6 MotoGP storylines we’re predicting for 2018

Want to know what will happen in MotoGP this season? We’ve gazed into the crystal ball …

THIS STORY ORIGINALLY APPEARED ON REDBULL.COM

That sound you hear, rumbling away in the distance? It’s the sound of MotoGP testing for 2018, which is set to get underway in Malaysia in a little over two weeks’ time. So while the world’s best two-wheel riders sun themselves on beaches in between clocking up the kilometres using pedal power rather than horsepower to stay fit, we’ve dusted off the crystal ball and peered into the season before us.

It’s a season where plenty of the familiar names at the sharp end will stay with their existing teams before what will surely be a very silly silly season (all but three riders are out of contract at the end of 2018), but one where riders in the mid-grid squads like Scott Redding, Tito Rabat and our own Jack Miller look to make their mark in new colours.

There’s an extra race to extend the calendar to 19 Grands Prix as Thailand comes on stream in October, while a test at the Chang International Circuit in Buriram (sadly, for fans who like to see MotoGP machinery at Phillip Island when the weather is actually good) replaces Australia on the pre-season schedule in February.

We can’t guarantee what MotoGP can serve up in 2018 after a gripping head-to-head battle between Marc Marquez and Andrea Dovizioso last year that followed a cracking 2016 campaign where nine different riders won races. But we’re more than happy to stick our necks out to predict a six-pack of storylines we’re expecting to see this season.

1. Rossi will ride on

No athlete is bigger than the sport they participate in, but there are some whose achievements (and fame because of them) place them on an entirely different level. In modern-day sport, Usain Bolt for athletics and Roger Federer for tennis come to mind. But do even those two giants cast as large of a shadow over their sporting universe as Valentino Rossi? At almost every round of the world championship, not just the ones in his native Italy, Rossi is the number one drawcard, and has been for the best part of two decades. It’s almost impossible to imagine MotoGP without him.

Rossi has seen off generations – plural – of rivals, and changed his off-track training and way of life to cope with the fast new breed of youngsters who have whipped through MotoGP like a tornado in recent times. But the fact remains ‘The Doctor’ will turn 39 before the 2018 season starts, and last year was his least successful campaign on a Yamaha in 12 years, which, at least in part, could be put down to the manufacturer’s fading competitiveness as the season went on, and the broken leg Rossi suffered in a training crash that saw him miss his true ‘home’ race at Misano.

Contracted to the end of 2018, Rossi has repeatedly said he’ll make a decision on his future based on how competitive the Yamaha package is straight out of the box in testing, and how he fares in the opening few races relative to the opposition. He’s still training like a demon, and on his day when the bike is up to it, he’s as formidable as ever – witness Phillip Island last year, three races before the end of the season, where he was in a manic seven-bike fight for the win up to his elbows.

Rossi doesn’t need the money, has nothing to prove, and wouldn’t tarnish his status one bit should he choose to walk away. But we’re predicting another season, perhaps even two, for the nine-time world champion that will take him well into his 40s. Series organisers Dorna will certainly be hoping so.

2. Miller + Ducati = podium

It’s the great outlier on Miller’s 48-race three-season MotoGP CV to date, his win for Marc VDS Honda in atrocious conditions at Assen in 2016 that was as unexpected as any victory we’ve seen in motorsport anywhere in recent times. His two next-best results in the premier class came in equally rubbish weather at Assen and Misano last year, where he hauled his bike to sixth. But 2018 shapes as the year the Townsville tyro, who turns 23 this week, moves forwards in all conditions, not just ones where umbrellas aren’t optional extras.

Miller made a promising start to life with Pramac Ducati when he lapped faster on the GP17 machine on his first day of testing at Valencia last November than he managed on the final race weekend of the season on his satellite Honda, and the characteristics of the Ducati – searing straight-line speed and a bike that doesn’t mind being manhandled into corners – should suit his attacking instincts down to the ground. He’ll be on the bike new teammate Danilo Petrucci took to the podium four times last season (three times in the wet), and while we’re expecting ‘Jackass’ to be stronger in all conditions this year, watch him go when the heavens open.

3. Zarco will win races …

Flying Frenchman Johann Zarco arguably shouldn’t be on this list – he probably should have saluted in Valencia last year after leading most of the final race of the season before being pipped by Dani Pedrosa – but after a rookie season that was as impressive as any we’ve seen for riders not named Marquez in recent times, we think the 27-year-old is ready to take victories – plural – this season. He’s fast, uncompromising in wheel-to-wheel battles, cares not a jot for what his rivals think of him and has tyre management smarts that belie his lack of experience on MotoGP machinery.

The final four races of Zarco’s rookie season featured a pole in Japan before finishes of fourth (Australia), third (Malaysia) and the aforementioned second in Valencia; while we’re not suggesting that sequence points immediately towards a win in the Qatar season-opener on March 18, it wouldn’t surprise us if he wins one of the opening handful of races this year, and adds another one or two later on. He’s probably not ready for a genuine title tilt – yet – but this surely is the year Zarco salutes from the top step of a premier-class rostrum for the first time. It won’t be the last, either.

4. But what of his future?

Let’s marry points one and three above. If Rossi stays at the factory Yamaha squad, and given teammate Maverick Vinales is surely going nowhere, then a move from the Tech 3 Yamaha satellite squad for Zarco isn’t happening. The factory Honda and Ducati line-ups probably won’t be changing for 2019 either. So if Zarco is hell-bent on a factory ride (he should be) and has the talent to secure one (he does), then does his future have an orange hue, as in the colours of KTM?

The Austrian manufacturer was miles off the pace at the beginning of its first MotoGP campaign last year, but progressed at a rapid rate, a seemingly endless array of chassis updates propelling a bike that couldn’t see the front of the field with binoculars in Qatar to one that was inside the top 10 and 16 seconds off the race win in Australia in the hands of Pol Espargaro. KTM already look to have left other factory outfits (Aprilia, Suzuki) behind, and with another year of development under its belt, could be a very coveted bike for the 2019 season. If doors close for Zarco at Yamaha (and we suspect they will), a move to KTM would be entirely logical.

5. The same top dog at Ducati

The surprise storyline of 2017 was the emergence of Dovizioso as genuine title threat – after all, the Italian came into last season as a very respectable MotoGP rider with a reputation as one of the best late-brakers in the business, but one who had won all of two premier-class races in nine previous seasons. Six victories and a fight with Marquez that went to the wire changed all of that, and the 31-year-old’s career year – particularly when contrasted to the struggles three-time MotoGP champion Jorge Lorenzo endured as Dovizioso’s new teammate – was one story we didn’t see coming 12 months ago.

The very characteristics of the Ducati that Dovizioso tamed last year, and should so suit Miller this year, didn’t play into the hands of Lorenzo’s silky-smooth riding style honed from years of riding Yamaha machinery that was untouchable in high-speed corners, allowing the metronomic Mallorcan to churn out near-identical laps one after another as he broke his opposition mentally as much as physically. Seeing Lorenzo look ragged last season after years of stroking the Yamaha to win after win was quite jarring.

Can Dovizioso hit the same heights as last year as the disappointment of coming so close to the summit lingers? Or can Lorenzo put into place the lessons he learned from riding a completely different beast last year into practice and assume his customary position near the top of the standings? We’re not expecting Dovizioso’s advantage of last year over Lorenzo (124 more points, six wins to zero, eight podiums to three) to be as dramatic this time, but we’re still banking on ‘Dovi’ to be Ducati’s top dog again.

6. Marquez will make it a high five

Rossi will be occasionally brilliant and always in the headlines, Vinales will win races, Dovizioso will (probably) head Ducati’s charge and Zarco will ruffle feathers. But can any of that quartet – or anyone else – supplant Marquez as MotoGP champion? It’s hard to make a case for anyone else stopping the Spaniard’s quest for five MotoGP crowns in his first six premier-class seasons, especially as he’s shown he can win in every which way – from dominant season starts (2014, when he won the opening 10 races of the year) to tense last-race deciders (2013 and last year). His initial comments after testing Honda’s 2018 machine in Valencia last year suggested the new bike has left him with fewer unanswered questions than the two that came before it, and if he can win titles with a bike that arguably isn’t the best on the grid, imagine what he’ll do if the RC213V is the benchmark of the field? The odds on anyone else loosening Marquez’s stranglehold on MotoGP will be very long indeed.

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Six great unknowns about the 2018 F1 season

What are the big questions that need answers as the clock ticks towards Melbourne in March?

THIS STORY ORIGINALLY APPEARED ON REDBULL.COM

It’s merely 10 weeks until the 2018 Formula One season roars into life in Melbourne for the Australian Grand Prix, but there’s plenty we already know about the 21-race calendar for this year.

A starting point? Mercedes will, by virtue of their recent dominance and a relatively stable set of rules between seasons after last year’s dramatic visual overhaul, will start firm favourites again. What else should stay the same? Kimi Raikkonen’s retention by Ferrari should almost guarantee the Prancing Horse’s constructors’ championship drought stretches to a decade by season’s end, while Williams, by virtue of running second-year teenager Lance Stroll with (likely) Russian rookie Sergey Sirotkin this season, should ensure what has now become a midfield team has the biggest repair bill on the 2018 grid …

To get all Donald Rumsfeld for a second, they’re all known knowns, but what don’t we know about the season ahead? Gloriously, for those who love the theatre and drama of sport, plenty – so here’s a holiday season six-pack to digest.

1. Can Hamilton keep the hunger?

Lewis Hamilton has always gone to great lengths to have a life outside of F1 (even if we won’t know about it anymore after the recent purging of his social media accounts). Committed to his craft as he is, you always suspect F1 isn’t his sole focus like, say, Michael Schumacher before him, and Sebastian Vettel beside him. Which begs the question: how much winning will Hamilton want to do before he’s had enough?

Leaving McLaren to join Mercedes looked, at the time, to be a mistake for the now 33-year-old given the relative performances of the two teams, but after a so-so 2013 campaign, Hamilton has been mostly masterful since. In the 79 races since F1 changed gears to the V6 turbo hybrid era in 2014, Hamilton has won 40 of them – more than half – and double the number of victories recorded by the next-most successful driver of those four years, the now-retired Nico Rosberg.

Winning may not define Hamilton, but does it drive him? After losing out to Rosberg in 2016 amid a poisonous atmosphere at Mercedes, you sense the Briton relished the chance to take on Vettel in a true head-to-head contest last year and emerge triumphant. After trailing the Ferrari driver for the first half of the year in the standings, Hamilton rattled off five wins in six races after the mid-year break to stitch up his fourth world title with two Grands Prix remaining, showing the extra gear he has that few in history can match.

Hamilton is out of contract at the end of 2018, but expect him to go nowhere while the current set of regulations stay relatively stable for another three seasons, and while Mercedes should be at or near the top for the foreseeable future. He’s averaged 10 wins a year for four years – and Schumacher’s all-time win total of 91 is 29 away from Hamilton’s 62. Might the chance of being known as the best of all-time extend his F1 tenure before life takes a turn? It’s a very big carrot.

2. Has Ferrari learned its lesson?

Based on its re-signing of the 38-year-old Raikkonen for yet another season, five years and counting after he last won a Grand Prix, it appears not. But Vettel showed enough last year to suggest this one will be a closer fight with Mercedes for the whole season provided he can iron out the occasionally calamitous emotional spikes that can tarnish his otherwise superb driving (think Mexico 2016, Azerbaijan 2017, Singapore last year), and if Ferrari can improve its reliability after the Asian swing of races last year saw its title hopes turn to dust. Both big ifs, we know, but if the past four years of Mercedes dominance have taught us anything, it’s that the Silver Arrows won’t beat themselves – you’ll have to dethrone them.

Vettel’s first half of 2017, Azerbaijan road rage incident aside, was exemplary – and getting 2018 off to a similar start by winning in Australia and putting Mercedes under pressure is a must. Going on with it in the second half of the year when the races come thick and fast in a 21-race campaign that’s equal to the longest in the sport’s history simply has to happen if Ferrari is to snap a drivers’ championship drought that goes back to Raikkonen’s title in 2007, when Hamilton was a rookie at McLaren.

3. Are Renault up to it?

Red Bull Racing finished 2017 in no-man’s land, very rarely a chance to beat Mercedes and Ferrari in a straight fight on pace, and very rarely under pressure from Force India and the rest in the rear-view mirror. While Max Verstappen and Daniel Ricciardo won three races between them, Red Bull finished 154 points behind Ferrari (and a massive 300 behind Mercedes) in third in the constructors’ championship, and nearly 200 points clear of Force India in fourth. ‘Best of the rest’ was a common refrain.

What could change their predicament in 2018? What would add plenty of spice to the championship as a whole would be a Renault power unit that could allow Red Bull, not to mention new client McLaren and even the Renault works team, to take the fight to the top two squads more regularly. Renault’s reliability woes last year were masked somewhat by Honda’s almost comical number of grid penalties for new engine components that left McLaren’s drivers starting at the very back more often than not, and with the number of engines per driver for the season being reduced (from four to three) with one more race than last year’s 20 Grands Prix, it doesn’t bode well.

But what if Renault could find some extra horsepower while improving reliability? You’d have Verstappen and Ricciardo up the front more often, and the tantalising prospect of an inspired Fernando Alonso hauling a strong McLaren chassis into places McLaren used to be in its good old days. Not to mention the likes of Nico Hulkenberg and Carlos Sainz, Renault’s excellent 2018 combination, scrapping for occasional podiums and giving the top three teams a hard time. Renault rising to the challenge could make the 2018 season an absolute cracker.

4. Is Verstappen ready to win a title?

He’s 20 years old, has already won three races, and is tethered to Red Bull for at least the next three seasons. By almost any measure, Verstappen is the most exciting driver to come into F1 since Hamilton first wowed the sport’s fans from the first corner of his first race in Australia 11 years ago, but does the Dutchman really have what it takes to launch a world title tilt if his machinery is up to the task?

There’s almost no doubt that he does, the one small red flag being his judgement in wheel-to-wheel combat, as his teammate discovered to his fury last year in Budapest. But Verstappen has time on his side, experience to draw upon, a laser-like focus when the visor snaps shut and a lightness out of the car that suggests he’ll handle the ups and downs of an F1 title fight better than most, should he be in position for one.

After last year’s Mexican Grand Prix, where Hamilton secured the 2017 title, the Mercedes driver was already looking ahead to his defence, and who might stand in his way. “Max is an exceptional driver,” Hamilton offered. “I hope (Red Bull) have a better engine next year and they are more in the fight, I think it would be great for the sport. You have a potential world champion in Max, and he is only going to get stronger with age because he has a lot of raw talent.”

5. What will Dan do?

Number five on our list, but perhaps number one in terms of the impact a Ricciardo move could make on the driver market. The Australian, beaten handily by Verstappen in qualifying last year while winning one race (Azerbaijan) to Verstappen’s two (Malaysia and Mexico), is out of contract at the end of the season, a year where two tantalising seats (Valtteri Bottas at Mercedes and Raikkonen at Ferrari) could become available for the following season.

The ever-smiling ‘Honey Badger’ turns 29 in July, and, as he wrote after the 2017 season, there’s a “lot at stake” in his next career move. Leaving the only F1 family he knows, the team he’s won five Grands Prix with and the outfit he’s become an F1 star with would be risky, but we said the same thing about Hamilton and McLaren in 2012, and look how that has ended up?

Ricciardo has repeatedly said performance is more important than his pay packet, and Red Bull’s pre-season testing pace – a real weakness in recent years – will play a big part in determining what impact the team makes on the early races, where his future will surely be a hot topic. Watch this space.

 6. How much will we be talking about the halo?

Oh, boy. We’ve all known the most dramatic aesthetic change to F1 machinery in, well, ever has been coming for some time now, but expect a social media tsunami when the new-for-2018 cars break cover for pre-season testing in Barcelona on February 26.

It’s an inelegant solution to a serious problem, that of cockpit protection for the drivers, and you’ll be hard-pressed to find too many fans in Melbourne, when the halo-hatted cars will race for the first time, that believe the new look is an upgrade on its predecessor. Engineers will hate it – the halo and all of its various brackets and mounting points add 15 kilograms or thereabouts to the chassis, compromising weight on other areas of the car and the amount of ballast than can be used to aid performance – and the fans will find it harder to spot their favourite driver by their signature helmet design.

How will the halo affect the racing? How will the fans react? Will the heavier drivers be unfairly penalised by the extra weight? All unknows we’ll be seeing answers to very, very soon.

The 5 best F1 drivers of 2017

Who overdelivered, who made the most of their chances and who underperformed in Formula One this season? It’s time to name names.

THIS STORY ORIGINALLY APPEARED ON REDBULL.COM

If you think Formula One looked a bit similar in 2017 to the three seasons that preceded it, you’d be right. A fourth championship on the bounce for Mercedes and a third in four years for Lewis Hamilton meant that the Silver Arrows took the gold medal once again; for those counting at home, that’s 63 wins in 79 races for Mercedes since F1 went V6 turbo hybrid in 2014 …

So, is picking the best five F1 drivers of the year as simple as putting the two Mercedes pilots in first and second and everyone else slotting into place? In short, no. Some drivers out-performed the equipment at their disposal, others made giant strides in midfield teams, others did wonders in cars down the back, and one continues to be employed by a front-running team despite doing very little of note for four straight years …

We’re as confused as most about the latter, but we’re adamant about this: our top five list. We’ve scanned up and down the field, looked at their stats, their impact and the gravity of their achievements to come up with our best of the best. Let’s count them down.

5. Valtteri Bottas

The stats

Points/championship position: 305, third

Wins: 3 (Russia, Austria, Abu Dhabi)

Podiums: 13

Poles: 4

Fastest laps: 2

Head-to-head vs teammate in qualifying: Bottas 7, Lewis Hamilton 13

Head-to-head vs teammate in races: Bottas 8, Hamilton 12

Points compared to teammate: Bottas 305, Hamilton 363

The summary
If we were hitting the pause button on the 2017 season at the mid-year break after Hungary, Bottas would be closer to the top of this list, just as he was in Hamilton’s wheeltracks as the Mercedes pair tried to chase down Vettel at the top of the standings. But as Hamilton raised his game after the summer shutdown, Bottas wilted, the Finn beaten six times in a row in races and seven times in succession in qualifying as the eventual champion found a new gear. Losing out to Hamilton is no disgrace, but it was the size of the margin to his stablemate that was most concerning. Bottas never beat Hamilton again until the title was decided, and even then, his meek defence off the start into Turn 1 from pole in Brazil saw Vettel take a win that should have been his, and didn’t quieten the noise that Bottas can be found wanting in wheel-to-wheel battles. A win in Abu Dhabi was a strong way to round out the season, but he arguably should have beaten Vettel to the runner-up spot in the championship given the machinery at each driver’s disposal. Mercedes is undoubtedly a more harmonious team than it was in the Hamilton/Nico Rosberg era, but is Bottas capable of winning the title if Hamilton doesn’t, like Rosberg did? The jury is still out.

The quote
“There has been no point in this season that I have been in a massive panic about it, because this season started pretty well. We have got some good results together and at no point during this year have I got any signs from the team that they were looking somewhere else.” – Bottas on re-signing with Mercedes for 2018 in Singapore

4. Daniel Ricciardo

The stats

Points/championship position: 200, 5th

Wins: 1 (Azerbaijan)

Podiums: 9

Poles: 0

Fastest laps: 1

Head-to-head vs teammate in qualifying: Ricciardo 7, Max Verstappen 13

Head-to-head vs teammate in races: Ricciardo 9, Verstappen 11

Points compared to teammate: Ricciardo 200, Verstappen 168

The summary
Assessing Ricciardo’s 2017 campaign, both in relation to teammate Verstappen and in isolation, is a tricky exercise given the RB13’s propensity to break down – 13 retirements between its two drivers shows that maybe superstitions should be heeded when naming your car for a new season … Both Red Bull drivers saw the chequered flag in just seven of 20 races (Verstappen leading Ricciardo 5-2), and not one of the Australian’s six retirements were of his own doing – he had five mechanical failures, and was taken out by a clumsy (and later repentant) Verstappen on lap one in Hungary. Three non-finishes in the final four races and a qualifying deficit to his teammate saw Ricciardo’s season end with a whimper, but the high points were steep – five podiums in a row from Spain to Austria contained his brilliantly opportunistic win in Baku, a day when being flawless was as important as being merely fast. Ricciardo enhanced his reputation as being the most decisive overtaker in F1 throughout 2017, but it’s the years to come – especially given his teammate has been re-signed until the end of the 2020 season – that will be of most interest moving forward for a driver who becomes a free agent at the end of next season.

The quote
“It was a pretty grisly way to end the season, and when it finishes like that with no decent results from the last few, there’s a tendency to think it was average. But I went back through all the races in my head … and it was pretty good in parts, really strong at some stages.” – Ricciardo, writing for redbull.com

3. Max Verstappen

The stats

Points/championship position: 168, sixth

Wins: 2 (Malaysia, Mexico)

Podiums: 4

Poles: 0

Fastest laps: 1

Head-to-head vs teammate in qualifying: Verstappen 13, Ricciardo 7

Head-to-head vs teammate in races: Verstappen 11, Ricciardo 9

Points compared to teammate: Verstappen 168, Ricciardo 200

The summary
For all of the talk about Verstappen’s lack of luck and reliability this season – which was legitimate – it’s worth pointing out that the Dutchman had just one more non-finish than Ricciardo, and ended up 32 points behind his Red Bull teammate despite handily out-qualifying him over the course of the year. So how is he ahead of the ‘Honey Badger’ on this list? Momentum counts for plenty, and wins in Malaysia and Mexico (the latter as emphatic as it gets) in the final six races said much for Verstappen’s speed when his car actually held together. He was an innocent victim in first-lap crashes in Spain, Austria and Singapore, the middle of those the most depressing when he ground to a halt in a broken car just in front of a grandstand full of orange-clad fans who’d made the journey to watch him tame the Red Bull Ring. His Saturday speed – particularly when compared to a noted qualifying specialist in Ricciardo – was immense, and while he’s still prone to being impetuous in the heat of battle, the 20-year-old is still young enough to learn and good enough to improve. Verstappen has championship contender written all over him – it’s just a matter of how soon, and how he copes when the stakes are raised and wins are expected rather than being a nice novelty. Beating Ricciardo for the first time in the championship is a bare minimum for 2018.

The quote
“It’s been a positive end to the year. We will keep working hard to improve as we have done over the latter stages of this season – with some improvement from the engine side we should at least be close to the top guys next year.” – Verstappen after Abu Dhabi

2. Sebastian Vettel

The stats

Points/championship position: 317, second

Wins: 5 (Australia, Bahrain, Monaco, Hungary, Brazil)

Podiums: 13

Poles: 4

Fastest laps: 5

Head-to-head vs teammate in qualifying: Vettel 15, Kimi Raikkonen 5

Head-to-head vs teammate in races: Vettel 15, Raikkonen 3 (neither Ferrari finished in Singapore, and Raikkonen didn’t start in Malaysia)

Points compared to teammate: Vettel 317, Raikkonen 205

The summary
Was 2017 a championship lost by Ferrari after Vettel had them in a position to win it? Not once did it seem like the SF70H was a match for the pace and potential Mercedes appeared to have over the Scuderia, but Vettel won the opening race in Melbourne and stayed atop the title tree until just after the mid-year break. Then things unravelled quickly: Hamilton thrashed the red team at its home ground, Monza, and then came a disastrous Asian swing where Vettel was the architect of his own demise off the start in Singapore before car failures in qualifying (Malaysia) and the race (Japan) saw him consigned to being a mathematical contender rather than a legitimate one. Hamilton ended it all in Mexico, and Ferrari’s wait for a championship since Kimi Raikkonen took its last in 2007 reached a decade. It’s hard to know Ferrari’s true pace when the occasionally interested Raikkonen finishes more than 100 points behind his teammate in an identical car, but, Singapore aside, Vettel didn’t do a lot wrong, besides his moment of madness when he sideswiped Hamilton under safety car conditions in Baku. Can the Prancing Horse resist the bloodletting that typically takes place whenever it has been deemed to fail to allow Vettel to reload and go again over the winter break? For the sake of the championship fight and some variety at the top, we’re hoping so.

The quote
“Next year will be a different story, as we all start again, but right now, in these moments, you need to give credit to the best man, and that is him this year. Overall, he was the better man and did the better job, simple as that.” – Vettel on Hamilton after Mexico

1. Lewis Hamilton

The stats

Points/championship position: 363, first

Wins: 9 (China, Spain, Canada, Great Britain, Belgium, Italy, Singapore, Japan, USA)

Podiums: 13

Poles: 11

Fastest laps: 7

Head-to-head vs teammate in qualifying: Hamilton 13, Bottas 7

Head-to-head vs teammate in races: Hamilton 12, Bottas 8

Points compared to teammate: Hamilton 363, Bottas 305

The summary
Can one race make a season? Singapore was where the title fight swung dramatically in Hamilton’s favour when, after thrashing Ferrari at Monza the race prior, the Briton was presented with an open goal when Vettel, Raikkonen and Verstappen were all out within seconds of the start at Marina Bay. On Mercedes’ weakest circuit of the year, Hamilton banked 25 precious points to extend his series lead, and from there, it was a matter of when, not if, he’d join Vettel and Alain Prost as a four-time world champion. Hamilton’s second half of the 2017 season was devastating, and five wins and a second place in the first six races after the mid-year break show why he has to be considered one of the all-time greats. Sure, he had a car advantage, but the relentless speed he showed in a race he didn’t win – when he finished fourth from a pit lane start in Brazil and finished less than three seconds behind pole-sitting teammate Bottas – was a reminder why Hamilton is approaching rarefied air. With 40 wins in the past four seasons – more than half of the races held since 2014 – the 32-year-old now has 62 career wins, and Michael Schumacher’s record of 91 victories, once thought to be untouchable, isn’t out of the question. It’ll all depend on Hamilton’s hunger and motivation – and if Mercedes keep producing cars capable of winning championships, its star driver will surely stick around for a good while yet.

The quote
“I want to be better next year. The challenge is going to be even bigger from Ferrari and Red Bull next year. Formula One doesn’t sleep, it doesn’t stand still. There is always someone there waiting to take my position.” – Hamilton after winning the championship in Mexico

The Dan Diaries: Hitting the reset button

In his final exclusive driver column of the year, Daniel Ricciardo looks back at his 2017 season – and opens the door on his thoughts about his F1 future.

THIS STORY ORIGINALLY APPEARED ON REDBULL.COM

It’d been a while since I’d been back home in Monaco, so the main priorities were to check that the lights still worked and that the heater could be cranked up, because it had got bloody cold since I was here last. Tick and tick. And then it was time to exhale for a bit before getting going one last time for 2017. The back-end of the year is always pretty hectic, and I hadn’t been home much since before Singapore, back in mid-September. Saying that, I could probably use some more driving, because I didn’t get to do a lot of it the longer the year went.

Abu Dhabi wasn’t a great way to end the season for all of us, and I’m not just saying that because I had to retire. After I’d fended off Kimi (Raikkonen) early on, I was driving around and just about hanging on to Seb (Sebastian Vettel) in front of me, but probably didn’t have the pace to follow him in his dirty air and pass him. Fourth looked like the best it could have got, and I was genuinely thinking about the viewers, because it was pretty dull. The combination of the track layout there and how hard it is for these cars to run close to each other, it just didn’t work. Definitely wasn’t much of a spectacle. I don’t 100 per cent know why the track doesn’t produce great racing, but I think that when you have a slow corner leading onto a long straight like we do there in a couple of places, and when the DRS zone starts – in my opinion anyway – too late, then you end up with these static races where not a lot happens. The cars this year – wider, bigger tyres, more disturbed air behind – were always going to make this one tough. It was worse than we feared, most probably. Not getting any points didn’t help my mood, to be fair.

Retiring early again was pretty hard to take, especially after I’d qualified well. I pitted earlier than I wanted to because I thought I had a flat tyre, but because it happened pretty quickly and because I was sure I hadn’t run over any debris or something, I feared it was something more than that. Turns out I was right. I got back out there and then after a few corners, I could feel the steering was getting a bit weird and quite heavy, and that’s when I knew we had a hydraulics problem. The gears start to go, and there’s no coming back from there.

It’s pretty normal to start to feel the energy wearing down towards the end of the season, because we do a lot of travel in a short time and some back-to-backs. After the race in Abu Dhabi, and maybe I was a bit flatter because of how it finished for me, I had no interest in doing much. A few people in the team were going out to celebrate the end of the season and all that, but I knew I was testing at Yas Marina on the Tuesday, and just wasn’t up for it at all. With the way the season ended, there wasn’t heaps to celebrate anyway. Since Japan, a lot happened, but not a lot of it was good. Three DNFs in the last four races and only a sixth in Brazil to show for it – you know things are bad when Brazil is the highlight of the last few races, because I’d never had a strong run there in the past.

It was a pretty grisly way to end the season, and when it finishes like that with no decent results from the last few, there’s a tendency to think it was average. But I went back through all the races in my head over the last week, and it was pretty good in parts, really strong at some stages. I won a race, I had runs of five and three podiums in a row, held off Lewis (Hamilton) to get third in Austria … there was some good stuff there. It was very up and down though, and the DNF’s hurt both Max (Verstappen) and me – we had 13 between us, Mercedes had just one with (Valtteri) Bottas in Spain and Ferrari had five, and the crash at the start in Singapore was a big factor there. Too many for us, really.

There was too much inconsistency for me to call it an amazing season or a bad one. The reliability was inconsistent and for me, in qualifying – I put in some of my standard laps, but there were other times where we were left scratching our heads like Mexico, where I was fastest on Friday and then a second off pole on Saturday. Still doesn’t completely make sense now, that one.

For me, it’s geography rather than time that makes me feel in my mind that I can switch off, and that’s coming. I did the last race, tested for a day, went to Baku to do some promo work for the Azerbaijan Grand Prix, flew back to Monaco, and by the time you read this, I’ll be back in the UK for a week for Red Bull’s Christmas party, time in the simulator and some other things. And then I’m done.

There’s something about that last flight back to Oz from London and when you cross the equator – then you’re on your time and you can completely breathe again. The plan is to get back to Western Australia, not get on a plane except for when I go to Brendon Hartley’s wedding in January, and get away for a bit. Some mates of mine have rented a place away from the city and hopefully where there’s some bad mobile reception! That’s what I’m hanging out for. I feel I need to relax and go back recharged more than spending a month or so trying to do too much when I’m back in Perth, because next year is a big one for me. They’re all big, but there’s a bit going on other than just the driving.

By the time we all turn up in Barcelona at the end of February, I’ll probably be answering a million questions about what I’ll be doing after 2018 when my contract runs out. Which I’m completely prepared for, I get it. I’m actually a bit surprised how much it has been discussed already – not like it was new news that I’m up at the end of ’18 – but I guess Max re-signing with the team took the focus off him and sent it in my direction. It hasn’t been a distraction yet, but the longer it takes, the more people will ask the same questions 200 different ways – and I’ll need to come up with different ways to answer them the same way!

So where do things stand? The short answer is that there’s absolutely no rush, and things can take as long as they take – I’m not setting a deadline for anyone else’s sake, or just to get it done for me. I’m not just going to settle on something because I want it to be off my mind, because there’s a lot at stake. It’s a big decision for me, so if I need to take time to make it, I will. I’m planning on being in the sport for a long while yet, but in saying that, if I was to sign, say, a three-year deal, that’s a big chunk of the next part of my career. I need to get it right, so it’s a big call – the most important one for me yet, I think. I’ll take as much time as I need to. It’s not going to be a distraction.

I’m 29 next year and the next deal will take me into my 30s, so it’s not like I’m the young unproven kid who’ll sign anything just to get on the grid, or at the other end of my career when I’m hanging on and doing things year by year (I don’t ever want to get to that stage, I can’t see myself being that guy). You look at Lewis and when he did his Mercedes deal, he was the same age as I am now if I remember correctly. He was already doing very well where he was, but his career has really taken off since then. So, there’s a lot to consider.

You can get caught up in too many opinions with this, so I’ll use some people close to me as a sounding board and kick it around with some friends just to have the conversation, but I don’t like to have too many people getting involved. It has to come from me, I’m the one who has to live it. I know what I want, and the performance side is more important than ticking the money box, if you like. Having the chance to be able to fight for something really meaningful – races, championships – that’s the absolute priority. It’s not even close.

Being in the position to make the decision is something cool, something unusual, and something where I feel like I’ll probably learn a lot. No matter what happens, it’ll be a growing experience for me because it’s something I’ve not been through. It’ll be nice to stand on my own two feet and make some grown-up decisions. Maybe even act like an adult! It’s all part of the evolution, I’m told …

The 5 best MotoGP riders of 2017

Who shone the brightest on two wheels? Who was the surprise packet? And who underdelivered in MotoGP this season?

THIS STORY ORIGINALLY APPEARED ON REDBULL.COM

MotoGP in 2017 might not have had the sheer quantity of the season that preceded it; nine race winners a year ago was, after all, a high-water mark in the history of the sport. But in 2017, was had quality – top-shelf quality – at nearly every turn. Multiple last-lap thrillers, races turned upside down by topsy-turvy weather, a frantic race at Phillip Island that left most observers (and participants) breathless – there was much to like.

That’s the season in a nutshell, but what of the riders who made it what it was? Some 31 riders took to the grid in 18 races across nearly eight months, but who were the elite of the elite? We’ve scanned up and down the field while looking at their stats, their impact and the gravity of their achievements to come up with our five riders of the year. Let’s count them down.

5. Valentino Rossi

The stats

Points/championship position: 208, fifth

Wins: 1 (Assen)

Podiums: 6

Poles: 0

Fastest laps: 0

Head-to-head vs teammate in qualifying: Rossi 6, Maverick Vinales 11 (Rossi missed Misano with injury)

Head-to-head vs teammate in races: Rossi 6, Vinales 11

Points compared to teammate: Rossi 208, Vinales 230

The summary
This list isn’t measuring popularity; if it was, the seemingly ageless 38-year-old would be in pole position by the length of the straight, a remarkable feat given he’s eight years removed from the last of his seven premier-class titles, and 22 years from his world championship debut on a 125cc Aprilia in 1996. A broken leg suffered in a motocross training accident before the Misano round makes it difficult to clearly judge 2017 for ‘The Doctor’, but the stats show his points total (208) was his lowest in 12 Yamaha seasons across two stints, and the lowest in his career other than the lost years at Ducati in 2011-12. That’s the downside; the positives were his thrilling win at Assen where he edged compatriot Danilo Petrucci by 0.063secs, while qualifying third at Aragon just 23 days after busting his leg was something quite extraordinary. His appetite for the fight remains undiminished – he was right in the thick of the race-long brawl at Phillip Island and gave as good as he got – and while he’s out of contract at the end of 2018, don’t be surprised if he continues into his 40s if Yamaha’s bike proves to be competitive. The sport’s fans (and organisers) will be crossing their fingers that he does.

The quote
“Realistically speaking, even if I didn’t break the leg, I couldn’t fight for the championship because I was not strong enough. I was never able to do two good races in a row.” – Rossi after Malaysia

4. Johann Zarco

The stats

Points/championship position: 174, sixth

Wins: 0

Podiums: 3

Poles: 2

Fastest laps: 4

Head-to-head vs teammates in qualifying: 15-3

Head-to-head vs teammates in races: 13-4

Points compared to teammates: 174-84

NB: Zarco had four different teammates for the season: Jonas Folger (13 races, 84 points), Michael van der Mark (2 races, 0 points), Kohta Nozane and Broc Parkes (1 race each, 0 points). Folger qualified but did not race at the British GP.

The summary
Zarco arrived in MotoGP this year on a satellite Yamaha as a back-to-back Moto2 champion, but nobody expected he’d make his mark in the top flight as rapidly as he did; from fourth on the grid at the season-opener in Qatar, the Frenchman muscled his way to the front and led for the first third of the race before crashing out. He learned fast (Qatar was his only DNF of the year) and rode faster, finishing second in just his fifth race at home at Le Mans, qualifying on pole for his eighth race at Assen, and finishing the year with consecutive podiums in Malaysia and Valencia, Dani Pedrosa denying him a maiden win at the death in the latter. What’s more, Zarco showed no mercy when engaged in wheel-to-wheel battles with some of the sport’s biggest names, and gave absolutely no quarter in fights with Rossi (Austin) and Jorge Lorenzo (Japan), with Lorenzo slamming Zarco’s “PlayStation” riding. If and when Rossi decides he’s had enough, the factory Yamaha squad has his replacement ready to roll.

The quote
“He reminds me a little bit of me when I arrived in MotoGP. Really aggressive, pushing on the limit and nearly crashing, but in the end it is the way to learn.” – Marquez on Zarco

3. Maverick Vinales

The stats

Points/championship position: 230, third

Wins: 3 (Qatar, Argentina, France)

Podiums: 7

Poles: 5

Fastest laps: 4

Head-to-head vs teammate in qualifying: Vinales 11, Rossi 6 (Rossi missed Misano with injury)

Head-to-head vs teammate in races: Vinales 11, Rossi 6

Points compared to teammate: Vinales 230, Rossi 208

The summary
Pause this year’s championship after five of the 18 rounds, and Vinales would be an undisputed number one on this list in year one as Rossi’s teammate at the factory Yamaha squad. The Spaniard translated his pre-season pace dominance into the early part of the year, and wins in Qatar, Argentina and France, the latter coming after Rossi had made a rare last-lap error and crashed as the teammates fought for victory, saw the 22-year-old take a handy championship lead. From there? Just four more podiums, only one in the final six races when he was a brilliant third in Australia, and a 68-point deficit to Marquez by the end of the year. Yamaha tinkering with different chassis through the year hurt his confidence, and the bike was nowhere in the rain, which didn’t help as 2017 featured an abnormally-high number of wet races. Give Vinales a bike that can change direction and where he can get on the throttle quickly, and he looks the class of the field. Without that? Next year might look disappointingly similar to the end of this one.

The quote
“We started better than we expected … then we had some up and downs, and this confused us a lot with the chassis set-up and many things. It was important to do these mistakes so we don’t do them next year.” – Vinales at Phillip Island

2. Andrea Dovizioso

The stats

Points/championship position: 261, second

Wins: 6 (Italy, Catalunya, Austria, Great Britain, Japan, Malaysia)

Podiums: 8

Poles: 0

Fastest laps: 2

Head-to-head vs teammate in qualifying: Dovizioso 10, Jorge Lorenzo 8

Head-to-head vs teammate in races: Dovizioso 14, Lorenzo 2 (neither rider finished in Argentina and Valencia)

Points compared to teammate: Dovizioso 261, Lorenzo 137

The summary
If you’d asked for a show of hands to nominate who would emerge as Marc Marquez’s main rival for the championship this season, even Andrea Dovizioso’s would have probably stayed down. After all, this was a rider who was the wrong side of 30, had never finished better than third overall in nine previous MotoGP seasons, and whose second career win at Sepang in the penultimate race of 2016 was seen to be more as a curiosity (he was the ninth and final rider to win a race last year) than a launchpad for a tilt at the ’17 title. But that was the old ‘Dovi’; while his customary late braking and self-effacing nature didn’t go anywhere this year, his results – and the belief they generated – made him a new man. Who would have thought he’d take on and beat Marquez twice in head-to-head last-lap battles in Austria and Japan? Who saw him winning six races and nearly scoring double the points of his higher-profile new teammate, Lorenzo? One bad weekend in Australia – coupled with Marquez’s brilliance at Phillip Island – did for his championship chances, but the response he received after crashing out of the final race at Valencia to ensure Marquez would win the title showed the esteem he’s held in across the sport, and the respect he’d earned for a season few saw coming.

The quote
“This year, when people were asking me which opponent is the most dangerous, I was always saying Maverick, Dani (Pedrosa), Valentino, maybe Lorenzo, but I never said ‘Dovi’. It’s something I learned this year, that you need to try to pay attention to everybody. In the end the most constant, the most complete guy to fight for the title was Dovi.” – Marquez on Dovizioso after Valencia

1. Marc Marquez

The stats

Points/championship position: 298, first

Wins: 6 (USA, Germany, Czech Republic, San Marino, Aragon, Australia)

Podiums: 12

Poles: 8

Fastest laps: 3

Head-to-head vs teammate in qualifying: Marquez 14, Dani Pedrosa 4

Head-to-head vs teammate in races: Marquez 13, Pedrosa 4 (neither rider finished in Argentina).

Points compared to teammate: Marquez 298, Pedrosa 210

The summary
The ever-present smile and willingness to laugh were still there, but Marquez was worried at the start of the season when Vinales won the first two Grands Prix. After Catalunya in round seven, his body was showing the signs of stress. “After Montmelo (Barcelona) I was with my hairdresser, and she says, ‘what is going on, what happened? You are losing the hair’,” he recalled. Marquez vowed to manage his anxiety levels better, and after Honda made changes to its bike following a revelatory mid-season test at Brno, the results started to come. The result of that was a fourth MotoGP crown in five years, a six-win season that mixed the expected (he won in Austin for the fifth year in a row, and took victory at the Sachsenring for the eighth consecutive time) with the signs his mind is becoming as powerful a weapon as his sheer talent, his last-lap win at Misano and calculated controlling of Australia races won with brain as much as brawn. Add to the skills and smarts his incredible propensity to recover from slips that would leave most riders picking gravel out of their teeth, and you have the best rider in the world. Can Marquez get better? Why not? Remember, he’s just 24 years of age – and has proven that, with either the best bike on the MotoGP grid or without it, he’s the benchmark of a golden age for the sport.

The quote
“I feel really proud, I feel really happy … I’m in a dream. But I know where is the ground. I will be the world champion until December 31. When I go in on January, I will be another rider, another opponent, and hope to fight again for the title.” – Marquez after Valencia

What happened at the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix?

There was more Ricciardo woe in Abu Dhabi, as Mercedes ruled a line beneath another all-dominant season with a Sunday stroll to a 1-2 finish.

THIS STORY ORIGINALLY APPEARED ON REDBULL.COM

Mercedes
Lewis Hamilton: qualified 2nd, finished 2nd. Valtteri Bottas: qualified 1st, finished 1st.

Two weeks after he qualified on pole in Brazil but fluffed his lines into the first corner, Bottas made no such mistake in Abu Dhabi, nailing the start and breaking clear of teammate Hamilton early on as the Silver Arrows were the gold standard at Yas Marina. There were some heart-in-mouth moments for the Finn – Hamilton made the most of a Bottas lock-up into the first chicane to climb all over the back of his car for a corner or two on lap 49 – but Bottas showed the pace he had in reserve by pushing his lead back to 2.3 seconds on the next tour, and cruised to his third race win of the season. Hamilton kept up his curious record of never having won a race for the remainder of the season after securing each of his four world titles, but a fourth 1-2 for the season for the team was the perfect way to wrap up another campaign of setting a new benchmark for the others to follow. Hamilton may not be a fan of the circuit layout – “it’s impossible to pass here,” was his immediate reaction afterwards – but boring can be beautiful when a maximum bounty of points is scored.

Red Bull Racing
Daniel Ricciardo: qualified 4th, did not finish. Max Verstappen: qualified 6th, finished 5th.

Speaking of dull … Verstappen’s race was spent looking at the back of Raikkonen’s Ferrari for 55 laps, after the Dutchman’s early advances against the Ferrari veteran came to nought. He ran just behind Raikkonen for lap after lap, but never really came close enough to get past, the extra speed of the Ferrari down the two long straights cancelling out whatever Verstappen could do in the twisty final sector of the lap. At the end, Verstappen was 46 seconds behind Bottas, and a whopping 40 seconds ahead of sixth-placed Hulkenberg. At least he saw the finish; for the third time in four races since Verstappen signed a contract extension with the team, Ricciardo was forced out early, this time a hydraulics failure halting his progress on lap 21. After reversing his form against Verstappen to out-qualify his teammate with a brilliant lap on Saturday, it was a bitter blow – worse still, he relinquished fourth place in the drivers’ championship to Raikkonen. You sense the Australian may be ready for the off-season more than most.

Ferrari
Sebastian Vettel: qualified 3rd, finished 3rd. Kimi Raikkonen: qualified 5th, finished 4th.

A mile behind the front-running Mercedes duo and a mile in front of his dutiful and tardy teammate – Abu Dhabi won’t go down as a race Vettel will remember very fondly to round out a season where he led the championship for the opening 12 rounds and had Ferrari dreaming it could realistically end a title drought that goes back to 2007. The one slice of good news for the German was that, even with Bottas winning, he held onto second in the drivers’ standings. Raikkonen did what Raikkonen does – showed up, drove around, collected some points and achieved the bare minimum for a Ferrari driver. Finishing 112 points behind his teammate in an identical car sounds about right.

Force India
Sergio Perez: qualified 8th, finished 7th. Esteban Ocon: qualified 9th, finished 8th.

With Force India having secured fourth place for another year in the constructors’ championship, hopes were high that Perez and Ocon would get back to their feisty inter-team fighting that characterised the first half of their season, but the Mexican’s pace put paid to that, Perez finishing six seconds ahead of his young French teammate. For the 16th time in 20 races, the team had both drivers finish in the points; it’s hard to see how Force India, with its budget compared to the sport’s grandees, could do a lot better.

Williams
Felipe Massa: qualified 10th, finished 10th. Lance Stroll: qualified 15th, finished 18th.

Abu Dhabi brought the curtain down on Massa’s career, which started with Sauber way back in 2002, and a point for 10th in what is arguably the sixth-best car in the field was a fitting farewell present for a driver who so very nearly became world champion in 2008 before being pipped at the post by Hamilton in a memorable season-finale in Sao Paulo. The Brazilian veteran must surely have got a small kick out of eliminating old Ferrari teammate Alonso from Q3 with a ragged-edge final lap in qualifying 24 hours earlier. By comparison, Stroll’s race weekend was ragged for the wrong reasons, the Canadian hacksawing away at the wheel as he attempted to find grip, and then making three pit stops in the race where everyone else made one to finish plumb last and a lap down. With Massa leaving, all eyes are on who will replace him – and the team using former Renault and BMW-Sauber driver Robert Kubica in the Abu Dhabi post-race test will the story to follow over the coming week.

McLaren
Fernando Alonso: qualified 11th, finished 9th. Stoffel Vandoorne: qualified 13th, finished 12th.

Two points for Alonso ruled a line beneath the McLaren-Honda re-marriage that never hit the heights of its first go-round, and ensured the Spaniard would finish ahead of teammate Vandoorne in the standings after the Belgian led the way for much of the year. Vandoorne struggled mightily with rear grip issues in Sunday’s race, while Alonso kept Massa behind him one final time as he and the team prepare for the arrival of Renault power for 2018.

Toro Rosso
Pierre Gasly: qualified 17th, finished 16th. Brendon Hartley: qualified 20th, finished 15th.

Gasly admitted Toro Rosso was “stressed” about losing sixth place in the constructors’ championship to Renault in Abu Dhabi, and the team’s cause wasn’t helped when the Frenchman qualified just 17th, and teammate Hartley last while being saddled with yet another engine penalty. Gasly’s fears were valid; when Hulkenberg qualified and finished inside the top 10 and a mile ahead of both STR drivers, the fall to seventh overall – and the loss of approximately $6.5 million in prizemoney for the season – could have long-term consequences. Honda power – and 2018 – has to be the focus now, and that future will feature both Gasly and Hartley, after the team announced they’d be retained for next year in the lead-in to the race in the UAE.

Haas
Romain Grosjean: qualified 16th, finished 11th. Kevin Magnussen: qualified 14th, finished 13th.

Haas came into Abu Dhabi in eighth place overall, but with the American squad just six points adrift of sixth-placed Toro Rosso, hopes were high internally that Haas could spring a surprise. They didn’t – Magnussen ruined his race with a spin all of his own doing on the opening lap, while Grosjean, after he’d won a spirited battle with Stroll’s Williams early on that made up to some degree for the snorefest happening up front, could only make it as far as 11th, Haas failing to score for the third time in the final four races of 2017.

Renault
Nico Hulkenberg: qualified 7th, finished 6th. Carlos Sainz: qualified 12th, did not finish.

Hulkenberg made a lot of people clad in yellow very happy on Sunday, a calm drive to sixth and beating both Force Indias a superb effort, and one that gave Renault a much-needed financial shot in the arm as it reloads for 2018 with a driver line-up that can push the team even higher. The German, after out-qualifying Sainz on Saturday, beat his teammates in qualifying 19-1 over the course of the season, and while he copped an early five-second time penalty for leaving the track and gaining an advantage when fighting Perez on lap one, had the pace to keep him behind for the entire race even after serving his punishment. Sainz was looking likely to join Hulkenberg in the points in Abu Dhabi, but had to retire immediately after his pit stop when the left front wheel wasn’t affixed correctly, seeing the Spaniard brush the wall in the tunnel that links the pit-lane exit to the circuit proper.

Sauber
Marcus Ericsson: qualified 19th, finished 17th. Pascal Wehrlein: qualified 18th, finished 14th.

Was Abu Dhabi Ericsson’s final F1 race? Was it Wehrlein’s final race for Sauber? Who will drive for the team in 2018, and what will its engines be badged as? All pertinent questions after another pointless race for the Swiss squad, and with Ferrari junior Charles Leclerc almost certain to be at the team next year, one of its incumbents will go. Wehrlein is considered an outside shot at the Williams seat vacated by Massa, while Ericsson, whose links to the team’s ownership are a factor, could yet get a reprieve. In the season finale, Wehrlein qualified and finished ahead of his teammate as he ‘won’ the fight to be the least-worst. Could we see this team designated as Sauber-Alfa Romeo next season?

What happened at the Brazilian Grand Prix?

Sebastian Vettel had Ferrari back on top, but a pair of robust recovery drives from Lewis Hamilton and Daniel Ricciardo stole the show in Sao Paulo.

THIS STORY ORIGINALLY APPEARED ON REDBULL.COM

Mercedes
Lewis Hamilton: qualified 20th, finished 4th. Valtteri Bottas: qualified 1st, finished 2nd.

There was one Mercedes driver who had a standout performance in Brazil, and it wasn’t the one who started on pole and finished in second place. Bottas had a golden opportunity to use the fastest car in the field to claim a much-needed first win since Austria back in round nine; since, he’s been roundly thrashed by Hamilton in the sister Silver Arrow as the Briton careered towards a fourth world title. With the Finn on pole and Hamilton starting from the pit lane after crashing out of qualifying, Brazil was there for the taking – instead, it was Bottas who was taken, the Finn elbowed into second place at the first corner by Vettel and never really staking a claim for the lead later on, despite Mercedes getting aggressive with its pit-stop strategy and bringing him in for new tyres on lap 27 to put the frighteners up Ferrari. It didn’t work, and he finished 2.7 seconds from the win – and just 2.7secs ahead of Hamilton in fourth after the Briton narrowly missed out on becoming the third driver ever to start from the pits and end up on the podium. Hamilton came to Brazil vowing not to back off after winning the title last time out in Brazil, and showed how hard he was prepared to push when he overdid it in qualifying, burying his car in the Turn 6 fence and causing a red flag. An early safety car that bunched up the field helped his cause, but Hamilton was inside the top 10 after nine laps and looked set to catch Raikkonen for third, but a lock-up at the first corner inside the last five laps brought his stirring charge to an end. While a pole, a podium and Hamilton being voted Driver of the Day were good, what wasn’t was the news some Mercedes staffers had been robbed at gunpoint leaving the circuit on Friday night after practice, one of a number of similar incidents over the weekend that saw an increased security presence at surely the most dangerous location F1 continues to insist on visiting.

Red Bull Racing
Daniel Ricciardo: qualified 5th, finished 6th. Max Verstappen: qualified 4th, finished 5th.

The high altitude of Sao Paulo and Red Bull’s fragile Renault engine supply always loomed as a bad combination, and for Ricciardo, who retired from the previous two races in Austin and Mexico City with powerplant problems, Interlagos was a triple-whammy, more engine component changes making for a 10-place grid penalty. The chances of the Australian arresting his wretched record in Brazil – he’d competed in more races (six) than scored points (five) at Interlagos before Sunday – looked like a lost cause when was spun at Turn 3 by Vandoorne, whose McLaren had been tagged by the Haas of Magnussen at the previous turn, on the first lap. No matter; Ricciardo returned to the pits, had new tyres fitted, and then spent the afternoon tearing back through the field, his late-braking passes of one rival after another into the tricky downhill Turn 1 a highlight. Hamilton’s drive from the back in a better car gained more plaudits, but Ricciardo’s effort was sublime. Verstappen, who came in after winning two of the previous four races in Malaysia and Mexico, had a more statistically successful afternoon than his teammate, but spent much of the race frustrated at the power provided by his engine, and asked for a late-race pit stop to replace tyres that he said “felt like rocks”. With nothing to lose from fifth place, the team agreed to his request, and the Dutchman set the fastest lap of the race on lap 64 of 71. Fifth was as good as it was going to get – and sixth will be the best he can do in the drivers’ standings with just the race in Abu Dhabi to come.

Ferrari
Sebastian Vettel: qualified 2nd, finished 1st. Kimi Raikkonen: qualified 3rd, finished 3rd.

After losing the title to Hamilton in Mexico last time out, Vettel responded in the best way possible with just his second win in the past 13 races, a remarkable stat considering he led the title chase for the opening 12 rounds of the year. The German said he “chickened out” of his qualifying lap on Saturday, when Bottas edged him by 0.038secs for pole, but got his courage up on Sunday off the start, muscling past the Mercedes at the first corner and looking seemingly untroubled from there. It was Vettel’s fifth win and 12th podium of the year, and one that all-but assured him of finishing runner-up in the world championship – he leads Bottas by 22 points with a maximum of 25 available in Abu Dhabi. Raikkonen never looked like challenging his teammate in qualifying or the race, but took a third successive podium finish for the first time in his second stint at Ferrari, and for the first time since China-Bahrain-Spain in 2013, when he was at Lotus. Fourth in the drivers’ championship remains up for grabs, provided he can score seven more points than Ricciardo in Abu Dhabi.

Force India
Sergio Perez: qualified 6th, finished 9th. Esteban Ocon: qualified 11th, did not finish.

With fourth in the constructors’ championship sewn up, would Force India allow its drivers to race one another again in Brazil, and risk revisiting the acrimony between Perez and Ocon that marred the first half of the season? Sadly (for our entertainment, not the team’s) we never got to find out, as Ocon was pitched into a spin by Grosjean on the first lap and crashed, ending his perfect F1 finishing record; the young Frenchman had completed all 27 races he’d started before Interlagos. Ocon was unhappy with qualifying outside of the top 10 after he’d been a third-row fixture in recent races, and the dangers of being back in the pack in the frantic opening exchanges were painfully obvious. Perez, who didn’t drive in opening practice as the team elected to run Mercedes-backed British junior George Russell, this year’s GP2 champion, in his car, was thrilled to qualify sixth, which became fifth on the grid with Ricciardo’s engine penalty demotion. The Mexican was less happy on Sunday though, finishing at the back of the three-car train behind Massa and Alonso that flashed across the line almost simultaneously, two points a reward for his efforts.

Williams
Felipe Massa: qualified 10th, finished 7th. Lance Stroll: qualified 18th, finished 16th.

Interlagos was Massa’s final home Grand Prix – after it was his final home Grand Prix a year ago before he was retained for 2017 after the team lost Bottas to Mercedes. While he didn’t get the emotional send-off of last year after he shunted the car in the rain and was given an ovation from the passionate Brazilian fans, a seventh-place finish – effectively best of the rest behind the big three teams – was as good as it could have been, and Massa would have especially enjoyed keeping old Ferrari mate Alonso at bay in the closing stages, finishing less than half a second ahead of the McLaren. Massa jumped past teammate Stroll back into the top 10 of the championship after a difficult first visit to Brazil for the Canadian, who had his qualifying preparations ruined when his car needed a gearbox change – and subsequent five-place grid penalty – on Saturday morning. Stroll’s start from near the back was poor, and he had to make a late-race pit stop to change tyres after his left-front delaminated following several lock-ups into the first corner, finishing last of the 16 drivers classified.

McLaren
Fernando Alonso: qualified 7th, finished 8th. Stoffel Vandoorne: qualified 13th, did not finish.

Watching Alonso manhandle his McLaren into positions it has no realistic business being in – onto the fourth row of the grid in qualifying and competing for decent points in the race – has become a Sunday staple, and the Spaniard’s Saturday lap in Q3 was raw aggression and sublime skill at its finest. The lack of long straights at Interlagos didn’t punish McLaren’s cruel lack of straight-line speed, and the car looked mighty in the twisty middle sector, where the driver can make a sweet-handling chassis sing. Four points for eighth was Alonso’s second-best result of the year, which was encouraging on one hand, but a reminder of his past glories on another; the two-time world champion has been on the Brazil podium eight times without ever seeing the view from its top step. On the other side of the garage, Vandoorne’s race was over almost before it started, the Belgian squeezed into contact with Ricciardo’s Red Bull by Magnussen and making the long journey back to the pits on foot.

Toro Rosso
Pierre Gasly: qualified 17th, finished 12th. Brendon Hartley: qualified 15th, did not finish.

No points, but plenty of drama for Red Bull’s ‘B’ team in Brazil. Toro Rosso took engine penalties in Brazil for the fourth race in a row as their relationship with Renault splutters to a conclusion before a move to Honda next season – and then things got really interesting. Renault intimated that the installation of the engine could be to blame – “there are never coincidences in this sport,” said Renault head Cyril Abiteboul – which Toro Rosso team principal Franz Tost strongly refuted. The team then issued a statement prior to qualifying, suggesting that Renault’s constructors’ championship fight with Toro Rosso might have something to do with the recent unreliability of the engines it provides to the team … In the race, Hartley stopped just after half-distance with yet another reliability gremlin, while Gasly, who said he found the repeated engine penalties “hard to accept” as he negotiates the early days of his F1 career, was a lapped 12th after starting from the back. The good news? The lack of points didn’t hurt the team too much in the constructors’ championship, Toro Rosso taking a four-point lead over Renault (and six over Haas) into the final race in the UAE.

Haas
Romain Grosjean: qualified 12th, finished 15th. Kevin Magnussen: qualified 14th, did not finish.

Grosjean wasn’t happy to be in an incident with Ocon on lap one, and his mood didn’t improve when he was penalised – harshly, it appeared – 10 seconds at his first pit stop for being deemed to have caused the collision with his compatriot. “You must be kidding me,” he groaned. Stroll’s late puncture and subsequent pit stop spared Grosjean from finishing dead-last. Magnussen didn’t come close to getting that far after being the trigger for the first-lap accident with Vandoorne and Ricciardo. “I broke my front suspension, so it wasn’t the best,” he said afterwards.

Renault
Nico Hulkenberg: qualified 8th, finished 10th. Carlos Sainz: qualified 9th, finished 11th.

One point for finishing 10th usually isn’t much to get animated about, but for Hulkenberg, it was a welcome relief after the German hadn’t finished the past four races, and was driving with one hand behind his back to a degree, with Renault managing engine power delivery modes to combat Sau Paulo’s high altitude and its own unreliability. The margin between Hulkenberg and Sainz was miniscule all weekend, suggesting the car was being driven to its potential, but whether that potential can translate into points to vault past Toro Rosso in the team’s race despite having a much more experienced and successful duo of drivers remains to be seen.

Sauber
Marcus Ericsson: qualified 19th, finished 13th. Pascal Wehrlein: qualified 16th, finished 14th.

Ericsson made a strong start and benefitted from the early chaos behind him to nibble at the edges of the points for quite some time, but faded to 13th as his search for that elusive first world championship point continues with just one race left this season. Wehrlein, who was given a new suspension and aerodynamic update to his car for the race to combat the handling problems that had plagued him in recent outings, ran ahead of his teammate for some time, but admitted to “really struggling” as he dropped to 14th by the flag.