F1 2019 highs & lows: Lewis Hamilton dominates – but what was best fight, best race, best lap?

Lewis Hamilton ended 2019 with a dominant victory in the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix, a fitting end to possibly the most impressive season of his career.

The Mercedes driver has won 11 races – just over half – and has had a lock on his sixth championship since the early summer. But the predictability of Hamilton’s confirmation as king of F1 yet again was a stark contrast from the often vivid and compelling on-track action of the individual races.

The impression given by the results that Mercedes have had everything their own way was belied by the reality of some intensely competitive action throughout the season, as new stars emerged, and fast-paced narratives aplenty kept interest high.

As F1 2019 disappears into the rear-view mirror, it seems timely to look back on the moments that made the season, and try to put it all into some kind of perspective, with a bite-size review of the year.

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  • Hamilton refuses to confirm or deny Ferrari meeting

Driver of the year

Lewis Hamilton won 11 races, produced a series of superb performances and made winning the championship look a lot easier than it really was. But he so nearly didn’t win this.

Had this article been written at half-distance, Max Verstappen would have got it. The Dutchman has been absolutely outstanding this year, carrying on the rich vein of form he found from Canada in 2018. But in the end Hamilton just edges him.

For Verstappen, there are still a few too many rough edges. He made mistakes at the start in Belgium and Italy, and the combination of foolhardiness and thoughtlessness that cost him pole – and victory – in Mexico because he did not lift for yellow flags in qualifying almost rules him out on its own.

On top of that, after a slow-ish – for him – start over the first four races, Hamilton put his foot on the throat of the season and never let it off. And he was outstanding in so many races – Bahrain, Canada, France, Silverstone, Hungary, Belgium, Mexico and Austin were all terrific drives.

OK, he made a couple of mistakes in Germany, and misjudged a passing move in Brazil. He’s still the gold standard. But Verstappen this year ran him very close.

Best drive

A lot of contenders for this one. Charles Leclerc was brilliant in Bahrain, as dominant a performance as anyone produced all year in only his second race for Ferrari – and it was a terrible injustice that he lost that win to an engine wiring problem. He was also ice-cool under pressure in both Belgium and Italy, although he gets a black mark for pushing Hamilton wide in Monza.

Verstappen won three races, all of them top-drawer in their own way – his cool control in the wet in Germany when so many others were losing their cars and their heads; his relentless charge through to victory when he came alive late in the race in Austria was awesome; Brazil was a great display of racing and race-craft in the best car on the day.

But Hamilton’s victory in Hungary was perhaps the best of a number of great drives by the world champion. Tracking Verstappen for so long, almost pulling off what would have been the overtake of the season around the outside of Turn Four, and then closing 20 seconds in as many laps after a late pit stop to pass the Red Bull for the win.

Best race

A toss-up between Brazil and Germany. Hockenheim was amazing, with so many incidents and twists and turns – the drag strip skating rink at the final two corners that caught out Hamilton, Leclerc and Nico Hulkenberg, a comedy pit stop from Mercedes, Vettel climbing from the back to second and Daniil Kvyat taking an unlikely podium for Toro Rosso.

But Brazil edged it for drama. It had everything – passes for the lead, great overtakes, safety cars, the two Ferraris colliding, brilliant drives (Carlos Sainz third from the back of the grid – wow) and a fairytale second place for Pierre Gasly.

In fact, there were many great races – six in a row from Austria to Italy. And Mexico and Austin were pretty damn good, too.

Best fight

No contest – it has to be Leclerc v Verstappen at Silverstone. It was utterly epic. Verstappen tried everything, and Leclerc – still angry at the way he had been barged out of victory in Austria a week before – defended as if his life depended on it, and took things right to the edge in doing so.

There was one moment – when Verstappen was actually in front going into Stowe, only for Leclerc to shoot back ahead as they entered the corner – that you can’t quite believe happened no matter how many times you watch it.

There’s no bigger compliment than to say that it was reminiscent of the famous scrap between Gilles Villeneuve and Rene Arnoux at Dijon in 1979, except it went on for 20-odd laps, not three.

Best lap

Leclerc has been pole position king this year, so this has to be one of his seven pole positions, right? The best of them was surely Belgium, where he was a gob-smacking 0.748 seconds quicker than team-mate Sebastian Vettel.

Not so fast, though. I asked Ferrari team boss Mattia Binotto what he thought was the best lap by a Ferrari driver all year, expecting him to pick one of Leclerc’s. But the answer was a surprise – he said Vettel’s pole in Japan.

Binotto admitted it was “difficult” to say it was better than Leclerc’s at Spa. But after some thought he stuck to his guns. It was a “perfect lap,” he said – and when you watch the onboard footage, he’s not wrong – and it was also “unexpected”.

It came after a run of nine races in which Leclerc had out-qualified the German and in the midst of the huge pressure that was putting on Vettel. And Binotto paid Leclerc a huge compliment, too, with a statement that says a lot more about the situation at Ferrari than just the words themselves: “For him to beat Charles in a qualifying means it was a special lap.”

So Vettel in Japan it is.

Honorary mention, too, for Hamilton’s performances in splitting the Ferraris in Singapore and Russia, in both of which he was more than 0.6 seconds clear of team-mate Valtteri Bottas.

Best driver outside the top three teams

Carlos Sainz had a brilliant first season at McLaren. Team-mate Lando Norris edged him in qualifying in the first half of the year, but the Spaniard generally owned the second half of the season and has raced with maturity, cool and controlled aggression all year.

The highlight of a number of superb drives was climbing from last to third – once Hamilton was penalised – in Brazil. It’s just a shame he did not get to enjoy the podium for real. Even Fernando Alonso – the man he replaced – would have been proud of that one, and that’s really saying something.

Biggest controversy

Has to be the crash between the two Ferrari drivers in Brazil. It had been coming for a while, but still the shock/disbelief of it was huge. How Ferrari handle them is going to be one of the big stories of 2020.

Worst mistake

For the second year in a row, Vettel gets this. In fact, he wins gold, silver and bronze.

In third place, Canada, where he went off under pressure from Hamilton, and then rejoined in a manner that was adjudged to be dangerous, earning a five-second penalty that cost him victory. The penalty was controversial but he would not have got it if he hadn’t made the mistake in the first place.

The silver medal is for ramming Verstappen up the back at Silverstone when completely misjudging an attempt to re-pass the Dutchman at Vale.

Gold medal – and worst by far – was for Monza. It was bad enough that he spun on his own at Ascari, a completely unforced error. But to then rejoin and collide with Lance Stroll’s Racing Point was a misjudgement that would have been embarrassing for a pay-driver rookie, let along a four-time world champion.

There is the collision he caused with Leclerc in Brazil to throw into the mix, too.

Leclerc also made a clanger – costing himself a potential win in Baku by crashing in qualifying. “Stupid,” he scolded himself, and it was, even if Ferrari didn’t help by sending him out on medium tyres for that run.

Overtake of the year

There have been some stunners this year – Leclerc pulled off two crackers in Monaco, on Norris into Loews and on Haas’ Romain Grosjean at Rascasse, before getting over-ambitious and coming to grief when he tried the Grosjean one again on Renault’s Nico Hulkenberg.

On the first lap of Monaco, Sainz went side by side with Alexander Albon through Sainte Devote, out-dragged him up the hill and then did Daniil Kvyat around the outside of Massenet. That was pretty special.

As was Leclerc’s move around the outside of Pierre Gasly at Village during the British Grand Prix.

But the winner is Alexander Albon for his cut-back on Daniel Ricciardo out of Rivage at Spa and then passing the Renault around the outside of the fast downhill left-hander that follows, in his first race for Red Bull. No-one overtakes there. But Albon did.

Rookie of the year

This is such a tough one, because Albon, Norris and Williams’ George Russell have all been excellent in their own ways.

Albon’s highs have been spectacularly good. His drive in the wet at Hockenheim was one of the performances of the year – he had the Toro Rosso up in fourth place on merit and he was racing with Hamilton’s Mercedes. It was a grave injustice that team-mate Kvyat was the Toro Rosso driver who ended up on the podium thanks to a lucky late stop for slicks, when Albon had outclassed him all day.

Albon’s qualifying lap in Japan, matching Verstappen to the thousandth of a second on his first visit to Suzuka, was equally superb. But overall he has been too far off Verstappen since joining Red Bull.

Russell has blitzed Robert Kubica at Williams, completely overshadowing the Pole’s comeback after eight years out, out-qualifying him at every single race by nearly 0.6secs a lap on average and generally proving way quicker in the races, too. And there were a handful of races when Russell hauled the Williams into the back of the midfield.

But it’s hard to judge Russell because Kubica’s level is an unknown – he appeared a shadow of the driver he once was – and the Williams was too slow, so he rarely had any competition against which to measure himself.

On balance, then Norris edges it. He, too, has been fantastic. McLaren’s internal data of absolute pace across race and qualifying shows there is almost nothing to choose between him and Sainz on pure speed – they are separated by tiny fractions on average. And Sainz is a tough team-mate. Norris was comfortably behind Sainz in the championship but his race results would look better were it not for some poor reliability.

All three appear to have bright futures ahead of them.

Best chassis

Over the season, the Mercedes was demonstrably the best car, as 15 wins and an average qualifying advantage of 0.116secs over Ferrari and 0.388secs over Red Bull attest, even if some of the victories were Hamilton wins rather than Mercedes ones, and some were handed to them on a plate by Ferrari.

But by the end of the year the impression was that Red Bull had caught them up.

Best engine

Ferrari clearly had the most powerful engine all year. Their advantage was so great from Spa to Japan that it got tongues wagging, and provoked rivals into fishing for what might be going on, which led to some technical clarifications from the FIA.

Mercedes and Red Bull saw a reduction in Ferrari’s straight-line speed advantage after that and overall competitiveness – although Ferrari said that was down to them running more downforce at the races in question and that nothing had been changed in their engine.

But even then their power-unit was still the best; it was just a question of by how much.

Lowest point

Two of these – F1 lost two of its greatest figures in the course of 2019, with the deaths of triple world champion Niki Lauda and FIA F1 director Charlie Whiting.

The loss of Whiting, on the eve of the season-opening race in Australia, was a devastating blow to many in the sport.

Whiting, 66, was a monumental character, steeped in F1, the go-to man on all matters to do with the rules, and yet one of the most popular people in the paddock. He was checking out improvements to the track on Wednesday evening in Melbourne, chatting to Vettel, but suffered an embolism overnight, and the sport lost an unsung hero.

Lauda – F1 great, pilot, businessman, Mercedes non-executive director, TV pundit – succumbed to lung problems before the Monaco Grand Prix. So much has been written about him, there is no need to repeat it here. Suffice it to say that Lauda was a uniquely heroic figure, and F1 is unlikely to see the likes of him again.

Biggest progress

McLaren were unrecognisable from the team that finished 2018 with the second slowest car in the field. After blaming Honda engines for their poor performance for three years, the belated realisation of how far they had fallen, following their switch to Renault engines, precipitated a major restructuring at the team.

Great work was done through the last months of 2018 on the new car and they hit the ground running in 2019 and never looked back.

The arrival of impressive new team boss Andreas Seidl in May increased the momentum.

The driver line-up of Carlos Sainz and Lando Norris is young and impressive and there is a new lightness and purpose about McLaren, who look well on the road to recovery.

Biggest panic

Easy. Mercedes’ 56-second pit stop with Hamilton in Germany, as they ran around like Laurel and Hardy, wearing their 1950s replica uniforms, celebrating 100 years of Mercedes in motorsport, trying to change his front wing and tyres.

Worst race

France – F1 got a lot of stick in the first part of the year because of Mercedes’ dominance, even if the individual races were not too bad and it was nowhere near as one-sided as the results made it look.

Had Ferrari delivered on their potential, it should have been four wins to Mercedes and three to Ferrari after Canada, and then there would have been no talk of domination.

Either way, whether it came after seven consecutive Mercedes wins or not, France was a dire race – just as it had been in 2018, when the Paul Ricard track made its return.

Almost totally uneventful, apart from a bit of scrapping for the minor points places, Hamilton miles clear of Bottas, on a track whose layout is demarcated solely by paint. As the birthplace of grand prix racing, France deserves a place on the F1 calendar. But it and the sport deserve better than Ricard.

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