Valtteri Bottas reclaimed the lead of the championship in Azerbaijan as his Mercedes team defied the odds — and broke a record — by extending its run of one-two victories at the start of the 2019 season to four.
Does this mean we have a intra-team battle on our hands at Mercedes between Bottas and Lewis Hamilton or will Ferrari fight back? Our F1 editors Laurence Edmondson and Nate Saunders join columnists Maurice Hamilton and Kate Walker in discussing the biggest talking points after the Azerbaijan Grand Prix.
How close is Valtteri Bottas to convincing you he can be 2019 champion?
Nate Saunders: Closer than at the start of the year, but he needs a “wow” weekend or two where he blows Lewis out of the water and genuinely rattles him, especially when Ferrari gets its act together and is fighting at the front again. His two wins so far have been solid, but had the feeling of Lewis throwing in the towel and settling for second after losing an early fight.
Kate Walker: Not very. Valtteri is on excellent form, and probably in a career purple patch, but my money is still on Lewis in an intra-Mercedes title fight. I don’t think you can discount the relevance of having fought for multiple titles when we get closer to the end of the season. There may be the same points available at every GP, but the amount of pressure increases the closer you get to the championship silverware.
Maurice Hamilton: Much closer than I thought going into 2019. This is a completely different Valtteri Bottas to the one we saw last year. He’s got that confidence and determination needed to give Lewis Hamilton something to think about. Lewis may be quicker but Valtteri now has the consistency to get in there and make his mark. But he needs to do it every time. Reminds me of the way Rosberg MkII turned up at the start of 2016 – and this could be just as close.
Laurence Edmondson: His performances in Australia and Baku were worthy of a world champion, but the way he lost positions early in the race in Bahrain is still my concern. He’s close to being the full package, but against Lewis Hamilton ‘close’ isn’t enough. However, if he continues to outperform Hamilton in qualifying, Bottas may be able to get into the five-time champion’s head, and if he manages that, he quickly becomes the favourite.
Assuming they stay close all season, will the Hamilton/Bottas fight stay harmonious this year, or will there be fireworks?
Nate Saunders: I can’t see the relationship getting too bad. Bottas will be wary of rocking the boat too much with no contract for next year — he’s also genuinely a very nice man and I can’t see him feuding with anyone. I think Lewis views him differently to Nico Rosberg, too.
Kate Walker: My vote is for harmony. My reading of Valtteri is that he would rather win the title with a series of excellent performances than with months of mind games. I think he’s pragmatic and cool-headed, and doesn’t want to waste his energy on anything other than excelling on track. Lewis trusts Valtteri to be honourable, and because of that trust I don’t see him playing silly buggers either.
Maurice Hamilton: There’s bound to be fireworks; it’s the nature of the game. The present harmony may stretch into the season but when push comes to shove (possibly quite literally) and Bottas has what might be his one and only chance for the title, his present mood indicates he’s not going to mess around. And Lewis has realised that. It’s getting tasty!
Laurence Edmondson: If the championship goes down to the wire, the relationship between them will inevitably suffer. The problems usually start around minor issues — such as engine modes used in wheel-to-wheel combat or the order the cars leave the pits in qualifying — but they can quickly escalate. I’m not predicting a repeat of Rosberg/Hamilton, but it’s almost impossible to remain good buddies in such circumstances.
Haas and Renault were expected to be fighting for best of the rest this year, but both seem to be struggling. Which do you think has most reason to be concerned?
Nate Saunders: At this point Renault. Haas’ problems are wrapped up in the tyres and it seems like they are hampering a quick race car, whereas Baku suggests Renault has produced a worse car than its engine customer McLaren. Given the money it spent to lure Daniel Ricciardo to Enstone, that’s pretty embarrassing if it’s true.
Kate Walker: Renault, because of the amount of money they’re spending on Ricciardo! Haas have got two significantly cheaper driver salaries to worry about, so they can concentrate on putting money into understanding and resolving their issues. While the bad results are a car problem, not a driver problem, hiring a superstar and then giving them subpar material to work with can’t feel good for anyone involved.
Maurice Hamilton: Probably Haas, if only because they don’t have the resources to develop the car at the same rate as most of the midfield and solve this problem with poor race pace. Renault should be very concerned about P7 on the table and the fact that it’s not happening for Ricciardo so far. There may be hints of the package’s potential but it’s not what’s expected by the manufacturer and questions will be asked if this continues.
Laurence Edmondson: Renault without a doubt. When you consider the job McLaren is doing with the same engine and where McLaren was relative to Renault at the end of last year, something has gone wrong on the chassis side for the French manufacturer. However, the problems for both teams appear to be tyre related, so a return to a familiar track like Barcelona (and a two-day test after the race) is likely to provide some answers.
Do you have faith Ferrari can turn this season into a genuine two-horse race? Or is it going to be a Mercedes shootout?
Nate Saunders: Let’s face it, it’s going to take something special from here. I’m sure Ferrari can get back to race-winning form soon but you just can’t give Hamilton and Mercedes this much of a points advantage this early on.
Kate Walker: The optimist in me wants to think Ferrari can turn it around and we’ll have an exciting summer season that will bring the constructors’ fight alive. But the realist knows that Mercedes have made history by opening the season with four 1-2 finishes, each of which took place on different enough circuits that it’s hard to see a weak spot for the Silver Arrows. Here’s hoping it’s not all decided by Singapore…
Maurice Hamilton: Every race since Australia, I think they can do it – and then it doesn’t happen for a variety of reasons. The potential is definitely there but the clock is ticking already. They’ve got a lot of catching up to do. If it doesn’t happen at Barcelona, then a Mercedes shootout is likely to be the championship story.
Laurence Edmondson: On pure performance, the championship is so much closer than it looks in the standings. But with such fine margins determining who wins races, overcoming a 35-point deficit in the drivers’ championship and 74-point deficit in the constructors’ will not be the work of just a few races. Worryingly for Ferrari, the Mercedes looks very reliable at this stage and its performance is making steady progress at every round. Ferrari needed to capitalise on its early-season advantage and, for many reasons, it fell short.
As we enter the European leg of the season, which driver away from the lead three teams has impressed you the most this year?
Nate Saunders: Lando Norris has been superb so far, he looks like a really special talent. But also — Kimi Raikkonen!
Kate Walker: I think it’s hard not to look to Charles. Only two of the six have had the challenge of a new team this year, and Leclerc has certainly outperformed Gasly. But Charles has also stayed calm in the Ferrari spotlight, with all of the attendant media pressure. It’s a tough place to be when the Prancing Horses are favourites to win and then don’t.
Maurice Hamilton: Alex Albon. He slipped under the radar coming into the season thanks to the hype surrounding Norris and Russell but not only has he been on the pace, Albon seems totally at home in F1. Out-qualifying the more experienced Kvyat and then producing drives like the pit lane to points race in China has been impressive and balances out that spectacular mistake during practice in Shanghai.
Laurence Edmondson: Perhaps I shouldn’t be surprised, but for me it’s Kimi Raikkonen. I was worried his career would fizzle out after taking a step back from Ferrari to Alfa Romeo, but if anything he is performing on an even higher level. Best of all, he seems to be really enjoying himself.
Who or what has disappointed you most so far in the 2019 season?
Nate Saunders: Beyond Ferrari doing Ferrari things, which is the obvious one, I was hoping after testing Renault might have made inroads on that gap to the front three, but it looks like the French team is going backwards.
Kate Walker: The general quality of the races. We’ve seen some excellent drives up and down the grid, in grands prix both dull and exciting, but like everyone else out there I was hopeful we’d see more battling at the front this year, and closer racing. The midfield action is great, but I was hoping for a little more of that closeness at the head of the pack.
Maurice Hamilton: Really disappointed – not with, but for – Daniel Ricciardo. It’s easy to go from a mediocre car to a comparatively quick one – as he did from HRT to Toro Rosso and then Red Bull – but it’s difficult to make a backward step and recalibrate your thinking, particularly when you’re the last of the late-brakers – and the car won’t stop! Can’t blame him for having a run down the inside of Kvyat but the ‘stick it in reverse and go’ was a big mistake and a worrying sign of mounting pressure.
Laurence Edmondson: It has to be Ferrari. The car is genuinely quick and they have let at least two wins slip through their fingers. I still think it is a much stronger team under Mattia Binotto than it was under Maurizio Arrivabene last year, but it’s so frustrating that they haven’t got the results to show for it. F1 needs Ferrari to be strong and right now they are in danger of becoming the butt of the joke.