Lewis Hamilton ended the season under the floodlights at Abu Dhabi with a flourish. The final race exemplified the 2019 season well with Mercedes dominance, Verstappen showing maturity to go with his talent, and Ferrari losing out despite having arguably the most potent driver pairing on the grid. And, of course, a highly competitive midfield demonstrating what the sport could be like (although without getting much screentime or conversation). And somewhere in the race were two lapped Williams’.
2019 isn’t going to go down in sports history as anything special. But it’s not a season without note. The insanity of Germany, a Ferrari triumph on home turf, a grandstand finish at Hungary, McLaren back on the podium (sort of), and the commencement a Verstappen/Leclerc rivalry.
The Hamilton-Bottas pairing will have its fourth season next year in what is increasingly becoming the era’s Schumacher-Barrichello partnership. Bottas delivered what Mercedes need from a number two, but little more. Four wins from the Finn were enough to clinch the Constructors’ championship with ease. In comparison to 2018’s zero, he upped his game, just enough, to keep his seat for 2020.
It’s only a matter of time, though. Russell this season, and Ocon in 2018 showed at least as much potential as Bottas did at Williams before his recruitment to the top. Hamilton is in the twilight of his career, and Mercedes needs an heir to the throne. They have two candidates. Bottas isn’t either of them. A 2020 title for Hamilton isn’t a certainty but betting on anyone else after another season when the Englishman claimed over half the wins would seem unwise.
The Prince of Ferrari
If choosing a new king sounds problematic for Mercedes, they should be thankful to not have their successor already in the team. It’s easy to forget that Leclerc is only in his second season in the sport and in his first at Ferrari. He has shown extraordinary tenacity when you consider that he has competed in nearly 200 fewer Grand Prix than Vettel. Outscoring a 4-time world champion is no easy accomplishment.
The fiery Ferrari relationship started as early as Bahrain when Leclerc ignored team orders and overtook a slow Vettel. At Monza, his refusal to give Vettel a tow in qualifying was a clear sign that he wasn’t in the sport to play nice. Vettel got payback at Sochi. After slipstreaming Leclerc into the first corner, he disregarded the gentlemen’s agreement from the Scuderia that would return the lead. Their collision at Brazil seemed an inevitable culmination of their season-long tension. Binnotto has already stated they’ll start 2020 as equals. Great for us fans, but at the sacrifice of harmony in Italy.
Old Habits Die Hard
Ferrari will be wondering what could’ve been; a statement that applies to many recent seasons, and many recent races. They have again demonstrated they can definitely do it right when it’s their day. But more often than not, they manage to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory with bizarre strategy calls or lack of any decisions at all. They did seem to find some speed following the summer break with three consecutive wins and six successive pole positions. This advantage disappeared after the FIA clarified a loophole on fuel flow, however. A most curious coincidence.
Vettel, or the shell of the driver once known as Vettel, continued his downward trajectory in 2019. One classified victory for him led the German to 5th in the championship. His equal worst position in his 11 years at top teams. Some of Vettel’s driving in 2019 was frankly amateur, with his Silverstone lunge on Verstappen the lowest point of many lows. Though he will still consider Canada a victory, Singapore was the only race where he stood alone on the podium’s top step. We watched Raikkonen win in the USA in 2018 knowing it would be his final triumph. Was Seb’s emotional victory at the night race his last? It’s not hard to imagine.
The Future is Now
Yet somehow the intrateam battle at Ferrari was not the most significant conflict Leclerc had this season. In 2019 we bore witness to the first real on-track battles of Verstappen and Leclerc. Whether it was Verstappen’s no-nonsense approach or perhaps his experience (Max is a whopping 60 races senior to Charles despite a mere 2 week age difference), *that* shove in Austria appeared to unlock something that was holding Leclerc back. Leclerc realised that being lawful, while Verstappen was sticking with chaos, wasn’t going to cut it and changed accordingly. Their on-track racing has been captivating to watch. The wheel-to-wheel action in Silverstone is a supreme example of firm but fair racing. Long may it continue.
With the Gasly/Albon swap out, Red Bull seem to have exhausted their stock of young drivers. It would be unfair to judge Gasly based on a half-season at the top. Indeed, his resilience from being demoted was remarkable, and his podium at Brazil might be enough to prevent him from becoming the next Vergne, Speed, Hartley or Buemi. Albon seems to have taken to the senior team well and is clearly capable of ensuring the top 6 finishes that Red Bull expect. If it weren’t for the Hamilton punt at Interlagos, he would’ve managed 6th or better in every one of his 9 drives.
Without Much Screentime or Conversation
What we’ll be hoping for in 2020, or the holy grail of 2021 regulations, is a closing up between the midfield and the front. Sainz and Norris in the resurgent McLaren should not be forced to see a 7th place equal to a victory. Toro Rosso showed spirit and were rewarded with two podiums, albeit thanks to mayhem rather than pure pace. Perez dragged his Racing Force India Point to positions that it didn’t look like it should occupy. Renault, even with a headline driver in Ricciardo, showed how much catching up they still have to do. Raikkonen demonstrated he does have some fight left, while his car didn’t. We saw an absolute capitulation of Haas; just 5 points-paying races all season and fewer total points than their inaugural season. And somewhere in the season were two lapped Williams’.
Originally published at https://www.fortloc.com where you can find more motoring news and reviews.