Who is the dux of this year’s Formula One class? Who needs to raise their grades? Who gets extra detention? We’re naming names …
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Hear that sound? No? That’s the peace and quiet of the Formula One mid-season break, with teams specifically and the sport generally in its (northern hemisphere) summer shutdown for the season. For two weeks between tools down in Hungary last weekend to Spa-Francorchamps in Belgium for the next round of the season on August 26, the F1 world takes a pause to gear up for the frantic end of the season, with just two more races in Europe before the endless array of flyaways to conclude the 21-race campaign.
Rest? Not us. The summer slumber is the ideal time to catch our breath and revive an annual tradition, the half-term grades for the good and great on four wheels this season. And after 12 of 21 races (yes, not halfway, but the ‘halftime’ break), there’s no shortage of material to cast an eye over.
Sebastian Vettel and Ferrari have ensured this year’s championship chase shouldn’t be an intra-term Mercedes fight for the first time since F1 entered the V6 turbo hybrid era in 2014, while Lewis Hamilton has shown enough to suggest the road to the title still goes through the driver who, statistically, now has a chance of usurping Michael Schumacher’s seemingly untouchable records by the time his next Mercedes contract is up at the end of 2020 after extending his tenure at the team in Germany. We’ve had Red Bull winning races, plural, and Daniel Ricciardo showing that, if there were points for winning with style, he’d be leading the championship after barely-believable victories in China and Monaco. Max Verstappen sent the traveling Dutch fans home delirious after Austria, Charles Leclerc looks to be the best rookie we’ve seen since Verstappen with his exploits for a much-improved Sauber, and the constructors’ championship – from position four onwards – chops and changes seemingly by the race.
With nine races to go, who has stood out, for the right and wrong reasons? Who has exceeded expectations, and who has fallen short? Who needs to finish 2018 with a wet sail? And who might be getting extra detention if (just imagine) is the F1 paddock was a school classroom?
Here’s our take on who has earned what so far.
Dux of the class
Right from the outset, the 2018 F1 campaign was billed as ‘the fight for five’, as in which of Vettel or Hamilton could join the great Juan Manuel Fangio on a quintet of titles to trail only Schumacher (seven crowns) in the sport’s history books. The stats show that Mercedes’ Hamilton has a 24-point lead over his Ferrari rival at the mid-season break, and while there’s more to it than simply assessing the raw numbers before arriving at Hamilton as our mid-year dux, the Briton’s advantage has to be taken into account, and more particularly, how he’s taken it.
Hamilton was eight points behind Vettel coming into the German’s home race at Hockenheim and a million miles behind him on the grid, with the Ferrari taking pole while a hydraulics failure left Hamilton languishing in 14th. But from Saturday in Germany onwards, Hamilton showed that he has to be considered the favourite in the title chase despite driving, what most paddock observers agree, is a slightly inferior car to Vettel in 2018.
As the rain turned the later stages in Germany into a battle of who could keep their wits, Hamilton maintained his while Vettel dropped the ball, binning it in a single-car shunt to become the first race leader to crash out of a race in 13 years (Fernando Alonso for Renault in Canada in 2005). Seven days later, at what was considered by Mercedes to be one of its weakest races of the year on paper, Hamilton was peerless in a deluge in qualifying before winning in Hungary by 17 seconds from Vettel, who had to elbow his way past Hamilton’s teammate Valtteri Bottas just to minimise the points loss. The win was, remarkably, Hamilton’s ninth in succession when a GP weekend has been affected by, at some stage, wet conditions.
Both drivers have five pole positions, Hamilton has five victories to Vettel’s four (and that stat stands at 5-2 after Vettel won the season-opener in Australia and backed it up in Bahrain), and each has one DNF, Hamilton’s a car failure in Austria. And each has led the world championship after six of the 12 rounds, meaning we’re splitting hairs as to who has been better so far. Ferrari’s sheer pace and the relentless pull of its car down the straights means there’ll be some tracks where it’ll be untouchable, while Mercedes’ prowess in the high-speed corners means tracks like Spa and Suzuka should be right up its alley in the back half of the year. So what gives?
It’s hard to imagine Ferrari will drop the ball in the second half of this year as it did last, meaning we should get a title fight that rages all the way to the finale in Abu Dhabi in November, and, for the first time in the V6 turbo hybrid era, feature more than one team. But on the evidence of what we’ve seen so far, Hamilton has his nose in front of Vettel, with no other driver even worthy of an honourable mention to this point.
Doing the best with what you have available is the theme here, and top of this group are Ricciardo and Verstappen who, despite driving a Red Bull that most times is nowhere near the one-lap pace of Ferrari and Mercedes, have won three races between them despite having more non-finishes as a team (eight) than the aforementioned two other teams have had combined between their four drivers (six).
If our dux was going to the driver who ranks top of the class for opportunism and overtaking, then Ricciardo would be a shoe-in; the Australian’s driving in China, when he had a tyre advantage but had to pick and choose when to use it in the latter stages, was as good as it gets, and his win in Monaco while nursing a crippled car that seemed seconds away from retirement for the last three-quarters of the race proved that he has more strings to his bow than his usual swashbuckling style. Hungary, and his charge from 16th after lap one to fourth by the end, was an overtaking masterclass, and while he sits fifth in the title chase ahead of his teammate, he has just two podiums in 12 races, his results falling off after Monaco, often through no fault of his own.
Verstappen spent most of the first few races spinning, hitting rivals or clattering into stationary objects, but all that seems long ago after his superbly-judged win in Austria and other podiums in Spain, Canada and France, and he holds a healthy 9-3 lead over Ricciardo in qualifying. Like his teammate, the Dutchman has endured his fair share of reliability gremlins, but you’d back him in for another win or two before the season is out.
Elsewhere, the battle for the best of the ‘other teams’ (or, as Haas’ Kevin Magnussen has called it more than once, the ‘B’ championship) looks likely to come down to the Dane against old sparring partner Nico Hulkenberg, the Renault driver with his nose in front at the mid-point (52 points to 45) even while suffering from less luck and reliability (Hulkenberg hasn’t finished three races, Magnussen just one). Seventh place in the title race doesn’t sound like a lot, but it would be a career-best for either driver should it happen.
Leclerc’s excellent debut season for Sauber has made his eventual Ferrari promotion surely a matter of ‘when’ rather than ‘if’, while we tip our hat to Alonso, who has somehow coaxed 44 points out of a McLaren that arguably isn’t as fast (if more reliable) than last year’s Honda-powered machine, which scored 17 points for the whole season. The Spaniard may have turned 37 at the last race in Hungary, but his raging competitive fire shows no sign of being extinguished.
Could do better
Listing Mercedes and Ferrari drivers in our ‘dux’ section was easy, but listing their teammates here is harder, given that Ferrari’s Kimi Raikkonen is third in the championship, 14 points and one place ahead of his compatriot, Mercedes’ Bottas. But where else can you put these two Finns when they haven’t won a race between them in the same cars their teammates have used to take victory in nine of the season’s 12 Grands Prix to date?
Raikkonen, 39 in October, is having his strongest season in some time, which (perhaps not coincidentally) comes in a contract year. He knows his place in Ferrari’s structure; keep your head down, provide as much technical feedback as possible (an under-rated part of his appeal) and don’t rock the boat. Eight podiums in 12 races trails only Hamilton’s nine, and he’s been on the rostrum in all five races leading into the break. But Raikkonen hasn’t won a race since Australia 2013 (for Lotus), has taken 29 podiums without a win in the five-and-a-half seasons since, and there remains the nagging feeling that a younger, hungrier driver in a car that good could do more. He’s out-qualified Vettel just twice, trails him by 43 points in the championship, and has become an over-qualified number two driver in the twilight of his career.
Bottas, in an alternate universe, could have already won six races this season, which is six more wins than Raikkonen has sniffed. Bottas failed to take the last-lap chance he had to pass an ailing Vettel in Bahrain, got mugged by Ricciardo in China, had a puncture while leading in Azerbaijan, was on pole in Austria before his gearbox broke, had a tyre gamble backfire late in the race at Silverstone, and was ordered by his team not to attack Hamilton late in Germany with Vettel out of the picture. Yes, all ifs and buts, and yes, he has six less than six wins. But still; he’s generally been more on Hamilton’s pace than Raikkonen has been on Vettel’s, but sitting 81 points behind his Mercedes teammate suggests he’ll be used more as Hamilton’s wingman for the rest of the season, much as he bristled at the suggestion in Hungary last time out.
Are both Finns having solid seasons? Sure. Is there a case for expecting them to do better given what they’re driving? Their teammates’ stats suggest so.
Needs a strong second semester
We’ll share the love here. Ricciardo will be desperate to beat Verstappen for the third straight year, qualifying disparity or not, to keep the statistical high ground at Red Bull. At cash-strapped Force India, Esteban Ocon will need to put the perennially-underrated Sergio Perez in the shade if he’s to justify the expectations that he could be driving a factory Renault in 2019; after 12 races, Perez holds sway by a single point (30-29). And, as we mentioned earlier, Ferrari gets a berth here, as the sport’s neutral observers hope it can carry the fight all the way to the end against Mercedes. Following Singapore last year and Vettel’s start-line shunt after qualifying on pole, Ferrari unravelled to such an extent that Hamilton won the title in Mexico with two races remaining.
Who gets to sit in the naughty corner? Magnussen’s teammate Romain Grosjean has been left in the shade in points (45-21) and in qualifying (9-3) as Haas has emerged as a genuine midfield threat in every race, while it’s even worse for Stoffel Vandoorne at McLaren against Alonso; the Belgian has scored just eight of McLaren’s 52 points, hasn’t outqualified his teammate in the same car since Japan last year, a span of 16 straight races, and rapid reserve driver Lando Norris is hovering for a race seat.
As for the teams, you’d have a hard time convincing anyone who watched F1 religiously in the 1980s and 90s but not much since that grandee squads McLaren (seventh) and Williams (10th and last) would be struggling so much in the constructors’ championship, and Williams’ Russian rookie Sergey Sirotkin is the only driver not to have scored a point so far, 13th in Austria the best he’s managed. Good job there’s the second half of 2018 to come to put that right …