A number of drivers find themselves feeling the heat heading into the 2020 Formula 1 season, with their futures on the grid far from secure. 

In a year that could see a lot of movement in the driver market ahead of 2021 - when a host of new sporting, technical and financial regulations come into play - some drivers more than others are in need of hitting the ground running to dispel any potential fears over their seats. 

Here is a look at those who require a strong 2020 campaign…

Sebastian Vettel 

Undoubtedly, Sebastian Vettel is under intense pressure and scrutiny heading into the new season. The four-time world champion is entering the final year of his contract at Ferrari and faces a formidable opponent in new teammate Charles Leclerc

After a slow start that featured some rookie errors, Leclerc recovered impressively to regularly out-perform Vettel and move himself into contention to become Ferrari’s new team leader. 

His form turnaround from the French Grand Prix saw him go from Vettel’s potential supporting act to taking on the leading role as he began to assert himself with a streak of qualifying dominance over the German. 

Leclerc claimed Ferrari’s first (and second) victories of the season and scored seven pole positions - more than any other driver - on his way to rounding out his maiden campaign at the Scuderia clear of Vettel in fourth spot in the championship.

In contrast, Vettel could only manage one victory in Singapore, where a better strategy helped him leapfrog pole sitter Leclerc to end his one-year wait to return to the top step of the podium. 

After four years of being the comfortable team leader at Ferrari and facing little resistance in the shape of former teammate Kimi Raikkonen, Vettel has seemingly been rattled by the emergence of Leclerc. 

This sparked intra-team tensions that brewed and bubbled into a crescendo at the penultimate round of the season in Brazil, where Leclerc and Vettel came together in what Ferrari boss Mattia Binotto described as a “silly” collision that wiped out both drivers. 

Signs of potential fractions were seen early on as both Leclerc and Vettel each took it in turns to ignore team orders as they battled it out for supremacy at the Maranello squad, with the former eventually winning the duel in 2019 at least, and earning himself a fresh five-year deal running until the end of 2024 in the process. 

Vettel showed flashes of his brilliant best with a dominant display in Canada (until his costly late error), his remarkable recovery drive in Germany and stunning pole lap at Suzuka, but ultimately there were not enough highlights during the course of the season as Ferrari struggled to get on top of its complicated SF90 concept. 

As this writer predicted prior to the 2019 season - that Leclerc’s promotion would either make or break Vettel’s Ferrari tenure - Vettel is desperately in need of a response this year amid continued suggestions he could retire from the sport.  

Potential candidates to replace Vettel could include the likes of Lewis Hamilton, Max Verstappen, Valtteri Bottas and Daniel Ricciardo.

Valtteri Bottas 

It may sound odd to include a driver who has just enjoyed his most successful season of his career to date and finished up runner-up in the F1 championship, but that does not fully quell the pressure on Valtteri Bottas. 

Bottas, equipped with a beard and a new hardened approach which quickly saw him dubbed as ‘Valtteri 2.0’, bounced back from a tough, winless 2018 by making the perfect start to the season as he beat teammate Lewis Hamilton to victory in Melbourne. A second win, this time converted from pole, in Baku moved Bottas into an early championship lead, but any hopes of claiming a maiden title were soon dashed when Hamilton fully hit his stride during the European leg of the campaign. 

The Finn managed to put up his biggest challenge to Hamilton yet and even matched F1’s greatest qualifier of all time with five poles across the season, though he was unable to maintain a sustained title bid. 

Having shown that on his day he can match and even beat Hamilton and playing a more than sufficient role in picking up enough points to help Mercedes seal a comfortable sixth world championship double, Bottas’ improved showing in 2019 resulted in the German manufacturer handing him another one-year contract extension for 2020. 

Bottas’ main problem is that his day comes too few and far in between. He admitted greater consistency is required if he is to genuinely battle Hamilton for championship silverware and said he had devised a secret “plan” in his hopes to topple the six-time world champion in 2020. 

Another similar season to 2019 should help Bottas retain his seat for a further year at least, but any dip in form could put his place at the reigning world champions under threat from George Russell, while Mercedes will also be keeping tabs on Max Verstappen’s contract situation at Red Bull. 

Alexander Albon 

What a rollercoaster of a two years Alexander Albon has gone through. He went from having an initial race-by-race deal in Formula 2 at the start of 2018 to emerge as a championship contender, finding himself on the verge of a Formula E switch, before receiving a late call up to complete Toro Rosso’s line-up for the 2019 season and ultimately ending the year at Red Bull. 

Despite having never driven F1 machinery before 2019, Albon seamlessly transitioned into the championship and made an impressive start to life at Toro Rosso. His strong early form coincided with new Red Bull signing Pierre Gasly’s struggles, which led to the Milton Keynes squad swapping the duo around in Belgium. 

A few rookie errors aside, Albon performed admirably given the circumstances and a run of eight top six appearances from the final nine races - a streak only blemished by a tangle with Lewis Hamilton in Brazil while Albon looked on course to score his maiden podium - saw him land a full-time seat at the team for 2020. 

Albon proved more competitive and consistent than Gasly had alongside the ever-improving sensation that is Max Verstappen, and impressed within the team with his technical feedback and maturity to warrant a stay for 2020.  

But the honeymoon period is now over for Albon. The weight of expectation falls heavy on the shoulders of any young driver at Red Bull and Albon must now raise his game to be more of a threat to Verstappen (particularly if the Red Bull-Honda package does emerge as a title challenger) and successfully steer clear of the same treatment that has befallen on those who have failed to perform before him. 

Antonio Giovinazzi 

Antonio Giovinazzi recovered from a tough start to his debut full-season in F1 as Kimi Raikkonen’s teammate at Alfa Romeo, but a turnaround in the second half of 2019 helped him secure his place at the Swiss squad for the upcoming campaign. 

While Raikkonen enjoyed a fine run of four consecutive points finishes, Giovinazzi failed to make the top 10 until the Austrian Grand Prix in June. He was on course to make that two points finishes in Spa until he crashed out of the top 10 late on, an error which nearly cost him his seat. 

However, Giovinazzi instantly responded by bouncing back on home soil at Monza and returning to the points with a strong drive to ninth, which he followed up with a 10th-place finish in Singapore. His season highlight came in Brazil as he took a brilliant fifth behind Raikkonen to seal Alfa’s best result of the year, while his qualifying performances against Raikkonen also improved dramatically. 

The Italian will be expected to perform more consistently from the get-go in 2020, and the experience he will have gained alongside veteran Raikkonen should stand him in good stead. Failure to make a step up will likely lead to uncertainty over his future, amid a plethora of promising talent emerging from Ferrari’s young driver pool. 

The Scuderia is understood to hold a deciding sway over who gets one of the Alfa seats - which will have helped Giovinazzi’s cause in seeing off potential competition from the likes of Nico Hulkenberg - and will be closely monitoring the performances of its rising stars including Mick Schumacher, reigning Formula 3 champion Robert Shwartzman and Marcus Armstrong, any of which could thrust themselves into contention for a 2021 Alfa seat with a particularly outstanding F2 campaign. 

There is also the question mark of what Raikkonen will decide to do upon the expiry of his contract at the end of the season. Should Raikkonen decide to bring his remarkable tenure in the sport to a close after 300+ races, that could hand Giovinazzi a lifeline if needed.

Romain Grosjean

Despite facing doubts over his F1 future with Haas beyond 2019, Romain Grosjean’s continuation with the US squad for a fifth straight season was confirmed back in September amid a difficult campaign in which Haas slipped to ninth in the constructors’. 

While it boasted a fast car over one lap, Haas’ VF-19 challenger struggled in race conditions and often would fall back on a Sunday, an issue the team failed to overcome throughout the year. 

Much like in 2018, Grosjean made a slow start to 2019 and did not score points until the fifth round of the season in Barcelona. Only two more top-10 appearances would follow in Baku and Germany as teammate Kevin Magnussen once again out-performed the Frenchman over the course of the season, managing 12 points more. 

Although Haas team principal Guenther Steiner admitted that both Esteban Ocon and Nico Hulkenberg were being considered for a seat alongside Magnussen - who already had a deal in place for 2020 - Grosjean was ultimately retained. 

Both drivers are out of contract at the end of 2020 but it is Grosjean who heads into the season under more pressure, following back-to-back inconsistent campaigns littered by costly mistakes. Another poor season from Grosjean might just prove to be the final straw for Haas.

 

Comments

Loading Comments...