A post-mortem on F1’s title bid failures in 2020

A post-mortem on F1’s title bid failures in 2020

With another race following Lewis Hamilton’s coronation as a seven-time world champion to mull over, there’s no better time to conduct a post-mortem of the 2020 Formula One world championship.

The 35-year-old stormed to his 11th win of the season in Bahrain, his fifth consecutive, as teammate Valtteri Bottas again faltered with a poor start and then suffered from a puncture.

Red Bull’s Max Verstappen claimed the runner’s up spot, which has been an accurate portrayal of the Briton’s rivals’ shortcomings in 2020.

2020 was severely impacted by the effects of the coronavirus, though it was pre-season testing in late February which gave the ultimate hint that this could once again be Mercedes’ championship to lose.

Immediately it was evident that Ferrari would not be in contention, following a shocking display of pace in the wintery cold of Barcelona.

Less power and more drag on the SF1000 resulted in an unstable car that, once the racing commenced in July, saw the once-championship contenders slip deep into the midfield fight – only to have a podium from Charles Leclerc in Austria flatter the car’s true performance.

Charles Leclerc of Ferrari celebrates during the Bahrain Grand Prix.

Four-time world champion Sebastian Vettel was yet again comprehensively beaten by his junior teammate, in the German’s last season in scarlet before a move to Aston Martin in 2021.

With Ferrari seemingly out of the picture, the onus fell on Red Bull to at last string together a title-winning challenger in its RB16 – powered by a much-improved Honda power-unit. This too was not the case, with the former world champions producing a volatile chassis.

Max Verstappen has still been incredible this season, finishing on the podium 11 times, including a victory at Silverstone for the 70th anniversary grand orix – where Mercedes’ Achilles heel was found in the form of the Pirelli tyres in those conditions.

The 23-year-old lamented after Hamilton’s title win in Turkey that he feels like a ‘third wheel’ on podium – with no ability to challenge the cars ahead – as well as his team failing to be more “aggressive” with their strategy in Bahrain.

Much has also been made of Red Bull’s Alex Albon, who for the most part of the season was under pressure to retain his seat. Poor qualifying performances and failing to race near the pace of Verstappen has hampered the team’s ability to create strategic options to challenge Mercedes. Though in the Thai driver’s defence, Red Bull could have produced a car less volatile.

Had Verstappen also not suffered four retirements so far this year, including a treble of non-classified results in the three Italian races, his consistency would have seen him ahead of Valtteri Bottas – whose own form has been far from ideal.

Valtteri Bottas sits in his car

Through the bulk of Formula One’s hybrid era, when the likes of Ferrari or Red Bull have been unable to challenge Mercedes, we were treated to an enthralling internal battle for the championship. This was entirely between Hamilton and the 2016 world champion Nico Rosberg, while Bottas has never pushed those buttons.

Bottas has been quite the compliant teammate and a key component of Mercedes’ title wins when Ferrari did mount a challenge in 2017 and 2018. But when there has been no outside competition to Hamilton, Bottas has failed to mount a credible challenge and this season is a prime example.

The Finn maximised the opening race in Austria with a win, while Hamilton had a rare off weekend. Hamilton’s hallmark has been his consistency and unrelenting ability to keep the pressure on his rivals – especially following the retirement of Rosberg.

Instead, from Hungary onwards there were a plethora of errors from the often clinical Bottas, botching his start in Budapest and also a poor safety car restart at Mugello while commanding the race early on.

The multiple spins in the difficult conditions of Istanbul highlighted the difference between the two teammates, with Hamilton having won the unwinnable race, while Bottas eventually got lapped by the race winner.

Even good fortune shied away from Bottas, in the form of a rare mechanical failure at the Nürburgring and a late tyre blowout at Silverstone. To also rub salt into the Silverstone wound, Hamilton also suffered the tyre failure but managed to limp his three-wheeled car to the finish line.

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With limited development allowed for 2021 as a result of COVID-19, there will be collective groans as the status quo looks set to be maintained. It would be near impossible for Ferrari to gain enough engine performance to return to the same level as Mercedes and Honda – while Red Bull would really have to make significant gains in their chassis.

Could we see Bottas finally sustain a challenge for the championship? Or even witness Red Bull break their title drought and give Verstappen a first title in a young career?

It is possible given the record 23-race calendar and added variabilities in reliability and performance.

Though with the combination of a seven-time world champion – who still believes his best is yet to come – and one of the greatest sporting teams of this century, it will take a herculean effort to stop Hamilton from setting a new record of eight world championships.