Pierre Gasly, George Russell, Circuit de Catalunya, 2019

F1’s three packs: The big three, the midfield – and Williams

2019 F1 season

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Less than two seconds covered the 10 teams at the end of the final pre-season test ahead of the 2019 F1 season. But is the field really that close together?

There’s little doubt the field will be spread much wider than when they qualify for the season-opening Australian Grand Prix this weekend. Last year the field spread in testing was two seconds, but was more than double that on the first grid of the season.

Despite substantial aerodynamic changes to the cars for the new season, Toro Rosso technical director Jody Egginton suspects the competitive order has changed little over the winter. He expects to see the same the teams at the front, a tightly-bunched midfield behind.

“I still think Red Bull, Mercedes and Ferrari are ahead of the pack,” said Egginton during the final pre-season test. “I wouldn’t be bold enough to say at the moment who’s going to be leading the midfield. Haas has shown some good performance, Renault have shown some good performance. We’re quite happy with what we’ve managed to achieve.”

Egginton believes Toro Rosso are “in the midfield pack.”

“It’s a big pack. I think it’s six teams. I think it’s fair to say Williams would admit themselves they’ve got a bit of work to do to join up.”

After falling to last in the championship in a disastrous 2018 campaign, Williams hasn’t got off to a much better start this year. Its FW42 was completed five days later than scheduled and chief technical officer Paddy Lowe has stepped down from his duties, officially for “personal reasons”.

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However the team was adamant it would be able to complete both chassis and have sufficient spares for this weekend’s season-opener. “It has taken a huge amount of work by everyone on Grove to prepare enough parts, to get all our procedures in place, and ensure that the drivers are in the best possible position to start the competition,” said senior race engineer Dave Robson.

Last year the ‘big three’ teams were never out-paced by the midfielders, and the gap between them was frequently in the order of one second per lap. However Lewis Hamilton believes that gap has at least halved over the winter.

“I think at the moment it is the three teams at the top but also the other teams at the back have closed up as far as I’m aware. The whole pack has closed up.

“I don’t know which team is fourth currently but they’re a lot closer than they were in the past. Before there was like a second gap or something like that I think it’s now within half a second or maybe less.

“Which is awesome. Depending on how their development will be through the year, whether or not they have the capacity to develop as the top three teams do, will be probably the biggest question. But it’ll be exciting. Maybe you’re going to see some races where the Renault or the Force India perhaps will be a lot higher than it’s been in the past.”

We’ll get our first impression of the true competitive order in five days’ time. But the bumpy, stop-start Melbourne course usually only gives a glimpse of the true competitive order. Last year Hamilton put his Mercedes on pole by six-tenths of a second, but Ferrari had the quickest car at the next three races.

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24 comments on “F1’s three packs: The big three, the midfield – and Williams”

  1. Nice article, and a perfect lead-up to this weekend!

    1. We starting to get a lot of technical director Jody Egginton assessment now. I hope we going to have a say from technical director Robert Kubica soon…

  2. “Before there was like a second gap or something like that I think it’s now within half a second or maybe less. Which is awesome.”

    Not really. If the top 3 gap the front of the midfield by 0.5 seconds a lap in Melbourne on Sunday the first midfield car will be 29 seconds down at the chequered flag. That’s still too big a gap.

    1. @geemac

      29 seconds isn’t all that bad. A bad performance gap would be if all the midfield runners are a lap down on the leader.

      1. That would only happen if there was any reason for the leader not to turn down the whole “package” sometime mid race though @todfod.

      2. That’s agreed @todfod and @justarandomdutchguy, but seeing as Liberty are trying to build a utopian version of F1 for the future, it would be great if that gap really did start to close.

    2. Dutchguy (@justarandomdutchguy)
      11th March 2019, 13:50

      It’d still be better than 2 laps behind….

    3. Gavin Campbell
      11th March 2019, 16:29

      Actually I disagree – one of he big problems last year with the one stop races were that the top 3 were so far ahead they would all go as long as possible on their quali tyres to ensure they had an entire pit stop over the rest of the field before pitting. So this is important along with hoepfully some easier following of the car in front (Im not convinced it will be too much better) to open the options up on the strategy front.

    4. @geemac I think you’re being a bit too greedy. If the gap to the midfield has indeed been halved then it’s a marvelous achievement. half a second per lap is a huge gap to close over one off season, especially with the level of the top 3 teams. To expect them to jump all the stairs at once is unrealistic.

  3. It’s a real shame for Williams who clearly have a lot of work to do. In reality, I hope they are closer than they seemed in testing.

    As for the rest, it’ll be interesting to see how the top three compare. Could this be the year that Mercedes are finally toppled? I’d love to see a really tight battle at the top between Red Bull, Ferrari and Mercedes. Bottas will really need to step it up a gear in 2019 to avoid Ocon stealing his seat. Leclerc will be really interesting to watch and Gasly may surprise a few (including me) if he can compare well to Verstappen. Three very young drivers potentially fighting for wins and championships could open the door for the midfiled to take some more podiums than in recent years.

    Surely one of Renault, Alfa Romeo and Haas are looking best placed to be 4th. Racing Point shouldn’t be underestimated as their testing pace is often deceptively underwhelming. Toro Rosso are always there or there abouts as well. McLaren is going to be the really interesting one for me. They could be anywhere from 4th to 9th depending on a huge range of factors and testing was encouraging.

    I’m really excited for this season and can’t wait for Saturday to see how it’s all looking.

    1. @ben-n – My concern is that the 3top team no2 drivers (Bottas, Leclerc, Gasly) will all be pushed to supporting roles very quickly this season if they don’t produce early. If it becomes a Hamilton / Vettel fight from the first half-dozen races, I fully expect to have strategies revolve around them from there on.

      What do you think?

    2. I’m thinking Renault could take the fight for 3rd.

      There will be hiccups in the RB/Honda integration, and if Renault have some opportunistic results early in the season, they would be in a good place to put the pressure on. Remember that Red Bull has the youngest driver pairing in the whole grid, so I’m taking mistakes from their drivers as granted; compare that to Hulk and Ric knowing full well they aren’t in the fight for wins but for BotR, there’s going to be a lot of pressure on the shoulders of both Verstappen and Gasly if the car is fast.

  4. In the days when we only had a dozen races a season (or thereabouts), and mechanical unreliability would force at least a few cars out of every race, the outcome of a GP was always highly uncertain and the racing therefore more exciting and edgy. Fast forward to today. If unreliability in F1 was still high, it would to some extent be compensated for by the larger number of races – faster cars would, ceteris paribus, still win over the season. As it is, we have astonishing reliability and a large number of races. Any probabilistic analysis says that a car with even a tiny advantage over the others will usually win out over a season. This is by and large what we see.

    Perhaps one way to improve the racing, and the spectacle, would be to re-introduce massive unreliability, maybe by mandating the use of numerous standard engine parts (not safety-critical parts obvs) that are designed to fail, ideally in spectacular ways. Alternatively, if teams only had a very small sum to spend on a car, it would likely break down quite often. We would also need a bigger grid if we’re going to lose two or three cars per race, but that would be no bad thing. We would also get some new winners, at last, at least now and again.

    A critic will say that this is a rather contrived way to generate more uncertainty and better racing. It is indeed. The system we have in place now is also highly contrived – the technical specs of the cars are pre-determined to an extraordinary degree – supposedly to improve the racing! It isn’t working. And I fear that just replacing one set of aerodynamic regs with another isn’t going to change much.

    1. Personally, to superficially induce unreliability is a ridiculous idea.

      The flaw in F1 is it’s paradoxical interpretation of what it means to be the pinnacle

      Does pinnacle mean the fastest and the most reliable? Or does pinnacle mean the most spectacular and best race-ability? Currently, there is an ambition to have both: the fastest and the most spectacular, and resultantly, expectations are falling short. Due to the high aero levels in today’s F1 it’s impossible to achieve the modern cornering speeds and have close following cars.

      In my opinion, successful reengineering F1’s ideology away from pure aerodynamic speed would be the most effective way of solving the race issues. Perhaps this means reintroducing regulations around groundeffect usage. If I were Ross Brawn, I’d look at how F1 can have fast, raceable cars without stifling development and ingenuity

    2. @rsp123 – I agree with your point around reliability vs. number of races, but would have to respectfully disagree with your proposed alternative, simply because it is reminiscent of designed-to-degrade tyres.

      What I would instead offer up is the removal of PU limits for a season, retain engine penalties, but reduce their severity. Therefore, teams can opt to (and would be encouraged to) turn up the wick on their engine to get a better result by balancing that against the risk of an in-race PU failure or post-race PU swap.

      Of course, we cannot target just the engines for better racing without solving the tyre problem, so this is just a hypothetical solution.

    3. parts (not safety-critical parts obvs) that are designed to fail

      sorry to have to say so, but that idea is just completely a no go @rsp123, both for the reason that @phylyp mentions – teams would easily be able to figure out the limits of the parts after a couple of races anyway, they would adjust their strategy and tell drivers to go it slow even more – but also because the moment you would do that, you would almost certainly immediately lose all backing from any serious car manufacturer (and I include McLaren and Aston Martin in that) and I’d argue Haas would also be inclined to jump ship from that (surely he builds machines to last). If ever the FIA would feel confident agreeing and even allowing it.

      Can you even imagine the fallout of a “designed to fail” component causing an accident on a vehicle going 300+ kmh?

      1. Wait, what? Do you work for Apple?

  5. After reading all expert opinions and timings, my best guess is

    Quali pace
    1/2- Ferrari/Merc
    4/5/6- Alfa/Renault/Hass
    7/8/9- TR/Mclaren/RP
    10- Williams

    Race pace
    1/2/3- Ferrari/Merc/RBR
    4/5/6- Alfa/Renault/Hass
    7/8- TR/RP
    9/10- Mclaren/Williams

    I guess we find out this weekend

    1. Racing Point has shown better pace in the races than in quali. No reason why that should change, they’re keeping the bomb-proof PU in the back.

    2. @nin13 I wonder why you place McLaren so low.

      Imho based on my own analysis of the test times they are up there with Renault and Haas, which is backed up by the most comprehensive analysis of the testing that I have seen, which takes tyre degradation and fuel loads into account. This can be found at f1metrics.com.

      The others seem to be in the right place.

    3. According to F1 metrics the gap between Red Bull and the upper midfield isn’t that large. The main problem of the Renault engine they were using until last year, was the lack of qualifying performance. The Honda engine looks better in terms of outright pace, but may be worse in terms of reliability and fuel consumption. Therefore, I expect the Renault-powered team to be more competitive in the race, whereas Red Bull and Toro Rosso may struggle.

  6. MaliceCooper
    11th March 2019, 16:53

    So when Lewis crosses the line 20 seconds ahead of Seb, Toto will remain coy and maintain that they are probably still a bit slower than the Ferrari. And perhaps the Redbull. And under pressure from the midfield pack. :-)

  7. It’s very sad to see Williams so far down. I really do hope they can turn it around, and fight for titles like they used to in 80’s/90’s, or at least be a podium contender like when they were with BMW. They have a great driver’s and team and they deserve more. Money has just taken over who is fast and who is not.

  8. I think williams will be closer than it appears, they did hardly any proper running, nearly every lap was data collecting to make up for lost time. I just hope 3 free practises will be enough for the drivers to fine tune the car a bit to feel comfortable, but I suspect most of fp1 will be with data sensors on the car. In a couple races I think they can be competitive. They still have a Mercedes motor, and the car is more predictable to drive than last years according to kubica, so Williams have no excuses. Just hope they can keep up development at the pace of other teams. Who will be their new technical director?

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