Mercedes’ domination continues, eclipsing Ferrari

If 2018 had been about the ‘fight for five’ between Lewis Hamilton and Sebastian Vettel, 2019 was due to be the truest test yet of Mercedes’ greatness as it aimed to set a new F1 record.

No team had won six consecutive title doubles in F1 history. Ferrari’s run of six constructors’ crowns between 1999 and 2004 was matched by only five drivers’ titles, giving Mercedes the chance to go one better this year and continue its sweep of the V6 hybrid era.

The outlook during pre-season testing was bleak. On early race simulations, the team is understood to have finished as much as a lap down on Ferrari on a four-stop strategy. While concerns were eased by the arrival of a significant update package for the second week of testing, Mercedes still entered the season fearing it was the underdog.

But the tables turned quickly. Five one-two finishes to open the season proved Mercedes remained the team to beat in F1, and by the time the summer break rolled around, it had 10 wins from a possible 12.

The emergence of Max Verstappen and Red Bull just before the break did stoke some fears at Brackley, prompting the team to extend the development of the Mercedes W10 a little longer than planned. But even when Ferrari took three straight wins, Mercedes remained a potent force, allowing it to round out the season five victories in the final six races.

For all of the talk of Ferrari finally getting things right or the Red Bull-Honda partnership being the one to watch for the future, Mercedes rolled with the punches once again. Operationally, it was close to perfect. With the exception of the farcical Hockenheim raceday, the team barely put a foot wrong this year.

2019 will be remembered as the year this Mercedes team cemented its place as the greatest in F1 history.

Leclerc stars in first Ferrari year – but tensions boil over

Ferrari’s decision to promote Charles Leclerc into a race seat for just his second season in F1 quickly justified itself – but it came at the cost of the harmony previously enjoyed between the drivers at Maranello.

Leclerc was a match for teammate Sebastian Vettel from day one. Ferrari used team orders to keep the more experienced Vettel ahead in Australia and China, while Leclerc would have won his second race for the team had it not been for his late engine issue in Bahrain that demoted him to third after dominating the weekend.

Leclerc showed great maturity to learn from his qualifying setbacks and go on a streak of Saturday victories over Vettel, himself a strong qualifier, and end the year with the most pole positions on the F1 grid. Emotional wins at Spa – after the death of friend Anthoine Hubert – and Monza – in front of the loyal Tifosi – made clear Leclerc was ready to be the new favourite son at Ferrari.

While Vettel may have struggled at points, he remained unbeatable on his day. He dominated in Canada before a late mistake resulted in a penalty that cost him victory, while his win in Singapore was opportunistic and well-executed – even if it left Leclerc feeling aggrieved.

That was the big story of the season at Maranello: the tension. Things remained cordial on-track right up to the penultimate race in Brazil, when Vettel and Leclerc finally collided when battling for position. Both drivers retired, impacting Ferrari directly for the very first time.

Officials at Maranello may insist things remain fine between its drivers, but this storyline is set to rumble on through 2020. The momentum appears to lie with Leclerc given his better form through 2019 that was ultimately rewarded with a new long-term contract.

Instead of toasting a first title in over a decade, this year will be remembered for missed opportunities for Ferrari. Again.

2021 rules get over the line – but does it mark real change?

As battles continue to rage on-track, there was also a long-running saga unfolding behind closed doors as F1’s chiefs came together to try and get proposals for 2021 across the line.

Long identified by Liberty Media as a good point at which to overhaul the sport, 2021 continued to draw closer and closer without any formal agreements being set in stone between the teams, who entered the 2019 season all warning there was a real race against time to get new rules ratified and agreed.

An initial March deadline was not met, with the teams agreeing to postpone finalising the rules until later in the year, giving the likes of Ross Brawn and Nikolas Tombazis more time to complete their investigations and draw up a set of regulations that would give F1 the on-track spectacle it has craved for some time.

Come the end of October, agreements were in place. The new rules were unveiled to the world, promising big changes – but there was caution among teams as to how much real change could be achieved.

One of the biggest switches for 2021 will be the introduction of a budget cap and new financial regulations, a first for F1. Limited to a spend of $175 million per season, teams would be on equal financial footing for the first time – in theory, at least. Quite whether it is enough to change the status quo that has been in place for the past five years remains to be seen. Put it this way: those at the front of the grid are hardly panicking about being under new budget limits.

Alas, 2019 offered Liberty its first real challenge in F1 diplomacy – and it seemed to pass the test fairly well. We had no threats of breakaways, no Ferrari veto usage, no teams throwing their toys out of the pram and walking away. Now the goal will be to keep relations cool until the lights go out in Melbourne in a year-and-a-bit’s time.

Red Bull’s axe swings again as Albon replaces Gasly

For a year that offered little in the way of explosive market moves, the summer switch at Red Bull turned out to be the biggest driver story of the season.

Pierre Gasly’s meteoric rise up Red Bull’s ladder had escalated quicker than anticipated for 2019 following Daniel Ricciardo’s shock exit, giving the Frenchman a chance to fight at the front of the pack.

Or at least in theory. In reality, Gasly struggled to adjust to the Red Bull RB15 car. Bar Silverstone, where he was on-song all weekend, he didn’t have much to shout about through the opening 12 races of the year leading up to the summer break.

So when a source came to me with a tip-off that Red Bull would be making a mid-season switch, replacing Gasly with F1 rookie Alexander Albon – or as it was worded: “Mr. Mateschitz has called the AA”! – there wasn’t a huge amount of shock. The fact it moved so quickly, with only a couple of hours moving between the drivers being informed, me getting the story, and the official announcement then following, left the F1 paddock in a spin.

The fact Albon got the nod over Daniil Kvyat, who just two races earlier had scored only the second podium in Toro Rosso’s history, was somewhat surprising, but Albon proved in the final nine races of the year that he was deserving of the opportunity, cementing his place with Red Bull for 2020.

But this was not a total repeat of when Kvyat was dropped by Red Bull to make room for Max Verstappen in 2016. This time around, Gasly flourished back at Toro Rosso, show most clearly in his remarkable run to second place at the Brazilian Grand Prix in November. It was a happy ending to a year that looked so bleak a few months earlier.

Hamilton gets his buzz on two wheels

Lewis Hamilton may have become only the second six-time champion in F1 history this year, but 2019 will also be remembered as the season he broadened his horizons in a number of ways.

Hamilton continued to work on his fashion line with Tommy Hilfiger, and became increasingly vocal about environmental concerns. He even opened his own vegan burger restaurant in London.

But Hamilton also got a taste of what life on two wheels is like as he sampled a MotoGP bike for the first time in December alongside nine-time world champion Valentino Rossi, completing a dream ride swap.

Hamilton had previously tested a Yamaha Superbike in 2018, but this was a big step up as he rode alongside Rossi on-track on MotoGP machinery. Rossi also completed his first F1 test for almost a decade, trying out Hamilton’s 2017 title-winning Mercedes.

Both Hamilton and Rossi came away from the test with huge smiles on their faces, proving they are real racers to the core who love what they do. With a combined 15 world titles, you’d be hard-pressed to find a more talented racing duo in such close proximity.

The test was one of the coolest stories for us to track through 2019, and, unsurprising given the strong MotoGP following Crash.net has, one of the most popular. Let’s hope to see more ride swaps like this in the future.

 

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