A downpour of bombshells hit the paddock on Saturday in Sochi, from Charles Leclerc taking pole position in dominant fashion to Mercedes powering McLaren from 2021. It is always surprisingly positive when the news are as exciting as on-track action and vice-versa at the same time, with the two aforementioned points raised numerous questions and generated interesting debates.
Starting off with Charles Leclerc’s pole, what appears striking was the genuine satisfaction of an elated Lewis Hamilton who ended qualifying in P2. Normally you would not see the Briton this happy for P2, but the fact that he was pleased with splitting the Ferraris in qualifying is now self-explanatory. Ferrari is no longer the underdog and Mercedes no longer has two unbeatable rocketships parked in its garage. By this I do not mean that the situation has been completely reversed after the summer break, but Ferrari’s win in Singapore definitely stands for a point of breakthrough, which is enough to say that the balance has changed to the point where the hunt for the win and the podium is open.
Hamilton referred to Ferrari’s top speed as the result of ‘jet mode’ suggesting that the renowned ‘party mode’ of Mercedes has just been surpassed by something even more impressive. The five-time world champion also aims at ‘towing the life out of Leclerc’, as the Monegasque admitted that Sochi is not the best track to claim pole at because of the nature of the circuit, especially the first sector, which will gift the drivers behind with some real chances to attack him.
As for the McLaren-Mercedes comeback, some discussions about the future of Mercedes and Renault have sprouted. With Mercedes gaining a prime-time player customer as McLaren, questions have been raised about the possibility of leaving F1. Are there any chances for the German manufacturer to retire as a team after 2020 and to remain in F1 in spirit through its power unit supplies? Two years back it emerged that the two parties had refused to come together, as possible rivals or threats do not mix. I wonder what has changed over the past two years, if not that McLaren only got better and acquired stronger assets on all levels, from a more stable management to a proper lead on the car design and development.
Furthermore, if Mercedes exits F1 in 2020, Lewis Hamilton will be likely to make a move to Ferrari once Vettel either walks away or retires after his contract expires. That would be a rather realistic picture of what the silly season(s) would bring on the short term, but there is also another valid school of thought.
Owing to the fact that Renault has no customers for 2020, is it a possible hint to its early F1 exit? The French manufacturer has not hidden in any way that its investments since its F1 comeback were part of a long-term plan. But the results Renault has been getting on the engine side since 2014 were not good enough for it to be perceived as a reliable solution for any customers, whereas Honda, a non-F1 veteran with some disastrous years in its recent record, finds itself fully invested on a solid partnership with Red Bull that drove them back to winning ways.
Therefore, instead of Renault’s intentions of focussing on its 2021 campaign, is there anything more that could perhapd tell a different story?