What a difference five weeks make. Before the morning of 30 June, the mood of the Formula 1 community was about as downbeat as it gets.
Hot off the heels of the controversial Canadian Grand Prix, where many observers objected to the penalty handed down to Sebastian Vettel, came a largely uneventful French Grand Prix. It seemed to sum up a growing feeling that F1 has completely lost direction, is unfixable, and as is doomed to be boring forevermore.
As if to respond to that nadir, we have subsequently experienced an extraordinary run of four stellar races.
The first eight rounds of the championship appeared to signal the entrenched dominance of Lewis Hamilton and Mercedes. The much-hyped fight from Sebastian Vettel and Ferrari never came, and his failure at Canada underlined that.
Since 2014, Formula 1 has been in a state of equilibrium, with Mercedes in full control at all times. Viewers’ boredom has largely stemmed from the fact that Mercedes’ dominance has now lasted for five years.
But these past four exciting races suggest that equilibrium is shifting. A changing of the guard is slowly happening in front of their eyes. It’s giving F1 an exciting new flavour, and a glimpse of good times to come.
The old equilibrium
Part of the pre-2019 equilibrium has been the positioning of Hamilton and Vettel as the sport’s main protagonists. It’s not so long ago that there were six world champions on the grid, many of them fighting at the sharp end of the field. But gradually they’ve retired, leaving just Hamilton, Vettel and Räikkönen — and Hamilton facing less competition from his rivals than he has in previous years.
Hamilton is still at the top of the tree — but only just.
A slow changing of the guard — Verstappen and Leclerc take centre stage
The Austrian Grand Prix saw the next generation take centre stage. Max Verstappen and Charles Leclerc had a controversial but highly entertaining battle for the race victory, while Hamilton’s Mercedes lacked pace due to the high temperatures.
Verstappen’s squeeze on Leclerc was investigated for hours after the race, but in the end the stewards let him retain his victory.
Hamilton was back at the sharp end at Silverstone. But Verstappen and Leclerc continued their battle a bit further back. Fascinatingly, Leclerc gave as good as he got, squeezing Verstappen in return for what happened in Austria. It was very smart, because even though it may have been on the line as far as the regulations are concerned, he knew Verstappen would be in no position to complain, and nor would the stewards given the precedent that had been set in Austria.
It seems as though Verstappen and Leclerc are developing their own rules of engagement. It made for scintillating viewing. Their version of racing promises to be punchier than what the generation before them settled for. Their skill ensures that all their peers will be forced to follow suit — if they have the skill to do so.
Vettel’s collapse, and unspectacular recovery
Meanwhile, Vettel hammered another nail into the coffin of his reputation by unnecessarily crashing into Verstappen. The past 12 months have been shocking for Vettel, and the British Grand Prix was just the most graphic example yet of his fall from grace.
The German Grand Prix was the scene last year of Vettel’s extraordinary crash that was the beginning of the end of his championship challenge, and the beginning of those 12 months of substandard driving. Things seemed destined to go from bad to worse when he had to start from the back of the grid in Germany this year. But in a madcap wet race in which everyone made mistakes, Vettel took inspiration from David Coulthard to take an unspectacular but impressive 2nd place.
This weekend in Hungary, Vettel had another largely uneventful but somewhat respectable podium finish. Perhaps it took hitting rock bottom at Silverstone for Vettel to loosen up and start driving well again.
Nonetheless, the fact that Vettel finished more than a minute adrift of the victor in Hungary shows just how far he and Ferrari have fallen.
Ferrari still have no wins from this year. Now 96 points behind Hamilton, Vettel has little chance of winning the championship now. Perhaps that will give him the freedom to rebuild his confidence with less pressure. But he might not have the time to.
All coming together for Red Bull Racing
It was Max Verstappen who took victory in Germany, making it two wins from three. Few would have predicted that even a couple of months ago. Verstappen’s raw talent has never been in question. But his youthful exuberance has still occasionally got the better of him.
2019 has seen Verstappen steadily improving his racecraft. His sense of when to take a risk, and when to leave a fight alone, has improved markedly. When he masters it, he will become a formidable force.
It comes at precisely the same time that Red Bull Racing appear to be getting right on top of developing this year’s car and getting the most out of it. And most promisingly of all, it coincides with the Honda power train finally having enough power and reliability to fight at the front.
With those three elements — driver, chassis and engine — all coming into their own, it signals that Red Bull Racing are back in the game.
Few saw this coming. Before the season, you would have got very good odds on Red Bull having two wins to Ferrari’s zero going into the summer break.
First signs of weakness at Mercedes
If Red Bull Racing are on the rise, Mercedes are beginning to show the first chinks in their armour.
While Germany seemed bad for Vettel last year, it was positively horrific for Mercedes this year. Distracted by their 125th anniversary, mechanics wearing fancy dress, Netflix’s cameras, and Lewis Hamilton being under the weather, Mercedes had their worst performance in perhaps five years.
Most ominous of all is what Toto Wolff said after the race. He dropped a hint that he was never in favour of all the fancy dress. That presumably means it was forced on him by his new boss, Ola Källenius. It is heavily rumoured that the two do not see eye to eye. Ola Källenius has only been in the role since May, but it has been rumoured for even longer that their tense relationship may lead Toto Wolff to seek a new role with Formula 1 itself.
That spells bad news for the Mercedes F1 team. Toto Wolff is clearly a highly skilled manager and a key driving force behind Mercedes’ success. Their Deutsche disaster may be just a hint of more difficult times to come.
Hamilton meets his match at last
Mercedes bounced back in Hungary, but it was by no means easy. Even in the context of the crazy German Grand Prix, I think the Hungarian Grand Prix was even better.
Germany was just a wacky wet race. Hungary was a proper race; a tense spectacle with two drivers putting each other under immense pressure in a way we haven’t seen for years.
Both of them were clearly feeling the pain from each other. Neither of them was happy on the radio. Both of them were questioning their teams’ strategies. All the while, they traded lap times like boxers trading blows.
The race was gripping from the start right up until the moment Hamilton finally took the lead with three laps to go. Up until that moment, either driver could have won the race, with the pendulum swinging gently between the two.
That Hamilton’s battle was with Verstappen, and not Vettel, is another sign of F1’s changing times.
Something the Hamilton story has been missing for the past few years has been a genuine rivalry. Nico Rosberg ran away, never to race again, after he won his battle with Hamilton. Vettel has not quite been able to stand up to the plate.
This weekend, Hamilton met his match in Verstappen.
Verstappen is now the form driver
Over those four hugely exciting races, it is Verstappen who has performed the best. He has had two wins and a 2nd place and a 5th place finish. Hamilton has two wins, a 5th and a 9th.
This now makes Verstappen Hamilton’s primary championship challenger. Vettel is 25 points behind the Dutchman, with Hamilton’s Mercedes team-mate Bottas nine ahead.
It remains unlikely that anyone can catch Hamilton. But Red Bull Racing and Max Verstappen have signalled their arrival back at the top. If they can’t make it in 2019, it could be the foundation of a strong 2020, particularly if Honda can continue improving.
But these four races have also shown that Hamilton is fallible. Hamilton may have a few years left in his career, but Verstappen still has most of his career in front of him.
What the future holds
Verstappen’s long-term rival for the future will be Charles Leclerc. The Monegasque driver shows flashes of brilliance. But he is also making too many mistakes at the moment.
That’s OK. He’s only in his second season, and is facing an unusual range of pressures in his first year with Ferrari at such a young age. While Verstappen is now hitting his peak, Leclerc will improve in years to come.
This is why the past four races have been messy and fun. Mercedes are slowly slipping from dominance. They will not give that up lightly. But it’s clear they have trouble ahead, just at the moment Red Bull are hitting their stride again.
We had hoped for Ferrari to end Mercedes’ dominance. But they aren’t ready yet. Part of that is because Vettel is now in decline. Their attention will now turn to Leclerc, but that is one for the coming years. Meanwhile, Red Bull are getting to the top in front of our eyes, and faster than Ferrari can understand what’s happening.
The Hamilton–Mercedes era is coming to a close. That moment will not come in 2019, but it will come soon. I can’t wait to find out what the next few years have in store.