The axe has once again fallen at Red Bull Racing in the middle of a Formula One season, as the former world champions announced that incumbent Pierre Gasly has been dropped in favour of star rookie Alexander Albon.
After only five rounds, the battle for the 2019 championship looks likely to boil down to a straight fight between two drivers, so it’s a good thing we’ve got the tense battle for F1-B to keep us entertained.
Well, sort of. There is no class B F1 championship, but with the divide between the three front-running teams and the rest growing ever wider, the midfield is long overdue for some recognition.
Following on from our awarding of class B honours at the end of last season — won by Nico Hulkenberg and Renault — in 2019 we’ll (sort of) formalise the oft-used ‘best of the rest’ tag pinned to the best-performing midfield teams and drivers to imagine what the 2019 season could look like if only those pesky higher performing teams weren’t competing.
The rules, just as last year, are simple. The results of the top three teams and their drivers are deleted, making a 14-driver, seven-team series. Points, including for fastest lap, are meted out as currently regulated.
The results are as surprising as they are unofficial, so let’s look back at the first five rounds of the F1-B world championship season.
Australian Grand Prix
Renault arrived in Melbourne quietly confident of defending its 2018 title with reigning champion Nico Hulkenberg and new teammate Daniel Ricciardo, but the French outfit was braced for a redoubled challenge from Haas, which had the quicker car last year but too often succumbed to mistakes.
The American team drew early blood when Romain Grosjean and Kevin Magnussen locked out the front row, but both teams suffered mixed fortunes, with Ricciardo effectively eliminating himself on the first lap and Grosjean retiring from second place with a loose wheel.
Hulkenberg took the battle to Magnussen, with the Dane prevailing. Alfa Romeo’s Kimi Raikkonen finished a sensational third on his return to Hinwil.
Lando Norris weekend starred on his McLaren debut, qualifying third, but he fell to sixth in the race as he adjusted to racing in Formula One.
Bahrain Grand Prix
Haas was strong again in qualifying, starting the race from first and third, but Grosjean retired after a crash with Lance Stroll while Magnussen had severe problems with tyre temperatures that dropped him to seventh.
Renault was poised to strike back and seize control of the standings, but an embarrassing double power unit failure eliminated Hulkenberg from the lead and Ricciardo from fifth within seconds of each other, allowing Norris to cruise through to victory from 10th on the grid and take the lead in the drivers standings.
Raikkonen finished second to take Alfa Romeo to the top of the constructors standings. The Swiss team ended the weekend six points clear of Toro Rosso thanks to Alex Albon’s debut podium finish.
Chinese Grand Prix
Renault bounced back strongly in China, locking out the front row ahead of Haas in third and fourth. Though Ricciardo dominated the race, both big-hitting teams encountered trouble — Hulkenberg retired with yet another engine problem, while both Haas drivers failed to make the podium as they struggled in the cool conditions.
The race marked the return of Racing Point, last year’s runner-up, to the podium, with Sergio Perez finishing a strong second, propelling the team to second in the standings behind Alfa Romeo, which benefitted from Raikkonen’s third podium in as many races. With Norris failing to finish, Kimi took the outright lead in the drivers standings.
Albon, after missing qualifying thanks to a huge FP3 crash, impressively clawed his way back through the field to finish fourth, putting Toro Rosso third in the standings.
Azerbaijan Grand Prix
Azerbaijan was low on action but delivered an impressive shake-up to the championship order. Perez, a Baku specialist, won his first race of the season to storm to the top of the title table, and teammate Stroll’s fourth place propelled Racing Point into the championship lead.
But it was McLaren that stole headlines with some questionable team orders. Norris had led Sainz in P2 and P3 for much of the grand prix, but the team decided to pit the Briton during a late-race virtual safety car. He dropped to third behind his teammate, but the fresh-rubber advantage wasn’t great enough to get him back up to P2.
The team dismissed speculation it was favouring Sainz, insisting instead it was worried about tyre life in the event of a full safety car. Norris played down the call, but with McLaren now a campaign dark horse, internal tensions are bound to come to a head eventually.
Haas and Renault had another afternoon to forget, with the slim pickings of eighth and ninth respectively all they had to show for their toil. Ricciardo’s unedifying crash with Kvyat while battling for fifth only served to emphasise the team’s growing troubles.
Spanish Grand Prix
Haas pegged the warmer climes of Barcelona as a chance to redeem its difficult start to the year, and it seemed set for a one-two after locking out the front row and controlling much of the race — until the safety car intervened.
At the restart Magnussen dived down Grosjean’s inside at the first turn, and the two made contact. Romain was forced off the track, and the lost momentum and tyre temperature on subsequent laps dropped him out of podium contention. He was forced to defend hard against Alex Albon to hold fourth place.
Despite Magnussen’s victory, team principal Guenther Steiner was clearly frustrated he’d lost a one-two finish, and his insistence to deal with matters behind closed doors only heightened speculation about the team dynamic.
The late-race shenanigans opened the door for Carlos Sainz to finish second ahead of Daniil Kvyat.
The championship picture post-Spain had Magnussen leading a tight race for supremacy, with just three points over Magnussen and another one over Raikkonen. The triumvirate are edging away from the chasing pack, with Albon and Norris tied 17 points off the lead.
Reigning world champion Nico Hulkenberg is enduring a difficult title defence, sitting in 10th and 40 points off the lead. It’s the same picture for Renault overall, which sits sixth on just 60 points compared to Racing Point’s 100 — the top five constructors are separated by just 17 points.
Four different winners in the first five rounds, a change of championship lead after every grand prix, nine different podium-getters and even Williams back into the points — F1-B is the Formula One we deserve.
It’s a shame Mercedes will probably cruise to another one-two finish in Monaco.