: There was widespread belief that Ferrari was unlikely to compete for the title and probably going to be a distant third. No-one could have foreseen such a plummet down the order to the extent that Ferrari spent much of the year marooned in the midfield – or even worse – as it realigned its long-term targets. Ferrari finished sixth overall – its worst result for 40 years – as Sebastian Vettel’s swansong season in red was marred by a catalogue of grim statistics.
“FIA statement sends mystery and intrigue through paddock“
What was said: “Through the latter stages of 2019 there were regular accusations that Ferrari had found a clever way of circumventing the regulations by duping the fuel flow sensor, thus enhancing the performance of its power unit. Ferrari, it must be said, always strenuously and assertively denied it was cheating. The FIA’s statement… has ripped open a can of worms.”
What happened: The Covid-19 pandemic meant Ferrari’s engine saga was benched for several months, and probably avoided a toxic situation unravelling in Australia, but it was still a talking point when Formula 1 eventually got going. Mercedes and Red Bull left observers in no doubt of its disdain at the situation while Ferrari’s on-track performance, particularly on engine-dependant circuits, was humiliating.
“Red Bull feels it is in the mix“
What was said: “Red Bull feels it has ironed out some of the RB15’s weaknesses with the RB16 while the second year of its Honda partnership undoubtedly gives the team a stronger footing. Whether that car can be a regular Mercedes-beater is another matter.”
What happened: It was a case of same old story. There were early teething issues with the chassis and the team once more remained some way off Mercedes. It scored a win in the fifth round of the year. Then eventually it claimed a pole position and a second victory of the campaign – but not until the last round of the year, when all was said and done. The second car, in the hands of Alexander Albon, struggled for relative performance, albeit with a slight uplift late on.
“Racing Point tipped to front the midfield”
What was said: “Its RP20, an imitation of last year’s title-winning Mercedes W10 (prompting the nickname Tracing Point), was rapid out of the box and team figures genuinely believe that they can lead the midfield this year. “They are going to be quick, very quick,” said McLaren’s Carlos Sainz.”
What happened: Racing Point’s RP20 was indeed very quick, though not all the time, while mistakes and setbacks cost the team points. For large parts of the year it had the third-fastest package though finished fourth on account of a points penalty for the brake duct saga and for the aforementioned errors. Nonetheless it picked up a well-deserved win in Bahrain, demonstrating the pure pace of the car, with Sergio Perez surging from last to first.
“McLaren confident but not buoyant”
What was said: “Can McLaren keep hold of fourth? That remains its ambition – for 2020 at least – and the team is remaining optimistic but cautious, particularly in the wake of Racing Point’s pace (as explained above) and the glimpses provided by AlphaTauri, while Renault is also expected to be in the mix. Even if McLaren does not have the fourth-fastest package, its operational strength – and driver line-up – acts as a feather in its cap.”
What happened: The last point was pertinent, albeit with fourth converted into third on account of Ferrari regressing further than expected. McLaren did not have the quickest midfield package for much of the campaign but the quality of its driver line-up, and its ability to maximise its points haul on weekends where it did thrive, paid dividends. Each of its midfield rivals had large performance differentials between drivers but the McLaren pair were closely matched, facilitating its rise to third, its best result for eight years.
“Alfa Romeo and Haas playing catch-up”
What was said: “It may not be a surprise, given stable regulations, that the teams which finished eighth and ninth in last year’s Constructors’ Championship are chasing those that classified fourth through seventh. Neither the Alfa Romeo C39 nor Haas’ VF-20 caught the eye through the two weeks of testing.”
What happened: Alfa Romeo was slowest for much of the opening half of the year in qualifying though gradually made gains, while Haas remained a firm backmarker after opting against bringing any developments to its car. There was often a sizeable gap between third through seventh and the final trio of teams, with seventh-placed AlphaTauri finishing the year on 107 points to the eight amassed by eighth-placed Alfa Romeo. Haas, meanwhile, opted not to develop its car following the pandemic, condemning it to its worst return of three points.
“Williams remains slowest, but won’t be embarrassing”
What was said: “Williams fans can be sure of a better campaign but expectations should remain low. The team has been keen to stress on numerous occasions that it is only in the first step of its recovery and that it still has a long road ahead before it finds itself back to where it feels it belongs. “I think realistically we are still the slowest car, and we’re not going to get carried away with ourselves, but we’ve definitely reduced the gap,” said George Russell.”
What happened: Williams remained at the back of the pack and did have the slowest car in race trim – at least early on. But it made gains through the campaign and was firmly in the mix with Alfa Romeo and Haas across much of the season. In qualifying it was strong, at least in the hands of George Russell, who made Q2 nine times – almost making Q3 on occasion. Only missed opportunities truly denied Williams a shot at Haas’ ninth, with the FW43 taking 11th spot four times, three courtesy of solid rookie Nicholas Latifi, and once via Russell. It did not score a point – the first time in its history it has finished on zero – but this was night and day compared to 2019.
“Coronavirus leaves F1 paddock with uncertain schedule”
What was said: “The impact of the Covid-19 outbreak has had an effect throughout the world and Formula 1 – which has a history of pressing on regardless – is not immune. It feels inevitable that at some stage, given the global manner of Formula 1 and its personnel, that someone will pick up Covid-19. How, where, when, and what happens across the coming weeks is unknown.”
What happened: Technically, this prediction was pretty much spot on – not that there is any satisfaction from being Captain Foresight. Formula 1 (and, in fairness, much of the western world) was ill-prepared for the gravity of the situation and that was grimly exposed in Australia. Over half of the grands prix were cancelled, the season was delayed for months, personnel were furloughed – or even lost jobs – while spectators were not permitted for most of the year. Nonetheless the championship lived on and an exciting season of 17 grands prix was completed. Those who got it together deserve enormous credit.