Last week it was IndyCar and this week it’s Formula One.
The racing season is, indeed, upon us with all the major series in the world now in business.
Unlike IndyCar and its fans, Formula One has no broadcasting difficulties. Starting this weekend with the Grand Prix of Australia (please check listings for times), TSN will once again offer up the comprehensive coverage we’ve come to expect, which includes a pre-race show, the race itself and complete post-race coverage. Plus qualifying the day before, of course. And it’s all free (once you get past paying your cable bill).
As is my usual custom at this time of year, I sat down for my annual visit — over eggs and coffee — with Canadian Formula One expert Gerald Donaldson, who was recently honoured by the Canadian Motorsport Hall of Fame as an inductee in the new Media section.
It is well deserved, because “Gerry” has been writing about Formula One since the first Grand Prix of Canada at Mosport Park in Centennial Year, 1967. Besides writing for newspapers and magazines and appearing on television, he’s also been the author of about two-dozen books on the subject, including acclaimed biographies of Juan Manuel Fangio, Gilles Villeneuve and the incomparable James Hunt.
Rather than a question-and-answer article about the upcoming season, I thought it best this year to transcribe the recording of our conversation and let Gerry go first and then I will follow up. At the conclusion, of course, we will deliver our annual predictions as to who will win the 2019 World Championship as well as the Surprise of the Year.
It’s 2019, and Formula One is as international as ever. We have 21 races in 21 different countries, including Canada on June 9 in Montreal. Here’s something interesting: the 1,000th F1 race (since 1950, when the modern World Championship started) will take place in China this year (on April 14).
We have 20 drivers representing 14 countries. Of the teams, only two have the same drivers as last year, Mercedes (Lewis Hamilton and Valtteri Bottas) and Haas (Romain Grosjean and Kevin Magnussen).
There are all sorts of new guys, people changing teams and drivers either staying put or coming back .
We’ve seen testing and that’s the same old story, it seems. When you boil it all down. Ferrari was faster but I’m sure Mercedes were sandbagging. Mercedes, Ferrari and Red Bull are at the top with a big cluster of people, teams and cars in midfield. How the middle will work out remains to be determined.
And Williams is dead last by a long way. It’s very sad, really. It’s such a famous team and they are in the wilderness. It’s probably a lack of money, but they certainly seem to have gone haywire technologically. And Robert Kubica in the car is a mystery.
It doesn’t make sense that they’re bringing him back. He hasn’t been in an F1 car for a race since 2011. He can’t move his arm; he can’t get up to speed. I supposed he brought some money, but . . . We have another Canadian kid in there, Nicholas Latifi. He’s from Toronto and is Williams’s reserve driver for 2019. His father, Michael Latifi, could come up with some money. He owns 10 per cent of McLaren.
The big Canadian interest, though, is a Canadian-owned team with a Canadian driver. Lance Stroll drove for Williams last year, the worst team, but the jury is still out on how much talent he’s got. He’ll have to up his game a lot with this team, which was a good midfield team last year. He’ll have to perform. Sergio Perez is a veteran and so Lance has his work cut out for him.
I think it will be a fascinating struggle. Remember, Perez saved this team by forcing it into bankruptcy and he’s sponsored by Carlos Slim, the richest man in the world. He’s not to be trifled with as a power within the team. Lance? We’re going to find out how good he is because he is still an unknown quantity.
Racing Roundup: Changes Necessary or F1 Will Die
Moving on, we’ve got four engine suppliers — Ferrari, Mercedes, Renault and Honda and there are some technical changes. To improve overtaking, they’ve changed the aerodynamics on the front wing and the rear wing. This was done to decrease the turbulence that prevents passing, they say, and they've increased the power of the DRS by making the back wing more effective. This was all done to improve overtaking, which I doubt it will.
One thing they have done that should prove productive is they have increased the fuel capacity by a few kilos so the drivers don’t have to nurse the cars around to avoid running out. Somebody did a study last year that showed the cars are only being driven at full pace on Saturday afternoon in qualifying. Never in a race. It’s stupid.
I guess it’s time we talked about Liberty Media, the new owners. They’ve probably done not too badly to this point but there’s a rumour that they’re thinking of trying to sell the sport. They’re not making as much money as they thought they would.
I think Ferrari is going to be one of the most interesting driver pairings of the year. Charles Leclerc is competition for Vettel; Kimi was very supportive of his teammate. I wouldn’t be surprised if Leclerc won sometimes, and that will piss off Vettel notoriously. He’ll throw his toys out of the pram, as the Brits say. There’s big interest in Ferrari this year because of that.
Ricciardo moved away from Red Bull because of Max Verstappen. The team is built around Verstappen. He’s young and exciting and he’ll sell a lot of cans of Red Bull. But he could be a danger to himself and others. He takes enormous risks — he’s a young guy and he’ll never die — but that will change with age. Let’s hope that nobody gets hurt in the meantime.
So, at end of day, you have the Top three — Mercedes, Ferrari and Red Bull — the middle group of six teams and then Williams. I think Haas could surprise this season; they looked very good in testing. They are fast. I will say that the lowest midfield runner will be McLaren — again. I don’t think they are well-managed.
I agree that Kubica back in Formula One is wrong. I wrote a column to that effect when they announced it. I know the British media love the guy and have been cheerleading for his return but, by his own admission — and Claire Williams concurs — he can’t turn the steering wheel the whole way around because of his bad arm. They would be much better off with the up-and-coming Nick Latifi in the car.
That team seems lost, though. Paddy Lowe, who was to be the saviour, has gone on sabbatical and seems to be out.
The Canadian everyone has their eyes on, Lance Stroll, has won the championship in every category he’s raced in going all the way back to karts. Yes, perhaps his dad’s money got him into cars (but find me an F1 driver who hasn’t come from, or with, money), but in the end he had to drive and race them and he did that with talent, determination and style. I think he has the talent to be World Champion. Not this year, of course, but eventually.
And I really think Perez will help him out along the way. Sergio knows that the way things stand, he’s in the best car and with the best team he’s ever going to be. It would not be wise to show up the boss’s son. Push him to be faster and better, yes. But beat him to a pulp? Not smart.
Liberty Media hasn’t been in F1 long enough to think about leaving. But there’s no doubt that they had stars in their eyes when they first went in and have now found they have much work to do. They are not the first to discover that F1 isn’t easy and they won’t be the last.
Although people scoff when it’s suggested that Bernie Ecclestone is waiting in the wings to buy the sport back, if need be, they shouldn’t be surprised. He and second wife Fabiana Flosi are now in business together and if Bernie should happen to pass on, there would still be an Ecclestone in charge and you can bet he’s already tutoring her in the ways of doing big business, Bernie-style.
That Liberty might even be considering getting out is because of the resistance they have run into when talking aloud about promoting races in the United States in locations other than at Circuit of the Americas in Texas. They made a move on Miami and were rebuffed. If they don’t know already, they will soon find out, as they cast their net wider, that auto racing in the streets is no longer the romantic attraction it once was. IndyCar found that out in Boston and Baltimore.
If Liberty wants more races in the U.,S., they have three options: they can find a way to edge Indycar out of Long Beach, they can go back to Watkins Glen or they can do what makes the most logical sense and that’s to go back to Indianapolis.
As you say, Gerry, all eyes will be on Ferrari. Leclerc is a young tiger and he will be out for blood. Vettel doesn’t like it when that happens. He could handle Mark Webber but when Ricciardo came along, and really went after him, he sulked, lost, and left for Ferrari where he had a complicit teammate in Kimi Raikkonen. Now he will have Leclerc on his butt and Charles will be gunning for the four-time world champion.
Unless Sebastian reaches deep down to find the extra speed he’ll need (which I doubt), Leclerc will beat him and then I think Vettel will retire. He is a family man who loves his wife and children (he never brings them with him because he is all business at the races; no distractions) and he doesn’t need the money. He can go home (wherever home is) and live the life of a happy husband and parent.
I wouldn’t blame him. He’s done his bit.
And watch Renault this year, Gerry. Ricciardo had to get away from Max but he’s too smart to go to a loser. Between him going for the jugular, and raising Hulkenberg’s game in the process, you also have team managing director Cyril Abiteboul, who wants very much to stick it to Christian Horner, Red Bull’s team principal. They don’t like each other, at all, so this rivalry is personal and could be really interesting.
One more thing. I could never understand, even in the beginning, Grosjean being No. 1 at Haas. The guy is all hat and no cattle — fast in practice, slow and careless in races, Haas is an American team and needs an American driver. There’s one who’s ready: Josef Newgarden. Haas should hire him for 2020.
OK, it’s time we put up or shut up. Gerald, who are you predicting to win the World Championship?
Lewis Hamilton, again. It will be his sixth.
You are probably correct but I will be contrary and say that Vettel will win his fifth.
And Surprise of the Year?
Charles Leclerc will really take it to Sebastian Vettel. He could force him to retire.
Perhaps. I have similar suspicions. But my Surprise of the Year will be Renault. I think they will finish fourth in the Constructors Championship and maybe even challenge Red Bull.
Until next year, then. I’ll see you in 2020, Gerry.