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The (Very Late) Haters Guide to the 2020 F1 season - Part 2

FEATURE BY GUEST AUTHORS
01/07/2020

So, here we go again...

After an unexpectedly long hiatus, the first Formula One race of the year is just days away. Finally, life is starting to get back to normal again - we can soon look forward to being confused by the AWS graphics, despairing (or laughing) at Ferrari's hopeless race strategies, and pointlessly bickering with strangers for hours on social media over the latest controversial stewards decisions.

All this should hopefully provide some comfort in a season that is otherwise probably going to follow a similar pattern to the last few - one in which there's great expectation for an exciting championship battle, only for Mercedes not to receive the memo.

Will anybody from the following teams be able to step up to the challenge and save us from having to hear "get in there, Lewis" a depressing number of times? Let's hope so, for all our sakes.

Renault

Well, that's got to be awkward.

After only one year into Daniel Ricciardo's big money, blockbuster move to Renault, we already know that he'll be leaving at the end of this season in favour of McLaren. Despite previously stating his desire to '"do a Lewis' and help turn Renault into a championship contender, Ricciardo has clearly already seen enough - and it's hard to think of a more dramatic display of no confidence in the programme. Particularly when the team's previous big signing, Nico Hulkenberg, has already departed.

In future, Ricciardo's Renault stint is likely going to be viewed with a mixture of mirth and confusion, but in the here and now this year is probably going to be a bit of a write-off. It didn't look like Renault had made a significant step forward in pre-season testing, and there's a general feeling that this is a team without a great deal of direction.

Perhaps it was the speculation that Renault could soon be leaving the sport yet again that gave Ricciardo cold feet - indeed, his McLaren move would seemingly offer greater job security long term. Despite the renewed assurances that Renault's future participation is not in doubt, it doesn't make much sense in continuing to spend a huge amount of money if the manufacturer can't actually convince anyone else that it's going to be successful any time soon.

Reports have linked former Renault hero, Fernando Alonso, to the team for next season. But the question is why would a near 40-year-old Alonso want to return to a team that isn't capable of running at the front? Much as many would like to see him back, that hinges on him actually being in competitive machinery. So, at the moment, the Alonso/Renault talk would seem to be a non-starter.

Renault's most realistic option would be to hope that Esteban Ocon develops into the star he's shown the potential of being on a few occasions. The Frenchman ended up out of a drive in 2019 really through not much fault of his own, and he definitely deserves a place on the grid. It's just a shame that his first year back is going to be dominated with talk of who his team mate will be next year - already there's a long list of potential candidates, including the aforementioned Alonso, Sebastian Vettel, and Valtteri Bottas. That's before you even get into the candidates from the Renault academy, which is loaded with more talent than any other rival's young driver programme.

It may be too early in his young career for Ocon to take on the role of de-facto team leader, but how he compares to proven race winner Ricciardo will be one of the most interesting intra-team battles of this season. Ocon showed more strongly at Force India than the record suggests, despite multiple clashes with nemesis Sergio Perez, and he needs to show that Mercedes were wrong to overlook him.

It's going to take a while before Renault is able to return to being a front running team again, but they desperately need to show some progress this season.

McLaren

McLaren's comeback last year was as impressive as it was surprising. Just as we were preparing to read the last rites to this once great team and witness them floundering with Williams, they had one of their strongest seasons in a very long time.

Sure, on the face of it, one podium finish for a team that was once a regular race winner and perennial championship contender still seems a poor showing, but that ignores the years of struggle the team has endured since 2012 which, at times, seemed like it would never end.

To use an American sports analogy, this is a team that has been through a long and painful rebuild, but is just now starting to emerge as a fringe playoff contender. Good enough to be respectable and cause the occasional upset, but still a long way off being able to think about challenging the very best.

Key to that strong season last year was Carlos Sainz - who we already know will be off to Ferrari next year. Some bemoaned Sainz as being the 'unexciting' choice, compared to some of the other names that had been talked about. But he is a genuine talent and likely race winner in the right machinery, and should not be written off as a 'number two driver'. It will be interesting to see whether the impending move to Maranello will prove to be too much of a distraction, but if McLaren is to take the next step and become a regular podium contender again they'll need Sainz to be at his best again this season.

On the other side of the garage, Twitch streamer and internet personality Lando Norris returns for his sophomore season. Despite frequently having to do battle with a dodgy internet connection, Norris has spent most of the past few months racing in the virtual world - making enemies with last year's Indianapolis 500 winner, Simon Pagenaud, in the process - so is unlikely to show too many signs of race rust.

His rookie season was impressive, despite finishing some distance off Sainz's points haul. But expect him to take another step forward and don't be surprised if he's in contention for podiums from the start, particularly if Ferrari is vulnerable through a lack of pace. Even though he's only in his second season, Lando already boasts a large fan base courtesy of his online profile. Whilst his happy-go-lucky persona is not to everyone's taste, you can expect to hear and see a lot more of him this year.

It's not all good news for McLaren though - having to make a quarter of their employees redundant, and securing an emergency loan from the National Bank of Bahrain, speaks of the financial challenges the pandemic has caused, even to some of the bigger names. In addition, with the 2021 regulation change now postponed, it's hard to see how they can take a sufficiently big step to bridge the gap that exists to the top three in the short-term. More podiums and cementing themselves as the fourth best team should therefore be a realistic target this year.

Red Bull

The last few years for Red Bull have followed a very similar pattern - false promises, false dawns and only occasional victories. This is the year when that needs to change.
They have everything they want. They've got Max Verstappen signed for another few years. They've got their preferred engine supplier in Honda. The regulations are unchanged. If they can't get the job done this year, the question becomes: when will they?

The honeymoon period will be over for Honda by now, and if their engine is only the third or fourth best, it'll inevitably lead to some tension. But, on the flipside, if the engine is good and Red Bull still isn't able to win consistently, the blame will have to be shifted somewhere else - and in an altogether more painful direction. After all, as we've seen with McLaren, it's not unheard of for a championship winning team to lose its way.

It scarce seems believable that Verstappen is now entering his sixth season in F1. Time is still on his side for him to become the sport's youngest champion, but there's a definite sense of urgency about this season.

The clever money is on them being Merc's closest rivals, but whether they're able to mount a consistent challenge still very much remains to be seen. Some suggest the calendar changes may actually play to Red Bull's strengths, but they need to come out the gates strongly if they're to have any hope of toppling Mercedes from its plinth.

Alex Albon did enough to retain his seat in the second car this year, but like Pierre Gasly before him, he faces an unenviable task. Just being able to back Verstappen up and score the occasional podium would seem achievable, and you can imagine that Red Bull may well be more patient than they've previously been given their lack of options.

From what we've seen of him so far, Albon has the potential to be here for a while - how he compared to Verstappen, in only his first season after a sudden promotion from Toro Rosso, earned plaudits. How he progresses in a car more familiar to him for this year will be interesting to see.

But don't forget that this is still very much 'Team Verstappen', just as it was once 'Team Vettel', now more than ever given the freshly signed contract extension. You only have to see Christian Horner's comments over the winter as evidence of that. When questioned about Carlos Sainz's season - who they previously let go, in what now has to be considered Red Bull's biggest error when it comes to drivers - he was quoted as saying that the Spaniard was "no Verstappen".

This is Red Bull's problem. While they have Verstappen driving one of their cars, nobody else will do - as Albon will no doubt discover for himself this year. They may well have a shot at the drivers' title - which is perhaps all they really care about - but Mercedes will likely still prevail in the constructors' championship.

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