Welcome Back To Formula 1.5
12:52 PM EDT on March 20, 2023
I took an afternoon walk through my local cemetery-turned-community garden, arboretum, etc., with a friend this Saturday, during which we conducted a debrief on the week's qualifying in Jeddah. The primary topic of interest was not championship favorite Max Verstappen starting P15 thanks to a draft shaft issue—rendered non-dramatic because of the storied truism, "fast car is fast"—but the clearly more important matter of Lewis Hamilton splitting with his long-time physio, Angela Cullen, which is now one more bit of drama llama to add to the pastiche of angst that has become Mercedes and their zero-pod concept.
My friend described Mercedes's overall public commentary as whinging at such a scale that it was becoming irritating, to which I was briefly very viscerally upset because I am a persistent doomer, and Mercedes seemed like they were having a reasonable emotional response, even if the team isn't a stunning embodiment of Positive Mental Attitude at the mo'. One year is an off year, but two years is when it becomes dysfunction, and if some nebulous sense of Everyone Else is making a lot of comments about how Mercedes is performing worse than a customer team, then surely Mercedes could be permitted a rotten mood. But also is not unreasonable for a broadly neutral viewer adhering to the the "this is an entertainment product, and I will treat it as such" line of thinking to want Mercedes and Toto Wolff and their rack of 20-ish-straight-championship-trophies to please just talk a little less.
Unfortunately, I am not someone who has the ability to watch sports as people watch The Bachelor, i.e. with a sort of ironic sociological impulse. There are penalties, it turns out, both for farming for emotional narratives in a sport like F1, which is often unpleasant on a moral-ethical level, and for having your emotional state tuned, at least in part, to your favorite driver's success and/or legacy—which is to say, I really don't envy the position of McLaren fans this year.
Alex Jacques incidentally put it well in his commentary midway through this year's iteration of the Saudi Arabian Grand Prix: "Storylines everywhere you look, but not much overtaking on the actual circuit." There are a plethora of opportunities for twists and turns through the season but thanks to Red Bull's dominance, those upsets are removed from the things people usually want to care about, which are race wins and championships and tight racing and shake-ups. That's no fault of Red Bull's, really; it's just what a juggernaut does. In Jeddah, the top 10 finishers were nearly paired all the way down by team: Red Bull and Red Bull by a long margin, a lone Aston martin, then Mercedes and Mercedes, Ferrari and Ferrari, and Alpine and Alpine.
This is not to completely crap on the on-track action in Jeddah. A newly revitalized Fernando Alonso, who sure pulled off a coup of a career move, finally got his 100th podium after nine years hanging around number 98. He even briefly led the race, though it did not take much effort for both Red Bulls to pass him in time and without much pushback. Of course, this was not without stewarding drama to break up the catharsis: He received an egregiously delayed 10-second post-race penalty for incorrectly serving a penalty on lap 18, promoting George Russell to P3 for all of three hours before Aston Martin appealed and won the place back.
In non-Alonso news, Charles Leclerc had a series of very pretty overtakes after starting from P12 on the soft tires. In part thanks to a questionable safety car (hey, more stewarding drama!), Max Verstappen very nearly won a race from P15, which would've been only the second time in F1 history, according to the F1TV broadcast crew. Sergio Pérez fought off said safety car to convert his pole into his fifth career win—and he would've led the championship for the first time in his career, too, if not for Verstappen's final, fastest lap of the race, which spurred some more off-track scenes.
Speaking of that fastest lap: After it became clear that the remaining fourth-or-so of the race would be a glorified procession to the finish line, with a Red Bull 1-2 never in doubt, the racing highlights became relegated to the radio messages, which were in fine form this weekend. Here are some radio interactions in script form.
On the fastest lap:
Max Verstappen: What is the fastest lap?
Race Engineer, Gianpiero Lambiase: We are not concerned about that at the moment, Max.
Max Verstappen: Yeah, but I am.
George Russell: Is he getting a penalty or not? I'm pushing like a madman at the moment.
Race Engineer, Marcus Dudley: Just keep pushing like a madman.
Race Engineer, Xavier Marcos Padros: Try to push from safety car line one. Hamilton just pitted.
Charles Leclerc: Xavi, you need to tell me that before!
Leclerc: No, but come on!
Oddly enough, the greatest pessimism that you could have watching the race in Jeddah was that it wasn't rigged to be a boring finish from the start—Verstappen's qualifying issues, Leclerc's grid penalty, and Alonso starting on the front row were all factors that, in another season, might've opened the gates for something special. But even with all that set-up, the pay-off was middling at best.
One race into the season is a fluke, but two races into the season is enough to jump to conclusions. Since Red Bull seems to be the clear F1 champion, we're throwing it back to 2020 by panning away from the race leaders during the actual running of the race in favor of focusing on the the midfield teams, and celebrating when that 1-2 finish gets flipped every now and then. Welcome to Formula 1.5!
You could make the argument that we've been firmly in Formula 1.5 territory since Red Bull dominated after summer break last season, but I'd say it's one of those fickle matters of temporal division. You could also argue that Formula 1.5 is merely a state of mind, and as a long-time midfield team fan who had never, ever supported some scumbag big-three team, etc. etc., you've always been in Formula 1.5, etc. etc., in which case, yes, you do have the moral high ground; now let's all go celebrate this world in which Fernando Alonso—Fernando Alonso! In an Aston Martin!—may just end up being the people's champion.
There will probably be upsets, maybe a spare underdog win. I would say it's actually probable for Alonso to snag one. And maybe your PMA is even better than mine, and through the summer break we might hope to see Mercedes and Ferrari challenging Red Bull. But for now, on a racing level, it sure looks like your attention is better spent looking somewhere other than the top step of the podium, and that's not just doomerism—there's still Alonso and three new faces on the grid this year, and though not one of the rookies has the fortune of being in a decent car, there is something there; even in F1, there is something there.
Oh, and on that note, here's one last radio highlight from Yuki Tsunoda. Tsunoda, newly short a Pierre Gasly, has shown good form in his third year, but the AlphaTauri car's improvement has unfortunately been in inverse correlation to to his improvement through his career so far. He has finished just out of the points both races this season, though it certainly isn't for lack of trying or caring. Case in point:
Correction (1:20 p.m.): This post originally stated that Yuki Tsunoda was passed by Nico Hulkenberg for P10.