How close are the chasing teams in Formula 1?

There is no doubt that Mercedes have been the best team in Formula 1 over the last seven years, with seven consecutive Constructors’ Championship titles secured at the Istanbul Racing Circuit in the last race. However, we have seen in the last couple of seasons that the teams just behind them are getting stronger, challenging for places on the podium and, in some cases, actually challenging for wins. However, with Mercedes still dominant, is it really the case that one of those teams behind them could take either the Drivers’ or Constructors’ Championship off them? In this article, I will look at each of the teams challenging, and assess how close they really are to Mercedes, and how close we could be to seeing a new name at the top of the table.

Red Bull

The team looking closest to the Silver Arrows is Red Bull, because they are winning races when Mercedes aren’t, and are the ones Mercedes seem to be most worried about in terms of race and pit stop strategies. Max Verstappen has certainly improved over the last few seasons, and is now arguably the second-best driver on the grid, but Alex Albon, who I still think is a good driver, is just not turning good qualifying performances into good race results, and that has not helped Red Bull’s case, leading to discussions about Albon’s future at the team over recent months. As well as this, if we compare the two cars, then Red Bull’s is more unreliable, suffering more DNFs than Mercedes (Verstappen has had four retirements and Albon just one, compared to only one for Mercedes combined, which was Bottas at the Nurburgring), and this is what lets the team down.

This season, Red Bull have not had any pole positions, and have only won one Grand Prix, which was the 70th Anniversary Grand Prix at Silverstone. They have, however, had two fastest race laps, at the British and Eifel Grand Prix races, so that shows us that they have the capability and performance, but just can’t turn that into wins. We have identified two areas already why this is.

Ultimately, what we have to conclude is that Red Bull might be close in terms of being on the podium most weekends, but, in terms of overall performance, they still have a lot of ground to cover before they can put serious pressure on Mercedes for the title.

Ferrari

It used to be that Mercedes and Ferrari would challenge each other all the way for the title, whilst Red Bull were in third place in the table, trying to break into the top two. However, since Maurizio Arrivabene left the team in 2018, they seem to have gone downhill. It is difficult to see why this is, but we have to say that, over the last few seasons, Ferrari have just simply not been good enough, and Mercedes have been allowed to pull away in the title “race”.

We only have to look at this season to see the difference between the two teams. In terms of retirements, we know already that Mercedes have only had one, but Ferrari have had five, the same number as Red Bull (three for Charles Leclerc and two for Sebastian Vettel). The number of times a Ferrari driver has been on the podium this season is three, with Leclerc finishing second to Valtteri Bottas at the opening Austrian Grand Prix, then finishing third at the British Grand Prix, whilst Vettel got his first taste of champagne in 2020 at the Turkish Grand Prix last time out. Again, this shows that the Prancing Horse just isn’t matching the targets in order to challenge at the top.

The only question remaining, then, is whether the Italian giants can regain their form. This is a difficult question to answer, but there have been some signs that Leclerc is dragging the team along, finishing inside the top 10 in the last six races, and he has had eight points finishes overall this season so far. Vettel, meanwhile, who is leaving the team at the end of the season to go to Aston Martin, as Racing Point will be renamed to, has had a season to forget, only scoring points in six races, and, aside from his third-placed finish in Turkey, his highest finish this season has been P6.

Ferrari just need to step back, regroup, rebuild, and hopefully we will see them fighting for wins again soon, keeping the sport less predictable if not for anything else. However, whilst there are signs that they are starting to find some form, through Leclerc’s results, it could be at least a season before we get to the stage of them challenging for the title again.

McLaren

McLaren have been my favourite team to watch in 2019 and 2020, because they have come from seemingly nowhere to be one of the top teams in the Championship. If we remember back to the days of Fernando Alonso, when the team were struggling with their Honda engines, and then compare that to now, we can see how much they have improved. Last season was one for sitting back and admiring their progress, but now we have expectations for them.

This season, they currently sit fourth in the table, behind Mercedes, Red Bull and Racing Point, and that again shows how much they have advanced. However, this article is looking to see how close they are to challenging Mercedes at the top, or, indeed, if they can challenge Mercedes at the top. They currently sit seventh and eighth in the Drivers’ Championship, so, as two individual drivers, Lando Norris and Carlos Sainz Jr, who will move to Ferrari at the end of the season to replace Vettel, are not necessarily having as good a season as they have done previously. Norris has only had one retirement this season, which came at the Nurburgring, but Sainz has had two, both in consecutive races (Tuscany and Russia), and also didn’t start in Belgium. We can’t immediately say that this is down to reliability, because some of those, like Sainz’ crash at Mugello, were only down to bad luck.

However, as an overall conclusion for McLaren, we have to say that, whilst they aren’t far off getting back to the top, judging by their performances over the last couple of seasons, they are not there yet. Next season will be interesting for them, with Daniel Ricciardo joining from Renault, and, given that he is one place above them in the Drivers’ Championship at the moment, he could help them to get up the table and maybe sneak into third place in the Constructors’ Championship. They will also be going back to Mercedes engines, rekindling a very successful historical partnership, so that will also help them in the aim to climb back up both championship tables.

Renault

The French team have been on the rise over the last few years, and have shown the result of that progress this season. They have almost gone under the radar at times, with other teams at the top of the table having more focus on them, but Renault and Daniel Ricciardo could be one of the drivers and teams of the season for the way they have fought and performed this season.

We only need to look at their placings in the last few races to see how well they have done; Ricciardo has finished in the points in the last eight weekends, with Spain being his last race without scoring. Out of those eight finishes, five have been P5 and above, and two of the last four have seen him get on the podium in P3, at the Nurburgring and Imola. His teammate Esteban Ocon hasn’t had as good a season, currently sitting in 12th in the table, having finished no higher than fifth in any race, which was in Belgium, and he has had four retirements this season.

Essentially, what we are saying is that, as a team, they are climbing and challenging for podium places, but not for the title, so they aren’t closing in on Mercedes as much as some other teams might be doing. However, with Ricciardo moving to McLaren next season, and being replaced by the returning Fernando Alonso, they could be one to watch next season. I don’t think they will match Mercedes or Red Bull, answering the question posed by this article, but they could be up there challenging for best of the rest.

Racing Point

I don’t think there were many who thought at the start of the season that Racing Point would be sitting in third place in the Constructors’ Championship with three races to go, given that they finished seventh last season, above only Alfa Romeo, Haas and Williams. However, they are, and perhaps we shouldn’t be so surprised by that; they are powered by a Mercedes engine after all. They also have one of the more underrated drivers on the grid in Sergio Perez, who is better than some think he is, as evidenced by his results this season; he has finished in the top 10 of every race except for the British and 70th Anniversary races, when he withdrew due to testing positive for coronavirus. He has also had a podium this season, coming second in Turkey in the last race, so that got the team some valuable points, especially when his teammate, Lance Stroll, who had been on pole for the race in Istanbul, ended up coming ninth.

Given these results, can we then say that Racing Point are in a position to challenge Mercedes? Well, at the moment, it looks unlikely, because they are losing Perez at the end of the season and bringing in Sebastian Vettel, as well as renaming the team Aston Martin, following the purchase of a stake in the brand by team boss Lawrence Stroll (Lance’s dad). They will continue to use Mercedes engines even after the rebrand, though, with some believing it could bring Aston Martin and Mercedes closer together as manufacturers in the future. However, if Vettel can rediscover the form that we know he has, and start to fight again for points, then we might see Aston Martin next year start to gain more podiums, and potentially put some pressure on the teams at the top.

What we can say, therefore, is that, whilst none of these teams are in a position at the moment to challenge Mercedes, there are a couple that are starting to grow in influence, and that could ensure that next season is very interesting to watch. With McLaren going back to Mercedes engines, as well as the car and drivers that they will have, it seems they could be in the best position to take on the seven-time champions. However, Red Bull will not go away, especially not while Verstappen is with them, and Aston Martin could also challenge for podiums and points as well. Ferrari have been poor this season, but next season will be the chance for them to turn over a new leaf, whilst a Renault team with Alonso on board will always be a dangerous team to underestimate. However, whilst there are plenty of challengers, they aren’t there quite yet.

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