The 2020 F1 season has been unforgettable in more ways than one. We talk to the Sky pundit about racing’s tonic in a difficult year for all
We’ve never needed Formula 1 more than we did this year.
After months of depressing inactivity and nothing but bad news, the mid-summer return of grand prix racing four months after the cancellation of the Australian GP gave us a welcome distraction from the trials of real life. Huge efforts were made to string together an emergency schedule of races, eventually totalling an impressive 17, almost entirely based in Europe and mostly run to empty grandstands. The odd circumstances opened the door for circuits that never previously had any hope of hosting a grand prix – and offered a return to some old favourites.
Without access to watch trackside, we relied more than ever on TV broadcasters to take us to the heart of the action. Former F1 driver Karun Chandhok is among the finest, the Sky pundit among the privileged few to tread the paddocks in 2020. Autocar caught up with him ahead of the concluding Abu Dhabi GP to review a season that should be remembered as a triumph.
What has it been like covering this ‘Covid season’ from the inside?
“It has been a complicated year. First of all, there were the big unknowns of if and when it would start and how many races there would be. My expectation was that we would have 12, maximum. That we had 17 is a massive credit to F1. Going back to Turkey, Imola and the Nürburgring and heading to new places like Portimão and Mugello created new storylines. F1 deserves a lot of credit. It’s one thing getting football up and running, but here you’ve got 3000 people travelling in from across the world and the rules on testing and protocol are so complicated – and yet there have been so few positive tests.”
The new and returning races were refreshing. Which worked best?
“Turkey was by far the best race of the year. The slippery new asphalt and the [wet] weather obviously helped, but it was the best I’ve seen for a long time. It was how racing should be. Halfway through, you had no idea who was going to win it. Mugello was a good race, if a bit chaotic, and Portimão was fun to watch. The cars now are a bit too quick for Imola. Qualifying was great, but it’s rubbish for racing because you can’t overtake. But I enjoyed the two-day format they used there. With 23 races coming up in 2021, a two-day weekend would work for those races where nobody shows up on Friday. I like the fact we went to different venues and tried different formats. Our viewing figures are reflective of how interested people have been. Sky’s figures for Turkey were the third-highest of all races since 2012.”
Despite Mercedes-AMG building perhaps the best of its run of great cars, Lewis Hamilton still had to work for most of his wins, didn’t he?
“The difference from Lewis today to four or five years ago is that he now realises he doesn’t have to take pole position and win from the front. Especially since 2018, he’s become a bit Alain Prost in his approach. He focuses on setting his car up for the race and on tyre management. That’s where he’s got the upper hand on [team-mate] Valtteri Bottas. If you look at their qualifying average, Valtteri’s deficit is only just over a tenth of a second. Given that Lewis is statistically the best qualifier of all time, that’s pretty damned good from Valtteri. But it’s on the Sundays he loses out, and we’ve seen it so often. We saw it at Portimão and at Imola, where Lewis bided his time, looked after the tyres and then smashed it when he needed to. That’s very much like Prost in the 1980s.”
Yet we still see a backlash against Hamilton from some sections of the public. Why?
“He’s not the working-class hero that Nigel Mansell was. Nobody captured the British public like Nigel did. Also you have to say that Lewis has gone down the path of talking about issues outside the sport. When Lewis has spoken out about Black Lives Matter, even on my Facebook page people post stuff like ‘What a ******, he should just shut up and drive’. No: on this one, I’m fully onside with him. I strongly believe that, in the same way [footballer] Marcus Rashford is using his fame to try to do good in the world, we all should try to do that. If we all navel-gaze, the world doesn’t get to be a better place, does it? It’s not the popular thing, but I think Lewis has come to terms with that.”
Where does Bottas go from here?
“He needs to make a mental decision: does he go into Rubens Barrichello mode, where he starts every year believing he can beat Lewis and then gets more depressed when it doesn’t happen, or should he be like David Coulthard and Eddie Irvine by saying: ‘I can probably live with being a number two, win a bunch of races and make a bunch of money driving great cars, and that’s a better career than most.’ I think it’s getting to that point now – and Lewis is just getting better. For Bottas, it’s like playing tennis against Rafael Nadal: whatever he does, the ball just keeps getting smashed back at him.”
What do you think is going through Max Verstappen’s mind at present?
“Frustration. The years are ticking by, aren’t they? He is six years into his career and hasn’t yet had a car good enough to win the World Championship. Go back to other great drivers: Ayrton Senna was a champion after four years, Michael Schumacher in his third year, Lewis in his second, Fernando Alonso in his third. Now Honda is going [at the end of 2021], there’s a big unknown about what Red Bull is going to do about engine power.”
Pierre Gasly has had a fantastic season for AlphaTauri, winning at Monza, whereas we would say Alex Albon hasn’t done enough in the second Red Bull. So why has Red Bull overlooked Gasly for 2021?
“It’s a strange one: they’ve written him off despite him being one of the revelations of the season [he drove for Red Bull in 2019 but was demoted to the sister team mid-season after failing to impress]. Monza aside, he’s been brilliant, especially as he’s gone through mental torture in the last year. It shows character. It’s a shame for him, and I don’t fully understand it. It’s fair comment to say that Alex hasn’t done enough. If I were Red Bull, I would take Sergio Pérez: I think he’s done a great job at Racing Point. He’s experienced and mature and just hoovers up points.”
On that point, what do you think of Lawrence Stroll’s decision to replace Pérez with Sebastian Vettel next year as Racing Point morphs into Aston Martin?
“It’s down to whether Sebastian rediscovers his mojo. He will bring experience and knowledge of working in a big team, and he’s probably a good mentor for Lance Stroll too. From a marketing standpoint for the Aston brand, and with the Daimler connection, it’s a no-brainer. He’s also still a wildly popular driver wherever we go around the planet. But it’s a question of which Sebastian Vettel they’ve signed.”
Charles Leclerc has just confirmed what we already knew: he’s a class act, isn’t he?
“Yeah. Your A-listers this year were Lewis, Max, Leclerc and Daniel [Ricciardo] and the class B probably Carlos Sainz, Gasly, Pérez and Bottas. Ferrari are obviously doing a lot of work on the power unit [following the cover-up of its suspected but unproven illegality in 2019]. They need to get back where they should be, and F1 needs that too.”
Another guy who needs Ferrari to get better is Sainz, who will join the team from McLaren next year. What must he be thinking right now?
“I’ve talked to him about it. His view is that there’s not much to choose between Ferrari and McLaren right now. McLaren with a Mercedes engine next year might be better, but the Renault they’ve had this year isn’t the dog it used to be. For Carlos, he’s going to be a Ferrari driver, isn’t he? Nobody can take that away from him for the rest of his life. If it works out, brilliant: he will be there for a long time. If it doesn’t, someone else will sign him.”
Sainz has also kept team-mate Lando Norris pretty quiet this season, right?
“Yeah, it’s interesting. Carlos had a bit of bad luck early on and didn’t score as many points as he should have done, like the start of last year. Back then, he slowly and quietly came back at Norris, and this season has been more of the same, really. It’s been nip and tuck between them, but Carlos is the real deal.”
You say you’ve also been impressed by Ricciardo?
“I thought Esteban Ocon was going to be all over Daniel this year, but he’s smashed him, hasn’t he? That’s bloody impressive. He’s extracted more out of that car than anyone would have expected, including Renault. He signed for McLaren for 2021 after pre-season testing. Renault has gone for a fundamental redesign of their front suspension and the aero package is different around the front – big changes. And they really only started to unlock the car’s potential at the second Silverstone weekend. And you do wonder: if Daniel had waited until then, would he have signed for McLaren? All of a sudden, you start to think Fernando Alonso and Daniel would have been a bloody good line-up for 2021.”
We would have loved to have seen that. Do you think Renault is ready for Alonso’s return?
“They are now, yes. Remember, next year it will be 15 years since Fernando won his last championship. That’s a long time. The difference between Ricciardo and Ocon this year has shown Ocon isn’t yet ready to be a number one, so they need one.”
You have a close affinity with Williams, given you’ve driven so many of its heritage cars. Do you think the sale to Dorilton Capital was the best solution?
“It got to a point where they needed to get investment to carry on and rebuild, which is what they have to do. Without the investment, they could have withered away like Minardi and Jordan. It’s an end of an era in terms of the old-school owners. You go back to people like Ron Dennis and Ken Tyrrell, and Frank [Williams] and the family were the last of them. It’s just the way of the world. They had to do it.”
George Russell is in an odd position: he’s outperforming his team-mate and doing all he can, but it seems he’s just hanging in there, waiting for an opportunity at Mercedes. How do you view it?
“Interesting, isn’t he? On the one hand, he’s doing a super job in the Williams: his qualifying laps are amazing. But he’s just waiting for either Lewis to retire or Valtteri to get the boot, and I can’t see Valtteri going any time soon because he’s actually doing a good job. He’s doing what Mercedes needs: he’s not controversial, he’s apolitical and he’s capable of winning on a day when Lewis doesn’t, thereby guaranteeing Mercedes’ constructors’ success. So if you were George, should you have been on the phone to Red Bull? And on the phone to [Mercedes team boss] Toto [Wolff] saying: ‘If I’m not going to get the Mercedes seat, can you release me, and can I go and get the Red Bull seat?’ There has to come a time when you stop waiting for a seat that might never come.”
To summarise, it’s amazing that the 2020 season happened at all and, despite Mercedes having a dominant car, the racing was decent, wasn’t it?
“I think so. You have to take your hat off to Mercedes. We would have all benefited from having Red Bull and Ferrari up there with them. But what’s been interesting is just how much the fans missed F1 when we had all those months without it. The fans have remembered exactly why they love the sport.”
The key moments
The season finally starts… in July: We had to wait four months but, in the midst of lockdown, Formula 1’s return was a great and welcome distraction. Valtteri Bottas kicked off with a win in Austria.
Verstappen bins it on the way to the grid: Max Verstappen dropped a clanger in Hungary, his team fixed his steering on the grid and he rewarded them with an inspired drive to second place.
Hamilton’s tyre blows: There was a thrilling finish to the British GP as Lewis Hamilton drove down the Hangar Straight at 150mph with a delaminated front tyre. He just made it home to win.
Hamilton penalty opens door for Pierre Gasly: Hamilton was pinged for an illegal pit stop and Pierre Gasly drove superbly for a shock first win. It was AlphaTauri’s first since 2008, when the team was called Toro Rosso.
Pile-up on safety car restart at Mugello: Poor judgement caused a mass crash at the restart after a safety car. Embarrassing for the supposed best drivers in the world.
Hamilton gifted Schumacher’s helmet: After equalling Michael Schumacher’s win record in Germany, Hamilton was given one of his old crash helmets by son Mick. A rare moment of F1 soul.
Great escape in Bahrain: We feared the worst when Romain Grosjean’s Haas went up in flames. How he emerged 30 seconds later was little short of a miracle.
New circuits for 2020
Mugello: ‘Old-school’ was the phrase for this fearsome Tuscan track that pushed drivers to the edge and over it. A hit. Literally.
Nurburgring: Weather played havoc – quelle surprise. But this was the best venue for the German Grand Prix, which should be back on the calendar full-time.
Portimao: A circuit with great character that the drivers enjoyed, and it inspired a good race, too. With a full house of fans, it would be even better.
Imola: A wonderful historic F1 venue, but F1 cars appear to have outgrown it. It was too hard to overtake, so sadly this probably should be a one-off return.
Istanbul Park: The new track surface proved tricky and unpopular with drivers. But mixed with rain, what a race! It would be a shame not to return.
2020 Winners and losers
Lewis Hamilton: Obviously. He was peerless on his way to a record-equalling seventh title while passing Michael Schumacher for grand prix wins, too.
Pierre Gasly: He has found redemption after being dropped by Red Bull mid-season in 2019. His Monza win was just the best bit of a strong season.
Sergio Perez: He has shown his quality both in and out of the cockpit, despite losing his Racing Point drive for 2021 even though he had a contract in place.
Valtteri Bottas: Hamilton’s team-mate looked depressed at times this year (again). He’s as fast as his team-mate but only rarely when it counts on Sundays.
Max Verstappen: He was mostly brilliant, but will Red Bull ever give him a car to fight Hamilton for titles, as his talent deserves?
Romain Grosjean and Kevin Magnussen: Haas duo look to have reached the end of the F1 road. But perhaps Grosjean should be counted as a winner simply for surviving his Bahrain crash.