Renault one of many burning F1 questions

Ahead of an eagerly-anticipated Australian Grand Prix this weekend, Sky Sports F1 expert Karun Chandhok analyses the Mercedes-Red Bull-Ferrari battle, asks if anyone can stop Lewis Hamilton and looks at who’s topping the midfield.

WILL SOMEONE FINALLY TOPPLE MERCEDES?

In 2017 Sebastian Vettel could have stolen the title from Lewis Hamilton. In 2018 Vettel should have won the title. In 2019 they could have been a lot closer in the points table than they ultimately were. But, on the whole, it’s fair to say that over the last three seasons, the red camp hasn’t fulfilled their potential in the way their rivals in silver have.

That’s not my opinion — that’s just fact.

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Ferrari have the money, the people, the facilities and the drivers to fight against Mercedes and therefore the answer to the question is always, ‘Yes, they can beat Mercedes’. But will they? Recent history shows that that’s a different matter.

Last season the Mercedes was probably the faster car at 70 per cent of the tracks and the only way a slower car is going to win the title is by executing an error-free season with stellar performances and strategic brilliance. The problem for Ferrari is that Lewis Hamilton makes very few errors, is an excellent qualifier and Mercedes don’t often get it wrong strategically.

Despite over two decades of living life out of a suitcase (albeit an expensive designer one), the reigning world champion has lost none of his motivation. Sure, he may not enjoy testing or occasionally sound bored in a Friday practice session, but he delivers when it matters in qualifying and the race.

His work ethic with the engineers has been praised by everyone at Mercedes and credit must be given to Silver Arrows boss Toto Wolff as well as Hamilton’s manager Marc Hynes for managing him in a way that brings out the best in him.

I do get bored by all the comments from people saying, ‘You’re all biased towards Lewis’, but the reality is the guy has been sensational from the first race he did back in 2007. He’s won 50 per cent of the championships he’s taken part in and probably should have won two more (2007 and 2016), so you can’t help but admire and appreciate greatness.

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Ferrari has been consistently outgunned by Mercedes in recent years.Source:Getty Images

The other issue last year was that the Ferrari seemed harder on its tyres than the Mercedes, probably as a result of having a bit less downforce. This meant that even if they could qualify well, they couldn’t necessarily beat the Mercs on Sunday as races like Mexico showed.

Charles Leclerc will be better in his second season at the team. From France onwards he was brilliant last year, so expect more of the same. Towards the end of the season Vettel showed in races like Singapore, Russia and Japan that once the updated car was to his liking, he was able to unleash his inherent speed and he knows himself that the errors are just not acceptable for a driver of his calibre.

One thing to consider is that with stable rules for 2020 and a big change coming for 2021, the answer of who comes out on top may well rely on which of the teams has committed more resources to the short term rather than holding back a bit with an eye on the future.

CAN VERSTAPPEN AND RED BULL BE A FORCE?

Max Verstappen has already shown that if there’s a car that’s fast enough to challenge for the title, he’s ready for it.

The speed and consistency he’s shown in the last 18 months has been very impressive. Like Senna, Mansell or Hamilton, you always watch Verstappen’s race knowing that something is going to happen.

He’s not going to just drive around — there will always be some moments of dramatic brilliance or controversy.

Red Bull were perhaps more competitive last year than they were expecting with three wins and strong pace in Hungary and Mexico as well. But being in the fight for wins at 25 per cent of the races isn’t going to make you a title contender and Red Bull know that. The chassis didn’t really deliver until Austria when the front wing upgrade seemed to unlock the potential of the RB15.

Honda have made very good progress and by the end of the season as a package, they were not far from the Mercedes. Red Bull have good resources as well as the key people from the years of domination from 2010 to 2013.

I would be surprised if the Red Bull-Honda package isn’t closer to being title contenders than in 2019.

After watching trackside at testing in Barcelona, I would guesstimate that the Ferrari and Red Bull seem similar on pace and are both about three tenths of a second away from Mercedes. This could of course change depending on the engine modes as I’m sure all three teams were “sandbagging”, but judging trackside and looking at the long race runs from all three teams, that seems to be where it’s at.

Max Verstappen is becoming a bigger threat each season.Source:Getty Images

ON-TRACK ANALYSIS OF THE MIDFIELD — LED BY RACING POINT?

Racing Point have certainly upset the midfield teams by rolling out a “Mercedes-inspired” design for the 2020 campaign (McLaren boss Zak Brown called it the “Copy Point” while “Tracing Point” has also been repeatedly mentioned by rivals). Either way, if I was Lawrence Stroll or Otmar Szafnauer, I would do exactly the same.

Why not try and replicate the best car on the grid at a time when there’s a single season of rules stability and you need to invest heavily in 2021?

On track, the Racing Point looks very good indeed. There’s no way that a team can just look at photos and copy another team’s design. They would have had to understand the philosophy and core concept so they can set the car up correctly and they’ve clearly done that because the car looks very driver-friendly and confidence inspiring.

McLaren were the most improved team of 2019 and the whole team has a very upbeat and buoyant atmosphere about it now. Let’s remember that there were times in 2018 where Fernando Alonso was qualifying behind the Williams cars of Lance Stroll or Sergey Sirotkin. No disrespect to either of those drivers, but that showed that the McLaren was at times the slowest car in 2018 and therefore makes their recovery last year all the more impressive.

With Andreas Seidl at the helm, Zak Brown doing what he does best and roping in new sponsors, technical director James Key now fully with his feet under the desk, a new wind tunnel coming, the Mercedes power unit deal a year away and an exciting young driver line-up, there’s plenty of cause for optimism around McLaren’s future.

A BIG YEAR FOR RENAULT

Last season was a bit of a wake-up call for Renault I think. The power unit side in Viry has clearly made steps forward in terms of performance as their pace at power sensitive venues such as Canada, Spa and Monza showed.

Reliability across the works cars and the McLaren customers was still not as good as they would have liked but the bigger concern for the works team was that McLaren were able to comprehensively outscore them last year with the same power unit despite being miles behind in 2018.

As a factory team, finishing behind your customer is never going to go down well with the paymasters. Renault chief Cyril Abiteboul has recognised that things need to be shaken up and the departing Nick Chester has been replaced by Pat Fry and Dirk de Beer. The former played a large part in McLaren’s recent turnaround, while the latter was well respected at Enstone and Ferrari despite a difficult time at Williams recently.

Can Renault get back to leading the midfield?Source:Getty Images

Both of these new signings have come in too late to have a real influence on the 2020 car but it’s an important move with the view towards the parallel design programs next year. Aero and downforce is still pivotal in F1 but so is consistency when you’re talking about a championship position.

The team still have very good and experienced people running the trackside operation. They’ve got one of the best driver line-ups on the grid in Daniel Ricciardo and Esteban Ocon and have therefore given themselves no excuses for not getting back up to fourth in the championship.

Overall like last year, I think that the battle between Alfa Romeo, Haas, AlphaTauri and Renault could ebb and flow depending on the circuit. Each car seems to have different strengths and weaknesses.

WHAT CAN WE EXPECT FROM WILLIAMS?

For the first time in a couple of years, the Williams seems like a drivable car. Yes, you can make out the cornering speeds are a bit down compared to its rivals but at least it doesn’t seem to have the inconsistency and instability of the past two years.

I remember watching at turn four in 2018 at Barcelona and the drivers were sometimes using opposite lock even before the apex, while last year the late arrival of the car meant it just wasn’t going quick enough for us to judge. This year both drivers are comfortably flat through turns three and nine and actually look like they can hustle the car around without it doing anything particularly unexpected.

That’s a good base for the team to build on and will give the aero department a confidence boost that their correlation between the CFD and wind tunnel and the track seems to be working reasonably well.

When the flag drops, the talking stops and qualifying this weekend in Melbourne will be the first chance for the hypotheticals to go out the window and for reality to set in!

This article originally appeared on Sky Sports and was reproduced with permission

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