5 storylines to track in F1 season’s second half

As the Formula 1 season heats up, all eyes will be on key contests such as Mercedes versus Ferrari and Lewis Hamilton versus Sebastian Vettel

Will Ferrari end their championship drought?

In the 68 years of Formula 1 (F1), Ferrari have won the driver’s championship more times than any other team: 15 times. Or, on average, once in four years. While the nature of F1 is such that success and failure tend to happen in spurts, for an F1 team as storied as Ferrari, 11 years without a driver’s championship is a long time. More so considering they have not been far off the pace in many of these 11 years, and unlike several other teams, have the wherewithal to buy their way to success.

Since Kimi Raikkonen delivered their last driver’s championship in 2007, Ferrari have come close to winning, but have lacked that last punch: 2008 (Felipe Massa), 2010 and 2012 (Fernando Alonso) and 2017 (Sebastian Vettel) were all “what if" years. The past decade has alternated between Red Bull and Mercedes. Ferrari have the best car this year. But can they keep it together, which they failed to do in 2017? (See Chart 1)

Like 2017, can Mercedes induce another second-half meltdown in Ferrari?

In terms of point scoring, there are striking similarities between last season and this one. Mercedes vs Ferrari. Lewis Hamilton vs Sebastian Vettel. In 2017, Vettel went into the half-way turn with a lead and momentum, the circuits coming up suited his Ferrari, the team was upbeat. After the turn, Mercedes started chipping away and it wasn’t long before Ferrari imploded: teammates smashing into each other, car troubles, botched strategies. In the next nine races, Ferrari won just once, that too the penultimate race, when it was all done and dusted.

This time, at the turn, Hamilton is ahead of Vettel by 24 points, an advantage constructed on the recent mis-steps of Ferrari. In the last two races, Hamilton has scored the maximum 50 points and Vettel 18 points, evoking memories of what happened in 2017 around the turn. But Ferrari still has the best car (See Chart 2).

Will Kimi Raikkonen follow Fernando Alonso out of F1?

At 285 races, Kimi Raikkonen is fifth in the list of drivers with the most F1 races. Another two full seasons in F1, and he could be top of the heap. But then, Raikkonen was never much about statistics or history, as he demonstrated by walking away from F1 in 2009, when he failed to get a competitive seat, and instead drove rally cars.

Like every year, his contract at Ferrari is up for discussion. At 38, he’s not young. But he has belted out some sterling drives at Ferrari this year. He has eight podiums, which is one more than his teammate, Vettel, and only one less than Hamilton. A change of guard is underway at F1. Last week, two-time champion Fernando Alonso, who has done 20 more races than Raikkonen, said he was leaving F1. If Raikkonen follows him, it will mean a loss of two drivers who did their bit to define F1 in recent years and had more to give to it (See Chart 3).

Where is the bottom for McLaren and Williams?

If Ferrari hasn’t won the driver’s championship since 2007, McLaren haven’t since 2008 and Williams since 1997. After Ferrari, these are the teams with the longest history in F1, as well as success. McLaren has won 12 driver’s titles and Williams seven. For teams like these, anything less than contending for the title is below expectations. This year, McLaren is running seventh among the 10 teams on the grid—and is set to lose its star driver, Fernando Alonso—and Williams is 10th.

Both have been languishing for some years now, raising the question if they will tip over into oblivion. Unlike some other middling and bottom teams, their rich lineage still makes sponsors line up. In 2017, Williams, a listed company, made a profit of 7.5 million pounds on revenue of 166 million pounds. But with track performance like this, these numbers will eventually be challenged (See Chart 4).

Will F1 continue to move away from Asia?

The Suzuka track in Japan has been the site of many championship deciders in F1, notably between Ayrton Senna and Alain Prost. Outside of Europe, it’s Japan where F1 has built some roots and ecosystem. Yet, Suzuka might not be there in 2019. Along with Hockenheim, another track laden with history, Suzuka is yet to be confirmed for 2019. As Liberty Media, which runs F1, drives a hard deal with tracks on the one hand and looks for new markets on the other, it could alter the geographical mix of tracks further. In the first decade of the century, F1 made many overtures to Asia: the number of F1 races in the continent increased from two in 2000 to seven in 2010, and it came at the expense of Europe. This has since dropped to four. But it’s geographies outside Europe that have gained. As Liberty continues its redrawing of F1, will the shift away from both Europe and Asia deepen further? (See Chart 5).

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