Formula 1 teams tend to go into lockdown during the winter months. With no races or testing taking place, teams retreat to their factories, where they are flat-out preparing for the next season behind closed doors.
While we might not see the work that is going on at each respective headquarters, it is still a busy time as the groundwork is set for the coming year. Teams will have internal targets for car builds and performance gains, and external ones in terms of overall position.
So as almost all of those involved in F1 prepare for at least a few days off over the holiday period, it’s a good time to look at where each team finds itself during this off-season.
Starting from the back of the grid, we’ll cover the teams from Williams up to Toro Rosso this week, and close with Renault through to Mercedes in the second and final installment.
WHERE IT STANDS: In a very dark place. 2019 was a horror year for Williams. The car wasn’t ready in time for the first test, and when it was finally able to hit the track, it was a long way off the pace. Lawrence Stroll’s financial clout has gone, and the Robert Kubica experiment wasn’t quite the fairytale we all hoped.
But there are positives. George Russell was a standout performer even in poor machinery and is clearly an asset for next season, and in ROKiT the team has a title sponsor that has invested in the long-term and provides stability in terms of finances, if probably not in livery…
BIGGEST CHALLENGE: Reversing the momentum. Williams has been going in the wrong direction since 2015, with back-to-back third place finishes in the constructors’ championship being followed by a pair of P5s. 2018 was bad, but last year was even worse and led to a significant technical overhaul, including the ousting of chief technical officer Paddy Lowe.
Turning around such a situation is no easy task. As McLaren showed, there isn’t a quick fix, and that reversal took finances that Williams doesn’t currently have. It does have talented people at Grove, but even if they make the absolute most of what is available to them, it is still unlikely to result in anything other than a solid midfield performance.
REALISTIC TARGET: Halving the gap to the midfield. The deficit was significant throughout last year, and all of the teams Williams is chasing have, at the very least, comparable resources. The other nine all start from a much stronger platform in terms of car performance, so Williams shouldn’t be expected to work miracles, but just aim for a clear step in the right direction, even if it remains at the back of the grid.
WHERE IT STANDS: Probably taking a lie down after punching a wall. Haas clearly had a very quick car at its disposal, but a complete lack of ability to get the tires to work resulted in a tremendously frustrating season.
There were concerns about car development too, with the upgrade package introduced in Spain not producing what it was expected to and actually exacerbating the tire problems in some cases.
The Haas structure works to the extent of the underlying chassis that is produced being strong, and at least it knows where its focus needs to be given how obvious its weakness was. Plus, it has stability in key positions.
BIGGEST CHALLENGE: Making all the components come together – the car, the tires and the drivers. There is obviously no guarantee the car will be competitive in 2020 but Haas has a good baseline to build on, so the main task will be getting the Pirelli tires to work.
At least the same tires are being used next year, so the team has plenty of data to work with, but it will also need to ensure it gets good correlation between wind tunnel and track in terms of car development.
Get that right, and Haas will still need to keep its drivers away from each other on-track, and ideally away from incidents with others, too. The ingredients are there, but they didn’t mix well this year.
REALISTIC TARGET: Best of the rest. It looks a long way off given how often Haas struggled in races this year, but the car pace was strong and on many Saturdays it was competing with McLaren and Renault.
After P5 in 2018 this year should have been another step forward, and if it can learn from the experience then Haas will be right back at the sharp end of the midfield.
WHERE IT STANDS: In no-man’s land. Alfa Romeo is a bit of a strange case in that it was really inconsistent, and seemed to struggle for an identity. Even though there was less pressure to produce because the team was more closely aligned with Ferrari, it still underperformed despite salvaging some pride with a strong weekend in Brazil.
Having a world champion in Kimi Raikkonen contributes to that feeling. Raikkonen was excellent in the first part of the year, scoring in seven out of 10 races, but then only finishing in the top 10 twice in the remaining 11 rounds.
While so many other teams have significant aspirations and future plans, Alfa just seems to sit exactly where it expects to be. Hopefully that’s just an impression rather than an accepted reality, because if you stand still in F1, you tend to go backwards.
BIGGEST CHALLENGE: Providing value for money. In its current guise, Alfa needs to help promote the Fiat Chrysler-owned car brand, as well as deliver a place for young Ferrari drivers to develop.
The Ferrari partnership is one Alfa relies heavily on – even if it is a different relationship to the one Ferrari has with Haas – and so it needs to keep the backers happy. But it also could do with increasing its potential so that it remains an attractive proposition to employees and new sponsors. It’s a delicate balancing act.
REALISTIC TARGET: Greater consistency. That might not result in a position further up the championship standings given the potential of the teams ahead of it, but form fluctuated too much in 2019, and progress would be a clear understanding of how to replicate the stronger performances on a more regular basis.
WHERE IT STANDS: On the verge of a make-or-break season, in many respects. Racing Point had a pretty impressive season when you factor in the impact of its ownership change and financial problems in 2018. That badly hurt development of the new car, so to have been a threat for fifth in the constructors’ standings for much of the season should be applauded.
But that excuse is no longer there in 2020. The team has increased resources and an owner who will want to see progress that shows his investment is having an effect. While Sergio Perez is a known quantity and a strength of the team, Lance Stroll similarly can’t point to any first-season struggles in a new car next year and will also need to display an improvement.
BIGGEST CHALLENGE: Retaining its efficiency. When the team was called Force India, it was known for its impressive ability to get the most potential out of its resources. Often described as punching above its weight, it was a team that consistently maximized what it had available to it.
Now, it has a lot more resource available, and naturally that can lead to some inefficiency. But Lawrence Stroll knows what Racing Point was capable of in the past and will not want to see much go to waste, so keeping that small team atmosphere and productivity while enjoying the extra funding will be key to any success.
REALISTIC TARGET: Fighting for P6. The huge technical overhaul in 2021 looms on the horizon for all the teams, and that is likely to be when many targets will change, but Racing Point ended this season with positive signs for next. Scoring points in all bar one of the races after the summer break, the car was clearly improving as the impact of the additional backing was felt.
But infrastructure takes time to put in place, and while leading the midfield isn’t out of the question, doing so would also require McLaren and Renault to underperform. This is a team that has been best of the rest regularly in recent years, but it’s unrealistic to set such a target next season when its focus for big progress should be on the next set of regulations.
WHERE IT STANDS: Exactly where Red Bull wants it. As the junior team, Toro Rosso has played an ever more important role for Red Bull in recent years, not least in working with Honda in 2018. The fruits of that work were felt not only in Max Verstappen’s wins this season, but also in a best-ever points return for Toro Rosso itself.
There were a few off weekends, but Toro Rosso was regularly in the hunt for significant points, and proved that it is a well-run racing outfit by taking two big opportunities in Germany and Brazil, where Daniil Kvyat and Pierre Gasly respectively scored podiums. In 2020, Red Bull will be expecting more of the same, to allow the drivers to shine when a chance arises.
BIGGEST CHALLENGE: Managing the drivers. Kvyat and Gasly appear to get on well enough and are an experienced pairing in terms of what Toro Rosso is usually working with, but the Red Bull system means drivers do need to be perhaps even more ruthless than in any other team.
Alex Albon’s promotion mid-season shows Red Bull is still not afraid to make brutal – and ultimately justified – decisions, which keeps the drivers on edge. While Albon has impressed, his still doesn’t feel like a fully-cemented seat alongside Verstappen, so Gasly and Kvyat will continue to stake their claims, and if a young prospect emerges with enough points for an FIA Super License, the pressure will only go up even further.
REALISTIC TARGET: Regularly mixing it with McLaren and Renault. The two teams ahead of Toro Rosso in the constructors’ championship this season (outside the big three) all have the resources and facilities to build on this year and remain at the head of the midfield, but Toro Rosso’s potential should not be underestimated.
In the Honda power unit, it could have an advantage over the Renault-powered pair, and it now gets so many parts from Red Bull it is almost guaranteed a minimum level of performance. That means Toro Rosso can spend its budget in specific areas and deliver a car capable of being best of the rest on occasion, even if beating McLaren and Renault over a full season would be a big ask.