Last week, Charles Leclerc answered the question we posed after the Australian Grand Prix — specifically, how long would he be willing to play second fiddle at Ferrari — by promptly ignoring a team order to stay behind Sebastian Vettel in Bahrain.
We want to see if we can predict the future again. Here’s Laurence Edmondson, Nate Saunders, Jake Michaels and Kate Walker on the biggest talking points in F1 currently.
Questions: Has Leclerc made you reevaluate 2019? | Should Ferrari be concerned about Vettel? | Should Bahrain be the F1 season opener? | Will Mick Schumacher be on the F1 grid in 2020? | Did Ricciardo underestimate Renault challenge? | Renault or Honda? | Chinese Grand Prix prediction
Laurence Edmondson: I’ll be honest, I didn’t see him as a true title contender in his first year at Ferrari, but on the strength of his Bahrain performance, that view has changed. The fact he ignored team orders to remain behind Vettel for a couple of laps only adds to my growing belief that he has what it takes to win this year.
Nate Saunders: 100 percent. I backed Vettel ahead of the season, but on the evidence of the first two races, Leclerc is every bit as capable. I still don’t want to jump fully on board the Leclerc hype train, as he’s inevitably going to encounter setbacks in this first year in a competitive car, but he’ll be a factor all year.
Jake Michaels: I must admit, I thought Leclerc would need more than two races at Ferrari to establish himself amongst the sport’s elite. What he has already shown is a driving style and temperament that can land a world championship. This year? Yes, I now truly believe he can do it in 2019.
Kate Walker: We’ve been calling Charles the 2019 world champion since he got his first F1 drive. What started out as jest has become ever more serious as Charles has impressed in Sauber, moved to Ferrari, and demonstrated just what he can do in a race-winning car. Lewis will still be a force to be reckoned with, but it’s the Monégasque in red, not the quadruple champion, the Silver Arrows should keep an eye on.
Laurence Edmondson: Absolutely. Even if you could look past the spin, the lack of pace is genuinely concerning. Vettel tested Charles Leclerc’s chassis on Wednesday’s test in Bahrain, so hopefully that provided some of the answers he and Ferrari were looking for. He’s the guy the team have put their chips behind going into the season and he needs to start paying back that trust with results.
Nate Saunders: Are we pretending they weren’t already? His lack of composure in key moments is baffling — I’m a big fan of Vettel at his best, but unfortunately we don’t see much of that guy any more. If you ignore the mistake, he still didn’t have an answer to Leclerc’s pace. For all the keyboard warriors who will accuse me of being a hater, I still genuinely hope he proves me wrong this year, but my faith is fading fast.
Jake Michaels: Absolutely. Last year Vettel was in a great position to win, or at least challenge until the final race of the season, for the world championship, but too many costly errors brought about his downfall. Bahrain showed he is still prone to making those mistakes and even with a quicker car, you’re not going to be beating Lewis Hamilton by leaving chunks of points on the table more weekends than not.
Kate Walker: Ferrari should have been concerned about Seb ages ago. If not after driving into Lewis in Baku, then after binning it by himself in Germany last year. Our four-time world champion has always been strong at the front and in clean air. Where he’s struggled is under any form of pressure, either the very real pressure of a crowd on track, or the self-imposed mental pressure that has cost him valuable points over the years.
Laurence Edmondson: No. It’s a good track, but unless the ruling family can provide convincing answers to questions about alleged human rights abuses related to the race, it shouldn’t even be on the calendar. F1 and the FIA should be doing more to vet the places where we go racing, especially when they are vanity projects for governments.
Nate Saunders: No. It shouldn’t be Melbourne, but it also shouldn’t be in a country like Bahrain — I don’t think that would send the right message given what’s going on in that country right now. Given how crazy the last two races have been, I’d give that honour to Baku’s Azerbaijan Grand Prix.
Jake Michaels: There’s no doubt Bahrain has become a far more enjoyable race to watch than the traditional season opener in Australia, but there’s something about a lack of fans at a racetrack that still detracts from the overall spectacle. Melbourne is a great starting point, and logistically it probably makes the most sense to head there first.
Kate Walker: Yes. We shouldn’t make such a poor track our launch point for the season. Because it’s so far away and so expensive to get to, Australia has to be either first or last to guarantee an audience. But the opener and finale should only run at circuits likely to deliver good action on track. Start on a high and end on a high. Albert Park is one long and expensive bum note.
Laurence Edmondson: A lot will depend on how he performs in F2 and how Antonio Giovinazzi performs at Alfa Romeo. Given that this isn’t the strongest F2 field we’ve seen, I’d only like to see him make the step up if he comes out on top. In the long term, two seasons in F2 won’t be as damaging as a rushed promotion to F1.
Nate Saunders: I think he will, but if he is I hope it isn’t a rush job. While playing it safe with a second season in F2 would appear to be playing it safe, it only needs one uncompetitive season down there to completely alter a driver’s trajectory. I can see him in the red and white overalls of Alfa Romeo next year.
Jake Michaels: No. Before taking the step to Formula One, Schumacher really needs to dominate F2. Remember, he had two seasons in F3 before moving up in 2019 and it’s clear he needed it. His first season yielded no wins, while year two saw him win eight times en route to the championship. With the name he is carrying, he will come under extreme scrutiny, so he’s better off being super prepared.
Kate Walker: With the last name Mick has, coupled with his management team (one Nicolas Todt…), his arrival on the F1 grid is an inevitability. The question is will baby Schumi be promoted before he’s ready? Neither F1 nor Ferrari can afford to have Schumacher underperform, so the smart money is on two seasons in F2 unless he dominates the field this year. In Bahrain he didn’t. We shall see…
Laurence Edmondson: Renault is not hitting its targets right now, but there is reason to believe the car is better than it is showing. I think he knew what he was signing up for, and until he starts getting the most from the car, which by his own admission he is failing to do, he can have no complaints.
Nate Saunders: I don’t think he underestimated anything, but I think other people underestimated the challenge Ricciardo faces alongside Nico Hulkenberg. Not only has Hulk been at the team a while but he’s also a lot better than that unenviable record of the longest time in F1 without a podium suggests he is.
Jake Michaels: Of course he knew life at Renault would have its challenges, but Ricciardo probably didn’t expect to start with back-to-back retirements. I’m also wondering whether he underestimated Nico Hulkenberg, who has had the edge on him through the first two rounds. Maybe a return to China — where he sensationally won last year — is what he needs to rediscover some magic.
Kate Walker: Probably not. Daniel is no fool, and he’s spent enough time running under Renault to know that both team and OEM had a lot of ground to make up — ground to be made up while Ferrari and Mercedes were continuing to move forward. But the alternative was to stick with RBR and commit to a life as Max’s No. 2. No F1 driver wants to be Barrichello when they have the chance to be Schumacher.
Laurence Edmondson: Honda all the way. The amount of failures on Renault hardware in the opening two races is alarming, and there is very little evidence it has gained any power advantage over Honda. If anything, it is the other way round.
Nate Saunders: Honda, Honda, Honda. On the evidence of the first two races, you can see why Red Bull gleefully switched from Renault to the Japanese manufacturer for this season.
Jake Michaels: It seems crazy to say it, but it has to be Honda. Renault’s unreliability continues to be a major talking point — three engine failures in the opening two races — while the Honda power unit seems to be working much better. After two rounds, Honda-powered cars have outscored Renault-powered cars 34-14. Enough said really.
Kate Walker: The one that works! So, Honda, obviously. There were two upsides to Renault’s twin failures in Bahrain: (1) the team’s noble sacrifice kept Charles on the podium; and (2) while failures are not to be celebrated, at least the twin-set catastrophe shows that the boffins at Viry have at last found that elusive consistency in performance.
Laurence Edmondson: I think it will be evenly matched. The Ferrari seems like the faster car, but a good lap in Shanghai is inherently reliant on front downforce, which Mercedes seems to have more of. Even if the Ferraris qualify on pole, being able to look after the front tyres in the race may be the key to victory and I suspect Mercedes has an advantage in that regard.
Nate Saunders: I have a feeling people will back Leclerc, but I’m going to say Vettel comes back with a decisive performance to win and silence the recent critics.
Jake Michaels: Despite Mercedes taking one-twos in both races so far, Ferrari heads to China as the team to beat. They had the quickest car in Bahrain and would have easily won if not for Leclerc’s issue. I don’t think he will need to wait long for his first victory, though. Pencil him in for another front-row start, and this time he will go on to win.
Kate Walker: Dramatically. I’ll never forget watching Kimi and Lotus get *thisclose* to making a one-stop strategy work back in 2012 before Kimi lost 10 places in a single lap in the closing phase, hero-to-zero style. China can throw up surprises, as we saw last year, and a bold strategy can overhaul any qualifying advantage. Whoever wins, I expect to see an action-packed race, not an expensive parade.