Mercedes made it three wins from three in China. Meanwhile, Ferrari endured another disappointing Sunday which saw it fall short of expectations and trip over on team orders and race strategy.
For the third race in a row, Ferrari used team orders at the Chinese Grand Prix — but of more concern to the Italian team should be the tension brewing between Sebastian Vettel and Charles Leclerc and its lack of pace in Shanghai.
That has opened up further questions about whether Ferrari is capable of challenging Mercedes for the title in 2019. Our F1 editors Laurence Edmondson and Nate Saunders join columnists Maurice Hamilton and Kate Walker in discussing the biggest talking points in F1 currently.
Can Ferrari still win either of F1’s championships in 2019?
Laurence Edmondson: Absolutely, but the job looks a lot tougher than it did after testing. The good news is that Mattia Binotto does not look prone to knee-jerk reactions. He has a plan and the first part of that plan is understanding where Ferrari’s pace went in Shanghai and Australia. If they get to the bottom of that, everything else is likely to fall into place as the SF90 looks like a seriously quick race car in the right conditions.
Nate Saunders: Yes. Despite the results of the first three races, Ferrari still has a very good race car at its disposal and that is obviously key at this stage in the season. Mercedes has been flattered a bit by Ferrari’s misfires so far. All it needs is a couple of podium ceremony renditions of the Italian national anthem over the next few races and this season is very much game-on again.
Maurice Hamilton On paper, three one-twos for Mercedes does not look good for Ferrari. But with 18 races to go, it’s far too early to write them off. We need to remember Ferrari should have won Bahrain, and Baku promises to be a different proposition. That said, Ferrari have work to do when unlocking a sweet spot that, when it works, it really does work.
Kate Walker: Of course they can, because maths. It’s a long season, and we’re only one-seventh of the way through. Mercedes are looking pretty formidable, and with both drivers on form the constructors’ looks to be theirs to lose, but 21 races is a long time and a lot of points, and anything can happen between now and Abu Dhabi. Not every new upgrade works as expected, and Ferrari could benefit from some stumbles at Brackley.
If you were Ferrari boss and had to back one driver over the other right now, do you pick Sebastian Vettel or Charles Leclerc?
Laurence Edmondson: If I was the Ferrari boss I would have let the opening three races play out without intervention. If that had been allowed to happen, Leclerc would most likely have an extra seven points and would be leading Vettel by six. I would then let the racing continue to play out until at least the summer break before backing whichever driver had the advantage in the drivers’ standings. Simple, right?
Nate Saunders: I would pick the quicker driver on the day, at that moment, and leave any marginal decisions — like Bahrain and China — down to the two men to sort on the race track. I’ve seen people suggest they just throw everything behind Leclerc at this point, but that (or the same argument about Vettel) doesn’t make any sense to me this early in the year.
Maurice Hamilton: It’s very easy to take the popular option and say they should back Leclerc; it makes a great story for us and the guy is clearly a very exciting talent with a massive future. But these are early days in his career and in this season. Ferrari should play it as it comes, stop trying too hard and interfering. Binotto summed it up post-race when he said he understood why Leclerc should be unhappy but added that the strategy could be in his favour next time.
Kate Walker: Charles all the way. He’s the Ferrari Driver Academy graduate the Scuderia have invested a lot of time and money in over the years, and he’s demonstrated talent and racecraft in the first three races — as well as a remarkable ability to withstand the attention that comes with being a Ferrari driver. Charles is Ferrari’s future, while Seb is already muttering about retirement.
Lewis Hamilton has won two of the opening three races. Should the rest of the grid be worried about his strong start to the season?
Laurence Edmondson: Based on Hamilton’s performances for the last five seasons, they should be no more worried now than they were at the start of the year. In fact, with Valtteri Bottas looking strong in the second Mercedes they can probably rely on him to knock a few more points off Hamilton this year.
Nate Saunders Lewis is so mentally tough these days that once he gets into a groove in terms of form, he rarely looks back. That has been the case during his best spells over the last few seasons. So I would say yes.
Maurice Hamilton: Yes, they should. He shows no sign of either backing off or suffering from fatigue while fighting at the front for yet another season. Last weekend was a classic example: the car wasn’t right on Friday and most of Saturday but he worked at it and came good when it mattered. He remains at the top of his game. The opposition’s only hope – and it’s a strong one – is that Valtteri nicks points from Lewis.
Kate Walker: Of course they should! But they would be equally worried by anyone starting so well. Valtteri has also gotten off to a good start, and Mercedes are a two-pronged threat this year. Where Lewis has a real advantage over everyone except Seb is that he knows how to win titles, how to be consistent, how to get over setbacks and perform at a peak. Champions on form are intimidating.
In an ideal world, where should F1’s 1000th grand prix milestone taken place?
Laurence Edmondson: Wherever it falls on the calendar. I’m not one for celebrating milestones, so I found the hype around the grand prix a little hollow. There’s always a chance you have a boring race wherever you put it, so at the end of the day it’s only a number.
Nate Saunders: I like that F1 tried to make a song and dance about what was effectively showcasing the history of the sport. I just think the calendar forced it to be in the worst possible location. In an ideal world, a Miami Grand Prix or something in America — a country that is all about pomp and ceremony during its sporting occasions — would have fitted perfectly.
Maurice Hamilton: Monza; no question. That would have been the 1000th Grand Prix (leaving out the 11 Indy 500s). I don’t buy that the 1952 and 1953 seasons shouldn’t count because they were ‘Formula 2’. That happened to be the formula chosen for Grand Prix racing and was part of the championship in those years.
Kate Walker: At Monza, the circuit which has played host to more F1 world championship grands Prix than any other on the calendar. If we took the Indy 500 out of the equation, the Autodromo would have been number 1000 (assuming we kept in the F1 years of the early 1950s). There are just too many variables for pedants to play with.
Will Robert Kubica make it to the end of the season as Williams driver?
Laurence Edmondson: It would be unfair for any team to kick a driver out while the car is still over a second off the back of the midfield. Williams has lots of problems right now, and Kubica’s performance is still a long way from the top of the list. The only way I could see it happening is if he gives up, but that would seem out of character for a guy who has fought harder than we can imagine to get back in F1.
Nate Saunders: Williams might want to ditch him before we get to Abu Dhabi but who would replace him? I’m not sure any established driver would want the seat on the evidence of the season so far. I think he’ll stay.
Maurice Hamilton: He faces an impossible task, trying to prove himself in a car that doesn’t work. Robert is realistic enough to know if he should call it a day. Williams have enough problems without changing a driver. In any case, who would want to drive that car?
Kate Walker: Yes, but only because no one else would want to risk ruining their future prospects with that car. A rookie could just about get away with it, and Russell is okay because he’s both besting Robert and has Mercedes backing. But for most drivers, time in the current Williams is tantamount to career suicide.