Thursday , 13 June 2024
McLaren Racing

2019 Driver analysis Part II: The top teams

On paper, the 2019 Formula 1 season was yet another walkover from Lewis Hamilton and Mercedes. The reality is that others featured heavily through the season, but the six-time champion’s superior class and consistency resisted pressure from a ballsier, beardier team-mate Valtteri Bottas, young chargers Max Verstappen and Charles Leclerc, as well as four-time champ Sebastian Vettel. The titles were wrapped up well before the season ended in a year that featured some of the greatest races of the decade.

Behind the frontrunning teams, there were a lot of interesting subplots – the revival of McLaren and Carlos Sainz Jr – which culminated in a well-deserved podium from the back in Brazil, Pierre Gasly’s rollercoaster of a season, mayhem on and off-track with Haas, disappointment and controversy with Renault, and a starlet of the future arriving at backmarkers Williams.

But it’s time to analyse the numbers and examine exactly what went on in the team head-to-heads (with a few big surprises), as well as summarise exactly where things went right or wrong for each driver in 2019. As always, the ratings given are merely based on opinion based on a driver’s performance with the equipment given in the races.

Mercedes – Hamilton imperious against Bottas when it matters

44 Lewis Hamilton – Champion
Best qualifying: 1st (x5)
Best race: 1st (x11)
Average rating: 7.81 – 2nd

Defining statistic: ‘only’ won three races from pole in 2019

2019 has been close to perfection from the six-time world champion frequently, and the way in which Hamilton has allowed himself to be in a position to pounce and steal victories when Ferrari or Red Bull floundered warrants heaps of credit. We have witnessed one of the all-time greats put in a season-long demolition of the opposition. He won 11 races – more than double anybody else could achieve – in a car that been anything but Mercedes’ most potent in the turbo-hybrid era. His Monaco drive – holding off the charging Verstappen on harder tyres – was totally exquisite, and many of his other wins came close to that level. He has not always been the force in qualifying this year that he has been regarded for being, but his better grid positions came at circuits where overtaking is more difficult – hinting at different approaches for races where he can demonstrate his racing prowess in exchange for a grid spot or two. The question must be posed – just how can Hamilton be beaten season-long? There are few answers if any.

77 Valtteri Bottas – 2nd
Best qualifying: 1st (x5)
Best race: 1st (x4)
Average rating: 7.00 – 10th

Defining statistic: Statistically strongest season to date

The bounce back-ability that Bottas showed after a difficult 2018 must be commended. He stepped it up a level in 2019, and his late-season slump did not materialise in the same manner it did in 2017 and 2018. He has proven that he can be a real force in qualifying, and he can trouble Hamilton on an occasional basis. This has been his most successful season to date – second in the championship with four wins and five poles. A very solid return. His biggest issue has been on the other side of the garage – one of the all-time greats performing at an all-time great level. His performance in the United States is a fine example of just how much progress he has made. While there’s little evidence to support the case that Bottas will take it to Hamilton next season, it can’t be ruled out if he finds another gear or two.

Ferrari – closer between troubled team-mates than it may initially appear

5 Sebastian Vettel – 5th
Best qualifying: 1st (x2)
Best race: 1st (Singapore)
Average rating: 6.71 – 12th

Defining statistic: Worst championship position with Ferrari and since 2014

Vettel appeared to be totally finished as a driver when he made his outrageous manoeuvre during the Italian Grand Prix, but an excellent use of an extremely powerful pit stop window played into his hands in Singapore and it was evident that he was not going down without a fight. His defiance of team orders – rightly or wrongly – emphasised this, and he started to turn the poor form that has lingered over the past two years around. His season as a whole, however, has not been particularly strong. An inability to get the car to his liking, paired with more spins and crashes – including with his team-mate in Brazil – is not the sort of form that the driver picked as the number one heading into the season should have been displaying. It hasn’t been quite as desperate as it may have appeared, but it has still not been up to the sort of standard expected from a driver of Vettel’s quality and achievements. But he’s not finished. Not by a long way.

16 Charles Leclerc – 4th
Best qualifying: 1st (x7)
Best race: 1st (x2)
Average rating: 7.05 – 9th

Defining statistic: More pole positions than anybody in 2019

The big question over Leclerc in 2019 regarded qualifying. He was one of the worst for stringing a lap together last season, and he was against the driver who was the best at that in 2018. He ends the season with more pole positions than anyone – including both Mercedes drivers. There is an absolute force to be reckoned with in this youngster, both on and off the track. He dealt with the loss of his peer Anthoine Hubert at Spa in the most impressive way possible by taking his maiden win, before following that up by outduelling Hamilton to become a Ferrari hero at Monza. He has had a few too many smashes this year, and his lack of experience has been very evident at times. But as a whole, his first season with Ferrari has been an incredibly successful one, and it’s clear that there is a lot more to come from him in the years to come.

Red Bull – Verstappen crushing less-experienced team-mates

For the purposes of this, only the results with Red Bull are displayed unless stated otherwise.

10 Pierre Gasly – 7th
Best qualifying: 4th (Germany)
Best race: 4th (Britain)
Average rating (whole season): 5.52 – 18th

Defining statistic: Beaten by midfield cars 13 times while at Red Bull

After an absolutely dismal opening half of the season, in which Gasly was regularly fighting with cars he should have been much further up the road of, he was demoted to Toro Rosso.

23 Alexander Albon – 8th
Best qualifying: 5th (x3)
Best race: 4th (Japan)
Average rating (whole season): 6.52 – 14th

Defining statistic: scored more points in nine races with Red Bull than Gasly did in 12

It has been difficult to analyse Albon’s first season in F1. He came in with little preparation, impressed somewhat with Toro Rosso, and was then given one of the most coveted seats in motorsports – albeit one that arguably is a poison chalice. To have expected him to come in and be a Verstappen-beater from the off would have been totally outrageous, and therefore he has done a very solid job to be as close as he has been. He was denied a maiden podium in Brazil by a clumsy Hamilton divebomb, but he also has shown that he needs to sharpen up in battle. He totally deserves the seat in 2020, but he must be even closer to Verstappen and needs to be troubling the Ferrari and Mercedes pairs much more frequently.

33 Max Verstappen – 3rd
Best qualifying: 1st (x2)
Best race: 1st (x3)
Average rating: 7.81 – 3rd

Defining statistic: Most successful season to date, and had no mechanical retirements

Verstappen’s first half of 2019 was totally superb – with two excellent victories and a couple that slipped through his fingers through no real fault of his own. But hints of the brash, inexperienced Verstappen came back to bite in the second half. A few collisions, and the manner in which he cost himself the Mexican GP pole, were examples. But one of his finest displays of the force of nature he is came at Brazil – where he won from pole and was clinical while overtaking in the race against Hamilton. Having a new team-mate mid-season in former karting rival Albon did seem to unsettle him slightly, and how that partnership develops into 2020 will be fascinating – especially if a championship is on the table.

McLaren – Sainz arguably 2019’s best driver in revitalised team

4 Lando Norris – 11th
Best qualifying: 5th (France)
Best race: 6th (x2)
Average rating: 7.20 – 5th

Defining statistic: Finished qualifying battle with Sainz 10-10

McLaren’s youngest driver in its history brought a relaxed, youthful burst of energy into the team – and heaps of raw speed too. Norris has been absolutely superb on a Saturday during 2019 – arguably the most impressive rookie in that area. But some common traits of his junior single-seater career came to the fore at the highest level too. Starts were regularly sluggish, and there were times where he looked far too tentative in combat. There was a bizarre crash with Lance Stroll in Spain too. However, the speed makes up for a lot of that, and his points tally is hampered by a number of painful retirements. There was a lot of improvement shown through the year, and for this writer – Norris’s season as a whole was the best of the newcomers.

55 Carlos Sainz Jr – 6th
Best qualifying: 6th (x2)
Best race: 3rd (Brazil)
Average rating: 7.95 – 1st

Defining statistic: scored more points than Renault drivers combined

A podium from dead last on the grid in Brazil after engine trouble in qualifying was a perfect reward for the driver who arguably was the best on the grid out of the lot in 2019. Sainz turned around his so-so qualifying form from early in the season to become almost as clinical on a Saturday as he has been on a Sunday. He has, where possible, threatened those from the top three teams in a machine far from doing that. The McLaren has been the best of the best of the rest, but not by a huge amount. It has been Sainz’s ability to repeatedly smoothly operate his way well into the points which is why he has finished a remarkable sixth in the championship, crushed the ‘Class B’ opposition and finishes the year top of the average ratings.

Renault – Ricciardo shows his class against ousted Hulkenberg

3 Daniel Ricciardo – 9th
Best qualifying: 4th (Canada)
Best race: 4th (Italy)
Average rating: 7.45 – 4th

Defining statistic: Finished ahead of Hulkenberg 10-4 when both cars finished

Ricciardo’s switch to Renault has not gone according to plan at this stage. The team really needed to be closer to the front in 2019 – not further away. That is not Ricciardo’s doing. A shaky start to the season aside, Ricciardo’s class has been evident on numerous occasions this year – squeezing into Q3 when the Renault didn’t look competitive, and by taking points at a number of opportunities. A few decent more decent hauls should have also happened – if not for disqualifications and reliability woes. There were few real standout highlights of the season for Ricciardo and Renault, but the strength of his season has gone under the radar quite a lot.

27 Nico Hulkenberg – 14th
Best qualifying: 6th (Italy)
Best race: 5th (Italy)
Average rating: 6.67 – 13th

Defining statistic: Fewest points scored and worst championship position since rookie season

The final season – for now at least – for the podium-less Hulkenberg went with few major highlights. It was solid but unspectacular. The second half of his season was actually fairly good, but it was to no avail. His record against his team-mate this year and the nature of contemporary F1 made it very difficult for any team to justify taking him on. That’s not to say that he does not deserve to have a seat in the series – he’s shown repeatedly that he does – but it will be very difficult for him to return and with an opportunity better than the one he had with Renault.

About Craig Woollard

Motorsport historian and journalist Craig Woollard has had an unusual path to a career in motorsport. After graduating from the University of Essex with a degree in mathematics in 2013, he changed his career path immediately after discovering a talent for writing. After occasional freelance work in 2015 and 2016, he joined the Autosport Academy for 2017. In the same year, he became an archive digitiser at Motorsport Images - which is his full-time job to this date.

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