After months of patiently waiting for a return to racing, the opening half of the 2020 Formula 1 has flashed by in an instant. Lewis Larkam rounds up the biggest talking points after a relentless run of races. 

1. Mercedes is dominant but not invincible

Mercedes has largely dominated the first half of the 2020 campaign and looks well on course to claim an unprecedented seventh straight world championship double.

The W11 has so far proved untouchable in qualifying, while Lewis Hamilton and Valtteri Bottas have amassed a total of seven victories from the opening nine rounds.

A remarkable start to the season has resulted in Mercedes pulling a whopping 152 points clear of its nearest challengers Red Bull.

Despite its dominance, Mercedes has surprisingly only recorded three one-two finishes so far this season: at the Styrian, Belgian and Tuscan Grands Prix.

While incredibly strong, Mercedes’ operation has not been perfect. Mistakes have come from both drivers and amid hot temperatures at tracks that heavily punish tyres, Mercedes’ W11 has been exposed to its few weaknesses.

That particular scenario enabled Red Bull and Max Verstappen to capitalise at the 70th Anniversary GP at Silverstone, while Pierre Gasly scored a shock victory for AlphaTauri during a chaotic race at Monza when Hamilton picked up a costly penalty for entering the pits when the pit lane was closed.

Silverstone and Italy have been the only two occasions where Mercedes have had defeats inflicted upon them.

Mercedes’ success in 2020 has also coincided with its main rivals falling short, most notably Ferrari.

2. Hamilton is focused and stronger than ever

Hamilton’s sublime 2020 has coupled with an additional focus this year which has been seen in his off-track fight and activism against racial injustice and inequality.

After his dominant victory in Spain, Mercedes F1 team boss Toto Wolff claimed that Hamilton is at his best when he is fighting adversity, something he believes has been highlighted by his anti-racism drive.

By his own high standards, Hamilton made a poor start to the season in Austria on a mistake-ridden weekend that saw him only finish fourth while teammate Valtteri Bottas won.

Following that defeat, Hamilton has turned the tables on Bottas and enjoyed a relentless run of form that has seen him score seven pole positions and six wins from the first nine races. He has subsequently charged into a 55-point lead in the championship.

Hamilton continues to seek improvements in both qualifying and on race day in his ever-lasting quest to touch perfection, which is helping him to set new standards as he makes history in F1.

Hamilton can draw level with Michael Schumacher’s record of 91 race wins at this weekend’s Russian Grand Prix. That figure, along with Schumacher’s tally of seven world titles was once considered untouchable but Hamilton appears on course to match both this year.

3. Bottas is struggling to find an answer

As he did in 2019, Bottas made the perfect start to the season with victory at the opening round, leading to suggestions that he could challenge Hamilton for the title and that 2020 might just be the year he gets the better of his Mercedes teammate.

But eight further races down the line and Bottas’ season has ultimately under-delivered and been blemished by some costly errors.

Bottas has shown that on his day he is able to match and beat Hamilton, but the Finn is also aware that you cannot afford to slip up when going head-to-head with the most successful driver on the current grid.

Too many times has that happened this season and Bottas has haemorrhaged points on key occasions either through his own doing or misfortune that has seen him fall the equivalent of over two victories behind Hamilton in the championship.

After a disappointing display in Monza where Bottas had a rare chance to eat into Hamilton’s points advantage, he really needed to hit back at Mugello. Despite an improved showing and running Hamilton close in both qualifying and the race, he once again fell short.

Small margins have been the difference between Hamilton and Bottas most of the time this year, but Hamilton has been largely ensuring those performance discrepancies have favoured him. 

A despondent Bottas admitted after just five rounds that he could already see the 2020 title “drifting away” and much like last year, he is seemingly unable to turn the tide. He is fast running out of time and opportunities to do so. 

4. Ferrari are going backwards

Ferrari has endured a terrible 2020 season and sits sixth in the constructors’ championship following the first nine races.

The Italian squad has been woefully uncompetitive this year due to its car being exposed to a significant drop in engine performance, coupled with a design that is not aero efficient.

As a result, it has fallen into the midfield pack and at times has been one of the slowest cars on track during a race weekend.

Ferrari bounced back from point-less races in Belgium and Monza at its 1000th grand prix at Mugello, where both Charles Leclerc and Sebastian Vettel finished inside the top 10.

But the Scuderia has still had to face up to its new reality of going from a race-winning outfit to midfield also-rans this year.

Ferrari is stuck “in a hole” right now according to its CEO Louis Camilleri, who concedes it will be “tough” to improve its fortunes before a major regulation overhaul in 2022.

That verdict echoes recent comments made by chairman John Elkann, who admitted that Ferrari cannot expect to be competitive in F1 before 2022.

In the short-term, the picture looks bleak for Ferrari. It is focusing its efforts on the limited development allowed for next season to try and reduce some of its performance deficit, before turning attention to the all-new rules coming into force the year after.

5. Verstappen’s excellence is being let down

Verstappen has been in fine form this season, extracting the maximum and more from his RB16 on numerous occasions to prove a regular thorn in Mercedes’ side.

But Red Bull and Verstappen had ultimately hoped for and expected more from this season. 

Verstappen wanted to be fighting outright for victories and the championship, but it seems that the Dutchman has once again been cast in a supporting role in the title fight.

He has finished no lower than third this season and has on occasion split the Mercedes duo in qualifying and races, claiming a brilliant victory at Silverstone when he took advantage of Mercedes’ tyre woes. But on merit alone, Red Bull has not quite had enough to consistently take the fight to Mercedes.

Aside from Red Bull’s deficit to Mercedes, particularly on Saturdays, Verstappen has been frustrated by reliability failures that have cost him a huge amount of points.

Verstappen retired from the season-opener which he arguably could have won, and also failed to finish in two disappointing races in Italy at Monza and Mugello. Technical issues have robbed him of strong results and cost him key momentum in the championship battle.

While the title may now be out of reach this year, Verstappen has not put a foot wrong and continues to excel and improve on his path that will surely lead to world titles in the future.

6. Norris is the real deal

Lando Norris had already lived up to his hype with a strong rookie F1 season and the Briton has returned for his sophomore campaign with greater confidence.

Norris has starred for McLaren this season, claiming a remarkable maiden podium at the season-opening Austrian Grand Prix, and following it up with a total of eight points finishes from the first nine races of the year.

He has been extremely strong in qualifying too, missing Q3 on just one occasion at Mugello, and proven a strong match for teammate Carlos Sainz in the sister MCL35.

Norris’s impressive consistency means he sits fourth in the championship. He believes there is a lot more to come from McLaren this season, with the Woking squad yet to extract the full potential from its car.

It is great news for British fans to see the likes of Norris and George Russell performing so strongly as the young stars continue to shine in F1.

7. Gasly has earned his redemption

Pierre Gasly is another driver who has delivered a string of outstanding performances this season.

The Frenchman has bounced back emphatically from the gut-wrenching disappointment of being demoted from Red Bull’s senior team after just half a season last year, and the tragedy of losing one of his closest friends Anthoine Hubert, in what has been a rollercoaster 12-month period.

Second-place and a maiden podium at last year’s Brazilian Grand Prix was a stunning result for Gasly, and having carried his strong end-of-season form into 2020, he topped it by scoring a shock first grand prix win at Monza earlier this month.

Gasly’s victory handed Red Bull’s junior team AlphaTauri just its second ever win in F1 and saw him produce a redemption story for the ages, as well as providing a feel-good factor for the sport in what was a classic race.

8. Positive signs for new-look Williams

Williams is undergoing huge and historic change after being sold to US investment firm Dorilton Capital, a move which has paved the way for the departures of Sir Frank Williams and daughter Claire from their roles at the team.

It marks the end of an era in F1 with the famous family leaving the Grove-based squad after 43 years at the helm and a total of 16 world championships.

While the team will continue to race under the Williams name into its new era, things will look very different with the absence of the Williams family.

A long-term successor to Claire in the day-to-day running of the team is expected to be announced in due course, with Simon Roberts currently occupying the role during a transition period.

On track, things have looked much brighter for Williams this year after its torrid 2019 campaign that saw the British outfit slip to the bottom of the constructors’ championship with just a single point to its name.

Although Williams still holds 10th place and is yet to score in 2020, its on-track performance has vastly improved, enabling George Russell and Nicholas Latifi to challenge for Q2 and be in the hunt for the top-10 on race day.

Williams has moved right back into midfield contention after spending a year as a back-marker and thanks to the fresh investment, it now has a secure future and solid foundations with which to build on.

9. F1 has triumphed with return amid COVID

F1 faced questions and criticism in its attempts to go racing but it has done so in a safe manner by holding its events behind closed doors.

The delayed and disrupted 2020 season only started 11 weeks ago and F1 has successfully crammed in nine events to get over the halfway mark of the 17-round campaign.

Pulling off nine races with three triple-header events split by just a weekend off after each section has been a monumental effort for all involved, and it has pushed F1 personnel to the limit.

It was an important milestone to hit for F1 in order to validate a full world championship season.

Barring a handful of positive cases, including Racing Point driver Sergio Perez, F1’s COVID-19 protocols and testing procedures have been a success. 

The rest of the season will be less relentless with just one triple-header left to complete, while the Sochi and Nurburgring rounds are standalone races to create some much-needed breathing space.

All in all, organising the season amid such tough circumstances caused by the coronavirus pandemic should be viewed as a huge achievement by all involved.

10. Quality over quantity needed with calendar

F1’s truncated 2020 season has shown that the amount of races on the calendar does not necessarily lead to enhanced entertainment.

Many fans have found its revised 17-round schedule - rather than the planned 21-race season - a refreshing change.

While it will go down as the shortest F1 season on record since 2009, there has not been a shortage of memorable moments with some bonkers races in Austria, Monza and Mugello.

F1 is eagerly awaiting a first visit to Portimao, as well as a return to former grand prix venues at the Nurburgring, Istanbul and Imola. 

Meanwhile, a chaotic maiden Tuscan Grand Prix was well received despite some scepticism as to what quality of racing the Mugello circuit would provide. Drivers ultimately left Mugello saying they would like to return to the challenging venue in future.

A mix of modern and traditional circuits has whetted the appetite nicely for spectators and provided an added intrigue to an already unprecedented and unpredictable year.

Perhaps F1 can take advantage of a remarkable season to determine what does and doesn’t work for its future calendars.