Let the flyaways begin.
As Mercedes and Lewis Hamilton streak away towards their respective sixth Formula One world championships, the 2019 season at the front has largely been a tale of contrasting fortunes for rivals Ferrari and Red Bull.
After being in contention for the past two years, though falling short in the second halves of each campaign, Ferrari burst onto the scene during the 2019 pre-season appearing the best they had for a title tilt.
Harmony within the Scuderia with a new team principal in Mattia Binotto and the promotion of young gun Charles Leclerc was predicted to bolster Sebastian Vettel’s prospects for getting one back over the Silver Arrows.
However, it was not meant to be, and Mercedes have amassed a mighty 150-point lead in the constructor’s championship over Ferrari in 12 races, courtesy of Hamilton’s eight wins and a further two from his team-mate Valtteri Bottas.
The Prancing Horse’s season has been so torrid that they remain winless and their highest placed driver, Vettel, is 94-points behind the reigning world champion. The German has endured an incident-laden campaign to date, with flashpoints in Bahrain, Canada and Great Britain highlighting the former world champion’s shortcomings.
While Ferrari have conceded that their low-downforce aero philosophy may have been the wrong path to go down in this crucial season, it has done little to mask Vettel’s own errors that his new team-mate Leclerc is capitalising on.
The 21-year-old Monegasque equals his veteran team-mate in the qualifying stakes but has shown the more mature race craft, despite Vettel leading Leclerc 8-4 on race day. A maiden pole position in Bahrain and then fighting off the Silver Arrows early in the race brought to light the potential in the youngster, though he was sadly denied a dream win by a mechanical failure.
In what was an epic race in Austria, Leclerc was again starting from pole, but received an ill-fated tyre strategy from Ferrari. The lead that he had held until the third-to-last lap had been stripped away by none other than Red Bull’s Max Verstappen, who’s been the shining light that Ferrari were tipped to be in 2019.
Many weren’t prepared to gamble on the newly formed partnership between Red Bull and Honda to garner immediate success, though we’ve pleasantly been proved wrong.
Following a messy divorce with long-time engine partners Renault, it was going to be make-or-break for former juggernauts Red Bull, who’ve constantly boasted the best chassis and one of the best drivers on the grid, but have lacked the grunt to make impact on the championship.
Honda similarly were seeking redemption after their tumultuous return to Formula One with McLaren between 2015 and 2017. Restricted testing and a lack of cohesion between both parties made the Japanese manufacturer’s return to the sport an embarrassment, though they were given a lifeline by Red Bull.
Few thought the Red Bull Honda would yield an immediate podium at the Australian Grand Prix. Verstappen finished a whopping 35 seconds ahead of fourth-placed Vettel, who along with Leclerc were nowhere through the entire weekend at Albert Park.
Since then, such has been Verstappen’s meteoric form in 2019, the 21-year-old has not recorded a finish outside the top five. This even includes the British Grand Prix, where the Dutchman’s race was derailed when his Red Bull was rear-ended by Vettel. That remains the only weekend that the now-replaced Pierre Gasly beat his team-mate.
Austria’s victory for Verstappen was not only significant in that Red Bull won their first race with Honda and that the Japanese engine-maker broke their winless streak in Formula One, which dated back to 2006 – but it was the moment that Red Bull overtook Ferrari as being the team behind Mercedes.
Red Bull may yet be 44 points behind in the constructor’s championship, but with the decision having been made to replace Gasly with their in-form rookie Alexander Albon, the energy drinks giant would have their sights firmly on beating Ferrari with nine races still to go.
More galling is the prospect of Verstappen – who also secured a stunning victory in the rain at Hockenheim – finishing as the runner-up behind Hamilton in the driver’s championship, with only a seven-point deficit to the under-fire Bottas ahead.
Even with a sizeable advantage, reigning world champion Hamilton has one eye on the raging bull that is Verstappen, admitting that he wants a harder fight for the championship from the Dutchman, as well as Leclerc in the future.
“We’ve seen a big step with Red Bull. They’ve taken a leap forward with their power-unit this year and it’s pretty good to see,” was the feedback from Hamilton.
“Leclerc is only in his second season, so he’s grown and I can only see him getting stronger and we’re already seeing some great performances from him this season.”
With how the season has panned out thus far, it looks more likely that Red Bull and Verstappen will be on Mercedes’ case in 2020, unless Ferrari can regather themselves and give Leclerc and Vettel a world-beater – minus Sebastian’s consistent errors.