The (Very Late) Haters Guide to the 2020 F1 season - Part 1

28/06/2020
FEATURE BY GUEST AUTHORS

These are not normal times. The world has been in total chaos for the past few months, forcing the postponement or cancellation of… well, pretty much everything imaginable. If you wanted to watch anything even vaguely motorsport related, your choice has been between old races, or grown men falling out over glorified video games.

In true F1 fashion, the sport's initial response to this crisis was poor, to say the least. Several months ago, the F1 circus defied common sense and descended on Australia as usual - only for the event to be cancelled on the Friday of opening practice. Even after McLaren announced they were pulling out of the weekend, there was the very real prospect we'd be treated to a spectacle even worse than Indy 2005, and it's tremendously reassuring to see the sport has seemingly not learnt any lessons from that particular debacle.

Much has been written about the start of the season that never was, and there's little point going over old news now. But the upshot is that the 2020 season is now likely to be very different to what everyone thought it was going to be. Races have been cancelled. The calendar has been changed completely. And yet, the more things change, the more they stay the same.

If you can cast your mind back as far as pre-season testing, which seems an absolute age ago, it was clear that Mercedes had decided not to bring along the sandbags they'd used so effectively the year before. Heading into Melbourne, there was a depressing sense of inevitability about how the season would go, and it's hard to see how that has really changed in the space of the extended lay-off.

Still, let's look on the bright side. In 2019, the championship was pretty much already decided by July. But a year on, and due to these strange circumstances, everyone is still very much in contention. Apart from Ferrari, who will probably still be as frustratingly shambolic as before. But here's how the rest of them shape up heading into what is already a very bizarre year:

Williams

If you wanted to pinpoint where the Williams team is located at the moment, the map would not show their Grove base, but instead up the proverbial creek without a paddle.

There are few other words to accurately describe how utterly terrible the 2019 season was for Williams. But in pre-season testing, there was a glimmer of hope that this year would be better, only for the team's precarious financial position - which has been further exacerbated by the coronavirus - to cast serious doubt as to how much longer the Williams name will even be around. Just recently did we hear the news that the team essentially has a "for sale" sign up outside the factory doors, along with a surprise split with their title sponsor.

To give credit to Rokit, they've lasted considerably longer than Rich Energy did, and they'll be moving up the competitive order much more quickly than Williams, if speculation linking it with Mercedes proves accurate.

But it's difficult to decide what's more depressing: that this once great team has been reduced to little more than an item in a charity auction for the world's mega rich to bid on (how long before another billionaire buys an F1 team as a plaything for their son?), or that Williams, in its current guise, could be disappearing in such ignominious fashion.

Whilst it's now a lifetime ago since Williams was a force to be reckoned with, it's alarming to see how far they've slid down the order even compared to just a few years ago. That Venezuelan crash-magnet, Pastor Maldonado, could go down as this team's last ever race winner is as bizarre as it is surreal.

The team's immediate future has been aided by the arrival of the Latifis for this season, the second mega-wealthy Canadian benefactor Williams has had in recent years. After the Stroll's bailed for the lifeboats and the safer ground of Racing Point, it is now Michael Latifi's job of keeping this sinking ship afloat. At least he's given it a nice new paint job, I suppose?

Son Nicholas therefore replaces Robert Kubica at the team, after spending many years in GP2/F2 without ever winning the title. It's never a terribly encouraging sign when a driver spends so long in a junior series that it changes names and gets through a couple of different chassis, but as mentioned before, if this is what it takes to ensure Williams' survival, so be it.

Thankfully, George Russell returns in the other car. Despite only ever racing one other driver last year, Russell was one of the stars of the season for how he thoroughly trounced his team mate. Russell's "reward" for that effort was another year at the same team, but he must surely be looking at how he can move up the grid as soon as he can. At least in the face of another year spent towards the back, he can take comfort from winning the F1 Virtual GP series, as well as the rumours linking him to Mercedes for next season.

This year Williams' goals are twofold: returning to a level of respectability competitively, and surviving. Scoring double its total points from last year would be a good achievement. Wish them luck - they'll need it.

Haas

Have you ever invited somebody along to something, and then got the distinct impression that they didn't want to be there, even after they showed up? That is the Haas F1 team, who are only in marginally better shape than Williams.

For the past year, Gene Haas has had the appearance of someone who lost a drunken dare, and is now bitterly regretting it - a situation not helped by the fact the team has been losing money whilst not racing. Before Melbourne, we heard that a strong start to the season would be crucial in determining whether the team stayed in the sport beyond 2020. But financial implications from the pandemic could mean that Haas will be heading for the exit door, regardless of how their season starts.

You have to wonder if Gene ever watched much F1 before he had the bright idea to enter the sport - it seems like he's become disillusioned from realising there's very little prospect of his team being successful any time soon. But you didn't have to be much of an F1 aficionado to realise how unlikely that was anyway. There are rumblings that, in a millionaire's version of taking the football home because he can't score, he'd rather shut the team down than sell it at a loss. It's hard to think of a more potentially petulant act, when you remember the hundreds of people the team employs, and the financial difficulties many are facing as a result of the pandemic.

But if there's one crumb of comfort in these challenging times, at least there won't be the distraction of having a highly embarrassing title sponsor. The Rich Energy debacle was just one problematic area last year, with the other being the drivers. Whilst the former is now a distant memory, the continuation of Romain Grosjean and Kevin Magnussen as the team's drivers means it's expected that both will continue to frustrate and infuriate on a regular basis this year.

Professional swearing enthusiast, Netflix celebrity and sometime team boss Guenther Steiner is therefore going to have another stressful year for a plethora of reasons - of which the Drive to Survive film crew will no doubt be on hand to film in all its gruelling glory, albeit from a socially distanced vantage point.

Pre-season testing didn't look too encouraging, with most predictions placing this team in the lower half of the pecking order once again. But if they can be fighting the likes of Renault, McLaren and Racing Point on a regular basis, that might just be enough to convince Gene to stick in the sport for a bit longer. Guenther recently said he "thinks" Haas is here to stay, which is hardly a ringing endorsement for this team's future, so watch this space.

Alfa Romeo

A confession from the writer: during the long nights of the past few bleak months, I've often found myself tossing fretfully, whilst trying to get to sleep at night. Not, you understand, from worrying about getting coronavirus, running out of bog roll, or even the financial implications of the crisis. No, my mind has been occupied by something far more serious. What the hell do I write about this team?

For months, my cursor has blinked away rhythmically on screen as I've furiously wracked my brain for ideas - even something vaguely interesting to include here.

Hopefully, in my defence, you can see why. Alfa is perhaps one of the biggest victims of the stable regulations. Their car looks more or less the same to last year's, as does the livery, and they've got the same two drivers. The only thing that is different is that Robert Kubica has arrived as the team's new reserve driver, and he must be really looking forward to getting behind the wheel of a proper F1 car again at some point.

Other than that? Well, there's a chance that this could be Kimi Raikkonen's swansong season. In his own words, he views this as "more of a hobby" these days (can you ever imagine 2007 spec Raikkonen mumbling such a thing?!). Despite the Iceman's competitive fire seeming to be nothing more than a few burning embers, he'll likely still be around as long as he wants to be, and as long as his performances are respectable. It would be a shame to see him do a Barrichello and lose his seat simply through not knowing when to call it a day, though.

Speaking of losing seats, Antonio Giovinazzi came very close to doing just that last year, but started to be more of a consistent challenger to Raikkonen in the latter half of the season. He needs to continue that trend and emerge as the team's leading driver if he wishes to remain here longer, as there's now a queue of Ferrari juniors waiting in the wings.

Last year's F3 champion, Robert Shwartzman, along with Mick Schumacher and Marcus Armstrong, are all in F2 this season. Perhaps the most interesting talking point surrounding this team for 2020 concerns which of those, if any, may be here this time next year.

Racing Point

Anyone who read my season review of 2019 will understand that my prayers for this team have seemingly been answered. I bemoaned that last year there was little you could say about them, other than the fact that they were there.

Chances are you may have forgotten by now, since it was announced what feels like so long ago, but Racing Point is set to become Aston Martin for 2021. This is thanks entirely to Lawrence Stroll's enormous wallet, which shows no side effects of having previously purchased a Formula One team for his son - and, if you believe the whispers, last year's Mercedes.

At last, the pitifully unimaginative name makes sense - this team was never due to be 'Racing Point' for long.

The downside - if there is one - to this news is that it likely ensures Lance Stroll's place at the team for the considerable future - regardless of whether he actually deserves to be here or not. Stroll (Jr) continues to have an abundance of critics, but last season was easily his most complete of his early career, so perhaps soon we'll come to accept his place on the grid.

Sergio Perez will lead this team once more, and should be the higher point scorer again. But it will be interesting to see where his future lies - the Aston Martin news could mean a change is coming. You can imagine that if the team shows signs of being on an upwards curve, Mr Stroll's next target may be securing the signature of a big name driver. With the best will in the world, the current pairing isn't going to take that team to the next level. Regardless of already having a contract, Perez would probably be well advised to seek other options, such has been the speculation over a certain four-time world champion joining this team in the near future.

That's a topic for another time, but as for the present you can always judge how competitive a team is looking based on how worried their rivals would seem to be. The answer is: very worried. After a strong showing in pre-season testing, Racing Point's car has been dubbed "the pink Mercedes" owing to its uncanny similarities to last year's title winning machine. Some, sensationally, are even placing the Silverstone-based outfit as the third fastest team - ahead of Ferrari, and whilst that seems a little far-fetched, it does look as if they'll be challenging for "best of the rest" honours, which will be a huge improvement on last year's showing.

If (t)Racing Point is indeed as fast as some fear, the murmurs from rivals will become increasingly vocal. Even before Melbourne this was one of the early stories of the season - and one that shows no sign of abating now that we're finally back racing.

Alpha Tauri

You say Tor-ee, I say Tau-ri - everyone else still calls them Toro Rosso.

Red Bull's 'B team' gets a makeover for this year - as the brand decided to give its fashion label some much needed promotion. Why an energy drinks company even has a fashion brand is a good question, but one that is probably best asked somewhere else.

Even though last year's Toro Rosso was already a looker, it's hard to deny that this year's livery is one of the best. It's nice to see a team actually making an effort in that area - compared to some of the others I could mention.

Perhaps the change is an attempt to distract from this still being the 'Red Bull rejects' team. Comeback kids Pierre Gasly and Daniil Kvyat have defied the odds to remain in the sport this long, but following unsuccessful stints at the main team it's difficult to see where their future really lies.

Both have been reinvigorated by the less toxic atmosphere of this team, and any repeat of the podiums we saw in 2019 would continue to validate their places. However, as ever with Red Bull, there's always a sense of having to look over your shoulder. Juri Vips, who will be racing in the Japanese Super Formula series this year, is the most likely candidate to be promoted to F1, but keep an eye out for Jehan Daruvala as well - who has showed strongly in F2 testing.

Gasly and Kvyat will therefore be hoping that either Alex Albon has a tough year at Red Bull, or that they can emulate Carlos Sainz and move elsewhere (and not the job centre) for 2021.

In Part 2, we'll take a look at the teams that should be challenging at the front of the grid. Will this be the year where someone finally manages to sustain a yearlong fight with Mercedes, and beat them to the championship? Probably not, but we can hope, right?

James Singleton

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Published: 28/06/2020
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