Tales of the unexpected

Such is the pace of things in Formula 1 that the outlandish quickly becomes the accepted. So as we approach the summer break, it's timely to recall a few of this year's features that nobody had anticipated

Charles Leclerc, potential Ferrari driver

At just 20 years old, Charles Leclerc, the Ferrari Academy driver was placed at Sauber for his rookie F1 season, having dominated F2 and the GP3 Series. There were times when he’d looked outstanding in those junior series, a much more dominant performer than ever he had looked in his karting years. But people develop at different rates, in different ways. He clearly had something, but how would it translate to F1? Stoffel Vandoorne, after all, was struggling to look anything like the outstanding driver that had dominated GP2.

There were moments of promise in the opening two races, but only that. A crucial spin in qualifying in Shanghai, his pace only on or around that of team-mate Marcus Ericsson, it looked like this might be a long, tough apprenticeship.

It was in Baku that the breakthrough was made. “I had been asking the engineers for something completely wrong in the first three races,” he said, “with the approach of the set-up especially. Then you are in quite a negative spiral where the car is very difficult to drive, so you try to push more, and you make more errors, and everything is going quite badly.

“For Baku, because it was a street track, it was felt that I should have a more stable car. That was the breakthrough. We kept that for the rest of the season. It was now in a good direction for me because I could push the limit. It was easier to feel the limit. And then we worked on that and it made a big step because it was just easier to drive.”

He’d been chasing instant direction change response, rather than allowing time for the rotation of the car that the vehicle dynamicists can build into these suspension set-ups to ease him into the turn without much steering input. The new set-up transformed him. At Baku he breezed into Q2 and was running calmly in the upper midfield, at times lapping within tenths of the leaders and 2sec faster than his team-mate on his way to a strong sixth place.

This was the Leclerc we thought we’d seen in the junior categories. It was no one-off either. As the car has improved he’s gone with it and at Silverstone, after making Q3, he was pushing Nico Hülkenberg’s Renault for ‘best of the rest’ behind the big three teams in the race when he was forced to retire with a loose wheel.

Suddenly, it was no longer ‘if’ he would one day become a Ferrari driver but ‘when’. Ferrari doesn’t often put young guns straight into the hot seat, but in this regard Leclerc looks set to follow in the footsteps of Jacky Ickx, Gilles Villeneuve and Felipe Massa.

The disastrous form of McLaren and Williams

It can be difficult to recall that these two teams used to alternate long periods of dominance between them in the 1980s and ’90s. Although such days were long gone coming into this season, no one was prepared for the race to the bottom that was about to unfold.

The McLaren MCL33 is a mediocre car, the Williams FW41 a disastrous one, but it’s in how those hard facts came to be – and how they fitted into the narrative of the fortunes of each team – that the meaning lay. In both cases, that gleaming heritage has played a part in the situation in which each now finds itself.

McLaren is earlier in this process of decline than Williams and it has taken the embarrassment of this year for the self-examination to begin. Three years of an uncompetitive Honda power unit had allowed the team to deceive itself that it remained a cutting-edge force. It wasn’t. In hindsight, the decision to pay to exit the Honda contract (and incidentally thereby giving money to the Red Bull group), surrendering the income of that deal and exchanging it for paying customer status with Renault, looks ill advised. But at least it has brought the structural problems of the team into sharp focus, because it has enabled direct comparison to that other Renault customer, Red Bull. There was no longer anywhere to hide and the comparison revealed the former colossus to have feet of clay. Multiple firings have predictably followed, Tim Goss and Eric Boullier (respectively technical and sporting directors) the highest in profile.

Team boss Zak Brown – who is surely under pressure himself from the board – is under no illusions now about the task ahead. “This is going to take some time to fix, so I think we are years away. I don’t know whether that is two or 10 or somewhere in between. We have to be very realistic and honest with ourselves.

“We are punching well below our weight given the history, the talent, the resources and the technology at our disposal. This comes from a culmination of really being destabilised over many years within our team.

“If you look at our past seven or eight years we have had different CEOs, different shareholders, shareholders in, shareholders out, CEOs in, CEOs out. And we have really failed to get on a stable footing to be able to rebuild this great team, which is now what we are going to do.”

The shock of the revelation of how far McLaren has fallen is at least a start. Brown is actively trying to enlist a new technical director, but that’s surely only a small, albeit crucial, part of the picture. This is a team that lost vision and focus, probably as part of the fall-out of ‘Spygate’ in 2007. That’s when it began to unravel. It’s taken this long for it to become apparent how much unravelling has occurred in that time.

Williams’ predicament is that of a team stuck in a time when Frank Williams and Patrick Head together ran a no-nonsense engineering operation. The post-Frank/Patrick team had its gentle decline halted by the choice of Mercedes engines for the hybrid formula, but it remained a technically conservative entity; internal systems and processes seemingly locked in the ’90s, twice as heavily staffed as Force India and having to feed that cost base. Long term, the team is too big for its budget and more of its manufacturing probably needs to be contracted out rather than done in the factory for no performance advantage. That’s a long-term culture change. But at least the technical conservatism of the designs was something that new technical boss Paddy Lowe and ex-Ferrari chief of aero Dirk de Beer were addressing with the FW41, a car that took its cues from the influential Ferrari SF70H of last year. But for all that its concept is similar, its performance has been anything of the kind.

At some tracks it has actually lapped more slowly than last year’s car. After driving the car during Friday morning practice at Barcelona, Robert Kubica reckoned that just keeping it on track was an achievement – and that its problems were exactly as they had been when he’d tested it there three months earlier. Its aero performance was wildly different between track and simulation – and, worryingly, the reason is still not understood.

At Silverstone a new rear wing, when worked in conjunction with DRS, totally stalled the underfloor airflow – pitching both its drivers into the gravel in qualifying. By then chief designer Ed Wood had departed – as also had de Beer. Mix into this a heavy investor, Lawrence Stroll, impatient to have a decent car for his son to race, and the environment has become toxic. The bigger structural issues with the team are having to take a back seat while the fire is fought.

When Felipe Massa used to race for this team, he several times made the point that the accuracy of its simulation was significantly better than it had been at Ferrari during his time there. For that to have evaporated in one hit suggests a single overwhelming factor that’s tripping up the team rather than an accumulation of smaller factors. What’s changed there since last year?

Even when that specific mystery is solved, it’s only postponed the addressing of longer-term questions.

Ferrari’s rebound

Last year, Ferrari created a car, the SF70H, that was to prove one of the most influential designs in a long time – probably back to the Red Bull RB5 of 2009. It came tantalisingly close to winning the Scuderia a world title before a catastrophic late-season run of unreliability and a couple of key errors from Sebastian Vettel. There was a general expectation that everyone would take the design’s innovations into 2018, losing Ferrari its technical advantage, and that the title opportunity had been missed.

Not so. Ferrari developed the concept further within a lengthened wheelbase that gave a greater downforce-generating underfloor area. The result is a car that has been, on balance, the fastest of the season’s first half. Furthermore, it pushed hard against the envelope of the regulations in a number of areas – exactly as a top F1 team must.

In the post-Schumacher era, until last year, Ferrari had slowly fallen away from the cutting edge as Red Bull and subsequently Mercedes picked up the baton. The red cars became technically conservative. This year’s SF71H has been the focus of the FIA’s attention on several occasions – just like its forebear. Whereas in 2017 it was oil burn, floor flexibility and an active blown axle, this time it has been winglets disguised as wing mirrors and the workings of its unique twin-battery system. The FIA has clamped down on both – and yet, just like last year, the team bounces back and the car’s ongoing development seems barely affected. The Phase 2 engine was first used by the works cars in Montréal but has since been used steadily more aggressively as the team has established certain reliability parameters. Early-season GPS data suggested that the Phase 1 engine actually had a small power advantage over Mercedes in qualifying but a slight shortfall in the race. As the team began using the Phase 2 engine more aggressively from Austria onwards, it appeared to overhaul even the Phase 2.1 Mercedes motor, something that’s been reflected in the sudden upturn in form of the Ferrari-powered Haas and Sauber cars. For the first time in the hybrid era, Ferrari had unquestionably the most potent motor in qualifying and race.

The aero department has been equally impressive. A big Mercedes update, which took the W09 more towards a Ferrari philosophy around the sidepods from Austria, seemed to give the silver cars a decisive edge. One race later Ferrari hit back with a powerful aero upgrade of its own that put it right back on track and allowed Sebastian Vettel to retake the world championship lead.

Far from being a brief window of opportunity that wouldn’t present itself again for a long time, it looks like last year’s innovation was just the start. As was described in this magazine last year, the Sergio Marchionne-led change in culture and working methods, together with how Mattia Binotto is managing the technical department, has made this is a truly reinvigorated Ferrari, the best Scuderia since the days of Ross Brawn, Jean Todt and Michael Schumacher.

Hamilton’s patchy form

There have been plenty of days of Lewis Hamilton magic. His pole laps in Melbourne and Silverstone were particularly inspired – and his victories in Barcelona and Ricard were emphatic (that of Baku lucky). There is always potential stardust when Hamilton is at the wheel. But this has not been his most relentless half-season. He talked last year of how he likes to step it up a gear after the summer break and this time it’s almost as if he’s subconsciously setting himself up to be able to do that. As the long-running saga of his contract extension has rolled on from last summer until this, his form has been variable.

He was out of sorts in Bahrain, where it was Valtteri Bottas who took the challenge to the Ferraris. Hamilton, after being outqualified by his team-mate, was slowed after a niggly and unnecessary collision with Max Verstappen. In China, around a track at which he has historically been devastating, he couldn’t get a tune from a Mercedes that didn’t like the track temperature – and again he was shaded by Bottas, finishing two places behind him. He won in Baku, but only after the race-leading Bottas picked up a puncture with three laps to go. Bottas had got ahead after Hamilton had been forced to pit early because he’d flat-spotted his tyres. In Montréal, another track Hamilton considers his own, he was off Bottas’s pace in qualifying, though his quiet race was more to do with a mechanically compromised car. France was a straightforward victory from pole in what was clearly the fastest car and Austria was a mechanical retirement from a race he’d otherwise probably have won.

So, not a vintage half-season for the mercurial world champion, even as the records of achievement have continued to be set or extended. Is the strain of a fifth consecutive year fighting for the world title – this time against a super-strong Ferrari – beginning to tell? Is there something about this car with which he’s not gelling? Is he becoming disillusioned with the game? Increasingly, he talks yearningly of his days racing karts when life was so much simpler, where the racing was purer and where his skills were not damped out by the technicalities.

All that said, he’s always at his most devastating when coming from behind. “I much prefer to be the hunter than the hunted,” he says. Maybe some inner force is just putting him in that place.

A respectable Honda

The rest of the world was somewhat surprised when the 2018 Honda instantly looked so respectable in the back of the Toro Rosso, a status rubber-stamped by Pierre Gasly’s outstanding fourth place in Bahrain. But STR technical director James Key wasn’t.

He’d been excited when he first took a close look at the engine’s architecture, seeing how much tighter it allowed him to make the car’s rear end. But he’d also been monitoring the performance of the McLaren at the back end of last year, looking beyond the grid penalties to see the underlying trend in its performance. “It was clear even towards the end of 2017 that they’d made a lot of progress – and by then we knew the philosophy behind this engine and what they were planning for it,” he says. This was a Honda finally getting a proper grasp of the requirements and, away from the pressures of the McLaren relationship, it was flowering.

By race two, after looking closely at the comparison between the Renault motor in the Red Bulls and the Honda in the junior Toro Rossos, Christian Horner was privately saying that, as things stood, the decision to go with Honda next year for the senior team was “a no-brainer”. And so it came to be. In 2018 respectability. In 2019 victories?