Mid-season F1 review: A slow start to Racing Point's new era
The Pink Panthers returned under a new uninspiring name to embark on the latest chapter in its history. Motorsport Week continues its team-by-team mid-season review with Force, sorry, Racing Point.
High point: Stroll’s fourth place in Germany after dry tyre gamble
Low point: Far too many Saturday disappointments
On pure statistics this has been a comparatively grim season for The Artist Formerly Known As Force India, continuing a gradual regression down the order. From fourth in 2016/17 to an effective sixth in 2018, it is now eighth in the standings. It scored 59 points at the halfway point of 2018 (which thanks to the administration, takeover and re-entry it lost) but 12 months on it has amassed 31, 12 of which came in the bonkers German Grand Prix. It is no longer the top 10 regular it once was. But there are extenuating circumstances. It overachieved through the middle of the decade at the expense of better financed and more resourced rivals. And lest we forget 12 months ago the team came close to collapse amid previous owner Vijay Mallya’s troubles yet it is still battling in a fiercely-competitive midfield. It has had a minor year-on-year ultimate performance loss but that picture has also been skewed by the large gains made by rivals, notably McLaren and Alfa Romeo.
Racing Point’s 2019 season was always likely to be a rebuilding campaign in the wake of that mid-2018 takeover. At that stage the team had to make a decision for the sake of its 2019 hopes and opted to use as much of the 2018 car as possible in order to be assured of making pre-season testing, where it arrived with a “vanilla” package, in the words of long-term tech boss Andrew Green. Further updates came in Australia and Spain but it took until Germany for the major upgrade for the RP19 to be ready. That included a substantial revision of the sidepod shapes, courtesy of alterations to the cooling package, while in Hungary part two (overhauled front suspension) arrived, with part three (a new front wing) set for Singapore. Sergio Perez has spoken of his desire to address rear-end stability while Lance Stroll muttered that all-round gains are needed. It is unlikely to transform the car but even gains enough to lift Racing Point’s qualifying pace will be appreciated. All too often Perez and Stroll have praised the RP19’s race pace while rueing that its full potential was masked by starting too far down the grid. Perez and Stroll are on average the 17th- and 18th-best qualifiers, with Perez only making Q3 on three occasions, and Stroll scraping out of Q1 just the once. Under new owner Stroll Sr there is, for the first time, optimism about being able to plan long-term. Its Silverstone base is in the process of being heavily upgraded for 2021, with the team’s intention to bring all of its employees in-house, it is in the process of expanding its headcount to 600, while wind-tunnel development has been moved to Mercedes’ facility at nearby Brackley. It also has a new motorhome in the paddock. The big question is whether it can embark on its new chapter without losing the efficiency and team spirit that made Force India such a plucky underdog.
For Sergio Perez this has been a tricky campaign. Having become accustomed to being ‘best of the rest’ in recent years he holds only 16th in the championship and is in the midst of the longest drought of his Formula 1 career, without a point in eight events. This is not a criticism on Perez’s ability or a dip in performance, but rather highlights the limitations of the car (and some inferior strategies) and of opportunities slipping through his and Racing Point’s grasp. In five of the last eight races Perez has finished either 11th or 12th, relegated out of the points by quicker cars, while in Britain a genuine top 10 shot was missed when a steering wheel failure left his brake bias on the incorrect setting. The irregular forward-loaded balance left him cruising into Nico Hulkenberg, costing him points, while next time out an uncharacteristic mistake ended his German GP after just a few laps. For that one – the kind of race in which he usually thrives – Perez held up his hands and accepted full responsibility.
Racing for the family-owned team brings unusual and sharp-tongued criticism, but during his first half season Stroll has had a competent, if not outstanding, start to life with Racing Point. His race pace “caught out” Perez, who was surprised by the speed of the new face alongside him. You can make your own conclusion as to whether this is the latest chapter in the long history of drivers heaping praise on a current team-mate to ostensibly raise their own standing. Stroll’s lofty position in the standings owes much to his fourth-place in Germany, a dry tyre gamble courtesy of his backmarker position in that race, but his trio of ninths were achieved through a combination of mastering the alternative strategy and picking his way through traffic. Elsewhere his season has drifted from mediocre to forgettable, his prospects at several grands prix cemented by his lacklustre one-lap displays. He has yet to beat Perez, has qualified on average three or four positions back, and on average has faced a deficit of a few tenths of a second. Too long was spent dithering over his seating position, with specialists eventually hired to correct the weakness. He is, though, guaranteed a seat (correctly adjusted or otherwise) for 2020. The flashes of speed prove there is potential waiting to be unlocked.