I like to think I’ve made a genuine Formula One fan out of my partner, and we’ve previously had articles here at Bloom extolling the virtues of Netflix’s ‘Drive to Survive’ series detailing the inter-team, inter-driver dramas of the F1 season. But what if you missed the whole of the 2020 season and want to get caught up without having to trawl through the results of 20+ individual races? What if you’re a brand new fan and you want to know where you stand before the 2021 season begins? Season 3 of Drive To Survive is just weeks away, so here’s a super quick rundown of the basics of the 2020 season before you get started, team-by-team. Spoilers, obviously.
Some quick notes – there are two championships in F1, for drivers and constructors (teams.) Drivers get points for themselves and their teams by finishing in the Top 10 at every race, with 25 awarded to team and driver for a race win, 18 for second, 15 for 3rd, then (in descending order until 10th position) 12, 10, 8, 6, 4, 2 and 1. Since each team enters two cars into a race, the winning constructor in the end can sometimes be a team which did not field the winning driver. There is a huge financial incentive to finish in the top 10, especially the top 3, as each position comes with progressively larger cash prizes.
During races, you will hear the terms ‘overtake button’ and ‘DRS’. The overtake button is a button on the steering wheel that changes how the battery energy is deployed by the car; pressing ‘overtake’ will temporarily make the car more powerful but can run out until it recharges if used too much. Drivers can also change their brake balance (how force is distributed by the front and rear brakes), engage their pit limiter and more from their steering wheel. ‘DRS’ stands for ‘Drag Reduction System,’ a flap that opens in the car’s spoiler giving it a speed boost to aid overtaking when it is within one second of the car in front.
F1 rules are pretty stringent too, and drivers can expect penalties for dangerous driving (seems obvious but it can be as simple as rejoining the track too close to other cars after a spin,) cutting corners, obstructing other drivers, moving under braking (the cars become very loose under braking and it can cause crashes when they have to move erratically in these periods.) It is rare anybody gets disqualified but it has happened, for reasons such as driving too slow or ignoring warnings about their behaviour on track. Drivers and teams will also be penalised for incidents like exceeding 50 mph in the pit lane, using too many or too little tyres during a race… the list goes on.
If you’ve heard anything about F1 recently, it’s probably been about Mercedes. The UK-based (but German owned) team evolved from the ashes of the Toyota and Brawn GP teams after they folded in 2008 and 2009 respectively, and since F1 switched to using V6 petrol-electric hybrid engines in 2014, they have won every drivers’ and constructors’ championship since. Since they build their own car and engine, they are known as a works team, and supply other smaller teams on the grid with their engines.
Lewis Hamilton has won all but one of these championships, making him on par with Michael Schumacher for the most prolific championship winner ever (though his first title came in 2008 with McLaren.) German Nico Rosberg won in 2016, also for Mercedes. No other team has been effectively able to challenge Mercedes for the title yet, especially during the 2020 season, when Mercedes cars won nearly every race throughout the season.
Mercedes, like other teams, runs a junior programme for young drivers in Formulas 2, 3, 4 and below, although some of their junior drivers have already ascended to Formula 1 (Williams’ George Russell is contracted to Mercedes and is expected to take up a Mercedes seat when Lewis Hamilton or his teammate Valtteri Bottas retire.) Bottas has been a good Mercedes driver since he joined after Rosberg’s retirement at the end of 2016, although many consider the team to prefer Hamilton as he has won so many races and championships. Bottas has also never fought Hamilton as openly as Rosberg did on track, though he does have a few race wins under his belt. He and Lewis still managed to finish 1-2 in the driver’s championship in 2020.
One of the oldest and most respected teams on the F1 grid, Italian team Ferrari are also the most prolific championship winners. That doesn’t mean they’re without their difficult periods, however, and 2020 was the start of one. Having been real challengers at several points throughout the 2015-2018 seasons with previous championship winners Sebastian Vettel (Red Bull, 2010/11/12/13) and Kimi Raikkonen (Ferrari, 2007,) the dynamic changed when Ferrari contracted newcomer Charles Leclerc from Monaco for the 2019 season.
Many felt Sebastian Vettel’s (once thought to be one of the best drivers ever) star was fading as he struggled to win against Charles Leclerc who won easily and was publicly relegated to the status of second driver by the team principal Mattia Binotto in 2020, making his exit from Ferrari almost inevitable. He was dropped in favour of McLaren’s Carlos Sainz for 2021, though he managed to eventually find a seat with the new Aston Martin F1 team for 2021.
However the difficulty wasn’t all the driver’s fault, as Ferrari provided one of their worst ever cars for the 2020 season. They had been accused of using an illegal engine in 2019, though their eventual loss of the championship meant suspicion was dampened. Whatever went wrong at the factory for the 2020 car was monumental as it was often even slower than the cars Ferrari provide engines for, with Vettel and Leclerc both saying it was pretty much undriveable. Nonetheless, they managed to perform some stunning podiums with their absolute pup of a car. Expect a disappointed Leclerc and perhaps a bitter Vettel after his unceremonious Ferrari exit.
Red Bull Racing
Recently, UK based, Austrian owned Red Bull have been Mercedes’ biggest challengers, finishing 3rd in 2019, 2nd in 2020 and being the only other team to have won the championship in the previous decade. They also confusingly bought a second team when they joined F1 in the mid 2000’s, Minardi, although they were only able to buy it on the condition they retain the team’s Italian base and operate as ‘Scuderia Toro Rosso.’ No prizes for guessing what that’s Italian for. They now operate as Scuderia Alpha Tauri, the name of Red Bull’s clothing line (I’m sure it’s very stylish.)
2019 saw them dogged by infighting as their long-held and pretty talented Australian driver made a shock move for Renault F1 before the season start, citing the team’s obvious preference of their young star Max Verstappen. This was insult and injury as up until 2019, Renault also supplied engines to Red Bull; they now use Honda engines, which appear effective as Honda no longer have their own F1 time so were able to just concentrate on being an engine supplier. It’s hard to challenge Verstappen’s reputation as an ace driver, as he was often the only car able to fight the Mercedes in 2020, although he has been prone to radio outbursts and fighting with teammates as well as being rather accident prone in his debut seasons (some argue Vettel could have won the title in 2017 had Verstappen not driven into him in China.)
For 2019, Red Bull promoted their young driver Pierre Gasly to their team. His performance compared to Ricciardo was pretty poor (as Drive To Survive Season 2 detailed) and he was replaced by then-Toro Rosso driver Alex Albon halfway through the 2019 season. Albon continued into 2020 although was also dropped in favour of Racing Point’s Sergio Perez for 2021, provoking criticism that Red Bull was dumping young drivers into difficult positions with a car set up solely for Verstappen’s driving style.
They did manage to win a race in 2020, and finish 2nd in the constructor’s championship, although it was often suggested that a faster partner was needed for Verstappen to capitalise on the car’s pace. Albon did stand on the podium at the Mugello Grand Prix and is still the Red Bull reserve driver, so we may see him return to the grid after 2021. Another interesting thing about Red Bull is that their engine supplier will be pulling out of F1 after 2021, preferring to focus on other projects, so Red Bull will supply its own engines from 2022.
British-based (but originally Kiwi) team McLaren are also one of the stalwarts of the F1 grid. They haven’t quite existed as long for Ferrari but are pretty much on par with them for their prolific win rate, and have contracted a lot of drivers now considered to be the greatest of all time. They’re my favourite too so I suggest you support them.
Having suffered a growing slump after their 2008 championship win with then-young Lewis Hamilton, there was a change of management at McLaren with the appointment of new CEO Zak Brown in 2017. This came at the peak of McLaren’s difficulties, with their cars having been decidedly uncompetitive since their one podium in 2014 and different engine suppliers in Honda and Renault as well as iconic champion Fernando Alonso (Renault, 2005/6) seemingly unable to fix their problems. By 2017, their car was also virtually sponsor-less, suggesting financial difficulties within the team. 2019 represented a turning point as new driver lineup (British rookie Lando Norris and just-dropped Renault driver and Red Bull junior Carlos Sainz) regularly challenged for points and eventually scored an unexpected podium in Brazil 2019. 2020 was another year of strength as McLaren jumped to 3rd in the constructors championship and both drivers scored podiums, with Sainz narrowly missing out on a win at the Italian GP.
McLaren have also scored Daniel Ricciardo for the 2021 season, who given the team’s current trajectory towards the top of the grid, expects to be challenging for race wins within the season. They will also be returning to their traditional engine supplier, Mercedes, as the Renault engine’s reliability has cost the team solid results in the past.
Racing Point/Aston Martin
The team Racing Point has a peculiar story (and a truly terrible name.) They used to be Force India, born from the ashes of the generally uncompetitive Jordan team, and they were (for a new team) consistently successful. Not only did they attract some top drivers (Giancarlo Fisichella, Esteban Ocon, Sergio Perez, Nico Hulkenberg,) they achieved podiums and pole positions in qualifying. However (as you see in Drive to Survive season one) their owner Vijay Mallya ran into some financial charges (which he contests) which prevented him from continuing at the helm of the team.
Enter Lawrence Stroll, then major investor in the Williams F1 team, and a consortium of investors interested in taking over a racing team. Owing in no small part to the shrewd negotiation skills of driver Sergio Perez, Force India was bought out by Stroll’s consortium adopted the ‘Racing Point’ name midway through the 2018 season. This also meant Racing Point was pretty much bound to take on Stroll’s son, Lance, as one of their drivers. It’s a topic of debate how much he deserves the seat, though he is a regular points finisher and pay drivers have been common in F1 for years.
Racing Point were also the subject of controversy in 2020, as their car bore more than a passing resemblance to the previous year’s Mercedes car, also their engine supplier. The teams who had appealed to the FIA however eventually agreed to back down from their investigations when Mercedes is said to have leant on its customer teams to back off. The team is currently undergoing a rebranding into Aston Martin F1 as Stroll had become financially involved in the namesake car company; and will field Vettel and Stroll as its 2021 drivers as Sergio Perez was forced out to make way for Vettel at the season close (landing softly at Red Bull as mentioned above.)
Renault are slightly peculiar as they seem to flit in and out of F1. After a period of immense success in the early 2000s, winning the championship in 2005/6, their cars became horribly uncompetitive. The team eventually withdrew from F1 as their reputation was tarnished by them having instructed one of their drivers to crash deliberately during a race to secure a win for teammate Alonso. They briefly existed as Lotus F1, then branding themselves as Lotus Renault but having 0 Renault involvement beyond engine supply.
Renault eventually bought the Lotus team back for the 2016 season and returned to the grid as a works team under the helm of Cyril Abiteboul and grew from a 9th place finish in the 2016 constructor’s championship to a peak of 4th in the constructor’s championship. Controversy came back to haunt them in 2019 as parts of their car were deemed illegal by the FIA (motorsport’s governing body) leading to hefty fines. Renault’s extensive success as an engine supplier has not seemed to translate into the V6 era although they did score some podiums in 2020.
The team is undergoing a serious revamp for 2021 however as the Renault name is being completely dropped in favour of ‘Alpine,’ the name of Renault’s sportscar line. Fernando Alonso is also returning to the fold amid the exit of Cyril Abiteboul (for reasons unclear – clearly someone above him wasn’t satisfied with missing out on 3rd in the 2020 constructors championship behind Mercedes and Red Bull.)
The AlphaTauri team (formerly Toro Rosso) has been described both as Red Bull’s junior team and its sister team when its results have been above average. It’s probably better to consider it the junior team as it is usually used for young drivers in preparation for a Red Bull or other F1 seat – indeed, Verstappen, Sainz, Gasly and Vettel had Toro Rosso seats before their graduation to bigger teams.
The cars also sometimes act as guinea pigs for Red Bull ideas; with the team adopting Honda powerplants a year before their senior team and being allowed to run the wrong size engine in their first season when Red Bull couldn’t afford a second engine for the Toro Rosso team. Nonetheless they have produced some impressive results, such as two race wins in 2006 and 2020 at Monza with Vettel and Gasly respectively, the latter being a redemption drive for the ex-Red Bull driver. Gasly’s is not the only story of Red Bull-AlphaTauri demotion though, with Danil Kvyat being demoted and eventually dropped at the end of 2020. This was to make room for F2 ace Yuki Tsunoda for 2021, as part of a Honda stipulation that a Japanese driver represent their engines for a season.
AlphaTauri generally used to use Ferrari engines as they are based in Italy, though the switch to Honda seems to have been accompanied by a marked improvement in performance. The 2020 season did see them occasionally overtake their Red Bull counterparts although they only finished 7th overall in the constructor’s championship, and it could be argued their win was only a result of the race being stopped and restarted midway through after a crash.
Alfa Romeo Racing
Alfa Romeo are a curious team who had a disappointing 2020 season marred by a lot of pointless races and occasional crashes. Though they are sponsored by the namesake Italian car manufacturer (itself a subsidiary of Fiat,) in reality they are the Swiss-based Sauber team, and continue to use the Sauber nomenclature for their cars.
They have had periods of success in their F1 career and started the driving career of 2007 champion Kimi Raikkonen. They have managed to achieve a few points finishes, though their overall existence has been marred by financial difficulties which have consistently seen them lag towards the back of the grid.
Since their switch from Sauber branding to Alfa Romeo branding, they have largely been used a springboard to launch the careers of Ferrari juniors such as Charles Leclerc and Antonio Giovinazzi, with current driver Kimi Raikkonen even admitting he only remains with the team because he finds Formula 1 fun.
Haas are the only American F1 team on the grid, run by the same Gene Haas who owns the NASCAR team. At first, they seemed pretty strong, with a cost effective model that allowed them to be instantly competitive as they bought the majority of their parts in from other constructors. This saw them rocket to top 10 finishes in their early seasons and attract big names from other teams, namely ex-Lotus pilot Romain Grosjean and Kevin Magnussen from Renault.
Haas’ good periods however are far outweighed by their problematic periods. In 2019, the team partnered with the questionable businessman Will Storey as a title sponsor through his company Rich Energy. Have you ever seen a can of Rich Energy drink in the supermarket? Neither have I, so take from that what you will. Their financial difficulties intensified as Rich Energy apparently defaulted on their sponsor payments, with their branding removed from the team midway through the season. The team’s legitimacy was also strained as Magnussen and Grosjean consistently drove into each other, costing the team points at multiple races in 2019. Grosjean also has something of a negative reputation stemming from a catastrophic crash he caused in Belgium at the 2012 race, earning him a rare temporary race ban afterwards. In his defence, he did manage several points finishes in his later career.
2020 did not improve Haas’ fortunes as they scored single points at the Hungarian GP and Eifel GP. Their original branding returned, but the car still struggled on track with Grosjean receiving multiple warnings at the British GP for obstructing other drivers as he struggled to remain in front on worn tyres. By the close of the season, Haas principal Guenther Steiner accepted that things had to change and accepted Russian F2 pilot Nikita Mazepin and German F2 champion Mick Schumacher under pressure from engine supplier Ferrari as their 2021 lineup; and yes, Mick is the son of Michael. Nikita is the son of a Russian businessman who has just become a senior investor in Haas F1.
The signing of Mazepin has become an object of controversy in F1 circles, with an internal investigation into a video posted of him apparently groping a woman in a car ending with a secret conclusion but not his dismissal. He has also been criticised for dangerous movements to defend his position in F2 races that nearly caused a severe crash. His behaviour has prompted the birth of the #WeSayNoToMazepin movement, which has attracted support from some of the biggest bloggers in F1 media, such as WTF1.
Despite their recent lingering at the back of the grid, since their birth in the 70s, the Williams team (initially headed by Frank, then daughter Claire Williams) have won multiple races and championships with names as famous as Felipe Massa, Ayrton Senna, Nigel Mansell and Juan Pablo Montoya. They encountered financial difficulty in the mid 2000s which saw them fall away from the front of the grid (where they had regularly challenged Michael Schumacher for race wins.) They subsequently had to accept pay drivers such as Pastor Maldonado (well-known for crashing into everything he could see,) although he did pull off a stunning win at the 2012 Spanish Grand Prix.
2014/15 saw a resurgence from the team as they picked up famous Martini sponsoring (the drinks company has sponsored many successful rally/racing teams in other motorsports) and began to challenge for podiums once again with then-new Valtteri Bottas and Felipe Massa (Hamilton’s title rival in 2008.) This momentum didn’t last too long and by 2018 they were floundering towards the back of the grid, losing sponsors and encountering cashflow problems. Bringing in a hero of their early technical approach, Paddy Lowe, to improve their 2019 car didn’t work and he was unceremoniously let go after failing to get the car ready for the F1 test before the season began. The car scored a miserly one point at a rain-soaked German GP which was really only the result of Robert Kubica not crashing as many others did.
2020 was not much better and eventually saw Claire Williams accept the team had to find funds or die off the back of the grid, which meant accepting Canadian rookie Nicholas Latifi on the basis of heavy investment from his family and the eventual sale of the team to Dorilton Capital investment group. Drivers George Russell and Latifi however have both been assured their contracts are safe as Mercedes has a hefty say in who ends up sat in one of their customer team’s cars.
That’s what really stood out about Williams in 2019 and 20, George Russell. Having won the F2 championship in 2018, Russell was not afraid to tell the team what a pig of a car he though their 2019 challenger was, and this led to improvements for the 2020 season. Despite them still missing out on points, Russell consistently beat out the other backmarkers and has almost never been outqualified by a teammate; he was expected to achieve Williams’ first points on merit in 2020 although had an unfortunate crash behind the safety car, much to the heartache of fans. A positive COVID diagnosis late in the season for Lewis Hamilton also meant George got to step into the Mercedes for the Sakhir GP in Bahrain.
Despite narrowly missing out on pole position in qualifying, he demonstrated immense driving skill by overtaking Bottas on lap 1 and commanding most of the race thereon, in a car Bottas had been driving the whole season and Russell had only driven in the previous days’ practice and qualifying sessions. His race was destroyed by radio blunders in the Mercedes garage, which was almost too heart wrenching to watch as George fought his way from the back of the grid to first after being given the wrong tyres and pitting twice, then having to pit AGAIN after getting a puncture. He still managed to use what few laps remained to reach 8th and his first F1 points, though pundits roundly agree he deserved the win. Hopefully we will see him in a Mercedes by 2022.
That’s it! I hope this gave you a good base for watching Drive to Survive Season 3 and understanding it, as well as the race season itself.