Deep in the heart of Texas, at a new venue for the sport, the drivers of the IndyCar Series put on a fantastic weekend at the state-of-the-art Circuit of the Americas in Austin, Texas.
Formula One’s teams had turned their attention to 2019 long before the dust had settled on the 2018 season, and this week’s first preseason test will be a key indicator as to which of them have planned wisely for the year ahead.
Some teams will be aiming to consolidate their places on the grid after difficult 2018 seasons. Others, like Mercedes, will be striving to ensure their level of competitiveness isn’t hampered by the complacency borne of ruling the sport for five straight years.
But three teams in particular will be focused on making good on narratives they’ve set down for themselves to fulfil. Each believes it has unrealised potential, and none has been shy in proclaiming that 2019 is the year it can finally start delivering.
But success in Formula One is never so straightforward, and substantial challenges face all three.
No team has more to prove in 2019 than Ferrari after its unbearable beating at the hands of Mercedes in 2018. Not only did it stretch the team’s championship drought to ten years, the equal second-longest in its history, but it pushed management’s patience to breaking point.
Team principal Maurizio Arrivabene has been replaced by technical director Mattia Binotto. Binotto impressed as head of power unit and in his role leading the design of the 2018 car, but his ability to organise the troops is so highly valued that he has been entrusted with the perhaps the highest-pressure gig in the sport.
No stone is being left unturned in the pursuit of a technical advantage over Mercedes — even a new matte pain scheme has been applied to save just hundreds of grams — but most telling is how Binotto plans to influence the team’s culture in 2019 after the ousted Arrivabene noted Ferrari seemed to have developed a fear of winning.
“Several years we’ve been working all together trying to improve step by step, season by season,” he said at his first Ferrari launch as team principal.
“The philosophy for next season certainly is to try and enjoy. That’s something that we were maybe missing in the past.”
But Ferrari can only enjoy Formula One if it’s winning, and only a championship — the hardest step to take in Formula One — will represent a genuine step forward on last year.
More pressingly, with only two seasons remaining under the current technical and power unit regulations, Ferrari may not find itself in a better position to win in the medium-term future, ramping up the pressure on a team prone to cracking in crunch moments.
Red Bull Racing
Ask Red Bull Racing why it was unable to challenge for the championship in 2018 or any year of the turbo-hybrid era and it will tell you Renault’s unreliable and underpowered engines have been holding back its class-leading chassis.
RBR’s constant criticism of Renault — which, after all, won it four constructors titles in 2010–13 — obviously strained the relationship, which finally dissolved over the off-season. Instead Honda engines will power Red Bull Racing in 2019, with the Austrian-owned team convinced of the Japanese marque’s progress with sister squad Toro Rosso last year.
Indeed Red Bull Racing is apparently so convinced of Honda’s virtues post-McLaren that it is willing to put on record its aspirations to join the very front of the field this year.
“The figures make us really optimistic, also with regard to the increase in performance,” said Red Bull motorsport advisor Helmut Marko, per Autosport. “If you combine our GPS data with the data provided by Honda, we’ll be in the Mercedes and Ferrari region.”
This is therefore an important season for Red Bull Racing. Having long considered itself a champion in exile, the team has set itself a corresponding high threshold for success in 2019 despite the substantial risks associated with its new engine partnership — for all Honda’s 2018 improvements, Toro Rosso still easily used the most engine components of any manufacturer last year, distorting the competitive picture and suggesting continued unreliability.
Can the team live up to its own hype, or is it destined to mire itself in McLaren-esque controversy by over-promising and under-delivering?
Renault’s trajectory since returning to the sport in 2015 has been steep, rocketing from ninth with eight points in its first season to fourth with 122 points by the end of last year. In 2019, off the back of what the team is describing as its “best-ever winter”, the French marque is bullishly targeting podiums, which would theoretically put it on par with Red Bull Racing and perhaps a short jump from Ferrari and Mercedes.
The RS19 is almost an all-new machine. The only part carried over from the 2018 car is the power steering, and the engine has been reworked. Combined with massively revamped facilities, new staff and Daniel Ricciardo, a drive emblematic of the team’s ambitious outlook, Renault is sounding punchy.
But beating the midfield in 2018 and getting among the frontrunners in 2019 are dramatically different propositions. The gap between the frontrunners and the midfield during qualifying last year was more than 1.5 seconds on average, and Renault was only the quickest midfielder at less than a quarter of the 21 races.
Moreover, Renault’s midfield rivals have equally compelling reasons to adopt aggressive targets next season. Racing Point, formerly Force India, and Alfa Romeo, formerly Sauber, both have access to substantially increased budgets. Toro Rosso has forged closer technical ties with Red Bull Racing.
Even Haas, Renault’s closest rival last season, has a new big-money deal with mysterious energy drinks brand Rich Energy that is likely to see it accelerate its similarly impressive rise through the F1 ranks.
But no matter the mitigating circumstances, Renault’s comeback plan allowed three years to rise through the midfield and a further three to battle into title contention. Another year in the midfield, even if spent often at the head of it, would be cause for serious concern.