Author: Matt Clayton

The MotoGP 2018 mid-term report

Which MotoGP rider is dux of this year’s class? Who gets extra detention or has to write lines? Who deserves a gold star for encouragement? It’s time to name names …


Disclaimer, before we start: it’s hard to come up with a MotoGP mid-season review that lands smack-bang in the middle of the 2018 season, with the 50 per cent point coming halfway around the 11th racing lap of the Brno circuit in the Czech Republic on Sunday August 5. So you’ll have to forgive us as we go a few laps early on what has become an annual tradition – the half-term grades for the good and great of two wheels this season. And in a season like 2018, there’s plenty of material to pore through.

We’ve had insanely close races (Qatar and Assen, the latter instantly – and appropriately – hailed as one of the greatest Grands Prix of all time), the customary annual Marc Marquez masterclasses in Austin and Germany, the absurdity of the start of the race in Argentina (hello to all Jack Miller fans), and the frankly bizarre sight of Jorge Lorenzo, who was nowhere early in the season, winning back-to-back races on a Ducati at Mugello and Catalunya, the latter reprising memories of his most dominant Yamaha days where he broke the spirit of his rivals with one devastatingly metronomic lap after another.

Nine races down, 10 to go – so near-enough to halfway. Who has stood out, for the right and wrong reasons? Who has exceeded expectations, and who has fallen short? Who needs to finish the second semester of the year strongly? And who might be getting extra detention if the travelling MotoGP paddock was a school classroom?

Here’s our take on who has earned what so far.

Dux of the class

He’s become a regular in this spot, so perhaps the better way to make a case for Marc Marquez is to give you time to think who should be here in his place. (Waiting). See, told you. His wins have gone from utterly dominant (COTA) to calculatingly brilliant (when he broke up the pursuing pack with two spectacular laps to end one of the bigger brawls for a win the sport has ever seen at Assen), but it’s two races he hasn’t won that show why, barring something unforeseen, he’s likely to become a five-time MotoGP champion in his first six seasons by the time November rolls around. One was his controversial ride in Argentina, where he was in a different league in practice before a sketchy track caught him out in qualifying, and then his race … well, that, and the contact with several riders (particularly Valentino Rossi) that sparked a war of words wasn’t his finest moment, but one that showed the pace he has over the rest when he’s pushing as hard as he can. The other was Barcelona, when he realised he couldn’t safely keep up with a blistering Lorenzo and settled for second when Andrea Dovizioso, who looked to be his primary title rival at the time, crashed out early in the race. There’ll be the odd race like Mugello, when he fell (and didn’t manage to save a slide for once) and couldn’t get back into the points, but his rivals are going to need a lot more of those if they’re to deny the Spaniard a high five at (or perhaps before) Valencia.

Honourable mentions: One for Lorenzo, for his Mugello/Catalunya double after being basically invisible on a red bike for a year and a bit beforehand. Watching such consistent excellence in a sport with so many variables lap by lap is mesmerising when it happens. And another for Johann Zarco, who (before his home GP in France) looked the Yamaha rider most likely to snap the manufacturer’s losing run (more of which later) with a series of searing performances.

Others have had flashes in a year where 10 different riders have already made the podium, but nobody has been as fast for as long as Marquez has this year, and it isn’t close.

Encouragement award

Rossi deserves a reward ribbon here for his persistence, hauling a bike that isn’t at race-winning pace into podium contention time and time again with (typically) canny racecraft and decisive overtaking that overcomes his (alas, also typically) underwhelming qualifying efforts; he had a dramatic pole at home at Mugello and was on the front row at Assen, but he’s often having to fight recovery missions from the third row or further back.

Danilo Petrucci is worthy of a mention here as well, the Italian nabbing a podium at Le Mans and nabbing a factory Ducati seat for next year after Lorenzo’s shock defection to Honda to be Marquez’s teammate in 2018.

His Alma Pramac Ducati teammate Miller gets kudos too, finishing the first five Grands Prix of the year in the top 10, taking a big-balls pole with the lap of his life in Argentina, and riding an immaculate race in France, where fourth was arguably his most convincing big-bike result yet (even more so than his win at Assen 2016, as he conceded himself).

Elsewhere, Alex Rins has been fast when he’s stayed on the bike long enough; in the first nine GPs of the year, the Spaniard had two podiums (second at Assen and third in Argentina) and a fifth place in Italy, but five race-ending crashes. And Rins’ compatriot Tito Rabat has nearly scored as many points already (30) as he has in his best MotoGP full season (35 last year), turning his career trajectory around on a satellite Ducati after leaving Marc VDS Honda behind at the end of ‘17.

Could do better

Maverick Vinales was expected, along with Dovizioso, to be Marquez’s main roadblock to the title this season, but the Spaniard has been up and down in temperament as well as results, a pole in Austin (after Marquez was penalised) and just three podiums in the first nine races seeing him sit third in the title chase through persistence more than any real pace, and with his frustration mounting by the race. Rossi has done marginally better on the same equipment, but perception is everything – and the sight of Vinales getting swamped in the early laps of races on cold tyres and with a full fuel tank has been depressingly common in 2018.

Dovizioso winds up here too, if only for the strange way his season has shaken out – so, so consistent when he challenged Marquez for the title all the way to the line last year, he’s already crashed out three times in 2018 to make his chance of the crown the longest of long shots by the halfway mark.

Dovi’s compatriot, Andrea Iannone, completes our trio here, the Suzuki man showing why he should be pictured under ‘mercurial’ in the dictionary given how hot (back-to-back podiums in Austin and Jerez) and cold he can blow. In his sixth season (and his last one with Ducati before moving to Aprilia for next year), he’s nothing if not consistently inconsistent …

Needs a strong second semester

Vinales, for his own state of mind and Yamaha’s future given Rossi, 40 next February, won’t be (dare we contemplate) around forever. Dovizioso, who simply can’t afford to be out-scored by Lorenzo before the Spaniard splits for Honda, particularly as he had a 40-point lead over his teammate after four races. Miller, who will be hoping to rekindle the form from his first five races as he prepares to step up to become his team’s leader next year when Petrucci moves up and Moto2 front-runner Pecco Bagnaia moves in. And Alvaro Bautista, the Spanish veteran who sits 13th in the championship, who must prove his worth if he’s to be picked up by anyone for 2019 after the Angel Nieto Ducati satellite entry sold its grid slots to the Petronas Yamaha MotoGP team, to be run by the Sepang International Circuit. Which brings us to …

Extra detention

Dani Pedrosa’s body of work over a 13-year stint in the premier class didn’t deserve to end up like this, nor in this category. The Spaniard announced ahead of the German GP that 2018 would be his last lap, finally putting an end to persistent rumours that he’d switch to the aforementioned Malaysian-backed Yamaha project after spending his entire career riding for Honda. Once he puts a full stop on his career in Valencia, he’ll surely be remembered as the best rider never to have won a premier-class world title, and you wouldn’t bet against him riding with more freedom than he’s had so far this year and snaring another win before he leaves, extending his remarkable run of at least one victory in all of his MotoGP campaigns.

It’s testament to the esteem Pedrosa is held in that we’d even contemplate another victory after how underwhelming 2018 has been to date; on the same bike as the championship leader, remember, Pedrosa has a best result of fifth, has missed Q2 twice and is 116 points behind Marquez. Ten different riders have made the podium this season, yet nine races in, the 32-year-old isn’t one of them. Pedrosa’s legacy remains intact no matter what happens from here, but this isn’t the end we envisaged for one of the sport’s front-runners for over a decade.

Loyalty to Honda could have been one reason for Pedrosa not finishing his career on a Yamaha, but Yamaha’s wretched recent record could have been another, which is why they’ve also ended up in our mid-season naughty corner. Yamaha’s last win came when Rossi saluted at Assen last year, 19 races ago, and the most recent round at the Sachsenring represented an unwanted record for the manufacturer, as the drought became its biggest ever (Yamaha previously went 18 races without a win between Malaysia 2002 and South Africa 2004, Rossi’s first race with the marque). Three riders in the top five of the standings is one thing, but entirely another when they have zero wins between them …


Miller Time: The road to recovery

Jack Miller writes about being an innocent bystander in some first-lap chaos in Germany, and a comeback ride that left him happy but annoyed with himself in equal measure.


Hi everyone,

Started 14th, finished 14th – doesn’t sound like much of a German Grand Prix, does it? But there was a lot more going on in that race than what it looks like in the results, and while 14th isn’t going to get me that excited, it’s better than being where I was after three corners, which was last and almost in the fence.

It was a pretty chaotic start in the middle of the pack, and you probably saw what happened when Pol (Espargaro) ran into (Alex) Rins and I didn’t have any choice but to run off track at Turn 3.

It all actually kicked off before at Turn 2 when Pol hit me, he definitely rode a little bit out of control on the first couple of corners. He then hit (Andrea) Iannone and Rins, I forget in which order but he hit both of them, and I got tangled in it. I ran off through the gravel trap, managed to miss all the bikes and riders and got as far as the wall, managed to stay on and dug myself out of that, and there I was in last place, 29 laps to go and a fair way behind the rest of the pack for something I basically had nothing to do with. An innocent bystander, basically. So from there, it could only really get better …

From there it was head down, bum up and salvage what I could. I managed to get two points and somehow stay inside the top 10 (just, but I’ll take it) in the championship, and the good thing was that the pace was pretty decent. All weekend we’d been working on the race pace and that had been a challenge, because 30 laps around Sachsenring is a tyre management challenge as much as a race. The race pace felt good and my fastest lap for the race was ninth-fastest overall, so it probably shows you where I could have been without the incident. A pretty good recovery for me, really.

My pace was good enough to be well inside the top 10, that’s the annoying part. But part of that is on me too, because I’ve got to qualify better than where I did in 14th. That’s three races in a row I’ve missed Q2, and that’s the problem when you get buried for the start like that, you end up back in the pack with those sorts of guys and there’s always drama. For the second half of the season we have to recover some of the qualifying pace from the first half of the year; I was in Q2 for five of the first six races and you can avoid some of that other stuff when you’re ahead of it and they’re all running into one another instead of me. That’s got to be a focus for me because someone else’s problem can destroy your race like it did for me this time.

I’ve been coming to the Sachsenring for a while now, my first world championship race on a 125cc was actually here seven years ago, and while there’s some unknowns with whether we keep coming back here, I hope we do. It’s a small track, the shortest we ride all year and the race is the most number of laps, and it’s a strange place to ride a MotoGP bike because it turns left all the time and there’s no real straights to speak of. But I don’t mind it at all, it’s got a character of its own, and the place is always packed with fans – it was hot here today, there’s 90,000 people packed in, it’s a good look for MotoGP. It’s enjoyable because it’s different. It’d be pretty boring if all the tracks were the same with one kilometre-long straights and whatnot, so you wouldn’t want 19 tracks like that, or 19 like this. A mix is good, so for that reason I hope Sachsenring stays on the calendar.

We’re nearly at the halfway stage of the championship now – nine races down, 10 to go – and I’m keeping to that pre-season goal of being inside the top 10. I’d probably hoped for better after how well things started with the pole in Argentina and the fourth place at Le Mans, but 10th so far is something to build on.

We have a mid-season break now, but it’s not as long as it used to be, just two weekends, so there’s no going back home to Oz for me. I’m at World Ducati Week at Misano in Italy next weekend which should be a bit of fun, and I’m going to drive my van there to do some dirt-tracking and whatnot. Then it’ll be a drive back to Andorra, eventually – there’s no real plans yet – before we have the back-to-back at Brno and Red Bull Ring. The Ducati should go pretty well at those tracks, so there’s two to look forward to.

Cheers, Jack

What happened at the British Grand Prix?

Sebastian Vettel snaps a long drought for Ferrari at Silverstone, while teammate Kimi Raikkonen sends home hero Lewis Hamilton into a spin, and Red Bull struggle to hang onto the top two teams.


The build-up
The English summer – two words that often can only be used together when they’re accompanied by a laugh track – hit Silverstone with a vengeance for qualifying, air temperatures touching 25 degrees and the track temps topping out at a Bahrain-like 52 degrees. But Lewis Hamilton proved he could handle the heat, the home hero smashing the circuit record with a lap of 1min 25.892secs to take his 76th career pole. The Mercedes man needed every bit of that time too, as primary title rival Sebastian Vettel was just 0.044secs behind, and Vettel’s Ferrari teammate, Kimi Raikkonen, just 0.098secs off pole himself, but having to settle for third. “That lap took everything out of me, it was the toughest lap I’ve ever had to do in a qualifying session,” Hamilton gasped afterwards, following his fourth straight pole at Silverstone and 50th with Mercedes. “I had to go over the limit to get that time out of the car and I could have easily not pulled that lap together.”

Second for Vettel was a good save after he had to deal with a sore neck that saw him miss a good chunk of final practice, while Hamilton’s teammate Valtteri Bottas let the two red cars off the hook with a mistake on his final lap when second looked a possibility. “I lost it in the last two corners,” he admitted after finishing fourth.

The grip and cornering speed of the fierce 2018-spec F1 cars negated some of Red Bull’s usual ascendancy in high-speed turns at Silverstone, and their lack of straight-line grunt meant fifth and sixth were always their likely starting spots, Max Verstappen again well ahead of Daniel Ricciardo (by nearly half a second), although Ricciardo’s run was hamstrung with DRS issues. “When you go through a corner that’s almost flat and when you accelerate out of the corner our engine is just not pulling,” Verstappen explained. “You know you just don’t have the horsepower.”

While Ricciardo said his qualifying was “a bit frustrating”, the driver next on the grid, Haas’ Kevin Magnussen, was ecstatic to finish seventh, which he called “a pole position in the ‘B’ championship” behind the big three teams. A trio of Frenchman, Magnussen’s teammate Romain Grosjean, Sauber’s super-impressive rookie Charles Leclerc and Force India’s Esteban Ocon, all made Q3 and rounded out the top 10.

Further back, Renault had no joy as Nico Hulkenberg was 11th, while Carlos Sainz was way back in 16th, missing the top 10 for the first time all season. Williams had a session to forget with both Sergey Sirotkin and Lance Stroll spinning because of aerodynamic issues with the car’s floor, Stroll getting beached in the Turn 6 gravel trap, and the cars qualifying 18th and 19th of 20 respectively. At least they got out for qualifying – 20th and last on the grid would be Brendon Hartley, who didn’t take to the circuit at all after a massive front suspension failure saw his car spat into the Turn 6 barriers in final practice, Toro Rosso changing teammate Pierre Gasly’s suspension completely ahead of qualifying as a precaution. Hartley was, fortunately, fine; his car was a mess and needed rebuilding for Sunday’s 52-lap race.

The race in exactly 69 words*
Vettel took his second British GP win and the first at Silverstone for Ferrari in 11 years, but Hamilton minimised the damage to his championship chances by recovering to second after being tapped into a spin by Raikkonen on the first lap and falling to last. Raikkonen was penalised for the incident but finished third, while Bottas faded to fourth after two late safety cars prompted a manic finish.
(* 2018 is the 69th season of Formula One)

Ricciardo recap
Qualifying left the Australian more hoping than expecting to have a strong Sunday at Silverstone, and while he gained an early place when Raikkonen sent Hamilton spinning to the back, sixth looked the best Ricciardo could do, which prompted a second pit stop for new soft tyres on lap 30 in an attempt to have fresher rubber for the final laps. That plan, or at least the maximum effectiveness of it, was scuppered to some degree by Marcus Ericsson crashing his Sauber heavily at the first corner two laps later, a safety car being called the extract the Swede’s car, which had buried itself deep into the tyre barrier. Where Ricciardo was hoping to use his fresher tyres to make inroads into the drivers ahead of him, Vettel, Raikkonen and Verstappen all pitted as the race was neutralised, negating his one strategic chance to vault up the order. Neither Hamilton nor Bottas pitted for new Pirellis, and while Ricciardo was all over the back of the Finn’s tyre-worn Mercedes by the end, he fell just short of snatching fourth place, finishing 0.6secs behind without ever launching an overtaking move. Ten points for fifth was at least a better result than the previous Sunday’s non-finish in Austria, but the chasm between the Ferrari/Mercedes front-runners and Red Bull seems to have widened, even taking into account Verstappen’s win seven days earlier, which owed itself to some degree to Mercedes’ mechanical misfortune.

What the result means
It seems entirely appropriate that the first triple-header in F1 history gave us three different winners from three teams in three weeks, Vettel’s Silverstone success coming after Verstappen won at the Red Bull Ring, and Hamilton at Paul Ricard a week before that. But as much as F1 has shaped itself as a two-tier formula with three teams in the upper class, reality suggests that, at most circuits, Mercedes and Ferrari have the legs on Red Bull, with the final 11-lap run to the flag after the second safety car of the race caused by a shunt between Grosjean and Sainz at Copse shaping up as a furious fight between Bottas, Vettel, Hamilton and Raikkonen, with Verstappen and Ricciardo left to play distant spectators. A gearbox problem did for Verstappen five laps from home, the Dutchman’s run of three straight podiums coming to an end after his car was stuck in fourth gear because of a brake-by-wire issue, but neither he nor Ricciardo had podium pace all weekend.

Much as Hamilton was crestfallen to have not extended his home winning streak in front of a massive Silverstone crowd (and as much as he was criticised for skipping the pre-podium TV interview afterwards to retreat into the drivers’ green room before the podium ceremony), he and Mercedes will take some solace in that, on pure pace, the W09 in his hands still appears to be the car to beat. Vettel, as he has done so often throughout his career, made the most of an opportunity presented to him and didn’t let go, and his robust pass of Bottas for the lead of the race at Turn 6 with five laps left should quieten any critics who still, after all these years, question his ability to overtake. He also set the fastest lap of the race (1:30.696) on the same lap.

As we reach the (nearly) halfway mark of the season, with 10 races run and 11 to go, the real winners of 2018 so far are the fans, who, after four years of Mercedes turning the sport into a case of ‘when’ rather than ‘if’ they’ll win the world championships (plural), have a genuine fight to watch unfold, with the pendulum swinging back and forth between Grands Prix, and – often – within the same race weekend.

For historical purposes …
That’s now six British Grands Prix in a row to have featured a safety car, and this one featured two thanks to Ericsson’s scary shunt (fortunately the Sauber driver emerged unscathed) and the Grosjean/Sainz incident, which the Haas driver was certain was the Spaniard’s fault. “He turned into me,” Grosjean said.

The number to know
Vettel’s 51st career victory sees him draw level with Alain Prost for third all-time on the F1 win list; only Michael Schumacher (91) and Hamilton (65) have more.

Under-the-radar winner(s)
In a sporting world full of athletes making excuses, blaming their equipment/someone else/the way the stars were aligned on a particular day, we’re giving Raikkonen a space here for the way he put his hand up for the first-lap touch with Hamilton that ruined the home hero’s race. “It was my mistake, that’s fine,” he said of the 10-second penalty served at his first pit stop on lap 13 that dropped him to 11th place. “I deserve it and I took the 10 seconds and kept fighting. That’s how it goes. Obviously on the third corner I locked a wheel and ended up hitting Lewis in the rear corner and he spun. My bad, that is how it goes sometimes.”

Further back, Hulkenberg turned an alternate tyre strategy, starting from outside the top 10 on mediums, and a cracking first lap into sixth place, just beating Ocon’s Force India, which started a spot in front of him.

The other under-the-radar winner was once again Fernando Alonso, who started 13th in a McLaren with very little pace, made his usual decisive start and then was relentless for 52 laps as he hauled his car into eighth to nab four world championship points. Remarkably, the two-time world champion still sits inside the top 10 in the standings (eighth with 40 points), and leads McLaren teammate Stoffel Vandoorne 40-8 in points and 10-0 in qualifying this season.

The naughty corner
Raikkonen has to sit here too, for causing the lap one contact before taking responsibility for it, while the team who had things roughest under the Sunday sun at Silverstone were Sauber, Leclerc’s lap 19 retirement after a wheel wasn’t affixed correctly at his pit stop preceding Ericsson’s meeting with the Turn 1 barriers 13 laps later. All nine other teams had at least one car finish.

What’s next?
Other than a well-earned beverage of choice for the sport’s mechanics and team members who slogged through Formula One’s first-ever triple-header and emerged unscathed? A weekend off next week precedes the German Grand Prix at Hockenheim (July 22), which has become a bi-annual event to cover the steep costs of a place on the ever-expanding calendar in countries far, far away from F1’s European heartland. Hungary (Jul 29) follows the next weekend before the season goes into recess until the end of August.

What happened at the Austrian Grand Prix?

Max Verstappen wins for Red Bull at the Red Bull Ring as Daniel Ricciardo retires, while a Mercedes nightmare opens the door for Ferrari to take the lead of both championships.  


The build-up
Championship leader Lewis Hamilton hoped the upgrades Mercedes brought to its car for Austria would “frighten” its rivals, and the pace advantage the Silver Arrows had over the rest of the field at the Red Bull Ring was scarier than usual for the team that has dominated this Grand Prix since its return to the calendar four years ago. But it was Hamilton’s teammate Valtteri Bottas who took pole position, shattering the circuit record with a Q3 lap of 1min 03.130secs in the revised W09, which featured new bargeboards and an altered rear wing.

Hamilton was just 0.019secs behind, while the gap to the best of the rest on such a short and fast circuit was significant, Sebastian Vettel’s Ferrari next, but over three-tenths of a second down. That was bad for the German; what was worse was a three-place grid penalty for impeding Renault’s Carlos Sainz in the second phase of qualifying, seeing Vettel slip behind teammate Kimi Raikkonen, Red Bull’s Max Verstappen and the very rapid Haas of Romain Grosjean on the starting grid, negating his likely advantage from starting on the ultrasoft tyres when the lights went out (both Mercedes’ were on supersofts).

One name not to feature in the top six with or without Vettel’s penalty was Verstappen’s teammate Daniel Ricciardo, the Australian qualifying just seventh for his worst Saturday showing of the season, and outwardly frustrated after he felt he’d been forced to tow his teammate around in qualifying, Verstappen qualifying 0.156secs and two places ahead.

Other than Bottas’ second pole in succession in Austria, Grosjean’s lap was the talking point of qualifying, the Frenchman backing up his season-best race at the same circuit 12 months ago and putting himself in the ideal spot to finally score his first points of 2018. “The truth is that other teams are faster, but I’m very proud to be between the two Red Bulls,” he said after Haas placed both cars in the top 10 on the grid for the fifth time in its 50-race history, Kevin Magnussen qualifying eighth.

The Renaults (Sainz ahead of Nico Hulkenberg) rounded out the Q3 crowd, while further back, rising star Charles Leclerc copped a five-place penalty for a gearbox change after his Sauber ground to a halt in final practice with suspension damage, meaning a continuation of his recent run of points finishes would be a struggle from 18th on the grid. Further back still, Fernando Alonso out-qualified teammate Stoffel Vandoorne for the ninth time in nine races, but 14th and 16th respectively was a depressingly familiar picture for McLaren.

Lance Stroll (15th) hauled his Williams out of Q1 for the first time since Azerbaijan, while Force India’s Sergio Perez had a horror run in the team’s 200th Grand Prix and qualified just 17th, getting stuck in heavy traffic at the end of Q1 on the short 10-corner, 4.3km layout.

The race in exactly 69 words*
Verstappen battled tyre blistering and benefitted from a Mercedes strategy blunder to sail to his fourth career victory, and the first for Red Bull at the Red Bull Ring. Early leader Hamilton retired with fuel pressure problems, while pole-sitter Bottas was out after 14 laps with a broken gearbox. Raikkonen and Vettel rounded out the podium for Ferrari, Vettel retaking the championship lead over Hamilton by just one point.
(* 2018 is the 69th season of Formula One)

Ricciardo recap
While Red Bull had many reasons to party on Sunday, Ricciardo’s 29th birthday wasn’t one of them, the Australian’s weekend going from bad to worse after his annoyance following qualifying on Saturday. Starting seventh, Ricciardo found himself in a strong scrap with Raikkonen in the first phase of the race before pushing past at Turn 4 for third place on lap 20. The plan was to go until the end of the 71-lap race on the new soft tyres fitted when he, Verstappen, both Ferraris and several others (but, crucially, not Hamilton and Mercedes) pitted under virtual safety car conditions to remove Bottas’ stricken Mercedes from the side of the track on lap 14. But by lap 32, Ricciardo’s left rear tyre had started to develop an ugly blister, a likely result of the track temperature hitting 48 degrees on a scorching Sunday in the Styrian Alps, some 20 degrees hotter than at any other stage across the race weekend. In second place, Ricciardo started to fall further and further back from teammate Verstappen until he pitted again on lap 35, taking supersoft tyres for what would be his final stint. Fourth place ahead of Hamilton looked to be the best he could manage until he had a gearbox failure 17 laps from the end, crawling to a halt just after he negotiated the first corner. The failure was later attributed to a broken exhaust. “I don’t think I’ll celebrate too much for my birthday,” he said afterwards. Raikkonen’s second place demoted Ricciardo to fourth in the drivers’ championship, Verstappen’s win seeing the Dutchman rise to fifth and just three points adrift of his teammate, who has retired from three races this season to Verstappen’s two.

What the result means
For the fourth straight race, the championship lead changed hands, Vettel leaving Austria with a series advantage he never would have expected after lining up sixth after his post-qualifying penalty, and definitely wouldn’t have imagined after he was boxed in at the first corner and was eighth after lap one, the two Mercedes drivers streaking into the distance. Both Ferraris, particularly Raikkonen, looked to have the pace necessary to overhaul Verstappen in the closing stages, the Dutchman managing the same left tyre blistering that affected Ricciardo earlier in the race, but Vettel would have been content to bank 15 points on a day when Hamilton couldn’t score any, with the title fight still looking like a race in two as we approach the halfway stage of the season. What’s more, Ferrari surpassed Mercedes at the head of the constructors’ standings (247 points to 237).

For Verstappen, a third podium in a row for the first time in his career was perhaps one of a sequence we should have seen coming; third in Canada, he went one better in France last weekend before going one better again in Austria, much to the delight of the thousands of orange-clad fans who packed the grandstands on race day. After a messy opening to the season, that’s three fast, successful and clean weekends for the 20-year-old, who was thrilled to take a win at a circuit where Red Bull typically struggles for pace. “It was also so unexpected, and that makes it even better,” he beamed. “An amazing weekend. If you want to win a race this is the perfect place, in a Red Bull car at the Red Bull Ring …”

While Ferrari were content and Red Bull (well, half of the garage at least) euphoric, there were some long faces at Mercedes after just the second double DNF of the V6 turbo hybrid era that it has completely dominated since 2014 by winning all four drivers’ and constructors’ titles on offer (the other was Spain 2016, when Hamilton and Nico Rosberg ran into one another on the first lap to gift Verstappen his maiden Grand Prix victory). Hamilton was initially perplexed, then furious and later philosophical about the team’s somewhat baffling decision not to pit him for new tyres when his rivals did under the safety car caused by Bottas’ retirement, but he too suffered with unexpected tyre wear before his fuel pressure problems brought abut his demise. “This is definitely the worst weekend that I can remember for a long time,” he said. “We can’t throw away points, so we will have to find a bulletproof method going forward.”

For historical purposes …
Hamilton’s retirement brought to an end one of the more remarkable records in a CV that is heaving with them; the non-finish was his first in 34 races since the 2016 Malaysian Grand Prix when he had an engine failure, and all 33 of those finishes were in the points.

The number to know
Verstappen’s fourth career win tied him with Eddie Irvine and Bruce McLaren for the most victories by any driver who hasn’t taken a pole position in F1.

Under-the-radar winner(s)
Haas has to own this section for this race, after 22 points between Grosjean (fourth) and Magnussen (fifth) gave the team its best single-race haul in its third F1 campaign. Such was the pace of the front-running trio that both cars were lapped by Verstappen, but the American team couldn’t have cared less after the result it was denied by a double pitstop calamity in Australia finally came to fruition in Austria eight races later. For Grosjean, it was a dramatic way to finally score his first points for 2018. “It’s incredible for our 50th Grand Prix,” the Frenchman beamed.

The points haul saw Haas leapfrog both Force India and McLaren to claim fifth in the constructors’ championship, and 49 points between Grosjean and Magnussen surpasses the 47 Haas managed in the entire 2017 campaign.

Elsewhere, Force India had its best two-car finish of the season with Esteban Ocon’s sixth heading Perez in seventh, while eighth for Alonso was, as the Spaniard himself put it, a “nice surprise” after he started from the pit lane, McLaren changing his front wing following qualifying and earning a penalty.

And, on a day of many winners (ands a few high-profile losers), ninth for Leclerc, combined with 10th for teammate Marcus Ericsson from last on the grid, saw Sauber score points with both cars for the first time since the 2015 Chinese Grand Prix.

The opposite of under-the-radar winners
Hamilton. Bottas. Ricciardo. Discussed above. ‘Nuff said.

What’s next?
What’s better than two races in two weeks? Three in three, although perhaps the weary mechanics would beg to differ as they head to Silverstone from Austria after coming to the Red Bull Ring from France. Hamilton will be chasing history at home next Sunday – the Briton has won at Silverstone for the past four years, and should he win his sixth British Grand Prix, he’ll surpass Jim Clark and Alain Prost as the most successful driver in history at one of the sport’s signature events.

Miller Time: Back in my good place

Aussie MotoGP rider Jack Miller writes about getting his season back on track at the Dutch TT, his new Ducati deal, and what really happened with those Honda contract rumours …


Hi everyone,

It’s been a while since I’ve had something good to write about, as we didn’t manage to finish the last two races – one of them my fault in Mugello, one where we had a mechanical (failure) in Barcelona. So even to finish at Assen was good, and to be back in the top 10 again was better. But it would have been better still if I was a little bit further up the front.

The race for the win at Assen was pretty intense as you all saw, and the slightly frustrating part for me was that I had a better view of it than most of you because I was right there behind it, but never really close enough to get involved. Definitely looked like some fun up there. Those eight bikes up the front seemed to be changing places every corner and I could see it, but it was just a bit too far for me today.

I was happy to finish, especially with the way the rear tyre was dying on me at the end, but you always want more. Thirteen seconds behind (race winner) Marc (Marquez) at the front isn’t a lot, and 11 seconds off Alex Rins who was second is about four-tenths of a second a lap. But I didn’t think there was much more for me today, and looking back at the race 45 minutes after getting off the bike, it was hard to see where I could have gained much more time. I lacked a little bit of edge grip with the tyre for the whole race compared to the guys in front of me, and I just couldn’t hang with them at the pace they were running. Annoying a bit, but that’s the facts. I’ve finished six races this year and all of them in the top 10, so it was good to keep that run going.

My race was clean, and I expected the race pace to be a bit faster for the guys right at the front, so maybe the wind played a part there – it was a lot windier today than it had been all weekend, and they were carving each other up at the front which affected the lap times too. My pace was pretty stable and that was something after a difficult weekend – we just missed making Q2 on Saturday in final practice, and then I just missed getting out of Q1 and was a row back on the grid from where I probably wanted to be. Friday started rough for me and we really chipped away at the problems we had, so to bring it home in that sort of race – made a good start, didn’t make any mistakes, stayed calm – was as good as it was going to get. Did what needed to be done, basically.

I was ahead of my teammate Danilo (Petrucci) when he crashed out and I had (Andrea) Iannone in front of me, so I was getting ready to attack him in the final laps for 10th as I didn’t have a lot of pressure from behind. He was struggling with tyres or something and ran wide at the final chicane, but there was no penalty for him because he backed off and didn’t try to take advantage of the mistake. The first time, anyway. A couple of laps later he did the same thing and didn’t back off to hand back the time he gained, maybe he thought he’d get away with it and see if he could live with the consequences. I knew he had a two-second penalty, and he would have as well. So as long as I stayed closer than two seconds, he’d hand me a place for free. I was actually close enough to have a lunge at him if I had to, but there wasn’t a lot of point. Why risk it? I was going to get the position at the end anyway. So, 11th over the line, but 10th in the results.

I’ve not spoken not you all since I confirmed I’d be staying here at Alma Pramac Racing, which happened at the last race in Barcelona. I’m so stoked to be back here again next year and on a factory Ducati too, and there’s a lot of pressure off my shoulders for the rest of this year having next year sorted out so early. So it’s time to get down to business now, keep the momentum going from the start of the season where I’ve had a pole in Argentina and a fourth in the dry in Le Mans, and try to avoid races like Italy and Catalunya where we don’t make the most of things. The rest of this year is head down, keep learning and make myself ready for the factory bike and the extra responsibility next year. Knowing where I’ll be in 2019 already takes the pressure off and gets the distractions out of the way so I can build from here. It’s more than I could have hoped for this early in the year, normally things aren’t as settled as that for me, or at least they haven’t been much in the past.

The Repsol Honda stuff? You might have read that I’d signed to go there around Mugello time, and don’t worry, I read it too … So let’s clear that up: there was talk, definitely, but no contract negotiations. It’s a big step from talking about something to negotiating to signing … so I don’t know who said what to who or whatever to turn that into a story that I’d definitely be racing there next year. Talking … it’s always good to know what your options could have been over there. Signing something? That’s a lot different …

Germany is next in a couple of weeks, and we’re almost at the halfway stage of the season already. It’s a really particular sort of a track with left-handers one after the other, and it’ll be interesting to see how the Ducati goes around there – I’ll speak to you from Sachsenring.

Cheers, Jack

Dissecting the French Grand Prix

How did Lewis Hamilton win the French Grand Prix? Why didn’t Sebastian Vettel’s ‘no-stop’ strategy work after the Ferrari driver’s lap one crash with Hamilton’s Mercedes teammate, Valtteri Bottas? Are two distinct tiers of competition in F1 a good thing? (answer: no). And what changes might the Circuit Paul Ricard make for F1’s return to the birthplace of Grand Prix racing next season?

Earlier this week I had the great pleasure of talking all things French GP (and even unnecessarily use some francaise, because that makes you appear very important) with an Old Mate in Michael Lamonato, host of the F1 Strategy Report podcast. Good fun,  almost as good as Max Verstappen’s trophy for finishing second …

You can check out the chat here.

What happened at the French Grand Prix?

Lewis Hamilton was untouchable at the first GP held in France for a decade, while Max Verstappen was a season-best second after Sebastian Vettel relinquished the series lead in dramatic fashion.


The build-up
After being soundly beaten by Ferrari in Canada, Mercedes brought the engine upgrade it delayed for Montreal to France, and the ‘Phase 2.1’ power plant paid immediate dividends when Lewis Hamilton took his third pole for the season, teammate Valtteri Bottas completing an all-Mercedes front row after the silver cars topped every practice session and all three periods of qualifying. Happy as Hamilton was to be 0.118secs ahead of Bottas, the four-time world champion felt his lap of 1min 30.029secs could have been better. “I always strive for perfection and there was some time left on the track, so I still have stuff to work on,” he said.

Championship leader Sebastian Vettel was next, but the German was three-tenths adrift of his main title rival as Ferrari appeared to have regressed from the highs of Canada. The first three were well ahead of the Red Bulls, Max Verstappen comfortably out-qualifying Daniel Ricciardo despite neither driver being thrilled with the performance of their car. Verstappen elected to run a lower downforce set-up the team likened to one you’d usually employ at a speed circuit like Spa-Francorchamps in a bid to get more pace down Paul Ricard’s lengthy back straight, but the Dutchman felt he hadn’t maximised the potential of his car. Ricciardo was less comfortable to roll the dice on a set-up he hadn’t really tried in practice, and was left hoping for rain or something that would shake the field up as he was concerned about being “a little slow” on the straights.

Well behind his Ferrari teammate (again) was Kimi Raikkonen in sixth, while the man most feel will take his drive at the Prancing Horse – and possibly as soon as next year – was the star of Saturday, Charles Leclerc hauling his Sauber into eighth with an extraordinary effort that drew praise from both Hamilton and Vettel, and one that came in the Swiss team’s first appearance in the top 10 since the 2015 Italian Grand Prix.

Romain Grosjean, still searching for his first points of 2018, was the best of the three French drivers in 10th, but caused a red flag in Q3 when he smashed his Haas into the Turn 3 fence.

Grosjean’s compatriots, Esteban Ocon (Force India, 11th) and Toro Rosso’s Pierre Gasly (14th) fared less well, while Gasly’s teammate Brendon Hartley was condemned to start from the very back after his Honda engine needed to be replaced following Friday practice. Grosjean’s Haas stablemate Kevin Magnussen was ninth, but was first on the anger scale after Q3, when he felt Raikkonen’s ruined his best chance of a flying lap time. “He overtakes me into Turn 1, and f***s my lap, and doesn’t even complete his lap,” the Dane raged. “If you’re that confused, just try not to get in the way of anyone else.” If Magnussen was incensed, McLaren were downcast after both Fernando Alonso (16th) and Stoffel Vandoorne (18th) were eliminated in Q1, the team’s racing director Eric Boullier commenting “it’s up to us to give (Alonso and Vandoorne) a car that’s more representative of their talents”.

The main intrigue ahead of race day, the first GP held at the circuit in the south of France in 28 years, was whether the weather would spice up proceedings after it hosed down with rain in final practice on Saturday, and which front-running team had its tyre strategy right if the rain stayed away; both Mercedes would start the race on the slower but more durable supersoft tyres from the front of the grid, while Vettel, looking for a fast getaway from the second row, was on the initially faster but more brittle ultrasoft rubber.

The race in exactly 69 words*
Hamilton reclaimed the world championship lead after an untroubled lights-to-flag win, aided by Vettel running into the back of Bottas at the first corner and seeing both cars pit immediately for repairs, the Ferrari given a five-second time penalty for the incident. Verstappen inherited second and stayed there to the end, Raikkonen rounding out the podium as Vettel recovered to fifth behind Ricciardo, who faded with front wing damage.
(* 2018 is the 69th season of Formula One)

Ricciardo recap
With a 60 per cent chance of precipitation predicted, it looked as though Ricciardo’s Sunday rain dance might have paid off, but the skies stayed dry and the Australian’s chances for a spot on the rostrum faded the longer the race went. Things started well for Ricciardo, who gained a place in the first-corner malee caused by Vettel tagging Bottas, and after the safety car period to clear the track, the Red Bull driver quickly disposed of the fast-starting Renault of Carlos Sainz to inherit third. An unimpeded Verstappen was well clear by that stage, but Ricciardo looked comfortable until he pitted on lap 29, returning to the track on soft tyres behind Vettel, who had pitted for the same rubber on lap one. It took Ricciardo four laps to get past his old teammate, and third remained a strong possibility until Raikkonen came at him hard in the closing stages on faster supersoft tyres, the Aussie’s chances not helped by front wing damage sustained when he ran over some debris while lapping backmarkers. The Ferrari driver eventually nosed ahead with six laps remaining at the chicane at the end of the back straight, but Ricciardo was under no pressure for fourth late after Vettel made a second stop on lap 41. The front wing damage certainly didn’t help, but this was a weekend where Verstappen had Ricciardo’s measure from Saturday onwards. The consolation prize for Ricciardo was that Bottas’ woes meant he re-took third in the championship, Ricciardo leaving France with 96 points for the season to Bottas’ 92.

“We had a lot less downforce and were understeering, so Kimi was always going to catch us with that pace,” Ricciardo said. “We were a wounded car from just before the first pitstop.”

What the result means
Canada perhaps didn’t paint the clearest picture of the F1 pecking order for the second part of the season, with Ferrari, Renault and Honda all introducing engine upgrades in Montreal while Mercedes (and its customer teams Force India and Williams) held off for France. Hamilton’s dominant win made that wait worth it, but we never got to see what loomed as an intriguing battle between Vettel and both Mercedes drivers on different tyre strategies after Vettel’s error at the first corner eliminated Hamilton’s only real rivals for the victory. Yes, Verstappen kept the Briton honest, but even Red Bull team boss Christian Horner conceded that his cars were no match for Mercedes as Hamilton eased to a seven-second victory. The momentum has ebbed and flowed over the past three races – all won from pole by three different drivers (Ricciardo in Monaco, Vettel in Canada and now Hamilton in France), but the extent of Hamilton’s dominance in France was ominous, even taking into account Vettel’s self-inflicted woes. And especially given where the championship heads next (see point 10 below) …

For historical purposes …
Circuit Paul Ricard may have been absent from the calendar for 28 years, but Sunday’s podium finishers continued a strange statistical anomaly at the French track. In the 14 previous races held at the circuit, 45 per cent of the podium finishers had started outside of the top three on the grid – and that percentage only increased when Verstappen (who started fourth) and Raikkonen (sixth) joined pole-sitter Hamilton on the rostrum.

The number to know
Hamilton’s first French success made Paul Ricard the 26th track on which he has won a Grand Prix, extending his record. He has at least one win at every circuit on the current calendar.

Under-the-radar winner(s)
Third for Raikkonen wasn’t exactly beneath the radar, but it was the Ferrari driver’s first podium in four races as talk of his future gets ever-louder, and (remarkably) was his 25th podium since he last won a Grand Prix, way back in Australia to open the 2013 season. Sixth for Magnussen saw his season tally rise to 27 points (compared to zero, still, for Haas teammate Grosjean, who was 11th), while Leclerc hung tough after a difficult race to finish 10th and score for the third time in the past four races. Vettel could consider himself relatively happy with fifth too, considering he was in the pits at the end of the first lap with a broken front wing and facing a significant loss of points to Hamilton at the front of the title fight. Losing ‘just’ 15 points to the Mercedes driver was a save, of sorts. “My start was too good, then I ended up with nowhere to go,” he said.

The naughty corner
Bottas was the innocent party in the first-corner mess, but the Finn (albeit with a damaged floor) was 19 seconds behind Vettel at the end after both stopped at the same time for new tyres after the first lap. But the biggest losers at the French Grand Prix were the local drivers, Grosjean hitting Ocon on lap one and being given a five-second time penalty as he missed the points by just one place. At least he made it to the end; Ocon and fellow Frenchman Gasly barely lasted after the start, with Gasly tripping over Ocon at the Turn 3-4 chicane in an incident that saw both cars out on the spot. And spare a thought for Alonso, who crawled to a halt on the final lap with suspension damage to be the last car classified, seven days after winning the 24 Hours of Le Mans …

What’s next?
Leg two of Formula One’s first-ever triple-header comes in just seven days’ time in Austria, where the Red Bull Ring will host round nine of the 21-round season. The bad news for anyone not driving a Mercedes? Austria has been a power track ever since it returned to the F1 fold in 2014 after an 11-year hiatus, and the Silver Arrows have won all four races, two victories for the now-retired Nico Rosberg, and one each for Hamilton (2016) and Bottas (last year).