With a damp squib of a championship fight last season, the F1 midfield battle and the race for third in the constructors’ championship had the most action to be found in 2020.
And it looks set to be another competitive year from what we’ve seen in Bahrain over the last few weeks, despite a change in the running order and a few more dividing lines seemingly coming up.
Here we’re looking at McLaren, Ferrari, AlphaTauri, Aston Martin, Alpine and Alfa Romeo – as these feel like they’ll be the teams battling over the fifth-to-tenth spots each race, and ranking them from 3-8.
Their ranking will reflect who expect to score the most points over the next block of races, taking into account the car, drivers, reliability… and gut feeling.
What is The Midfield?
Despite some close running in testing and Q1 and Q2 of the Bahrain Grand Prix, there seems to be a definite gap between Red Bull and Mercedes at the top of the field, and the likes of McLaren and Ferrari.
In the race Valtteri Bottas was able to pit from third to go for fastest lap and still finish nine seconds ahead of fourth-placed Lando Norris (plus the time Bottas lost in his botched second pitstop).
Alfa Romeo are included here as they seem to occupy a hinterland between the midfield/Formula 1.5 and the ‘Class C battle’ where escaping Q1 is a good weekend.
Ultimately, it doesn’t really matter in terms of ranking whether they’re included or not. They seem entrenched as the eighth-best team from what we’ve seen so far. It’s just a question of who they’ll be fighting, and why not be optimistic for them?
3. McLaren, best of the rest
They’ve picked up where they left off in the Middle East, where they recorded 53 points over the final three races of last season (including fourth-placed finishes) to clinch third in the constructors’ championship.
Podiums may be harder to come by this year thanks to Pérez’s presence boosting Red Bull’s second driver seat, but it’d be a major surprise if the battle for third in the constructors’ championship comes down to the last race.
McLaren’s target has now risen to getting both cars in the top six (they managed that four times last season) and it’s difficult to see who can stop them regularly – Charles Leclerc is the main threat whilst Pierre Gasly and AlphaTauri will also look to mix it up.
But as long as Norris and Ricciardo aren’t beset by reliability issues (which has been a problem for the Woking team over the past few seasons) they’ll be there more often than not.
It’s just like the old days – Ferrari and McLaren with well-matched machinery and exciting driver lineups battling together up the order. It’s not quite 2007/08 levels, but it’s the closest we’ve had in a long time.
With Charles Leclerc and Carlos Sainz Jr, Ferrari have one of the best driver lineups on the grid (I’d place it third out of the 10 teams) and they’ve brought a substantial power upgrade that has catapulted them up the midfield after spending last year off the back of it in many races.
Yes, we’ve only had one race and by the end of the Spanish GP weekend we should have a much better indication of whether Ferrari are the real deal but they seem to have the car worked out (for both drivers – no sign of the stability issues that plagued Vettel last season).
It wouldn’t be a surprise to see Ferrari score multiple podiums this year – they managed three from the doldrums last year – and Charles Leclerc has that rare ability to maximise the car’s potential, especially when it’s on song.
The acid test will be whether they can be challenging McLaren within that top eight as the rule rather than the exception.
They seem to have the best chance of getting double-points scores next race – last season they were rapid at Imola, both cars reached Q3 and Gasly qualified a stunning fourth.
Despite his engine troubles forcing him to retire early, Daniil Kvyat took on the mantle and finished in fourth, his best result of the season.
Yuki Tsunoda is arguably an upgrade on Kvyat already and it showed AlphaTauri’s belief in their rookie that they sent him out on mediums in Q2 at Bahrain to try and get through – he should record points finishes more often than not.
AlphaTauri could even be closer to their Italian compatriots ahead of them than Alpine behind, they really look competitive in every facet – drivers, car, power unit and team brains trust – and with two very different tracks coming up they’ve the chance to prove that conclusively.
It feels a long time ago already that the Faenza-based outfit finished ninth in the constructors’ championship with just 33 points, but it was only three seasons ago. Are they the most-improved team over that timespan?
Alonso, basically. The two renamed podium-achieving teams last year have a lot of questions around them, and it feels unlikely either Alpine or Aston Martin will be regularly challenging McLaren or the podium places, as was the case last season.
But Fernando Alonso showed in Bahrain that we can remove a question mark from his name, as he recreated the wizardry he so often showed at McLaren to make it to Q3, and was only 0.034s away from Carlos Sainz in eighth.
His barren run of points is longer the Siege of Leningrad (with his DNF on Sunday it’s now 942 days and counting) but he was on track to get into the top 10 and could’ve challenged Lance Stroll or Yuki Tsunoda.
His teammate didn’t have such a successful weekend though.
Esteban Ocon was eliminated in Q1 and didn’t really look on the pace even before Sebastian Vettel rear-ended him at Turn 1, 12 laps from the end.
Both drivers have one year left on their contracts and Ocon still has a lot to prove at Enstone, but with the car and his teammate it’s a tough spot, and it looks like Alonso could be scoring the bulk of the points at least over the next few races.
7. Aston Martin
Aston’s machinery could be better than the boxy Alpine, but they don’t have the star driver who’s able to get the most out of it consistently.
However, it’s still been hit hard by the change in technical regulations that’s benefitted the high-rake cars and hindered Mercedes’ low-rake philosophy (on that note, how amazing is it that a version of the 2019 Mercedes is still competitive).
Lance Stroll can pull out the big result but can’t do it week-on-week as Alonso (or the McLaren and Ferrari pairs) can – his 2020 season was the definitive season of two halves.
Meanwhile, it’s not an understatement to say Sebastian Vettel had a nightmare at Sakhir.
There’s not much that can be added to what’s already been said but if he and Aston continue on their current trajectory they’ll not get much out of the next few rounds.
Last season they struggled at Imola and Portimao but they could be targeting Barcelona – both Stroll, Vettel and the team went well there as a whole during last year’s trip.
Lance Stroll’s 2020 season:
Stroll’s 2020 season started strongly but went into a tailspin after he crashed out from a strong fourth-place in the Tuscan Grand Prix. From then until the end of the season he only scored 18 more points, and only finished in the points three times.
8. Alfa Romeo
Last and at the moment least, the fact they’re being included on lists like this is a positive for Alfa Romeo.
They benefitted from Alonso and Gasly’s retirements in Bahrain but it was still a positive showing – they were out of reach of Williams while Giovinazzi’s 12th place in qualifying would’ve been the story of the day on most other Saturdays.
The Italian has been quietly improving, although he still has his moments, whilst Raikkonen knows his way around a Grand Prix weekend and will get a few good finishes like he always has.
Bahrain is probably a good weekend for them and it’ll be hard to break into the top ten consistently but even being around the top-12 is a big improvement and if they can get above 25 points for the season that should be a good haul.
If they’re still pointless heading into Monaco, that might be a bit of a disappointment.
Constructors’ championship as it stands: