There is talk of a generational changing of the guard in F1 right now, as tech-savvy youngsters schooled on simulators, who race online against random members of the public – and each other – between grands prix, get set to take over the world.
At the forefront of this is Max Verstappen, doing his best to stick it to Lewis Hamilton in a Red Bull-Honda that, though rapidly improving, is not yet properly a match for Mercedes. Hot on Max’s heels comes Charles Leclerc, seriously rapid yet still somewhat error-prone in a difficult-to-drive Ferrari. Meanwhile, fresh-faced rookies Alex Albon, Lando Norris and George Russell have all emerged as potential stars over the first half of 2019 (their seasons so far are analysed on page 58).
Nico Rosberg rather pointedly thinks Hamilton is already over the hill at 34 years of age, and that Max is already now the best in F1. But Hamilton treats age as ‘just a number’ and is clearly up for the fight. Handily, he also has the tools to fend the next generation off, for now.
But what of his erstwhile title rival Sebastian Vettel? After two recent championship near-misses, Ferrari has fallen off a cliff this season and Vettel’s own fortunes appear to have declined in kind.
Vettel looks a shadow of the driver who so effortlessly dominated grand prix racing for four seasons with Red Bull. That was nearly six years ago now, and Seb’s struggles to reach anywhere near the same heights with Ferrari will give succour to those naysayers who feel he was carried to glory by Adrian Newey’s design brilliance and is now horribly exposed without it.
That is somewhat unfair on Vettel. You don’t win four world championships and more than 50 races without being a damn fine driver. But Vettel has also been a relatively patchy performer since those heydays. Andrew Benson sat down with him recently (page 48) in an effort to unravel the mindset of a driver whose dreams of Ferrari glory seem to be ebbing away.
He is still one of the fastest out there, but you sense the doubt has crept in – both for him and Ferrari. Success is harder to find, mistakes more easily made, emotions trickier to control.
Vettel has too often come off second best in combat with Hamilton, which must dent confidence further. Meanwhile, others are on the rise and Vettel is no longer able to effortlessly assert authority even within his own team. All this set against a backdrop of a Formula 1 that is changing in ways Seb clearly doesn’t like.
He has much soul-searching to do, and big questions to answer as he enters the final year of his contract in 2020. Vettel rates his own current performance at only 5 out of 10. That is nowhere near good enough for a driver of his calibre – or for Ferrari for that matter…