Sebastian Vettel, Ferrari, Hockenheimring, 2019

Analysis: Who made F1’s biggest comeback drives last season

2019 F1 season review

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It wasn’t just drivers from the ‘big three’ teams who impressed with their comeback drives last year.

The Mercedes, Ferrari and Red Bull drivers have an obvious advantage when it comes to overtaking other cars. But the likes of Carlos Sainz Jnr (McLaren) and Daniil Kvyat (Toro Rosso) made some of the biggest position gains in this year’s races despite not having the same kind of superior car performance.

Here’s who made the biggest comeback drives of 2019 – and how they did it.

11 places gained

Sainz: 19th to 8th in Austria
Kvyat: 14th to 3rd in Germany
Stroll: 15th to 4th in Germany
Perez: 18th to 7th in Italy
Verstappen: 19th to 8th in Italy

Sainz started 19th in Austria after opting to take an updated Renault engine early, incurring a grid penalty. He picked off drivers ahead one by one, typically on the back straight with the assistance of DRS and his fresh power unit. He finished eighth, impressively just two positions behind his team mate Lando Norris, who started much closer to the front.

Two drivers took advantage of the mixed conditions in Germany to finish in the top four having started nearer the back. Kvyat, who lined up 14th, lost three positions on the opening lap of the race but made up ground during his fourth stint where he was on the intermediate tyres longer than most drivers. This crucial element of his four-stop strategy propelled him to second until he was passed by Sebastian Vettel with two laps to go. It was his first podium since 2016 when he raced for Red Bull.

Meanwhile Lance Stroll, like Kvyat, pitted for slicks behind the final Safety Car. However he was passed by the Toro Rosso driver, missing out on the podium as a result.

Max Verstappen and Sergio Perez had engine change penalties in Italy and tangled with each other at the start. That meant Verstappen had to pit for repairs at the end of lap one, which made his afternoon even more difficult. By the end of the race he’d caught up to Perez again, but didn’t have enough in hand to pass the Mercedes-powered Racing Point, who made another strong comeback drive later in the season at the Circuit of the Americas.

12 places gained

Daniil Kvyat, Toro Rosso, Spa-Francorchamps, 2019
Kvyat gained more ground at Spa than he did in Hockenheim
Albon: 17th to 5th in Belgium
Kvyat: 19th to 7th in Belgium

A pair of former team mates made up a dozen places each at Spa-Francorchamps. Alexander Albon started his first race for Red Bull towards the back of the grid following a full power unit swap. He was running seventh when the final lap began but gained one place from the stranded Norris, then overtook Perez to finish fifth.

Kvyat struggled in qualifying due to a suspension problem. Having qualified down the order his team fitted a new power unit and he dodged the turn one collision between Verstappen and Kimi Raikkonen superbly, gaining eight positions on the opening lap, which perfectly set up his one stop strategy. He also benefited from the McLaren’s stoppage to finish seventh.

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15 places gained

Alexander Albon, Red Bull, Sochi Autodrom, 2019
Albon bounced back from a crash in qualifying
Albon: 20th to 5th in Russia

Albon made an even better recovery drive in Sochi. He needed to, after losing the rear of his car during Q1 and crashing. From the rear of the field he picked his way through the midfield during the race, though he might not have got past Sainz for fifth if he hadn’t been helped by the Safety Car.

16 places gained

Bottas: 20th to 4th in Abu Dhabi

Bottas started last at Yas Marina due to not one, but two, complete power unit changes. He therefore had a fresh engine, theoretically good for seven race weekends, for the final grand prix of the season.

That proved useful as a DRS fault hit the entire field at the start of the race, meaning he had to make do without it for the first 18 laps. Bottas was chasing down Leclerc in the final laps but had to settle for fourth – without that DRS problem a podium might have been possible.

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17 places gained

Carlos Sainz Jnr, McLaren, Interlagos, 2019
Sainz capped a great season with third in Brazil

Sainz: 20th to 3rd in Brazil

Another power unit problem for Sainz during qualifying in Brazil condemned him to another back-of-the-grid start. But a lively race provided the opportunity for one of the season’s most unlikely performances.

Having eked out his tyres on a one-stop strategy to move to the front of the midfield, late Safety Car periods brought drivers on fresher rubber within striking distance of his McLaren. However he was able to fend off the Alfa Romeo pair, despite their considerably fresher tyres.

His incredible tyre management ultimately earned him his first podium in F1 after Lewis Hamilton received a post-race penalty.

18 places gained

Vettel: 20th to 2nd in Germany

When an engine problem in qualifying prevented Vettel from taking to the track for qualifying at his home race he was forced to start from the back of the field. The Ferrari driver kick-started his impressive drive with a perfect start in wet conditions that saw him gain six positions on the opening lap.

He continued to pick his way through the chaos as other drivers like Bottas, Hamilton, and Leclerc made mistakes. An overtake on Kvyat with two laps to go moved him up to second place. He very nearly threw it away, however. Although the world feed didn’t show it at the time, Vettel nearly spun off on the final lap as he tried to claim a point for fastest lap.

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Josh Holland
USA-based Josh joined the RaceFans team in 2018. Josh helps produce our Formula 1 race weekend coverage, assists with our social media activities and...

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  • 18 comments on “Analysis: Who made F1’s biggest comeback drives last season”

    1. Very impressive to see the midfield drivers making up double-digit positions in various races.

      Although the world feed didn’t show it at the time, Vettel nearly spun off on the final lap as he tried to claim a point for fastest lap.

      And that is the clearest insight into the psyche of an F1 driver – 18 points in hand? Nah, try and shoot for a +1, even on a treacherous track that has claimed many other victims the same day (and himself a year ago).

    2. ”without that DRS problem a podium might have been possible.”
      – But probably wouldn’t have made a difference to the eventual outcome in the end as catching is one thing and passing another. BTW, not all of the PU-elements got changed for him, so not a ‘complete’ change.

      1. catching is one thing and passing another

        Yeah, but when you’re a Mercedes with DRS at Yas Marina, it’s pretty much the same thing.

        I think I he’s referring to laps spent behind midfield runners earlier in the race that Bottas would have breezed past normally. Then he’d have been in a better position to jump Leclerc under pitstops rather than pass him on track.

        1. Ben Rowe (@thegianthogweed)
          9th January 2020, 12:15

          I think that given he caught Vettel in a Ferrari well before the end despite starting last and having no DRS for a lot of it clearly indicates that he would have got everything done a lot sooner without the issue. He will have been behind Leclerc much sooner or past him under strategy. Also will have had better condition tyres near the end and likely could have taken away fastest lap from hamilton too IMO. I think the fact he was always following other cars will have effected his tyre life somewhat.

    3. Didn’t Albon also gain 12 places in China? He started from the pit lane (so effectively P22) and finished 10th

      1. @xenn1 It’s a bit difficult to start from P22 when there are only 20 cars on the grid.

          1. P22 is starting behind both the safety car and the medical car? :)

            1. @xenn1 @mashiat @eurobrun I hope we get back to at least 24-car grids one day so there’s a chance the record for most places gained in a race can be broken again (John Watson’s 21-place climb from 22nd to win at Long Beach in 1983).

          2. @keithcollantine don’t we all want 24-car grids?

            I’d like to add, though, that a driver winning from last place nowadays (with 20-car grids) would be a bigger achievement than Watson’s in my eyes, even though the record books wouldn’t portray it as such

          3. Wouldn’t that be P-23.??

            1. @rekibsn It would be P22.

            2. Yep, yer right of course … 20 -1 +2 = 22 Missed the -1.
              That would be my second, in the first case, turned out I only thought I was wrong.
              Hopefully we will be discussing 22 or 24 cars on the grid.
              I doubt it, but it would be nice.

    4. The most impressive comeback was certainly Sainz’s in Brazil. Even with all the fortune, that was an incredible drive.

      1. While that was a tremendous drive, especially holding off the pack with worn tyres in the finale, I think Perez’s drive in italy was more impressive. a number of the big position gains were aided by wacky races, but the race in monza was fairly clean, so to do that in a force india is particularly impressive.

        1. @frood19 The main reason I don’t rate Perez’s race in Monza as highly is because almost everyone behind him encountered some form of issues that made his life considerably easier and had to fight for fewer positions than Sainz. Verstappen had a lap 1 incident and had to pit, Vettel spun and took Stroll with him, who in turn took Gasly with him, Raikkonen got a drive-through penalty, and Williams is basically a safety car at this point. Not to say it wasn’t impressive by any means, but I just don’t see it as the best recovery drive of the year.

    5. Ben Rowe (@thegianthogweed)
      9th January 2020, 11:47

      I think most of these are very impressive comebacks but for different reasons. I think Bottas’s in the final race was possibly the only one that was aided by no safety car and barely anything else either. Also with a lack of DRS at one of the hardest tracks to overtake on makes it pretty impressive, even being in the best car.

      In terms of taking opportunities at a crazy race when they came without messing up, I probably would say Sainz did that in Brazil, but at the same time, I probably would say that was one of the more lucky recovery drives. As the number of things that happened on the last 12 laps were crazy. And this brought him from 8th to 3rd. And I’d say it was only his earlier overtakes that were totally on merit.

      Although vettel was certainly aided somewhat by the ability of his car and a few mistakes from other drivers, he did actually do a great deal of overtakes that race on a wet track. I think it was quite possibly the best recovery drive, and not just because of the fact he gained the most places. Just a shame that Vettel couldn’t perform like this more often.

      I didn’t actually recognise Kvyat’s performance at Spa. That is making it look much better than I thought he was.

    6. Sainz in Austria by a countrymile. He did not gain a single place by coincidence, technical issue of other driver or by other means, and he made his overtaking tour for the 8th TWICE. That’s a huge factor to be considered. His Brazilian drive is not far behind.

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