Well, where does one begin???? There are so many story lines to pursue I would need to undercut my own undercut and then undercut it again, if you catch my drift…
But in case you need a little refresher course here are some of the main points after four races heading into this weekend’s Spanish GP, aka what goes through my head when deciding what to write about:
How about the greatest Mercedes sandbagging that I have ever seen in F1, or the complete and total failure from Maranello to deliver on their unmatchable pre-season pace, Haas’ complete slip backwards down the grid, the lackluster performance from Renault, the dramatic increase in McLaren’s form, the huge chasm between teammates at Red Bull, the disappointing performance of both Kimi Raikkonen and Antonio Giovinazzi, and last but not least the continued decline of one of the sport’s most successful teams, Williams. Did I miss anything ??? Oh yeah, Toro Rosso, well it just happens that I can’t really think of anything in regards to them except that Albon is already being sized up to take Pierre Gasly’s seat at Red Bull – some things never change I guess.
Take your pick, you, me, my cat, any one of us could write a 2500 word essay about any one of these teams or its drivers or for that matter the management and their state of play for the season thus far.
Truth be known, I was all poised to continue my enthusiastic pot stirring regarding Sebastian Vettel and Ferrari right up until Charles Leclerc found the barriers on Saturday and completely compromised his race in Azerbaijan.
I was so sure the young Monégasque driver was going to take pole and finish Sunday on the top step (ahead of teammate Vettel) I even planned to start composing that post on Saturday and then just fill in the details on Sunday night and get the post to NC Monday morning before I headed off to work, thereby beating my own self-imposed deadline.
So much for best laid plans. And so much for the subject of that blog post. Sebastian, Charles and Ferrari will have to wait. Hopefully Spain will provide us with the backdrop that we all know is coming. Wink wink. So back to my dilemma of what to comment on – of course the above list has been more than covered by the pundits, so I want to start off talking about something different.
While I was watching this most recent Grand Prix, I started to have the almost-forgotten feeling of actual hope, that this year might be the year that we F1 fans finally get to see real racing … racing between multiple drivers and not just the two that are in the two fastest cars which for quite a while has been Lewis and whomever is in the sister Mercedes, sometimes Sebastian, and throw Max into the mix every so often in his 2018 aggressive way.
Is Valtteri the real deal this year?
Last time around I made a bit of joke at Valtteri’s expense when he quite vocally asked us all to take a hike after winning in Australia. That’s not really what he said of course, but you get the point. I said I didn’t really believe that Valtteri 2.0 was the real deal. Do the first few corners of the last race completely change my mind? Not 100% but it is a good start and I am hopeful that this is not a passing fad.
If Valtteri has any chance of a championship, then now is the time and he must find a way to just drive faster, period and most importantly drive like he is not a #2. The best drivers in F1 are selfish, and that is the one aspect that the Finn has been lacking and the one thing that he must change.
The Ferrari problem
Over in the other team battle, Sebastian Vettel vs Charles Leclerc, it is shaping up quite nicely. Ferrari’s #2 man’s error on Saturday notwithstanding, he had the measure of Vettel all weekend long and again I say WOW, to come into a team like Ferrari and with a teammate like Vettel and perform as well as he has, incredible. By the way, don’t tell Leclerc he is a #2, don’t let the smooth skin and rookie-ness fool you, this guy is not going to get any slower and his patience is not going to extend too much farther.
Just think on this a moment. Leclerc should have won in Bahrain, should have finished in front of Vettel in both Australia and in China (without lame team orders) and again showed signs of taking a win in Azerbaijan at least until Saturday that is. Pretty impressive. This week in the news I see Vettel is saying something about not caring about his legacy, seriously does he think he is fooling anyone???? In his years at RB, when he was winning everything under the sun, I read countless reports of him being record driven. How many times did C.Horner get on the radio and try to dissuade Vettel from going for the fastest lap while in the lead??? Several is the answer. Of course the wunderkid cares about his legacy, he said as much in the same interview.
It is really only a matter of time till the entire race weekend goes Leclerc’s way (or several weekends) and the clock is ticking on Vettel’s de facto number one status in that team and oh won’t that provide a interesting dynamic for Ferrari and the tifosi? And for all of us really. Get your tickets early for the ringside fight, because it will be a doozy….
Same old story at Red Bull but with a caveat
Unfortunately it looks like the only Red Bull in the mix this year will be Max Verstappen. Red Bull has the chassis to take the fight to Mercedes and Ferrari, no question in my mind on that and I have been impressed with the lack of crashes and/or contact from the Dutchman so far. This time last year he had crashed out or compromised his race every time he stepped into the cockpit. This year that is not the case.
Last year Max was adamant he would not change his driving style or his approach, but my guess is behind closed doors he would say something different now, his driving is proof of that. And if he can really put a mature and focused campaign together this year then the spotlight will move from his driving quite literally to RB and new engine partner Honda, they better be up to the challenge, Max is in high demand.
Getting back to the news, the headlines never disappoint even if one has to take them with a bit of carbon fiber salt. Right after Azerbaijan, there were three headlines that caught my eye. One, “Verstappen: Not Frustrating yet but we lack race pace.” Two, “Marko: Wolff calls Verstappen ‘repeatedly.” This apparently is not quite the case but when teams go to battle and play mind games vis-à-vis the press who really knows what to believe. Three, and maybe the most telling was, “Red Bull confident of keeping Verstappen.” For this to even be an issue this early in the season tells me that there is a real possibility that Max with his father Jos at the helm could leave Red Bull for Merc if Valtteri does not raise his game. Let us see how this one shakes out by the summer break.
This year it just might be different.
Vettel looks like he might be at a crossroads and while I have never really rated Vettel as high as some, he could prove us all wrong and answer his critics and deliver the goods and shut us all up. [Doubtful] We definitely know Leclerc is already driving at Vettel’s level if not better. At this point Ham has to be the odds on favorite and while boring, it is up to everyone else to just drive better that the Briton. Valtteri, it is now or never, like I mentioned already, the time is now, fast car and in the championship lead, no excuses and Max, he can do things in the car that I don’t think even Ham is capable of.
On balance as of today and this is race-week remember, there are five drivers that have a legitimate chance of seeing the checkered flag first. Throw in some unreliability, a poor strategy call or two, the odd losing of an endplate or bits of a diffuser due to circumstances beyond or precisely because of their control and any one of these drivers could lead the championship.
In fact it would not surprise me to see a few lead changes throughout the year in regards to these five – maybe that is a stretch for Max, but you never know, if Honda gets the special sauce worked out, and from Monaco on Max has a bit of luck and the others have some bad luck, just like that he’s in the hunt albeit 30 points is a lot to recover at this early stage.
And so if the first four races have made anything clear, it is this: This year will not be as straightforward as years past and I for one like the uncertainty. I go on and on about the racing or the lack thereof. I lament constantly that I’m tired of drivers saving tires and fuel and driving to a time. And I am so over team orders these days. Let your teammates race each other, period.
All these are symptoms of F1 when there is only one dominant team, or only a few dominant drivers able to win. But this year, maybe, just maybe it will be a bit different. If things keep up at this rate and I hope they do, all bets are off and it won’t end up being the Lewis and Seb show as seasons past, or the Lewis and Nico show before that (although that show as mentioned before was good fun to watch).
This weekend is Spain. The big stories will be upgrades but the continuous underlying story will be who among the four drivers can keep their momentum going, or in the case of the Ferrari boys, can they get that first win and jump start their season?
So we go with these four drivers for this year’s championship and Max for the one-off win here and there. The way I see it, four is just fine with me. Lewis vs. Sebastian vs. Bottas vs. Leclerc. Let the best man and car win…