The 2019 Formula 1 season has marked the arrival of Max Verstappen and Charles Leclerc as potential megastars for the future. Five-time champion and the greatest of his era Lewis Hamilton has relished this – and we witnessed a glimpse of something in Hungary that reflects when Kimi Raikkonen and Fernando Alonso were the youngsters taking it to Michael Schumacher a decade and a half ago. However, there is a young talent in amongst his own stable – a Verstappen-beater in fact – who should also be within this changing of the guard.
The incumbent presently within the second Mercedes is a more than competent driver within his own right. Valtteri Bottas was absolutely the correct choice to be shoehorned into Nico Rosberg’s Mercedes when the newly crowned world champion suddenly quit at the end of 2016. Three well-earned wins came the following season before a difficult, winless, season ensued in 2018. It is easy to forget that Bottas should have won many races as opposed to the zero he amassed. While the performances generally were strong, he completely went off the boil the moment his new contract for 2019 was signed – and was consigned to the ‘Wingman’ role he did not enjoy.
Fast-forward to this year and a rejuvenated, beardier, feistier, Bottas came out of the blocks totally fighting. He simply bettered Hamilton in the two races he won this year and in Austria where the Mercedes was poor and has on average all but matched arguably the fastest person over one lap in history in qualifying trim. That is not something to be overlooked.
However, Bottas simply is not a Hamilton-beater. While that should not do a disservice to the guy currently second in the world championship, the quiet Finn has done a brilliant job to get as close to Hamilton as he has done, but there is no indication that he can or will take it season-long to Hamilton through 21 races.
But then again, would anybody right now?
Remember, Bottas came into what was Hamilton’s team in 2017. He has worked superbly as his team-mate and there is a lot of mutual respect for one another. There is no bullshit from his side, and certainly not the mental warfare that came from his predecessor that strained Hamilton and Mercedes off, and therefore on, track. Hamilton bounced back remarkably from that and now seems pretty much invincible across a season, as displayed by his and Mercedes’ battering of Sebastian Vettel and Ferrari over the past two and a half years.
But there are caveats. Daniel Ricciardo’s shocking-but-logical move to Renault somewhat indirectly sparked what has become the changing of the guard in F1. Red Bull has a seriously young combined age in its driver line-up, while Ferrari acknowledged that it needed to bring up the talent it has nurtured to counteract that. It realised that Leclerc needs to be experienced enough to be able to take it to his former karting nemesis Verstappen, even if there will be growing pains (just as Verstappen faced in 2017 and 2018). Mercedes? Locked into Hamilton and Bottas for 2019, in the oldest and most experienced pairing of F1’s ‘Class A’. Hamilton will at one day call it quits, so Mercedes must be prepared for this scenario.
A Hamilton/Verstappen pairing would be totally immense to witness. Echoes of Ayrton Senna and Alain Prost during their heated McLaren years. But we’re unlikely to be graced with such a scenario, as Verstappen seems locked to Red Bull and a resurging Honda for the foreseeable future. These two (as well as ‘Class B’ champion-elect Carlos Sainz Jr) have been the class of the field this year. So naturally having the two best drivers at the moment in equal machinery would be fascinating – especially with Verstappen leaving a team designed around him for one built around Hamilton.
But Mercedes already has its own talent sat in the garage effectively doing nothing – and this one already has victory over Verstappen to his CV.
Esteban Ocon beat Verstappen to the 2014 European Formula 3 Championship. Sure, Ocon was more experienced, had fewer reliability problems and was with the stronger team, but he did the job when the series was at its absolute peak. After a half season at MRT, he massively impressed by moving to Force India and giving team-mate Sergio Perez a really tough time. At this point, Perez had established himself as arguably the most complete package in the midfield, and Ocon’s stock went through the roof – rightly so.
He was close to the seat Ricciardo took for this year – naturally as a really good French driver, but was forced out of the newly-rebranded Racing Point team in favour of Lance Stroll. The result of this is being stuck on the sidelines doing simulator work – something that does not often benefit drivers in the long run if doing so for a prolonged period.
Does that mean that if Ocon comes in for 2020 alongside Hamilton that he would do a better job than Bottas is currently doing? There’s little evidence for or against either case. There is also the question of why bother changing a winning team? It’s a valid argument, but that omits what needs to be considered thinking longer-term.
Drastic overhauls in regulations generally result in stagnation within driver markets. The 2009 season is a good example with only one driver (Vettel) moving team for the start that year. Should the 2021 regulations come in on schedule, then for the sake of consistency the chances are that whichever driver is in the seat for 2020 will also likely be there the following year. By that time, Verstappen may have upgraded from a Hamilton-matcher to a Hamilton-beater and Leclerc may have unleashed his enormous potential. Ferrari and Red Bull-Honda may also be capable of overhauling Mercedes. McLaren and its dynamic pairing of Lando Norris and Sainz could be in the mix. If Renault gets its act together, it too can be in the frame with Ricciardo.
There is also the Hamilton question. He could ‘pull a Rosberg’ whenever he feels the time is right, or when he feels his stranglehold on F1 begin to wane. Mercedes must prepare now for the future. Ocon is the perfect choice, even if it means a year or two of building him up to be one of F1’s elite as opposed to seriously strong midfielder. As he showed in Force India, he is not yet the finished product – especially in combat with his team-mate. But he is seriously quick, very strong technically, and not someone who fears the likes of Verstappen or Leclerc. By no means a Hamilton-beater, yet.
The alternative is that Mercedes could find itself with a lack of talent to fill its seats, just as Red Bull has done. It would not be a good look for the world champions should it arise. It would be good vindication of its driver programme if, after what has felt like a long time, it gets one of the drivers into the main team full-time just as Ferrari has done with Leclerc.
There could be another long-term option for Mercedes and that is George Russell. However, while he has been mighty impressive in the worst car on the grid, it would simply be too soon to promote him. He loosened his ties with the three-pointed star to land the Williams drive and seems happy doing a stellar job in helping rebuild the fallen great. The situation Pierre Gasly has found himself in as Verstappen’s team-mate will put off the idea of promoting Russell too soon to Mercedes.
It would be harsh to dump Bottas, especially as he has really tried to take it to Hamilton this season. But F1 and sport, in general, can be properly brutal at times. There are other options around the grid – namely in the midfield but also possibly alongside Verstappen at Red Bull – but effectively all would result in a drop down the grid for 2020. Renault would arguably be the most attractive of these – partnering former junior category rival Ricciardo. He would be once again up against an elite of F1.
Looking forward – how cool would it be to have a scenario where are watching four or five teams go absolutely at it lap after lap, race after race. Ferrari’s Leclerc, Red Bull’s Verstappen and Albon, Mercedes’ Ocon, McLarens’ Norris and Sainz, Williams’ Russell, and so on. The new generation has truly arrived, so it’s important to not leave them to sit on the sidelines. Leclerc vs Verstappen is set to be a timeless rivalry to come, but Leclerc vs Verstappen vs Ocon should already be the rivalry we are all talking about.