JOHANNESBURG – It had its mundane moments, its expected winners, and a foretold outcome, but the 2020 F1 season also had heart-pounding moments that will live long in the memory. Here we look at some of those moments that will define a season hit by Covid-19.
11. Russell touches glory
For most of the 2020 calendar, George Russell filled up the numbers in a Williams at the back of the grid. Despite his disadvantage, the 22-year-old had a good season in a car that is still well behind the front-runners. He got a chance, however, to show his true mettle when Mercedes’ Lewis Hamilton pulled out of the Sakhir GP due to Covid-19, and installed him as their replacement driver.
Russell revealed how good the Silver Arrows was this season, qualifying second in the Sakhir GP and then taking the lead in turn 1 on race day, embarrassing his more illustrious teammate Valtteri Bottas. He led the race for 61 of the 87 laps until disaster struck – first Mercedes got their timing wrong during a virtual safety car pitstop, double-stacking the two drivers and then confused, the pit crew put the wrong set of tyres onto Russell’s car.
Russell, now with the front tyres of Bottas was forced to pit again, dropping him down the order but with some tenacity, the Brit fought back to second, and quite possibly a push for the top step on the podium. But it was not to be – the future star suffering a rear puncture that necessitated another pitstop, releasing Russell into 14th and seeing him eventually finish ninth – his only points of the season.
10. A taste of 2021
Not much will change between this season and next year with the major components of the race cars carrying over with race-changing new laws and regulations coming into effect in 2022. Therefore, what was witnessed this season will in all probability be repeated next year as well. There may be an exception to the rule though as a full calendar is planned in 2021, not the truncated European dominated calendar of this year.
So while Mercedes will remain the dominant force, the promise that Red Bull showed in pre-season might come to fruition. Tracks such as Brazil, Mexico, Singapore and the US might be happier hunting grounds for the team led by Max Verstappen, and could put a bit more pressure on the Silver Arrows. And as was seen at the British and Sakhir GP, and season ending race in Abu Dhabi, the German-backed team are not immune to race day pressures.
9. Williams no more
For 43 years, a Williams has been the head of the family-run outfit. That came to an end at the Italian GP in early September when the father-daughter duo of Frank and Claire Williams stepped down from their respective roles, leaving the team and the paddock for the foreseeable future.
The team will still race under the name of Williams next year, despite being bought by Dorilton Capital for R3 billion, but for many it was the end of an era, the termination of a fantastic legacy. In all Williams won 16 championships and while their last years in the business were tough, it remains a sad farewell for the family.
Said Claire after her departure: “We have always put our team first. We’ve always done that through the four decades we’ve been racing in this sport. This team has always been in our heart, the very centre of our family. We have always put it first, so making that decision was relatively easy in that sense simply because we wanted to make sure the team had a strong future, that it was going to survive, that it was going to go on to great success.”
8. Mercedes are unstoppable
During pre-season there were hints of how powerful the F1 W11 would be, but nobody expected them to dominate the way it did. A new innovative system, dual axis steering, only extended their supremacy. In all, the Silver Arrows – with Toto Wolff at the helm, won 13 of the 17 races this season, finished on the podium on 16 occasions and completed four races with a 1-2. They claimed a seventh consecutive constructors’ championship – the only team to ever do so.
With the majority of the cars’ components carrying over next year, you can expect another calendar full of Mercedes victories. And while an impressive feat, it can be argued that such complete dominance is unhealthy for the sport as a whole. It’s hoped then, that 2022’s raft of changes will make it more competitive. Wolff will remain in charge next year as well after extending his contract but beyond that there is still some uncertainty, while Hamilton has yet to put pen to paper for a contract extension but no matter what happens, they will remain the team to beat.
7. Grosjean on fire
The scariest moment of the season came at the Bahrain GP when Frenchman Romain Grosjean crashed into a barrier, his car erupting into flames. The accident was recorded at 53G – more than when strapping a human to a rocket-propelled sled – and for close to 30 seconds a discombobulated Grosjean wrestled with his seatbelt and safety equipment within the cockpit.
Rushing to his aid, the safety car personnel jumped to action, pulling a rising Grosjean from the inferno, saving his life. Grosjean escaped with only minor injuries to his body and serious burns to his hands, which ended his participation for the rest of the season. The images of his eviscerated vehicle bears testament to how far the safety technology of F1 has come, and how lucky he was to walk away from the incident.
6. McLaren’s orange machine
The last time McLaren won a driver world championship was with Lewis Hamilton in 2008 and since then they have been wandering in the F1 wilderness. This year, however, the team made massive strides to return to a more competitive standing with the big boys. They finished third in the constructors’ championship, only behind Mercedes and Red Bull, and were three places higher than great rivals Ferrari – more on that later …
They stood on the podium twice – Lando Norris completed a third-place finish in the season opening Austrian GP and the now Scuderia-bound Carlos Sainz stood on the second step at the Italian GP. They were far more consistent than in previous seasons, and only retired on five occasions. As revealed at the Abu Dhabi GP, MSP Sports Capital will inject roughly R3.7bn in the coming years and hold a 33% stake in the team by 2022. McLaren are once again on the up so watch this space.
5.Gasly sticks it to the man
Unceremoniously dumped by Christian Horner and Red Bull a season earlier, Frenchman Pierre Gasly had a modicum of revenge by claiming his first GP victory with AlphaTauri at the Italian GP. Gasly took his chances, stuck to his guns and rode his luck for sure, but his unexpected triumph showed all and sundry that he indeed has the talent to be a winner. The win was built on the back of the retirement of Charles Leclerc which red flagged the race, and a 10-second penalty incurred by then race leader Hamilton, but sometimes the chips have to fall your way in Formula One.
Gasly could barely contain his emotions, taking a moment on the podium to soak it all in. His victory no doubt put increasing pressure on the man who replaced him at Red Bull, Alex Albon, who made a limited impact throughout the season – his highest finish a third-place at the Bahrain GP. After the final race this past weekend, Horner was cagey about the Thai-national’s future with the team and if their history is anything to go by, then Albon is in big trouble and will likely lose his seat at the team.
4. Perez, finally
Starting his 190th race without a win, no one expected Sergio Perez to claim victory at the chaotic Sakhir GP, but claim victory he did. It was a long time coming for “Checo” and helluva deserving. The manner in which he claimed his maiden win was extraordinary, Perez moving up the field from 18th to do so. Sure, he was halp by the shenanigans of Mercedes in the final laps of the race, but nothing can take away the fact that he is now a GP winner. That triumph propelled him to fourth in the driver’s standings, behind Hamilton, Bottas and Verstappen, and there is now real talk that he will be the one to replace Albon at Red Bull after it was revealed that Racing Point – the team that profited the most from his victory – would not be extending his contract into next season.
3. The woes of Ferrari
It was a season to forget for the Scuderia – the pronouncing horse faltering in almost every race. Charles Leclerc punched way above his weight to eke out any pace from a sluggish car that had no straight line speed and that was dubious around the corners. It was notable already that there were huge problems building at the team during the pre-season, despite the spin that they put on it then.
It was even worse for four-time world champion Sebastian Vettel. His season was hit hard even before it began when it was announced that he was pretty much fired from the team and would be replaced by Sainz in 2021. Vettel was nowhere this season, his Ferrari competing at the back-end of the grid throughout the year. Mercifully, he need not worry about any of the politics of Ferrari next year as he moves to the rebranded Aston Martin. It was a disgusting manner in which he was handled in his final season for F1’s most prestigious team, principal Mattia Binotto should be ashamed of himself.
Moreover, Ferrari only managed three podiums and no victories and for a team of their standing and illustrious history that is a deplorable return. Don’t expect it to get any better next year – Binotto has already admitted that it will be a write off and that the team are concentrating on 2022 – another shameful admission from the once powerful team.
2. Covid-19 strikes
The pandemic played its part this season. It delayed the start, and saw the cancellation and postponement of several races but the organisers went above and beyond to ensure that there would be racing. They squashed 17 races into a five month period, and introduced delightful new tracks to the calendar, such as the Portuguese and Sakhir GP.
Their Covid-19 protocols were excellent, despite a handful of incidents that wiped away their clean sheet of non-infections. For every 1000 tests, only one returned as positive. For all this, the FIA, the race organisers, auxiliary support staff, teams and drivers must be commended and thanked for their efforts. Without their buy in and discipline, this season would never have transpired.
1. Hamilton is No 7
Could it have been anything, anyone else but Hamilton in the top spot. Love him, hate him, love-to-hate him, adore him – there is no disputing that the Brit is arguably the greatest driver of all time. He sealed his seventh world driver’s championship this season, equal to the great Michael Schumacher’s record and surpassed the German legend with most races won as well. It might be easy in that Mercedes, for sure, but there can be no argument against his will to win, his determination and his unflappable concentration.
Hamilton also took centre stage as F1 tackled systemic racism, becoming the mouth-piece for the paddock. His activism might be of more significance in a sport that is loath to speak out or condemn any hot-button topics. And although he is yet to confirm his drive next year as he holds out on a contract extension at Mercedes, if he does return to the Silver Arrows there is every chance of him lifting an eight championship at the end of next year.