DT's 10 Hot Takes - On Hamilton's mindset, Red Bull's struggles and McLaren's surge
A celebrated Formula 1 journalist with more than 500 (consecutive) Grands Prix’ experience, David Tremayne is one of those familiar paddock figures who has seen it all, met them all, and written about it all, over almost five decades of F1 racing. Here, he shares his hot takes after round 7 of the 2019 season in France...
1. Lewis really could be unbeatable now
I had a chat with Lewis Hamilton at Mercedes on Saturday afternoon, when he was still buzzing with excitement with his pole-winning lap. You know when a driver still has that light in his eyes, and can’t get the grin off his face?
Had it not been for the changing wind direction blowing him into oversteer in the final section, he was adamant that he could have been another four-tenths faster, which would have meant a pole lap around 1m 27.9s…
We spoke again on Sunday night. And it’s fair to say that I haven’t seen him quite this relaxed in a long time.
He spoke of what a disaster the Mercedes had felt after its first test, and how it was hard to know where to start alleviating its weaknesses, how there was so little time to work on its balance to get it in the right window. How the performance advantage over Ferrari this year has thus been a complete surprise, and what respect he has for the way team-mate Vatteri Bottas has raised his game and kept him on his mettle. And – perhaps this is the real secret to their success – how Mercedes have not bound themselves to any one concept the way that perhaps Ferrari and Red Bull have, but have been versatile and open-minded technically.
Mostly, he thinks he had to remain centred in order to make up ground, which has been the key to what we’re seeing now. Food for thought for his rivals, for sure.
2. Bottas needs his steely resolve more than ever
I confess I was a little sceptical at the beginning of the season when Valtteri spoke of being a new man, tougher and more resilient, after the beating he’d taken at Mercedes in 2018. It smacked a little of somebody who was trying to convince himself. But he has maintained that form and there is now no doubting his speed. Many times this year Lewis has mentioned it, with clear respect, and it’s been noteworthy of late that in practice it’s often the Finn who seems to find his pace sooner than the Briton.
So losing pole again, so soon after that happened in Canada, and being soundly beaten in the race again, must be psychologically tough for the man who led the title chase after the second round, yet who hasn’t won since Azerbaijan.
So what can he do to stop the rot? After the race he spoke of his team-mate’s speed, and how he needs to analyse things carefully.
“For sure my gap to Lewis, I’m not happy with that and I will have to look at it to see what I can do to avoid that in the future,” he said. “Ultimately he was quicker today and I couldn't match his pace. It's important to understand today what I can do better for next time.”
In the past that might have been a man consoling himself; this time it sounded more like steely resolve to keep learning and keep improving. Ferrari might not be able to offer Lewis outright competition yet, so we should be grateful for Valtteri’s determination. It would be unwise to rule him out from the title fight.
3. Leclerc has rediscovered his mojo
It’s been a rocky road for Charles Leclerc since he so nearly won in Bahrain, with fifths in China, Azerbaijan and Spain, disaster in Monaco, then at last a pick-up with thirds in Canada and France.
Part of that is because of Ferrari’s dip in performance relative to Mercedes, and another part is just the way that fortunes can run in the Big League. But he feels he has got his mojo back, and in Paul Ricard he put that down to getting the car in the “right window” in Q3, which has been his weak point in the last few races, and we know how important qualifying is these days. That honesty with himself is one of the most appealing aspects of his character, and he said he was very happy to see improvements on that score this weekend.
I still firmly believe that he will win a grand prix soon, but it’s looking increasingly as if he may have to rely on some misfortune for the Mercedes boys to facilitate that overdue breakthrough.
4. Seb seems to have discovered Lewis's mindset
While he admits that of late he has started to fall out of love with F1, Sebastian Vettel married his long-time partner Hanna, the mother of their daughters Emilie and Matilda, in a small family affair in Switzerland last weekend. That proved to be the high point of his last week, however.
First there was the refusal by the FIA stewards to concede to Ferrari the right for a review of their decision to give him the five-second penalty in Canada. Then he struggled to qualify seventh, and to finish fifth in the race.
During an interview that I did with him here on Thursday afternoon, however, it was notable just how relaxed and open he was, despite the ongoing disappointment from Canada where he should have won for the first time since Belgium last August. He was philosophical about life and its up and down turns, while happily admitting that he has always been impatient.
Can it be that F1’s resident ‘hothead’ has seen what Lewis has been getting at about being centred, and has finally found the key to keeping it cool and, as they say in The Right Stuff, maintaining an even strain?
5. Red Bull need Newey’s magic
Do I detect some dissent chez Red Bull? Paul Ricard was not expected by the team to be a track which did the current-spec RB15-Honda any favours, another engine upgrade notwithstanding, but overall it had to be counted as a disappointing weekend when Max Verstappen struggled and could not get within a second of Lewis Hamilton’s pole-winning Mercedes, and finished 34.905s adrift of it in the race.
I’m told by a reliable source that while there is a high level of satisfaction with Honda’s work, the performance of the RB15 itself is leaving something to be desired, and that some factions would rather see Adrian Newey wholly engaged on developing it rather than also splitting his time and talent working on Aston Martin’s exciting new Le Mans hypercar project.
6. McLaren’s early form was no fluke
When Lando Norris finished sixth in the Bahrain GP, then he and Carlos Sanz finished eighth and sixth respectively in Azerbaijan, there was much comment about how ‘lucky’ McLaren were being as others hit misfortune.
But it’s past time to change that mindset and to acknowledge that the team are doing a strong job and hold fourth place on merit rather than by luck.
Pat Fry, a quiet, underrated fellow if ever there was one, did some great work on the basic MCL33 concept for 2019, in the time available to him when he was called back to Woking last year to hold the fort until the arrival in March this year of James Key as technical director. It seems to handle well, and just to be held back by its fundamentally draggy architecture.
There was a lot of noise and hype back in the most recent Honda days which is thankfully missing now, and McLaren seem to be settling down again and remembering how to be a good, solid racing team.
It’s very early days in his new role, but Team Principal Andreas Seidl is saying some good things and steering the ship back into smoother waters. A new wind tunnel will be completed by 2021 to replace the one at Woking which became outdated and thus required the team to decamp to the Toyota facility, and the process of self-determination that once made McLaren the sport’s most successful team will continue.
7. France was Norris's most convincing display yet
I’ve mentioned previously in this column that Lando Norris looks like he’s been in F1 for years, such is the calm smoothness with which he goes about the business. Paul Ricard saw more strong work from the rookie.
I’d been delighted in Canada when we learned that he had not made a mistake and biffed a wall, but that his right rear suspension problem had arisen through mechanical reasons, because it means he hasn’t really made any major mistakes so far.
And France was for me his most convincing outing as he qualified an astonishing fifth and once Sebastian Vettel had recovered his proper position, was running seventh, hard on the tail of team-mate Carlos Sainz, when his car began to suffer the hydraulic problem which eventually saw him fall to a 10th place finish until Daniel Ricciardo’s penalties moved the second McLaren to ninth.
At one stage he very nicely asked the team if they could give Carlos the hurry-up or else ask him to move over. Some call that politeness. I’d call it style.
8. The McLaren-Renault battle is just getting started
Had Daniel Ricciardo not been given two post-race five-second penalties for leaving the track and gaining a lasting advantage and rejoining unsafely, Renault would be just three points adrift of McLaren after eight off the 21 races, 39 to 36. As it is, they are still close, with 32 to 40.
Both teams will, of course, benefit from the upgraded engine which the Australian debuted in France, but they are each also working flat-out on enhancing their respective cars, the MCL34 and the R.S. 19. Performance-wise they seem quite evenly matched as the battle for fourth place overall and ‘best of the rest’ status behind Mercedes, Ferrari and Red Bull.
While it’s good to see another major manufacturer slowly but surely dragging their way back to the respectable end, it’s equally good to see one of the sport’s oldest marques doing likewise. This is definitely a fight worth monitoring closely.
9. The race organisers got it right
Some careful organisational work on traffic flows made a massive difference to ingress and egress at Paul Ricard, to everybody’s benefit, and the race was much better received as a result.
There were also signs of strong work behind the scenes to attract influences, as no fewer than 10 CEOs from the CAC 40, the French stock market index which is France’s equivalent of the UK’s FTSE, were present on raceday.
Those present included Jean-Laurent Bonnafé of the BNP Paribas Bank, Bruno Bouyges of heavy construction firm Bouyges, Paul Hermelin of IT giant Cap Gemini, Philippe Brassac of Credit Agricole, Thierry Dassault of Groupe Dassault, Alexandre Ricard of the drinks firm Pernod Ricard, Robert Peugeot of Peugeot, Renault chairman Jean-Dominique Senard and the company’s CEO, Thierry Bolloré. Olivier Brandicourt of the drug company Sanofi and Patrick Pouyanné, the CEO of Total, plus Angel Gurria, the Secretary General of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), were also present.
Getting 25 per cent of the heavy-hitting business leaders of a single country in the same place at the same time was a pretty impressive performance, as was inviting Christophe Castaner, France’s Minister of the Interior. All good for F1’s global credibility and B2B networking.
10. French youth initiative needs to happen more
Around 10,000 schoolchildren from the Provence-Alpes-Côte d'Azur Region were again invited to go to Paul Ricard on Thursday to go behind the scenes of F1 in a series of visits to teams and their garages, and educational conferences designed to attract them to the sport and inculcate awareness of the need for responsibility and safety on the roads.
I like these initiatives. The more work F1 does to attract new fans the better, and you know what they say about getting them when they are young.