Check the headlines for Formula 1 and they tend to center on three main stories.
The first ledes deal with Ferrari’s one-two performance, taking the win and the second place on the podium, a feat they had struggled to execute in the last, um, like nine years or something. (Not that bad, really, as their last one-two came in 2017 at the Hungarian Grand Prix with Vettel earning the win and Kimi Raikkonen earning second.) The second set of stories looks at the decision to pit Sebastian Vettel first and how that handed Vettel the win, much to the dismay of Charles Leclerc who was in the process of trying to win his third race in a row. This narrative is a bit goofy.
The problem with trying to make sense of the strategy that put Vettel out in front is that it relies on looking at the strategy that Ferrari was using en totem and how they wanted to secure positioning and clean air on the track. Had Leclerc pitted first, from the lead, he would have been mired in traffic and Mercedes would have likely countered by leaving Valtteri Bottas, should he have been in position (likely) to slow Leclerc and allow Mercedes teammate Lewis Hamilton to do his best to rip off times that then would have given him the lead. The strategy call looks like a failure in retrospect but it was a solid move and one that would have paid off had Leclerc been able to close a 0.4s disadvantage over his in-lap in order to pip Vettel. It didn’t happen.
The third topic stealing the headlines focuses on Mercedes, particularly how they have work to do, how the recent Ferrari success shows that they’re in trouble, that they need to be careful about how they handle the rest of the season, that they are not as good or as invincible as they once were, or that the sky is falling and the team in their tizzy set fire to their headquarters and have given up and now roam the forests of Europe in shame.
Well, with six races to go, the Silver Arrows hold a 527 to 394 point advantage in the Constructors championship. Should Mercedes falter and not claim the title, the shock would be massive but the likelihood of that happening is in the lower range of probability – like Japan and North Korea suddenly becoming besties kind of possibility. Might Ferrari make a run at Mercedes, sure – and that’d be great. The series needs far more competition at the front.
Even Lewis Hamilton has little to fear as he sits atop the drivers’ standings with 296 points, his teammate in second with 231, and then Leclerc and Max Verstappen hanging out in third with 200 points. That’s to say that things look to be sunshine and roses for the Brit to win his 32nd title. (His sixth, actually.)
Lost in all of these stories is the noble job that Max Verstappen has been doing. He took the third spot on the podium this past weekend in Singapore and, had it not been for a retirement two races ago in Belgium, would likely be sitting in third by himself with the potential to overtake Bottas for second.
Verstappen, however, situates himself in the top three with regularity and his success at this point, in the comparatively under-powered Aston Martin Red Bull, with a Honda engine, is normal. He’s just good. What no one might have expected is that his new teammate, Alexander Albon, who has only three races with the mothership has been handling himself quite ably.
— Red Bull Racing (@redbullracing) September 24, 2019
Albon is quietly becoming a bit of a story. As a rookie and driving for Red Bull’s second outfit Toro Rosso, Albon was collecting middling results with a best of sixth and worst of 15th when also not earning a retirement. But, and this is one of those funny racing terms, he had shown speed (don’t all drivers show speed?) and the quickness was enough to bring about the thought that he might find more success with the lead team.
He took over for Pierre Gasly who could best be described as erratic. His high of fourth is joined by a host of finishes all through the top ten with him rarely putting two amazing finishes together. Still, Gasly is not so much a bad driver or one who should be shuttered out of F1 as he sits sixth in the points and has two points-paying positions with Toro Rosso in the three races he’s been there.
So this is not about Gasly as much as it is about Albon, and the latter is where there looks to be more promise. In the three races since joining Verstappen, he has gone 5, 6, 6. That’s pretty damn solid. He’s now eighth in the points and is now looking like the capable teammate to Verstappen. And perhaps that is the subtext that needs to be considered.
With Verstappen and Gasly together, Red Bull had a kind of “meh” vibe. It looked like one superstar and one guy who looked like he filled the role. Now it looks like one superstar and one wingman and there seems to be a new vibe being emitted, – the upstart underdogs who are going to hound the top two teams into doing something, being pesky and self-confident enough to irritate and infame. It’s a perfect identity to embrace.
Red Bull, who once dominated like Mercedes has been doing, is adapting to its new position on the grid and with Albon, the team looks to have found the right driver to pair with the supposedly arrogant Verstappen, a kind of quiet assassin who is lurking and ready. Should his results continue, Red Bull looks to be in fine shape for next year