All the official pre-season testing is done, the teams have had a chance to look at each others’ cars out on the track, and it will soon be lights out for the first race of the season in Australia on March 17th. At this early stage, it would be a fool’s errand to predict who will be walking away with either the driver’s or constructor’s championship when all is said and done, but there are already obvious strengths and weaknesses.
Even though the world only got to see the cars and drivers on the track for a few days, we saw enough to glean who has the speed advantage, and who has a lot of technical work to be done between now and March 17th to avoid embarrassment. So who’s likely to be chasing podiums in 2019, and who’s likely to be pushing the limits of their car just to avoid being lapped? Let’s take a look and find out.
Early leaders: Ferrari
Ferrari is a winning team with a winning mentality. They don’t like to lose, and if they have to lose, they’ll do everything possible to repeat that experience the following year. That’s what’s made the past twelve years insufferable for the famous Italian team.
Ferrari’s last world championship was won in 2007 by Kimi Raikkonen, who left the team at the end of last season to be replaced by Charles Leclerc. When the team signed Fernando Alonso in 2010, it was supposed to bring to an end a period of three years without a championship. Alonso was a double-world champion during his years with Renault and was expected to have no difficulty racing to victory once again in a superior car. For a variety of reasons, it didn’t happen.
When they signed Sebastian Vettel in 2015, their expectations were even higher. Vettel won four consecutive world championships between 2010 and 2013 with Red Bull and was thought of as a certainty to deliver the goods for Ferrari. Again, it hasn’t worked out that way. A combination of poor reliability, driver errors, and the untouchable form of Lewis Hamilton and the Mercedes team have kept Ferrari away from their pedestal.
Arguments have been made that Ferrari should have won the championship last year. At one point the Ferrari was visibly and consistently faster than the Mercedes, and Vettel had a strong championship lead. Halfway through the season, it all fell apart in the blink of an eye. Vettel started demonstrating uncharacteristic driver errors just as Hamilton reached the peak of his form, and the Brit wrenched the championship away.
This year the Ferrari looks more fearsome than ever. The 2019 car has outperformed every other car in the field – including the Mercedes – on every day of testing. Unless Mercedes can perform miracles in the garage between now and the start of the season, that advantage should still exist come the first race day. The only question seems to be whether Vettel is still capable of producing the form which brought him his world titles, or if the errors are here to stay. If they are, he may quickly find that his young and gifted teammate Leclerc becomes Ferrari’s ‘chosen one’ before he’s ready to hand over the torch.
Stuck on the grid: Williams
The fate of one of the sport’s most proud and famous racing teams is a sad one, and in recent years has become difficult to watch. Williams is the team that once boasted Ayrton Senna, Nigel Mansell, and Damon Hill in their ranks during the 1990s, winning world championships and constructors championships, too. They managed to be technically brilliant while always playing the role of the underdog, being enormously under-resourced compared to larger teams like Ferrari and McLaren. Unfortunately, those days are long behind them. The last time a Williams driver won a world title was when Jacques Villeneuve claimed his sole trophy in 1997. Since then it’s been a downhill story.
Williams has never been in worse shape than they are right now. Embarrassingly, they missed the first two days of testing because parts hadn’t been delivered for the car. With months to plan for test days, such delays are amateur and unprofessional. The closest we imagine the Williams team got to testing a prototype racing car was visiting Amigo Slots and playing ‘Light Racers’, where the futuristic graphics would at least have felt like running a simulation on a test track. In all truth, no matter what the odds of the slot game are, Williams stands a much better chance of seeing victory betting on that than they do out on the circuit n 2019. We even think money invested into the slot is safer than it is invested in the failing outfit.
There have at least been ramifications for the team’s poor preparations – chief technical officer Paddy Lowe has departed the team ahead of the first race, and it’s to be hoped that whoever replaces him is capable of bringing around immediate improvements. Driver Robert Kubica’s return to the sport after eight years out injured is a fairytale – he deserves better than to see it turn into a nightmare.
So where are Mercedes?
Either struggling with this season’s car or playing a very clever game. Mercedes have won the past five Driver’s Championships, and with Lewis Hamilton chasing down Michael Schumacher’s all-time championship record, they’ll be intent on making it six. The car has often trailed not only Ferrari but Red Bull, Renault, and even McLaren during testing. The official word is that the team were chasing extra mileage to find out more about their car rather than pushing for speed, but the impression that’s been left is that they’re not capable of matching the Ferrari like-for-like.
Some observers think that there may be more to it than that, though. On the final day of practice, Hamilton suddenly pulled out a lap that was tiny fractions of a second away from Ferrari pace, and much faster than anything the car had shown the capability of previously. Whether by accident or by design, other teams are now wondering whether Mercedes are weakened or simply playing possum. Nobody will know for sure until race day arrives, and that leaves Ferrari and the other contenders unsure of how best to defend against the Mercedes. We suspect that’s exactly how the team want it.
Other cars and drivers are worth watching. McLaren, after years of under-achievement, is showing signs of improvement. Renault is faster than they’ve been in years. Alfa Romeo look like they could upset a few of the established players, too. It’s going to be another season of unbeatable drama in Formula 1 – and we can’t wait to get started.