Wednesday, January 15, 2020

Predictions For the 2020s: Formula One

Entering the 2020s, Lewis Hamilton has won three consecutive World Drivers' Championships, five of the last six and Mercedes-Benz has won six consecutive World Constructors' Championships.

At the start of the 2010s, Hamilton was one-year removed for a world championship with McLaren, Brawn GP was coming off a championship with Jenson Button but Mercedes-Benz was returning as a full factory team, taking over the Brawn operation. Mercedes brought Michael Schumacher out of retirement and Button joined Hamilton at McLaren. Fernando Alonso joined Ferrari. Kimi Räikkönen retired. Sébastien Buemi and Lucas di Grassi were both on the grid.

At the start of the 2010s, four teams were entering Formula One, Virgin Racing, Lotus Racing, Hispania Racing Team and USF1. Of those four, USF1 never made it to the grid. HRT would make it three seasons but its most notable accomplishment was having both cars fail to qualify for Australia in 2011 and 2012 and giving Daniel Ricciardo his grand prix debut when Red Bull had more drivers than seats. Lotus Racing became Team Lotus and then Caterham and never scored a point in five seasons. Virgin Racing became Marussia F1 and then Manor Marussia Racing before ending on Manor Racing. In seven seasons, the team had a ninth in Monaco with Jules Bianchi and a tenth in Austria with Pascal Wehrlein.

On the first day of 2010, I am not sure many saw the decade playing out the way it did and with no reason to be certain of anything that is to come over the next ten years we will make ten predictions on what we will see.

1. Lewis Hamilton gets 100 grand prix victories
Entering 2020, Hamilton has 84 victories, eight away from sole-possession of the all-time record and 16 victories from the century mark.

It seems inevitable Hamilton will break Michael Schumacher's record of 91 victories. It will likely come in 2021. Hamilton has averaged over ten victories a season dating back to 2014 and in the last six seasons he has never had fewer than nine victories in a season. Matching his worst season of the hybrid-era will not only give Hamilton the record for most victories but also likely level Hamilton with Schumacher on seven world championships.

The century mark is another animal. Sixteen victories in ten years does not seem like much but Hamilton just turned 35 years old. How many seasons does he really have left in him?

Drivers are better conditioned to go into their 40s and I do not think that will be a problem for Hamilton but it is a stretch to think he will run the entire decade and race until he is 45 years old.

I think 41 years old is the point Hamilton makes his decision to call it career. I think he could call it sooner. I do not believe Hamilton is in this to chase records. I do think Hamilton could get to 92 or 93 victories and then decide his goal is 100 but if he hits a rough patch and has one or two years where he only wins once or twice he may call it career without getting 100 victories but with nothing left to prove.

Becoming the first driver with 100 grand prix victories is something that will hard not to chase. From what Hamilton has shown us he is a determined driver. He does not lose much motivation. Things have gone well with Mercedes. We do not know what the 2021 regulations will bring. We do not know where Hamilton could go. Will he remain with Mercedes or switch to Ferrari at some point?

Hamilton is so close I think he will get there regardless of whom he is driving for.

2. A non-Mercedes driver will win at least four championships
Mercedes ended the decade with six consecutive World Drivers' Champions and six consecutive World Constructors' Championships. Mercedes is penciled in to take both in 2020.

However, no rainstorm lasts forever. Someone in different overalls is going to breakthrough and it is going to happen multiple times.

The previous decade started with Red Bull winning four consecutive championships with Sebastian Vettel. The 2000s started with Michael Schumacher and Ferrari winning five consecutive championships. The rest of that decade saw Fernando Alonso and Renault win in 2005 and 2006, Lewis Hamilton and McLaren win in 2008 and Jenson Button take a stunning championship with Brawn in 2009.

The 1990s had Ayrton Senna win the first two world titles with McLaren. Williams followed with Nigel Mansell and Alain Prost. Benetton followed with Schumacher for his first two titles. Williams won two more with Damon Hill and Jacques Villeneuve. McLaren closed the decade with a pair of title for Mika Häkkinen.

There are too many promising young riders in Formula One and it will not take moving to Mercedes for all of them to win a title. Max Verstappen has locked up a spot at Red Bull through 2023. He could win one or two titles. Charles Leclerc is going to figure it out and he will likely figure it out with Ferrari. When the new regulations are introduced maybe it sees Lando Norris carry McLaren back to the mountaintop or maybe Carlos Sainz, Jr. is the one to do it. Maybe Esteban Ocon becomes champion with Renault or perhaps Daniel Ricciardo will have that honor.

Don't forget, if Lewis Hamilton does leave Mercedes and wins a championship for Ferrari o for someone else that would help fulfill this prediction. Hamilton could win in 2020 and come 2021 and 20202 win with Ferrari and all of a sudden we are halfway to this prediction being fulfilled.

Let's not forget the countless young drivers in karting that we are not talking about but who will be in Formula One at some point this decade. The 2028 champion could be a complete unknown right now. It could be a kid who sat in a go-kart for the first time this past Christmas. That driver doesn't even know he or she is eight years away.

3. There will be at least four different World Drivers' Champions
To piggyback off that last prediction, there are too many talented drivers that will have to win a world championship at some point.

The 2010s had only three world champions: Hamilton, Vettel, Nico Rosberg.

That is going to change. It was a fluke of sorts. Hamilton will probably win one more. Verstappen and Leclerc feel like certain champions. If Hamilton leaves Mercedes or just has one bad start to a year Valtteri Bottas could carry the Mercedes flag. I think Norris could do it. I think Ricciardo could do it. Perhaps Vettel has a resurgence in his career. There are seven possible champions right there.

Let's not forget that a future champion might not even be on the horizon yet. Someone is going to rise. In 2010, no one was singing the praises of Leclerc, Norris and Verstappen and here we are. We do not know who will be the future of Formula One but someone will step up and fill it and someone has to be champion.

4. Sebastian Vettel has another team change in him
And this will happen sooner rather than later.

Vettel and Leclerc had a rough first season together. That could improve but I do not think this is something that can last more than two more seasons. Vettel bolted from Red Bull after one year where Ricciardo beat him in the championship after having taken the title in four consecutive seasons.

Leclerc could easily be the top Ferrari again in 2020. Not only could Leclerc be the top Ferrari but he could thoroughly rout Vettel. The 2019 season ended with Leclerc up 24 points on Vettel and scoring double the number of victories. The 2020 season could be one where Leclerc is third in the championship with three or four victories while Vettel is fifth with zero or one victory if he is lucky. Vettel is not going to stick with Ferrari in 2021 if that is the case.

I do not think Vettel will completely walk away from Formula One after Ferrari. It has been rumored. Bernie Ecclestone voiced that is what he thinks will happen but at the end of 2020 Vettel will be 33 years old. He will have too much time on his hands.

Where would he go?

With Verstappen locked up at Red Bull until 2023 that possible reunion will have to wait a little longer. If Hamilton bites and goes to Ferrari then I think Mercedes is a possibility. A downturn in results might sway Mercedes away from Vettel but Vettel is a four-time champion and third all-time in victories. Mercedes may decide to take its chances.

The new regulations could bring an unexpected team forward. Alfa Romeo could take a swing at Vettel. Kimi Räikkönen is not going to be there forever. It might be the Ferrari B-Team now but in two years it might be fighting with Ferrari. You have to think with the grand prix history Alfa Romeo has it would like to be fighting for victories and fighting to add to that glory established seven decades ago. Vettel could be the driver that brings Alfa Romeo back to the top of the grand prix world.

5. Mark Webber's record for most races before first victory is broken
Webber set this record at his 130th race when he won the 2009 German Grand Prix.

Currently, three active drivers have more than 130 races and have yet to win a grand prix. Nico Hülkenberg and Sergio Pérez each have 179 grand prix to their names and Romain Grosjean has 166 grand prix.

Hülkenberg does not have a ride for 2020 and at 32 years old with a large crop of youngsters already in Formula One and with more waiting to break in he may never make it back but you never know. Even if he does it likely will not be with a team favorited to get victories.

Grosjean seems to be closing to out the door. Haas really doesn't seem in love with him but are keeping him because they have no clue where to turn. No one else is going to give him a shot once he is done with Haas. It likely will not be Grosjean unless he has a very fortunate day in 2020 with Haas.

Pérez could do it. He is the one driver in average equipment that has gotten on the podium regularly. He will be 30 years old at the end of the month. Pérez could have one more move to a big team in him. If Vettel is out at Ferrari after 2020, and Hamilton decides to stay at Mercedes, Pérez would be the veteran to pair with Leclerc. Pérez will take a race victory here and there to being Leclerc's wingman.

If Vettel retires and Hamilton moves to Ferrari, Pérez would be a wise choice for Mercedes.

Those three aside, Carlos Sainz, Jr. set the record for most races before a first career podium in 2019. He has entered 102 races and has yet to win, it does not appear likely he will win in 2020, which means entering 2021 he could be on 124 races without a victory and McLaren will be returning to Mercedes-Benz engines for 2021. It would not be crazy if Sainz, Jr. won a race in the middle of 2021.

Kevin Magnussen has been in one more race weekend than Sainz, Jr. Magnussen will most likely not win a race in 2020 and he seems far-fetched he could win in 2021 but stranger things have happened.

Daniil Kvyat is on 95 races. He has some work to do but he could hang on for another two seasons and late in 2021 steal a victory. Maybe he is Leclerc's number two after Vettel leaves Ferrari.

Maybe the 2021 season is Leclerc's coming out party and the Monegasque driver wins nine races with Kvayt consistently finishing third to fifth but once we get to the 17th round when it is clear Leclerc will be champion Ferrari decides this race will be for Kvyat and Leclerc can settle for a good points haul in third and maybe that race is... I don't know... in Russia and... maybe a prominent world leader is there to hand the trophy to the race winner... and that race winner just happens to be the Russian Kvyat... and it would look good in the host country and that host country would be feel a lot of national pride seeing such an event occur that it would almost feel scripted.

It is just a wild conjuring of the mind. I am not saying it will happen but who is to say it could not happen?

6. Non-Big Three teams combine to win at least eight grand prix
Eight is a low number but Mercedes-Benz, Ferrari and Red Bull have combined to win 139 consecutive races.

The last victory not by one of those three teams was the 2013 Australian Grand Prix with Lotus and Kimi Räikkonen.

There were 198 Formula One races in the 2010s. Teams not named Mercedes-Benz, Ferrari and Red Bull combined to win 21 of them. The breakdown was five in 2010, six in 2011, ten in 2012 and one in 2013. McLaren won 18 of those 21 races. Lotus won twice. Williams won once.

Twenty-one of 198 races is only 10.6%. That is very low. We are probably going to exceed 198 races in the 2020s. The 2020 calendar is made up of 22 races. Liberty Media is keen on a 25-race schedule. I do not know when we will get there but we probably will get there. Figure that we average 23 races a season in the 2020s and we get 230 races total, 10.6% would be 24.38 races. Eight races would be 3.47%. Since 2013, the percentage is 0.714%.

Like I said before, something is going to change. Something has to change. We can have three dominant teams. There have been plenty of periods where there were only three dominant teams in Formula One but Formula One cannot continue with three teams winning 99.28% of the races over seven seasons.

Don't get me wrong, Formula One cannot have three teams combine to win 96.53% of the races but it would be a start and it is a low bar to clear. It is the bare minimum Formula One has to meet this decade. It shows progress, not good enough progress, but progress nonetheless.

7. There will be a change to the qualifying format
Every decade there is a qualifying change and it doesn't mean there is something wrong with the format.

Formula One changed the knockout format for two rounds in 2016. It was only two rounds but Formula One still changed it.

Qualifying is an easy thing to change and it is low risk. Yes, the 2016 change did not work, but it was worth a shot. You can toy with qualifying in hopes of mixing up the grid and improving the racing. Ultimately, if a qualifying format change is made, even if it is hated but at the end of a grand prix on Sunday people are talking about how great the race was people would come around to the qualifying change.

The prime candidate to be the next qualifying format is a reverse grid race. It has been floating out there for a few years and was prominently out there in 2019. It was even proposed to use reverse grid races for three rounds in 2020. I think we will see it at least once. Formula One will try it. I am not saying it is going to stick. I am not saying it is going to make it a full season. I am not saying reverse grid races will be introduced at the start of 2021 and make it all the way to 2030.

I say Formula One will try it once and if it fails we will be back to the knockout format that is beloved and we will all move on with our lives.

8. A new engine manufacture joins Formula One
This seems like something Formula One needs to happen. The only manufactures to join in the 2010s were Cosworth and Honda.

Cosworth returned in 2010 after it exited following the 2006 season only to exit again after 2013 when its teams were Williams for two seasons, the Tony Fernandes-led Lotus for a season, the floundering HRT program for three excruciatingly painful three seasons and the Virgin/Marussia outlet for four seasons.

Honda withdrew from Formula One after 2008 and was back in 2015 with McLaren, where it had three tumultuous seasons, but it has been with Toro Rosso for the last two years and in 2019 it paired with Red Bull and won two races.

Let me be clear, new does not mean completely new. It means new compared to the 2010s.

I am not sure any completely new manufacture will come in. I think it is a little too late for Kia or Hyundai to make an attempt. It either were to join Formula One it would have been done with Toyota in the 2000s and it would have corresponded with the Korean Grand Prix.

I do not think we will see a Chinese manufacture like Geely get into Formula One but a decade is a long time. Let's see how the world changes.

What manufactures could return?

Ford? No. I think it is too much money and it would not want to be a factory program but Ford will not see a team worry partnering with.

BMW? Perhaps but I think it is in the Formula E boat firmly and is going in the opposite direction of Formula One.

Porsche? Porsche has always been the manufacture with Formula One pedigree but never in Formula One. Similar to BMW, I think Porsche is in Formula E but I think it is more likely to see Porsche join Formula One in the 2020s than BMW. That doesn't mean I think it will happen but if you said one of these two will be in Formula One at some point in the next ten years I would take Porsche.

Aston Martin? Now there is a strong possibility. It already has the Red Bull connection and Red Bull and Honda are good now but Honda has been on the fence the last few years. The program is making strides but if feels like more has to be done in 2020 for Honda to stick around.

The other possibility with Aston Martin is Lawrence Stroll is rumored to be purchasing Aston Martin. Stroll owns part of Racing Point. Racing Point is a terrible team name. Racing Point becoming a factory Aston Martin program would be better for everyone involved. That might be the answer.

Now, Stroll has to purchase Aston Martin of course. Stroll would not be the first wealthy man to be linked to an automobile company not to buy it. In the early days of 2020, it is the most likely possibility.

9. Formula One visits four new countries
And we are not going to count Vietnam, which debuts in April.

In the 2010s, Formula One visited South Korea, India, Russia and Azerbaijan for the first time. The decade before that had five new countries join the Formula One schedule, Bahrain, China, Turkey, Singapore and the United Arab Emirates.

We are going to be running out of countries. Thirty-three countries will have hosted a Formula One grand prix once Vietnam takes place.

What are the options?

Let's consider countries that have tracks. Qatar has the Losail International Circuit and already hosts a MotoGP round. The Middle East has two races but should Bahrain fall off or the series want to expand to three Middle East races then Qatar is the number one option.

Finland has the KymiRing, which opened in August 2019 and will host MotoGP's Finnish Grand Prix in July. Finland has a rich history of Formula One world champions. The last 20 years has seen Formula One move away from European races but you never know what country could step into the role.

Thailand has a new driver on the Formula One grid and it has the Buriram International Circuit, which already draws 100,000 people for the Asian Le Mans Series. I think Thailand will host a Formula One race sooner rather than later, especially if Alexander Albon wins at Red Bull. It could be paired with Singapore at the start of the final third of the season or it could be paired with Vietnam. Or it could be a rotating round in a few years with either of those places.

Returning to the Middle East, Saudi Arabia has been throwing around a lot of money of late. It hosted Race of Champions not long ago, it hosted the Formula E season opener the last two seasons and it currently hosts the Dakar Rally. I think there is too much money around for this not to happen at some point in the next decade. The Reem International Circuit opened in the late-2000s and though it has not hosted anything major other than Porsche GT3 Cup Middle East it could be upgraded or an entirely new multi-billion dollar track could grow out of the sands.

What are some crazier options?

For all the motorsports success, New Zealand has never hosted a Formula One grand prix. This is a stretch but the home of McLaren, Hulme, Dixon, Hartley, McLaughlin and Richards should host a grand prix on motorsports success alone. It needs a circuit upgraded or a new one constructed. That is unlikely to happen but it would be nice to see and it would be a nice place to open the season with Australia.

Indonesia seemed possible when Rio Haryanto was on the grid for 15 minutes. I still will not rule it out because Indonesia has a lot of people and it has a circuit, Sentul International Circuit, which once host GP2 Asia Series, A1GP and hosted MotoGP twice in 1996 and 1997.

Denmark was not long ago rumored to be a potential host of a Formula One race in Copenhagen. Like New Zealand, for all the motorsports success Denmark should host a grand prix but it is a smaller country. It is tough to find the room for a 2.8-mile circuit and a street course would be the easiest option but I am not sure the Danish streets are that accommodating to great racing action.

Now that Bernie Ecclestone is no longer in charge I think it is safe to say North Korea, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan and Mongolia are off the table but you never know with Liberty Media.

10. There will be an American grand prix winner
This is more of a pipe dream.

As we sit here in 2020, the last grand prix with an American driver winner was on August 27, 1978, when Mario Andretti won the Dutch Grand Prix at Zandvoort.

This drought will likely make it to 42 years. It is extremely unlikely any American driver will have a Friday practice run in 2020 let alone start a race let alone be in a car capable of winning a grand prix.

Something will have to change. Could we really go more than a half a century between American grand prix winners? There has to be one driver that will breakthrough. A lot of American drivers have gone to Europe and been moderately successful. There has to be one driver that can go there, win in Formula Three, win in Formula Two and get with the right team at the right time to win one grand prix.

I am not talking about Lewis Hamilton or Sebastian Vettel number of victories I am talking about one race. I am talking about Pastor Maldonado levels of victories. I would be ecstatic to see Giancarlo Fisichella levels of victories for an American driver.

There has to be one driver that will set his or her sights on Formula One and make it. We have seen drivers try and hit a wall and returned to the United States to run IndyCar and that is fine. Josef Newgarden and Alexander Rossi are making a living in IndyCar. Graham Rahal is doing the same. There has to be one kid who is just going to do it, who will not quit and will force a Formula One team to sign him or her and then make it hard for anyone to let that driver go.

This is a dream because if we are going into 2030 with 51 years since an American won a grand prix that is going to hurt. There have been plenty of talent American drivers in the last 41 years but Formula One was not on their radar. They could make a living and a great living running domestically. That is not going to change. The United States will continue to have a healthy domestic scene and it will be difficult for Americans to leave their comfort zone but I believe there will be one driver who will take on the challenge and not give up until he or she has stood on the top step of a Formula One podium.

Two sets of predictions down and two to go and, coincidentally, we will head to the United States for the final two sets of predictions. Coming up next will be the NASCAR predictions. Please check out the sports car predictions for the 2020s.