5 Thoughts from the 2020 Emilia Romagna Grand Prix
Mercedes rewrite the history books in F1's return to Imola
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Imola, Italy - Formula 1's return to Imola after a 14 year hiatus was a memorable one indeed for many reasons. It was the first time this season that Formula 1 ran a two day weekend format with only one free practice session and qualifying on the same day. The lack of data and running ended up giving us a solid race with some unpredictability in strategies. Even though the sport returned to an old track and one that many drivers hadn't raced on, it was once again Lewis Hamilton who came out on top on what was another historic day for him and the Mercedes team. The return to Imola was fantastic and the modern F1 cars on this track was just an amazing sight to see. As amazing as the Imola circuit is, their is always a somber tone to the race festivities as the cloud of the 1994 tragedy hangs strongly over the circuit. As we enjoyed the racing around Imola, it was also important to take a few moments and remember the lives and legacies of Roland Ratzenberger and Ayrton Senna who payed the ultimate price around this circuit. With that said, let's take a look at some of the important takeaways from the 2020 Emilia Romagna Grand Prix.
1. Are Mercedes the Greatest F1 Team in History?
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The debate for Formula 1's greatest driver ever is a hot topic this year considering Lewis Hamilton's ongoing success but it may be time to start considering a different kind of debate surrounding F1's greatest teams. It's not often talked about as the drivers take the spotlight but the teams are just as important as their star drivers. On Sunday in Imola, Mercedes made history with an astounding 7th consecutive Constructor's title after another 1-2 finish for the Silver Arrows. It was clear from the onset of the season that Mercedes were going to be almost unstoppable and that this championship was a formality. Now that it is officially confirmed in the standings, we can truly appreciate this astounding achievement that very well may not be eclipsed in the future. Mercedes also moved into a tie for 4th on the all time list for most constructors titles, on par with Team Lotus who secured 7 Constructor's titles from 1963-1978. Considering Mercedes' short time in Formula 1, it is a crazy statistic to digest. They've got 9 more Constructor's titles to go to catch Ferrari but at this pace it's looking possible if the Brackley squad stay in the sport for the long run. So it begs the question, is this current Mercedes team the greatest ever in F1's history? They are certainly in the conversation with what they've been able to achieve and what I'm sure they're going to accomplish in the future. It would be interesting to do a statistical breakdown and comparison of some of the more dominant teams in F1's history and see how Mercedes stacks up but in this era alone, Mercedes have utterly dominated the competition. What's even more impressive is how far ahead Mercedes have been of their fierce rivals Red Bull and Ferrari. Considering the championship pedigree of both of those teams, (not to mention their ridiculous budgets as well) it hasn't even really been close in the last seven years with the exception of a season or two. It may be boring to see the same team take championships year after year but they are certainty not to blame. What they've accomplished as a team is something that needs to be appreciated by all and celebrated for the excellence that it is.
2. Renault Cash in on Mid-Field Blunders
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As the old saying goes, a shoey a day will keep the Covid away, right? Maybe the only thing to stop Lewis Hamilton this year will be Daniel Ricciardo's putrid foot juice that will hospitalize Hamilton but at any rate, it's the risk you have to take when sharing a podium with the honey badger! Mid-field teams scoring podiums have become a common occurrence in 2020 and I'm all for it. For the second time in three races, Daniel Ricciardo scored a P3 finish for Renault and got to taste the champagne on the rostrum. With Max Verstappen's tyre failure, it opened the door wide open for another mid-field team to score a podium and Renault walked right through it to claim it's second of 2020. I criticized Renault earlier on in the season for not capitalizing on these types of crazy races when opportunities are handed to them through crazy race incidents. But Renault have now taken a few steps forward and are capitalizing on their pace and potential. The team made the correct call to stay out on the worn hard tyres as overtaking around Imola was quite difficult. Racing Point had the podium well within its grasp and threw it away once again because of a poor strategy call. Ricciardo was able to tame the onslaught from Daniil Kvyat on fresh tyres by placing his car in all the right places and in classic Ricciardo style, not making a mistake while under pressure. At a race weekend where Fernando Alonso was physically present with the team, its really looking good for Renault as the season winds down. The Enstone squad hold a slim one point lead for third in the constructor's standings with 4 races to go. The smallest of margins will decide the mid-field battle and in a weekend where their rivals McLaren and Racing Point stumbled over themselves at times, Renault cashed in on a cool 15 points and another trophy for the cabinet.
3. Imola Should be the Final Straw for Albon's Red Bull Career
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A few weeks ago, Red Bull's Christian Horner made it clear that the next couple of races would determine the future of the Red Bull seats for 2021 and that it was 'Alex's seat to lose'. Well after the 2020 Emilia Romagna Grand Prix, I think that was the final straw in Alex Albon's Red Bull career. Now let me say that Albon is a supremely talented young driver who should be in F1, just not at Red Bull. If you've listened to recent episodes of The BackMarkers F1 Show podcast, you'll now that I've lobbied for a Gasly/Albon partnership at Alpha Tauri for 2021. Seeing what Gasly has done since his demotion shows that Alpha Tauri is a healthy work environment for a young driver to build himself back up and that is exactly what Albon needs right now. Red Bull absolutely need an older and experienced driver alongside Verstappen that can propel that team forward and legitimately challenge Mercedes at a team level. Whether that is Sergio Perez or Nico Hulkenberg I am not sure, but either would be a terrific fit alongside Verstappen for 2021. Since his podium in Mugello, Albon has struggled a lot with race pace and qualifying performances as well. It doesn't bode well for his Red Bull career when Pierre Gasly in an Alpha Tauri is out qualifying you in the 'B' car. And then when you look at his race performance, he struggled against the pace of the Renault and McLaren's and near the end of the race spun himself out on cold tyres. Especially with Verstappen out of the race, it was on Albon to lead the team on his own to a decent result and he failed to do so. Red Bull as a team need to face the reality that their pressure cooker environment isn't suitable to most young drivers and that they need to change their philosophy. The last time Red Bull went outside of their junior program, it almost resulted in that driver winning the world championship in 2010. That Aussie Grit from Mark Webber and a near decade long of F1 experience helped him handle and excel from the internal pressure at Red Bull. He was also able to deliver consistent strong results for the team while being clearly put on the back burner constantly as the number two driver to Sebastian Vettel. A more experienced and talented racer will be better equipped to handle the Red Bull and Verstappen pressure. Albon has been given plenty of time to show if he can excel and he unfortunately hasn't been able to do it. I think Albon can benefit greatly from a return to Alpha Tauri just like Pierre Gasly did and further develop his young career from there.
4. Vettel Has Gone Over a Year Without a Podium
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Had we kept the original 2020 F1 calendar, we would've been racing this past weekend in Mexico City for the Mexican Grand Prix. As the Grand Prix at Imola came and went, Sebastian Vettel continued his poor run of form this season finishing 12th behind the Williams of Nicholas Latifi. With that 12th place finish, it has marked over one year since Sebastian Vettel stood on an F1 podium. Vettel finished second at the 2019 Mexican Grand Prix for his 120th visit to the podium and he hasn't added to his tally since. It's also worth noting that Vettel criticized the Mexican GP trophies last year for being 'boring'. I'm sure as things stand, Vettel wouldn't mind a boring F1 trophy or two for his troubles at Ferrari in 2020. I can't remember the last time I saw a driver fall off the pace so badly from one season to another. It was just a year ago that Vettel took two victories for Ferrari (yes I'm counting the Canadian GP!) and scored two pole positions as well. The car wasn't up to par, but Vettel was still able to get himself on the podium and be on par with his teammate at most weekends. It's been a mighty fall from grace as it seemed like a few short years ago Vettel was poised to win his first championship with Ferrari. Now with four races left in his Ferrari career, it seems like the 2019 Mexican Grand Prix will be his last podium for Ferrari. It's quite a sad end to what was once such a promising partnership but I think Vettel is at the point in the season were Abu Dhabi can't come soon enough for himself. Vettel was on for a decent points finish until a brutal pitstop from Ferrari cost him dearly. Just another tough moment to add to the tumultuous year that 2020 has been for Sebastian Vettel at Ferrari.
5. Kvyat Delivers for Alpha Tauri at Home
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The revolving door that is the Red Bull driver program is continuing its long and dramatic saga in 2020. While most of the discussion has been about Alex Albon's seat at Red Bull, we forget that Daniil Kvyat is on the chopping block at Alpha Tauri. Kvyat had a very strong return to F1 in 2019 scoring his first podium with Toro Rosso at the 2019 German Grand Prix. He performed well all year and was a much more polished driver than in his first stint with the team. So far in 2020, Kvyat has been in the shadow of the bright light that is his teammate Pierre Gasly. The young Frenchman is arguably the driver of the year and has stolen all the headlines with his maiden F1 win in Monza. Gasly was poised for another superb race at Imola after qualifying 4th but unfortunately it wasn't meant to be as he had to retire sue to radiator issues. So the focus shifted to Kvyat who had to deliver for Alpha Tauri who's home base was just a few miles down the road from the Imola Circuit. Heading into the race weekend, Red Bull's Helmut Marko all but confirmed that Yuki Tsunoda would be partnering Gasly in 2021 but nothing has been officially confirmed yet. Regardless, Kvyat was under immense pressure and he delivered when it mattered the most. Kvyat qualified 8th and was within one tenth of his teammate. Once Gasly bowed out of the race, Kvyat had very strong pace throughout the race and he really came alive during the final stages of the grand prix. When the safety car peeled in with less than 6 laps to go, Kvyat went full attack mode at the restart and passed Perez and Albon heading into the first chicane. But it was his overtake on Leclerc at turn 9 that was just brilliant and sealed his best finish of the season. Kvyat was decisive, in control, and in full attack mode when it mattered the most. It really shows his improvements that he's made as a driver in terms of his skill but also his patience as well. I don't think this one performance will make a difference in Red Bull's decision on the second Alpha Tauri seat but Kvyat's solid P4 at Imola certainly has given them something to think about.
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