What’s happened in F1 this season that reveals plenty about what’s yet to come? Read on …
THIS STORY ORIGINALLY APPEARED ON REDBULL.COM
Formula One may be in its mid-season siesta – the next race isn’t until August 27 when the campaign resumes in Belgium – but we’ve learned plenty over the first 11 races of the season that will shape the story of the last nine from Spa-Francorchamps onwards.
What has happened already that gives us a pointer of what’s likely to follow? Plenty, but we’ll restrict ourselves to five storylines to watch.
1. Hamilton v Vettel: naughty or nice?
They’re statistically two of the greatest drivers Formula One has ever seen, but circumstances have conspired to largely keep Lewis Hamilton and Sebastian Vettel out of one another’s way in the 10 seasons they’ve spent together on the grid. But that was then – and how the ‘now’ plays out for the rest of 2017 will make for fascinating viewing.
Their brief stoushes in Spain were a sign of things to come, and initially at least, both drivers seemed almost thrilled with the prospect of a head-to-head fight, Hamilton saying after his Barcelona win that it was “such a privilege” to race against the four-time world champion in one of the “rawest” fights he could ever remember. That all changed of course in Baku, when Vettel rammed Hamilton when the field was behind the safety car after he felt the Mercedes driver had brake-tested him, and the sniping through the media lasted for days.
The pair aired their differences via text message in the days before last month’s Austrian Grand Prix, but haven’t spent much time on track together since Azerbaijan as Hamilton took a gearbox penalty at the Red Bull Ring, ran rings around Vettel and the rest at Silverstone, and was too far back from the German in Hungary to threaten his race-long lead.
Will these two play naughty or nice when – not if – they’re disputing the same piece of tarmac over the final nine races? Perhaps that depends on …
2. Does teamwork make the Mercedes dream work?
Hamilton’s decision to honour an in-race agreement in Hungary to let teammate Valtteri Bottas back through into third place after his fruitless attempt to attack Vettel and Kimi Raikkonen did wonders for Mercedes inter-team relations. But in the cold light of day, that decision cost the team’s leading driver three world championship points. It doesn’t sound like much, but when you consider the title has been decided by that margin or less 18 times in F1’s 70 seasons, you start to realise how big the gesture was, and how costly it could be.
Ferrari has no such problems putting all of its eggs in the Vettel basket, as the German is 86 points ahead of Raikkonen who, lest we forget, is out of contract at the end of 2017. With Hamilton sitting 14 points adrift of Vettel’s series lead and Bottas hovering just 19 points behind his teammate, does having two dogs in the fight help or hinder Mercedes as it attempts to combat the only Ferrari driver the red team wants to win the title?
It’s a conundrum for team boss Toto Wolff, and while it’s hard to imagine that a more collaborative working environment than the one Mercedes had when Nico Rosberg was Hamilton’s teammate is a negative, what if an easier place to work doesn’t stay as a winning one? Expect Mercedes to back both drivers for now, and expect Bottas to gift Hamilton points – maybe even a win – if Mercedes has an overwhelming upper hand at any track later in the year.
3. Bulls stuck in third gear
Yes, Red Bull has won a Grand Prix this year – and Daniel Ricciardo’s victory in what surely go down as the year’s wackiest race in Azerbaijan is one that will live long in the memory – but the painful fact for those at Milton Keynes is that the team has been in a race by itself all year, not on the pace (in normal circumstances) of Mercedes and Ferrari, and well advanced of the rest.
Five of Red Bull’s six podiums have been third places (four for Ricciardo, plus Max Verstappen’s third in China), while the Australian and Dutchman have qualified alongside or immediately behind one another six times in 11 races. Hungary shaped as an opportunity to strike on an atypical circuit, but Verstappen striking the sidepod of Ricciardo on lap one put paid to one Red Bull’s race while making you wonder what might have been for the other – even with a 10-second penalty for causing the collision, Verstappen finished 13.276secs behind race-winner Vettel.
The tight confines of Singapore shape as a good chance of better, but other than that, the circuit layouts from here until the season’s chequered flag in Abu Dhabi look like races where, all things being equal, Red Bull will be fighting for little more than the minor podium places.
4. The rivalry that could get nastiest
Studying the relationship between teammates on this year’s grid remains as fascinating as ever. The Hamilton/Bottas axis appears to be completely tension-free on the account of the Finn’s apparent abhorrence of politics, while Raikkonen knows his place alongside Vettel at Ferrari. Ricciardo/Verstappen generally is smooth sailing publicly at Red Bull, and the Dutchman’s quick apology after Hungary wasn’t much of a surprise. Elsewhere, Felipe Massa acts as almost a wise old uncle to teenage rookie Lance Stroll at Williams.
Which leaves us with back-of-the-grid Sauber, where Pascal Wehrlein and Marcus Ericsson seem to be forever telling the team to get their teammate to let them by … into 17th place … and Force India, the rivalry that has the greatest potential for fireworks from here on in.
The team sits in fourth place in the teams’ race, well behind Red Bull but well ahead of Williams and the rest, and repeating its best-ever constructors’ finish of last year is close to a certainty. More tension between Sergio Perez and Esteban Ocon after what we’ve already seen in Canada, Hungary and especially Azerbaijan? More absolute than that.
Perez has proven himself to be a steady midfield hand for years, has exquisite tyre management skills that can snaffle a surprise podium, and brings plenty of sponsorship cash to the team, while Ocon is fast, on loan from Mercedes, ambitious and has something of a reputation for getting in the way when drivers are on hot laps and he’s not, Ricciardo commenting that he was “not a fan” of the young Frenchman in Hungary.
Perez is the leading driver of the pink pair for now (56 points to 45), but expect this inter-team fight to get more fractious as we tick off the final nine races.
5. Who’ll be king of the middle?
You could throw a blanket over fifth through eighth in the constructors’ championship, but the standout driver of the eight who ply their trade for Williams, Toro Rosso, Haas and Renault this year has been Carlos Sainz, who has the potential to take Red Bull’s sister squad to heights it has never previously hit.
The Spaniard has 35 of his team’s 39 points to almost single-handedly overhaul Williams’ tally of 41, 15 of which came when Stroll benefitted from the Baku chaos to score a shock first podium in third place (for context, the Canadian’s second-best result came at home in Montreal, when he finished ninth).
Romain Grosjean has had Kevin Magnussen’s measure at Haas, but not by a lot, while Daniil Kvyat’s near-disappearance at Toro Rosso and Jolyon Palmer’s non-contribution as Nico Hulkenberg’s teammate at Renault means Sainz shapes as the star of F1’s second division, and the man most likely to see Toro Rosso finish in the top five in the teams’ race for the first time in its 12-year history.