Mercedes has been Formula One’s dominant force for five long years, but that could all be about to change in 2019.
Despite winning 74 of the last 100 races and all ten of the combined drivers and constructors titles across a substantial regulation change, the famous German marque looks vulnerable, and it’s Ferrari, last year’s thoroughly bested championship challenger, that looks most likely to finally depose it from the throne.
After being embarrassed by Mercedes in 2018, Ferrari wheeled out a car faster than anyone else’s during testing, and though the results from Barcelona are heavily caveated by all the usual preseason conditions, the Scuderia performed so convincing that whispers about a changing of the guard are beginning to take hold.
Compared to the SF90’s comprehensive performance, Mercedes’s W10 was uncharacteristically curmudgeonly. Afflicted by balance issues across the first four days, a second-week aero upgrade only partly ameliorated the car’s issues. It was enough to get the team close on the time sheet over one lap, but over a race distance it was still dropping bucketloads of time to its red rival.
Was it the change in technical regulations that appears to have felled the silver giant? Tweaks to front wing design look small on paper, but the simplified aerodynamics aimed at aiding overtaking have far-reaching effects for the rest of the car, and with Ferrari and Mercedes taking different approaches to tackling the modifications, the new rules could be the culprit.
But it would be unfair to say Ferrari could be stealing an advantage simply because Mercedes might have failed to nail a late-notice regulation change. Indeed there’s much to like about the Scuderia in 2019 that could prove the difference between its fruitless recent seasons and a competent title challenge by Abu Dhabi in December.
The stability and usability of the SF90 design appears to be a major strength for Ferrari — consider this side-by-side video from testing and the considerable additional steering input required to get the Mercedes car around the track — but the reshuffled team operating the car could be the key to accessing the final percentage of performance missing in 2018.
New team principal Mattia Binotto, formerly the engine and technical chief responsible for overseeing Ferrari’s return to competitiveness in recent years, is instilling a new brand of positivity and openness in the place of Maurizio Arrivabene’s siege mentality.
Further, Charles Leclerc has replaced Kimi Raikkonen with the expectation that the young Monegasque in his sophomore F1 season will challenge Vettel to lift his game, lifting Ferrari’s overall performance in the process to deliver the constructors championship.
And while the prospect of Ferrari starting the season as the team to beat is enticing enough, Red Bull Racing too believes it could be in the mix to challenge Mercedes for position with its new Honda partnership and hungry pairing of Max Verstappen and Pierre Gasly.
Championship aspirants would do well to beware, however, that Mercedes has dominated Formula One since 2014 for a reason, having consistently grown, innovated and expanded to meet new challenges. It’s the only team to win constructors titles across major regulation changes, and the likelihood of repeating that impressive feat cannot be discounted in 2019.
All that said, speculation is high while concrete facts are in short supply, as is always the case after preseason testing. Only when the cars take to the Albert Park circuit in anger this weekend for the Australian Grand Prix will we finally get some answers.
But the excitement of the first chapter of what should be an enthralling championship season will be muted by the pall of sorrow hanging over the sport after the FIA confirmed longtime race director and Formula One stalwart Charlie Whiting had passed away suddenly on Thursday morning.
Whiting started his 42-year tenure in the sport in 1977 with Hesketh, but it was his 1978 move to Brabham, then run by Bernie Ecclestone, that the Briton established himself in the sport in his rise to the role of chief engineer.
For a decade he plied his trade among the teams, but in 1988 he defected to the governing body, the FIA, as a F1 technical delegate. He was elevated to the role of race director and safety delegate in 1997, positions he held until his death.
Whiting’s reputation as a charismatic, open and accessible representative of the sport preceded him, and such was his standing in the Formula One family that it was difficult to find anyone in the Melbourne paddock on Thursday who wasn’t affected by shock news.
“Formula One has lost a faithful friend and a charismatic ambassador in Charlie,” FIA president Jean Todt said in a statement. “[He was] a central and inimitable figure in Formula One who embodied the ethics and spirit of this fantastic sport.”
The tributes flowed all day from drivers, team principals, journalists and F1’s myriad other travellers as the community attempted to come to terms with its loss.
It was an emotional reminder that behind the on-track action is a tight-knit band of people whose lives are intertwined not just by the time spent on the road together but by a passion for racing — and in Whiting F1 has irreplaceably lost a real racer.
He’ll be sorely missed.
Vale, Charlie Whiting.