Oh dear. We’ve been here before, haven’t we? Lewis Hamilton’s 90th career pole position was another milestone in a remarkable career, but it all felt a bit like déjà vu.
Here’s the main talking points from qualifying for Sunday’s Hungarian Grand Prix.
The Mercedes era in a nutshell
This was a result which seemed to perfectly sum up the modern era of Formula One and just how dominant Mercedes has been. Not only were the world champions comfortably first and second, but the Racing Point — dubbed the “pink Mercedes” for its striking likeness to last year’s title-winning car — finished third and fourth.
While it’s nice to see a new team up in podium contention (see more on the Racing Point below), it was a deflating session to watch.
Only two cars were within a second of Lewis Hamilton’s pole time. One was Valtteri Bottas in the other Mercedes, the other was Lance Stroll, 0.9 seconds off the pace. In F1 terms one second over a single qualifying lap is enormous and suggests the world champions’ 2020 car is on another level to the rest.
Most deflating of all was Red Bull. It was hoped they would be closer to Mercedes here — if not in qualifying, then at least in a position to attack on Sunday, but the team is clearly on the back foot. Worse still, Mercedes and Racing Point comfortably outpaced the rest and will both start on the medium tyre, not the soft, which seems to be the ideal race strategy for Sunday afternoon.
We might get a wild race if the rain arrives in time for Sunday’s race, but even then this Mercedes team is going to be pretty difficult to beat at most venues this season.
Sorry to be a party-pooper, but the 2020 season could be a long old slog for anyone not supporting the Mercedes team.
More scrutiny for the copycat
We’ve become so used to seeing Mercedes, Red Bull and Ferrari at the front of the grid that the sight of two pink cars on the second row will come as a bit of a shock on Sunday. However, it’s something that we’ll no doubt get used to this year as the Racing Point has emerged from the early races as a clear front runner in 2020.
While it’s clear that Red Bull underperformed on Saturday in Hungary, the Racing Point is a genuinely fast race car. It’s similarities to last year’s Mercedes have not gone unnoticed and are undoubtedly the key to its success, opening up a wider philosophical talking point in F1. If it’s possible to copy the fastest car on the grid and get results, why isn’t everyone doing it?
Racing Point hasn’t denied it based the RP20 on photos from last year’s Mercedes W10, but insists it can prove it has designed the car itself. That proof will be put to the test at an upcoming stewards hearing over the legality of its brake ducts, which rivals Renault have pinpointed as looking remarkably similar to Mercedes’ 2019 design.
Until that matter is resolved, an air of suspicion will hang over results such as today’s. Racing Point insists this is the car it wanted to build for several years but didn’t have the funds to do so, but if it proves to regularly outpace Red Bulls and Ferraris it will throw into question what it means to be a constructor in F1.
All teams keep an eye on each other to some extent, but very few have been so obviously similar to a rival in the sport’s history. The rules for the next two years (a chassis freeze in 2021 and a complete change in 2022) will rule out any other team so overtly copying a rival, so if Racing Point has found a key to success it will reap the rewards for the next two seasons at least.
Russell’s star keeps rising
Max Verstappen and Charles Leclerc are already established as stars of the future, but it looks increasingly like they won’t be alone.
Lando Norris turned heads in the opening two races with standout performances at the Red Bull Ring, but George Russell is also emerging as an exceptional talent. For anyone who has followed his junior career that will come as no surprise, but it was easy to overlook his performances in a dismal Williams last year.
Armed with a semi-competitive midfield car in 2020, however, and it’s becoming increasingly hard to ignore him. For the second weekend in a row he has qualified 12th, exhibiting an ability to outperform his machinery in both wet and dry. His hard work came to nothing in Austria when he ended up in the gravel early in the race last weekend, but on Sunday he will have another chance to prove his racecraft.
At the start of the weekend he confirmed he will remain at Williams next year, despite being on a Mercedes young driver contract. But if he continues to perform on this level, he will put himself in the frame for a Mercedes drive in 2022.
Russell defends out-of-form Albon
After excelling on track, Russell also launched a passionate defence of his friend Alex Albon, who struggled again for Red Bull. Albon’s form has taken on a worrying trend since his heartbreaking retirement at the Austrian Grand Prix.
The Thai driver was a long way off Verstappen’s pace at the Styrian Grand Prix and he was eliminated from Q2 on Saturday, finishing behind Russell.
Russell hinted that Albon is not being given the tools he needs to show his true talent.
“I’ve known Alex for the last 15 years, being in the same paddock as him,” Russell told Sky Sports shortly after the session. He’s one of the best drivers we’ve all raced — Max, Charles [Leclerc], all of us will say it.
“He’s always been at the front in everything he’s done and I don’t know what the hell is going on. I feel really bad for him as he’s being made to look like an idiot and he’s absolutely not. He’s won in everything he’s done so I don’t know what’s going on, but they need to sort it out for him.”
Albon sounded frustrated with Red Bull after his Q2 elimination, with a broadcast radio message about being released into traffic. He later said this had affected his preparations for the final timed lap in Q2, although he refused to make excuses for the result.
“I’m not happy with my qualifying performance,” he said. “I feel like my run one wasn’t ideal, then I definitely made a few mistakes. We definitely would have been in Q3 if it wasn’t that.
“Still, it’s not a top five like we should be. It’s tricky to drive when the car is not doing what you want it to do.”
The Thai driver looked pretty downbeat on his Zoom media session and it was hard not to think of Pierre Gasly’s demeanour in his media sessions while at Red Bull last year. Gasly was never able to shake that spell of bad form – we all know what happened next, with Gasly demoted and Albon promoted at the summer break — and with this year’s races coming thick and fast over the next two months, with eight over the next 10 weeks, Albon will have to be careful he doesn’t get stuck in a similar funk.
Stroll on form
Lance Stroll is quite an easy target for criticism, and he gets his fair share of it, so its worth giving him credit when it is due. The Canadian driver delivered on Racing Point’s pace to qualify third position.
It’s not a position Racing Point has been accustomed to qualifying in recent years, perhaps best shown by Stroll appearing to forget he was allowed to park his car by the number three board in parc ferme, rather than in the parking lot-style section behind the top three. Given how good Racing Point has been this year, Stroll might want to brush up on the protocols for a car which has finished in the top three.
Sergio Perez will join him on an all-Racing Point second row, although it was a more complicated session for the Mexican driver.
“I didn’t feel 100 percent physically,” he said. “I was getting dizzy through qualifying, that’s not great. I need to check with my physio what is going on. Should be OK for tomorrow.
“I managed to get away with a good result, it was very messy, my qualifying still P4 is a good race start for tomorrow.”
The Hungarian Grand is live on ESPN at 9.05AM Eastern Time on Sunday.