FEATURE BY GUEST AUTHORS
The 2019 F1 season is in the history books, at last.
After a great deal of hype in the build-up, this season has been like sitting through a horribly long film where you've already got a very good idea of how it ends, less than half way in. So, it probably won't be remembered as a vintage year. In Hollywood terms, this was the big budget production with plenty of star names, which became a box-office flop due a rubbish plot and an anti-climactic ending.
But, whilst we lament the fact that any semblance of a championship battle was as fleeting as a gnat's lifespan, this season was partially saved by some individually exciting races and interesting stories further down the grid. Now that the dust has settled, and attention has already turned to 2020 (and 2021), it seems as good a time as any to reflect on another season of epic underachievement and failure.
After the disaster of 2018, you'd have struggled to imagine that things could get much worse for Williams. That is, until winter testing for 2019 began. Or, rather, didn't begin... when it did for everyone else.
In many ways, it is miraculous that they even managed to score a single point this year, and even that came about as a result of some post-race penalties in Germany. But at least it's something to show for what has been another truly woeful season.
Williams has been running up a sheer incline without any shoes ever since its delayed start to testing. But that was just the start of the many and various travails the team would encounter, which included having a car that was somehow even more off the pace than the dreadful '18 machine, key personnel departures just before the first race, and a lack of spare parts.
Thrown head first into this recipe for disaster, George Russell has coped admirably. Yes, it has been tricky to get a read on his full potential when, for the vast majority of the season, he's only been racing one other driver for the honour of not finishing last. But a 21-0 trouncing of his considerably more experienced team mate in qualifying shouldn't be dismissed, and that record only enhanced his reputation as being one to keep an eye on for the future. Confirmed for next season and likely having to suffer another year of being a backmarker, Russell will just have to take comfort from the thought of promotion further up the grid before too much longer.
As for Robert Kubica. What began as a fairy-tale comeback to the sport has been more like a nightmare, aside from that point back at Hockenheim. Of course, it has been disappointing that what should have been the story of an amazing sporting comeback against all odds was rather lost due to the car he was forced to drive, but there were signs that this wasn't the same Kubica as before either. Considerably outpaced by Russell at the majority of races, the relationship between Kubica and the team started to break down towards the end of the season.
The most notable example was Japan, with Kubica publicly criticising the team for taking an updated front wing off his car in shades of Red Bull's famous wing switch at Silverstone all those years ago.
In any case, Williams could feel vindicated in that instance, given that if Kubica had been fitted with the front wing, it would likely have ended up in a skip along with a lot of the rest of the car following his heavy crash in qualifying later that same day.
Kubica leaves the team after just one season, in what looks to be the death knell to his hopes of a longer stay in the sport as a driver. He moves to DTM to re-unite with the manufacturer he won his only Grand Prix with, all those years ago. It beats getting cold and muddy on the World Rally Championship stage, I guess.
Insanity, it is often claimed, is doing the same thing over and over again but expecting a different outcome.
It would perhaps be appropriate to describe it as "insanity" that Haas' driver line-up of Grosjean and Magnussen will remain unchanged next year, despite a season where they've seemed incapable of not crashing into each other for more than a couple of races at a time.
But, as others have theorized, at least it will mean that future series of Netflix's Drive to Survive will be entertaining.
After the firestorm of the first half of the season, the second half has been disappointingly quiet, if you're a fan of juicy scandals and gossip. But even the best sit-coms have had their day, and the departure of Rich Energy has allowed Haas to focus on more pressing issues - namely, trying to improve the performance of their car, rather than worrying what highly embarrassing thing William Storey had just tweeted.
Any improvement from the first half of the season has been difficult to spot though, and the result is a lowly ninth in the championship. For a team that had aspirations of competing for best of the rest, this year has been nothing short of a huge disappointment.
The most curious talking point remains the decision to keep both Magnussen and Grosjean for another season. Out of the pair, the former is perhaps the better prospect at this point, despite his remarkable ability to annoy every other single driver on the grid, often in the same weekend. For Grosjean it's not as clear - the highs of his 2013 campaign feel a very long time ago. With Nico Hulkenberg available as a free agent, the consensus was that it was only a matter of time before he was confirmed as Grosjean's replacement for next season - only for Haas to surprise everyone by announcing the opposite.
Even with a hopefully more competitive car for next season, it's hard to see Haas making much of a leap up the championship order with this driver pairing. But perhaps the real reason behind the move is an as yet unannounced lucrative sponsorship deal with Netflix? Nothing would surprise me at this point.
At the risk of sounding like a stuck record, I'll say it again: I'm confused.
After the career that Kimi Raikkonen has had, it's still hard to understand why he's content to be flogging around for minor points at a team that is towards the back of the grid. For a driver who has so often had his motivation questioned in the past, it just doesn't seem to make a whole lot of sense.
Sure, he's had a decent year - scoring the bulk of the team's points, but he was always expected to. The truth is that Alfa Romeo's formed dipped in the second half of the year - aside from that one race in Brazil when pretty much every single leading contender suddenly decided they were bored with the prospect of finishing on the podium. Kimi came within touching distance of a podium finish that day with a fine fourth - but, barring a miracle, it's doubtful that he'll get that close again for a while - if at all.
2020 could prove to be Kimi's farewell year, but on Alfa's current form you're unlikely to notice. It's always a pity to see a former champion ending their career in an uncompetitive team, but to avoid feeling too sorry for the Iceman, just remember that he'd be the first to say he didn't want a grand send-off. Disappearing from the grid in the anonymous fashion Alfa will grant is definitely far more his style.
On the other side of the garage, Antonio Giovinazzi steadily improved as the year went on - and ably backed up Raikkonen in Brazil to claim fifth, his best result in the sport to date. With Mick Schumacher still being some way off being ready for F1 just yet, Antonio has earned himself a second year at Alfa.
What is true for Haas is also true of this team - it's rather surprising that they didn't elect to go with Hulkenberg - particularly when this is still the team he drove for as recently as 2013. Personally, I still think they should have brought back old Alfa folk hero Gabriele Tarquini, but that's probably just me.
It should not be a surprise to learn that in writing this feature, it's easier to find things to write about some teams more than others. Racing Point, unfortunately, definitely falls into the category of 'others'.
What really is there to say about their season, other than that they were there? Perhaps not helped by the likes of Toro Rosso and McLaren scoring podiums, Racing Point has been generally invisible for the majority of the time.
Sure, they so nearly had their own podium finish back in Germany through Lance Stroll's inspired tyre strategy, but other than that? I'm struggling.
Unlike previous years, they've not had a combustible driver pairing - at no stage have Stroll and Sergio Perez come anywhere close to repeating the scenes of the last couple of seasons. Nor has the team been so terribly awful to be noteworthy, like Williams or Haas, or really had many starring roles either. There's not even been a single instance of one of their drivers taking out the race leader - which undoubtedly would have enlivened the start of the season if they had.
Perez finished a respectable but unremarkable 10th in the championship and did his most to fly the flag for the team throughout the year. But what I'm trying to say is that they've been consistently average - and pink - for the entire season.
Yet given how close they came to no longer existing last year, they'll probably consider that a minor victory of sorts in itself. Now that they have firmer financial footings, it will be interesting to see what path the team takes next season. Does it try and jump up the order, or throw its lot into preparing fully for 2021?
Logically, you'd think the latter had the potential of offering greater rewards, but it has to be balanced against one of the owners of the team wanting a more competitive car for his son in the short term. Tell a billionaire that they have to wait another year to start seeing big results, and they're likely going to start wanting their money back. Given how quickly they tried to leave Williams, the Strolls do not strike me as "happy to wait" type of people.
So, mercifully, it looks like there's more interesting times ahead for this team. Everyone loves a plucky underdog, and it would be nice to see this team return to that role, which they previously occupied as Force India, rather than just being mired in midfield mediocrity.
If someone told you before this season that Toro Rosso would score not one, but two podiums, you would have thought that they'd taken leave of their senses. Yet, bizarrely, that is what happened.
It's not the only weird thing that has been happening at this team in 2019, though. Take the curious case of Pierre Gasly, whose season has had more peaks and troughs than just about anyone's.
At times it has seemed like there has been two Gaslys this year. The first was the one who could barely get through a single race weekend without adding a few more zeroes to the end of Red Bull's repair bill. It got so bad that it was Daniil Kvyat in a Toro Rosso who finished on the podium in Germany rather than Gasly, and it seemed inevitable that the Frenchman was destined to become yet another victim of F1's most notorious firing finger - Helmut Marko.
The other Gasly was the one who turned up at Toro Rosso after the summer break. You wouldn't have got very good odds on him rebounding so spectacularly, but it's been that kind of year. Relieved from the pressure of driving for the main team, he has put in some consistently strong performances - none more so than when he held Lewis Hamilton off for second place in a photo-finish drag-race in Brazil.
2019 has also been a strong year for another frequent visitor to Red Bull's Last Chance Saloon. It seemed to speak volumes of how depleted the Red Bull driver programme had become when they had to rely on bringing Kvyat back in to the fold. But he has silenced his critics (for now) in a year in which featured the remarkable aforementioned podium at Hockenheim.
Despite their redemption years, neither will be back at Red Bull just yet. But with very few other options available to the team, chances are they may well be sticking around for a while.
This season also marks the final year that the Toro Rosso name will be on the grid. In a typically genius piece of thinking unique to F1, they'll be rebranding as "Alpha Tauri" for 2020. At a time when there is also an Alfa Romeo on the grid, that's not going to be confusing at all, is it? I just wish that Murray Walker was still commentating, to see how he'd cope with the Alfalpha madness.
So, that's how the stragglers faired this time around. But, as is so often the way with this sport, just because a team has a bigger budget doesn't necessarily mean they've done a better job than some of those listed here. Yes, I'm talking about Ferrari.
Make sure you check back for the second part of this review, which will feature them and the other teams that were once again unable to offer any sort of meaningful challenge to Mercedes this year.