It’s the early laps of the restarted British Grand Prix. Max Verstappen is emphatically out of the race and on the way to hospital. Lewis Hamilton is second but facing a 10s penalty that should realistically rule him out of victory.
That shouldn’t be the end of the world if you’re Red Bull or Mercedes. Formula 1’s a team sport. These are clearly the two best cars on the grid. If one’s indisposed, the team-mate steps up at the front. Surely?
But the second Mercedes of Valtteri Bottas is down in fourth, behind Lando Norris’s McLaren. And the second Red Bull of Sergio Perez is picking its way through the mid-teens after a pitlane start was required following a sprint race spin when running seventh.
So what else do you want your number two for?
Being quick enough to be hovering around in the mix so your arch-rival’s strategy options are limited. Both Perez and Bottas have managed to fulfil that role this year, albeit not at every race.
Taking points off your main championship rival. Bottas hasn’t managed to finish in front of Verstappen in a race this year. Perez has the better record here, having shoved Hamilton down another place in Monaco with his brilliant race drive and been in the right place to win in Baku – albeit helped by Hamilton hitting the wrong button when overtaking him for what would’ve probably been the race win.
Winning the championship if your main hope is sidelined. Both Perez and Bottas are currently behind Norris in the points.
This is not to say that Bottas and Perez didn’t contribute to their teams’ championship causes at Silverstone. The qualifying tow from Bottas rescued Hamilton’s sprint race pole, and Mercedes praised him in the race for swiftly handing second to Hamilton when he was caught. Red Bull denied Hamilton the fastest lap point by yanking Perez into the pits for soft tyres so he could set the mark instead.
Those are both pretty demeaning ways to make a contribution, though. More reactive than proactive.
Bottas was grappling through a boiling race with no drinks bottle (a problem he didn’t offer as an excuse, incidentally), lost out with poor starts and then had his late-race pace compromised by having to change tyres earlier than he would have wanted to, in order to make sure he jumped Norris for third around the McLaren’s slow pitstop.
A disconsolate Perez kicked himself all weekend for qualifying 0.7s off Verstappen, making a mess of the sprint and then making limited, Pirelli-gobbling, progress in a grand prix situation that you might have expected to play to his improvisational tyre whispering strengths.
He gets a degree of a free pass on the grounds that he’s so early in his Red Bull career still, whereas Bottas has had four and a bit seasons to iron out the creases at Mercedes.
Make no mistake, both are up against all-time legends who few would beat or even get close to. Both deserve F1 seats and would be huge assets to any teams further back and would achieve great against-the-odds results for them in the future, as they did before their current employment too.
But as back-ups to Hamilton and Verstappen in the 2021 F1 title fight, Bottas and Perez aren’t being what Mercedes and Red Bull ultimately need.
Neither team has a straightforward alternative, though. George Russell will bring speed and ambition to Mercedes, but would he slot into a neat master/apprentice Jackie Stewart/Francois Cevert type relationship with Hamilton and bide his time in the wingman role till Hamilton steps aside? It would be a big ask, as would Russell adjusting from Williams quickly – the relative ease of the Sakhir Outer circuit meaning his cameo last year wasn’t necessarily representative of what he’d do the moment he became a full-time Mercedes driver.
Red Bull’s in-house alternative pool consists of the already-demoted and the unproven.
In fact, the team that looks best equipped for a title fight in terms of driver balance in the one that came agonisingly close to winning at Silverstone.
How things would be playing out if Charles Leclerc and Carlos Sainz had a Ferrari capable of a title bid this year is a beautifully tantalising thought not just because Leclerc looks so much like a Hamilton/Verstappen level driver, but because of what Sainz would be bringing to the party too.
The British GP skewed the Ferrari picture a touch. The 0.179s gap between Leclerc and Sainz in Q3 was – in a very congested part of the field – the difference between Leclerc being close enough to Red Bull and Mercedes to find himself in the race lead when things went mad on Sunday, and Sainz being close enough to a Williams to get elbowed down to the back at the start of the sprint race.
Prior to Silverstone, Leclerc and Sainz were just two points apart. That’s remarkable considering how new to Ferrari Sainz is, and how well ensconced Leclerc is there.
One trend of their first half-season together so far is their peaks tend to differ – when one’s thriving, the other’s been slightly lost with the car. Or Leclerc will pull off a qualifying miracle that’s not really sustainable in race trim, while Sainz can’t match the Saturday heroics but consequently gets the strategic flexibility to pull off a great race.
Right now, Sainz has 85% of Leclerc’s points total. Bottas has 61% of Hamilton’s, Perez has 56% of Verstappen’s.
If anything, that 85% mark might be a bit too high for a second driver in a title-chasing team. It’s very much ‘drivers taking points off each other’ territory.
But if Leclerc was sidelined for a period amid a title fight, Ferrari could be far more confident that Sainz would step straight in and win the championship for it than Red Bull could feel about Perez and Mercedes could feel about Bottas.
From a distance, it feels like the Leclerc/Sainz relationship would be cordial and well-reasoned enough to cope smoothly with Ferrari being in a title fight. The pressure of that happening, in reality, could change everything.
And Leclerc wasn’t shy about asserting himself over Sebastian Vettel at crunch points in 2019.
Ferrari might’ve looked like it was signing a number two for Leclerc when it hired Sainz. He’s looking much more like a number 1.5 – or maybe even a number 1.2.
Based on what they’d achieved before, you could argue that Mercedes and Red Bull hoped that’s what they were hiring when they picked Bottas and Perez respectively.
But if F1 really is heading into an era of multi-team title fights, then Ferrari can be much more confident in the driver firepower it’s got for that task than the present top two.