By Luke Power
And so, 76,000 Covid-19 tests after it began, the 2020 Formula One season came to an end. As Max Verstappen whizzed past the fanfare of an empty grandstand to win the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix, it was hard not to be reflective. For better or for worse, in sickness and in health, this F1 season steamed inexorably onwards while the world faltered, cramming 17 races into the space of 24 weeks. It was a monumental sporting achievement, a testament to human willpower, and a veritably thrilling season. The 76,000 throat swabs withstood by the sport’s entourage were worth it.
Many naysayers contend that F1 is too predictable to be exciting. Yet while this season fell victim to all reasonable predictions, with Lewis Hamilton claiming his seventh Drivers’ Championship and Mercedes sweeping up 13 race wins, the excitement of F1 is not so much captured in its results but its process; fresh-faced rookies squabbling for 17th position, engines spluttering despite the protests of their drivers, daredevils breaking implausibly late. The ebb and flow of fortune is enthralling. The matter of who wins is but one spectacle in the circus.
At the centre of the circus right now is Sergio Pérez, arguably the driver of the season, whose victory at the Sakhir GP ended a 190-race wait for a win. Talk about patience being a virtue. And the circumstances of his win made it all the more extraordinary. Robbed of a podium by an engine failure at the Bahrain GP the week before, Pérez could be forgiven for any rage when Charles Leclerc’s prod sent his Racing Point spinning into last place and needing a pit stop on the first lap. Yet somehow, despite destiny’s repeated efforts to doom him, Pérez managed 14 competitive overtakes throughout a race which will enter the history books.
The Mexican was almost forced out of the sport due to Sebastian Vettel’s transfer to replace him at Racing Point, until Red Bull recently announced that Pérez would be partnering Max Verstappen for the 2021 season, impressed with Pérez’s season-long job interview which saw him finish fourth in the Drivers’ Championship.
At the other end of the scale, this season was a dark hour for motorsport’s favourite child: Ferrari. It was such a dark hour, in fact, that Ferrari completely lost their way and stumbled outside the points as often as finishing in them, enduring their worse campaign since 1980 to end sixth position in the Constructors’ Championship. Engine rule changes prior to the season seriously hampered Ferrari’s development and left them as vulnerable as sitting ducks on the high-speed straights, unable to compete with the superior engines of Mercedes, Renault, and Honda. Sebastian Vettel cut a dispirited figure after being told he had no future at Ferrari and his wavering form, which saw him score three-times less points than his teammate Leclerc, was a significant blow for the team.
This year was a ray of hope for several younger drivers, including Brits George Russell and Lando Norris. Russell’s three-point season looks uninspiring on paper, but the 22 year-old was consistently the fastest qualifier out of the bottom six drivers in an uncompetitive Williams car, regularly reaching Q2 and outqualifying his teammate Nicholas Latifi for every GP. To a flurry of excitement, Russell stepped up into Lewis Hamilton’s Mercedes car for the Sakhir GP and likely would have won the race if only the ever-so-reliable Mercedes pit crew hadn’t made a monumental error and cost him that glory. With the huge setback considered, a ninth-place finish was immensely impressive for Russell, who is rightly viewed as Hamilton’s long-term successor.
Elsewhere, Lando Norris scored a debut F1 podium in Austria, a dramatic season opener where only 11 cars finished. And Pierre Gasly, the ubiquitously popular young Frenchman, became the first Toro Rosso/ Alpha Tauri driver since Sebastian Vettel to win an F1 race- the team’s home race at Monza, Italy, which happens to be where Vettel claimed his maiden victory all the way back in 2008. Gasly, who scored more points in a season for the team than any driver in history, will be hoping to mirror Vettel’s career success. F1’s future looks to be in safe hands with such a talented harvest of youthful drivers.
But as ever, F1 has its current self to contend with. For all the pomp surrounding the next generation, Lewis Hamilton and Mercedes are showing no sign of ceding their dominance. Even with the looming aerodynamic regulation changes, there is little to suggest that Mercedes won’t be the best-placed team to deal with them, or won’t be able to overcome any setbacks with brilliance in other aspects.
What more apt a metaphor for this than Hamilton’s own scare at the Silverstone GP this year? Despite nailing most of the race, on the last lap, he suffered a puncture. His car slowed to a glacial pace, his hopes of winning seemingly dispersing like dandelion fluff on a breezy summer’s day as Max Verstappen closed alarmingly quick from behind. And yet Hamilton limped on. And Hamilton won by six seconds. Because Hamilton entered the lap over half a minute ahead of Verstappen.
By the time you throw a punch at Mercedes, they’ve already thrown ten at you. They have a chin of brick where others have a glass jaw. They’re that good. This season exemplified that, and though their dominance makes F1’s results more predictable, there’s something to be said for revelling in its beauty in the way we adulate Messi and Ronaldo’s unmitigable flair, in the way we spent lazy Saturdays admiring tennis’ ‘big four’ as they seized Grand Slam after Grand Slam. We are watching history being written; Hamilton has broken 36 F1 records. Let’s enjoy them being broken.
Image: Alberto-g-rovi via Creative Commons