By Shwetha Surendran
BU News Service
Just like clockwork, the Formula One circus – with its big names, sleek machines and swarms of fans – trickled into Melbourne for the first Grand Prix of the 2020 FIA Formula One World Championship in March. But when McLaren, one of the 10 teams, pulled out due to COVID-19 infections amongst its personnel, the event was canceled.
Then began a long wait.
Four months later, the roadshow was suited and rebooted with a new calendar of 17 races instead of the usual 21 – some on circuits never before seen in the modern era.
Lights out, and away we go
The first race weekend of the brand-new calendar began on July 3 at the Red Bull Ring in Austria. The schedule has been tight ever since, with back to back triple-headers across England, Spain, Hungary, Belgium and Italy.
Formula One pundit’s Johnny Herbert, Karun Chandhok and Damon Hill theorized this might be the season where reigning six-time world champion Lewis Hamilton would have some competition for the title, namely in Red Bull’s Max Verstappen, Ferrari’s Charles Leclerc, or even teammate Valtteri Bottas. But with nine rounds completed already, the race weekends so far have been a long cry from that prediction.
Standing atop the Constructors’ Championship with 325 points, Mercedes has been supremely dominant. They are a whopping 152 points ahead of their nearest rival, Red Bull, with Lewis Hamilton 50 points clear of his second-ranked teammate in the Drivers’ Standings.
Predictable? Yes. Boring? No.
With Mercedes running a race of their own, Red Bull struggling with reliability issues, and Ferrari in a world of pure pain, the midfield pack has compensated for the lack of excitement at the top. The likes of McLaren, Renault and Racing Point (also known as the “Pink Mercedes”) have delivered intense competition, bold overtakes and last-lap heroics.
At the Austrian Grand Prix, McLaren’s Lando Norris bagged his first podium, finishing third with a remarkable last-lap and relegating defending champion Hamilton to fourth. Frenchman Pierre Gasly has been an underdog in 2020, with stellar performances in Spa and Monza following a brutal mid-season demotion from Red Bull in 2019. In a slower car, he held off a rapid Carlos Sainz Jr. in the Italian Grand Prix at Monza to win the race for the smaller Italian team, AlphaTauri.
Renault’s Daniel Ricciardo has driven exceptionally, with three fourth-place finishes. Having last stood on the podium in 2018, the air is thick with anticipation for the return of the “shoey” – a classic Danny Ric concoction of post-race foot juice and champagne!
Racing Point has rightly been one of the most talked-about teams since winter testing in February. Their car is almost identical to Mercedes’s 2019 championship winner, and copying investigations, fines and point deductions have plagued the team. Expectations have been high, but despite occasional bursts of pace in qualifying sessions, the team had surprisingly lackluster performances in Spa and Silverstone.
Towards the back of the grid languish the Ferrari-powered Haas and Alfa Romeo. Haas driver Romain Grosjean’s relentless drive at Mugello, Kimi Räikkönen’s record for the most miles covered in Formula One history, and George Russell’s tantalizingly close points finish for Williams have been their only highs so far this season.
And then there were two: Red Bull and Ferrari.
Red Bull driver Verstappen and the RB16 have had a complicated relationship so far this season. As unreliability issues continue to plague the Dutchman, he’s still been the only driver to beat Mercedes on track at Silverstone, as tire issues befell Mercedes. On the other hand, his teammate Alexander Albon is still not quite there with race pace or qualifying speed, despite earning a step on the podium at the Tuscan Grand Prix.
If it’s been raining on Red Bull, it’s torrential downpour on Ferrari. The team has sunk to new lows – barely scraping out of Q1 on most occasions and standing sixth in the Constructors’ title with a mere 66 points.
With four-time world champion Sebastian Vettel not on his A-game – ranking 13th on the Drivers’ standings with just 17 points – young Charles Leclerc has become the Maranello-based team’s only respite. Dragging the power-deficient and aerodynamically flawed SF1000 onto the podium twice, it’s more of a testament to Leclerc’s driving prowess than the team’s car design. The mighty have fallen, and they’ve fallen hard.
Nine down, eight to go
So far, the 2020 Formula One season has been bizarre, crash-strewn and record-breaking. The next few races could see championship leader Lewis Hamilton beat Ferrari legend Michael Schumacher’s record of 91 race victories and equal his championship title tally at seven. Not to mention, Hamilton won the British Grand Prix with a punctured tire.
The season continues at Sochi on Sunday. Sochi’s been Mercedes territory for six straight years, but fret not, for Netflix is filming them this week. And we all know what happened the last time the Netflix crew followed Mercedes around?
Both cars were out of the race and in the barriers! If there ever was a jinx, this might be it. Now that you’re all caught up, buckle up and tag along as the second half of the history-making season resumes.