Carlos Sainz

The F1 mid-term report

Who has starred, who has slumped and who needs to step up at the halfway stage of the F1 season?

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The verdict on Formula One so far in 2017? Pretty positive. There’s genuine competition between teams for race wins and the drivers’ championship, which there hasn’t been in some time, and the new-for-2017 regulations have delivered monstrously fast and mean-looking cars that look spectacular on track (but struggle to overtake one another, as the Hungarian GP made very evident). Add to that the craziest race in recent times in Azerbaijan when Daniel Ricciardo saluted, and there’s a lot to like.

What’s more, the look and feel of an F1 weekend in the post-Ecclestone era has been a breath of fresh air. Ladies and gentlemen, social media! Actual vision from inside a drivers’ briefing! Something extra for the fans at a race weekend! It’s been quite the eye-opener.

Before we launch into our mid-season report, and before you ask, we haven’t failed maths – yes, Hungary was race 11 of the 20-race F1 season, but coming as it did before the one-month hiatus and the next race in Belgium at the end of August, it was worth waiting until school was out properly until making some mid-year grades. On that very subject …

Dux of the class

We’ve been waiting a long time for a proper championship battle between Sebastian Vettel and Lewis Hamilton – since 2007 in fact, when both made their Formula One debuts in the same season (Vettel became a full-timer on the grid a year later). And at the halfway stage of the season, it’s Vettel who has shone brightest. But only just.

Both drivers have four wins, but the German has led the title chase since taking the opening round in Australia, and has been his consistent self since – 11 races, 11 finishes, eight podiums, and a worst finish of seventh at the British Grand Prix, when he suffered a puncture in sight of the flag. It’s hard to see how he could have done much more.

The intrigue in this battle is how both protagonists go about achieving the same goal in different ways – Vettel’s metronomic approach contrasts sharply with Hamilton’s peaks and troughs. When the Mercedes W08 isn’t in the set-up sweet spot, Hamilton has been outshone by new teammate Valtteri Bottas, who seems better equipped to cope with a car that’s not quite there. But when the Mercedes is dialled in, Hamilton has been brilliant in qualifying (he has six poles in 11 races), and occasionally utterly dominant in races – his Silverstone weekend was as emphatic as it gets.

Both drivers have their emotional frailties – again, which manifest themselves in different ways – which makes the second half of the season and their likely first head-to-head battle for the title so mouth-watering in prospect. You can’t help but wonder if the three points Hamilton relinquished in Hungary after pulling over to let Bottas finish third to honour an in-race agreement will come back to bite him later in the season, though. The in-house tension at the Silver Arrows since the apolitical Bottas replaced the cunning Nico Rosberg has dissipated almost completely, but what if that new-found harmony comes at the cost of a title?

Encouragement award

We’re not going with the ‘every child wins a prize’ philosophy here, but this one could be split four ways.

Bottas, firstly: after coming across to Mercedes in the wake of Rosberg’s shock decision to walk after winning the 2016 crown, the Finn has made every post a winner in what is essentially a make-good contract; nail 2017, and his future should be rosy. He’s won twice (Russia and Austria), matched Vettel for the most podiums in 11 races (eight) and proven to be the consummate team player. Mercedes would be mad not to keep him in 2018 – he’s clearly fast enough and apolitical enough.

Ricciardo deserves a mention here too. Whenever an opportunity presents itself, he’s always there, pressing on relentlessly like a honey badger attacking a hive of bees. His Azerbaijan win – when all looked lost early in the race when an unscheduled pit stop had him at the back of the field – was almost unsurprising in that he made the best of what was on offer on a crazy day, and that ‘best’ was good enough for a fifth career win. Is there a driver better or cleaner in wheel-to-wheel combat?

As a team, Force India deserve a pat on the back here. Fourth in last year’s constructors’ championship, the Indian-owned British-run team has consolidated that in 2017, with Sergio Perez and Esteban Ocon both finishing in the points nine times in 11 races. The pink-liveried team has clearly established itself as the best squad outside F1’s ‘big three’; now, all it needs is for its drivers to stop tripping over one another in races …

Finally, a nod to Nico Hulkenberg, who is now an uncomfortable two races away from equalling compatriot Adrian Sutil’s unwanted record of most F1 starts without a top-three finish (128). You can’t do much more in a Renault than Hulkenberg has this year, the German scoring points in five races and qualifying in the top 10 six times.

Could do better

Reasons Ferrari shouldn’t retain Kimi Raikkonen next year: in 70 races since he re-joined Ferrari for the 2014 season, he’s been beaten by teammates Fernando Alonso (2014) and Vettel (since) 49-21 in qualifying, 7-0 in race wins (he hasn’t won a race since Australia 2013 for Lotus, 86 Grands Prix ago), 30-11 in podium finishes, and has scored 37 per cent of his team’s points in that time, explaining why the team with this year’s drivers’ championship leader trails Mercedes by 39 points in the constructors’ race.

Reason Ferrari will keep Kimi Raikkonen next year. Hungary.

You can understand Ferrari’s logic here; while Raikkonen is a long, long way from his 2007 world championship-winning heyday, he doesn’t play politics, has a wealth of experience, gets on with Vettel and doesn’t rock the boat. When Ferrari orchestrated races in Monaco (unofficially) and Hungary (officially) to ensure the Finn stayed behind a race-leading Vettel, he expressed his disappointment, sighed and moved on. It would have been so easy for Raikkonen to push an ailing Vettel hard in Hungary to stand on the top step of the podium for the first time in an age, but, out of contract and with (arguably) no other team likely to offer him one, that wouldn’t have been the brightest idea.

Expect Raikkonen to be renewed at or before the Italian Grand Prix next month – and expect plenty of F1 fans to wonder just what another driver could do in a car that Vettel has proven is a genuine race-winner. Raikkonen is clearly worthy of being in F1 for his name and pedigree alone, but with a top team?

Needs a strong second semester

Both Toro Rosso drivers could use a good end to 2017, but for entirely different reasons.

Carlos Sainz must wonder what he needs to do to get a break; the Spaniard has scored 35 of his team’s 39 points this year alongside Daniil Kvyat, and amassed 77 points to the Russian’s eight since the pair became teammates at last year’s Spanish Grand Prix, when Max Verstappen took Kvyat’s place in Red Bull’s ‘A’ team. Sainz is good enough to drive further up the grid, but won’t be going anywhere as Red Bull’s insurance policy in case Verstappen or Ricciardo bolt one day.

As for Kvyat? Considering he has more penalty points on his FIA super licence (10) than he’s scored points (eight) in the past 28 races, the end for the driver derisively referred to as ‘the torpedo’ must surely be nigh, with 2016 GP2 champion Pierre Gasly waiting impatiently in the (Red) Bull pen.

Extra detention

One driver and one team get the unwanted nomination here. Jolyon Palmer hasn’t made much of a case to be retained by Renault, being out-scored 26-0 and out-qualified in all 11 races by Hulkenberg this season. He couldn’t have come much closer to a top-10 finish – Palmer was 11th in Monaco, Canada and Austria – but with Renault in a tight fight for places 5-8 in the constructors’ championship, it needs more than one car to make a contribution.

As for McLaren – or more pertinently, McLaren-Honda – the less said the better. Sixth for Alonso and 10th for Stoffel Vandoorne in Hungary gave the team that has won 182 Grands Prix and 12 drivers’ championships nine points in one race – compared to the combined two points from the opening 10 races this year …

Can the team extract itself from the Honda engine deal to go elsewhere (Mercedes?) while covering the financial shortfall an early divorce with the Japanese manufacturer would create? That’s uncertain, but what we do know if that while Vandoorne has time and talent on his side, it’s a crying shame to see a 36-year-old Alonso struggling like this. F1 is undoubtedly in a better place when the Spaniard is mixing it up the front of the field.

6 things we know about F1 2017

Three races into a new era of F1, can we paint a picture of the season to come? Yes, and no.

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Formula One comes ‘home’ to Europe this weekend, with the Russian Grand Prix bringing the sport back closer to its heartland after the opening trio of races in far-flung Australia, China and Bahrain to kick off the 2017 campaign.

Next month’s Spanish Grand Prix usually ramps up the development race behind the scenes, as teams bring major upgrades to their cars that have largely competed in pre-season spec during the logistical challenge of lugging parts and personnel around the world for the first three races. Some teams will make big gains (and some would want to, we’ll get to them), but we have a fairly clear picture of the shape of the season to come already. And it’s a picture that, for neutral fans, looks pretty. A genuine fight up front, a mixed-up midfield and the fastest cars we’ve ever seen means there’s much to look forward to.

What do we know, what have we learned, and what will happen from here?

Merc must make a call

One of the by-products of winning 51 out of 59 races since the advent of the V6 turbo hybrid era since 2014 as Mercedes did heading into this season was that the opposition were little more than an afterthought. The so-called ‘rules of engagement’ between Lewis Hamilton and Nico Rosberg were an internal policy of how the drivers would race one another en route to another inevitable Silver Arrows win; one of those rules would have been “don’t hit one another on track”, which they managed for the most part if we discount Belgium 2014 and Spain last year …

Ferrari’s resurgence this season means Merc has a red-coloured riddle to solve, and with Sebastian Vettel mounting a solo challenge to Mercedes’ dominance, perhaps the time has come for the champion team of the last three years to prioritise one driver over another. Twice in the most recent race in Bahrain, Valtteri Bottas was asked/told/coerced into moving over for the faster Hamilton; by the end of the race, Vettel was grinning after his second win of 2017, and opened up a seven-point lead in the title chase.

Bottas is already 30 points – more than one race win – behind Vettel after three Grands Prix, which means Mercedes can’t have him taking points off Hamilton in the fight with Vettel that will surely rage until the finale in Abu Dhabi. Expect much hand-wringing on the Mercedes pit wall as it has to deal with a problem that has been a non-factor for three years.

Vettel is like a dog with a bone

This year’s version of Vettel reminds us of the 2010-13 iteration at Red Bull where he was massively motivated to capitalise on a great car, and not the 2014 model who appeared to check out mentally to some degree as Ferrari loomed large in his future. In a car that’s clearly a massive step forwards from its predecessor, if Vettel gets the slightest sliver of daylight to slip into, he’s taking it. When he gets to the front, his pace is metronomic and mistakes are rarer than rare. Provided Ferrari can stay as sharp on the strategy front as they have in the first three races, Vettel might be the championship favourite.

It’s a big two, not a big three

Pre-season predictions had Mercedes and Ferrari up front with Red Bull lurking closely behind, but that’s not what has happened. Just one podium – from Max Verstappen in China – from the nine available so far isn’t much to write home about, and both Mercedes and Ferrari have doubled Red Bull’s constructors’ championship tally of 47 points in just three races. In Australia, the fastest Red Bull in qualifying (Verstappen) was 1.2secs off pole, and the lead Red Bull in the race (again Verstappen) finished more than 28 seconds behind race-winner Vettel. In China, the margins were 1.3 seconds off pole in qualifying (Daniel Ricciardo) and 45 seconds in the race (Verstappen in third), while in Bahrain, Ricciardo’s sensational qualifying lap was still nearly eight-tenths of a second slower than Bottas’ pole, and he finished fifth and 39 seconds from the win after Verstappen retired with brake failure. The team plans to introduce a significant chassis upgrade for the Spanish Grand Prix next month, but for now, Red Bull remains in an anonymous class of one, well behind the top two teams, but streets ahead of the rest.

It’s time for Raikkonen to go

The one driver we haven’t yet mentioned from the top two teams? That’d be Kimi Raikkonen, who is yet to outqualify Vettel in the sister Ferrari (the average deficit is four-tenths of a second) and has been beaten by the German by an average of 29 seconds in three races. The Finn turns 38 in October, and while age isn’t necessarily a deterrent to success in the premier class of a global motorsport championship (look at the MotoGP championship leader, 38-year-old Valentino Rossi), it’s surely time to bring in someone younger, hungrier and capable of mixing it at the front when Raikkonen’s contract runs out at the end of the season. The 2007 world champion remains one of the most popular drivers amongst fans for his approach to anything that doesn’t involve driving, but the stats don’t lie; he’s not won a race in four years, had a pole position since the French Grand Prix of 2008, and scored less than 60 per cent of the points managed by teammates Fernando Alonso and Vettel since returning to Ferrari in 2014. Can the Prancing Horse really fight Mercedes when one of its drivers can’t get out of a trot?

Hands up who wants fourth?

Behind Tier A (Mercedes and Ferrari) and Tier A-minus (Red Bull) lies a fascinating midfield fight, if the first three races are any indication. Williams has Felipe Massa ploughing a lone furrow, as teenage teammate Lance Stroll is yet to finish a race and has completed just 52 of the combined 170 laps. Force India, with Sergio Perez and Esteban Ocon, have scored points with both drivers in all three races; only Mercedes and Ferrari have done likewise. Toro Rosso has pace with Carlos Sainz and Daniil Kvyat, and a team boss in Franz Tost who expects “that we will make it to Q3 with both cars (in Russia) and that we will score points with both cars … and that this will be the standard for all the races to come.” And while Haas has just eight points in three races, Romain Grosjean has two top-10 qualifying results, and the team has use of the potent 2017 Ferrari engine. This will be a fun fight to watch.

Alonso is still a megastar

He’s yet to score a point, finish a race, and lead anything other than the unofficial scorecard for radio rants this season, with Raikkonen’s moaning a close second. But proof that McLaren-Honda’s woes haven’t dimmed the star of Alonso was plainly obvious when he made the shock announcement before Bahrain that he’d be skipping the Monaco Grand Prix next month for a McLaren-endorsed tilt at the Indianapolis 500. Yes, Nico Hulkenberg’s Le Mans win two years ago garnered plenty of positive press, but nothing like this. McLaren’s decision to allow its star driver to play for a weekend in IndyCar and miss a Monaco layout that won’t show up its woeful lack of engine performance is surely just one way to keep a star employee happy while distracting attention away from just how dire its F1 season has been. Whatever the motivation, you can bet the Indy 500 will be watched more closely than ever by plenty of F1 people next month.

What’s in store for Carlos Sainz?

Our snapshot of Toro Rosso’s son of a gun, and what’s on his to-do list for the 2017 F1 season.

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Formula One is no place for patience, but for Carlos Sainz, the wait will – has to – continue in 2017. The 22-year-old son of rally legend Carlos Sainz Sr had a convincing second season in the category last year for Scuderia Toro Rosso, featuring inside the top 10 for portions of the year. But with Daniel Ricciardo and Max Verstappen signed with Red Bull’s ‘A’ team for the foreseeable future, the waiting game for the Spaniard goes on. Can his career trajectory still go up while he’s in a holding pattern? You bet. What’s in store for Sainz’s 2017? This.

The stats
The younger of Toro Rosso’s two 2017 pilots (teammate Daniil Kvyat is a little more than four months older), Sainz is yet to make it to an F1 podium in 40 starts, but had a strong second F1 season last year, finishing a career-best sixth at his home Grand Prix in Spain, and matching that later in the season in the United States and Brazil. A trio of third-row starts (Monaco, Hungary and Singapore) showed that when his machinery allowed him to compete on a level playing field (more of which later), his talent could shine through.

What he did last year
Sainz’s three sixth-placed starts came on street circuits or tight tracks where outright power wasn’t the key determinant of success, which handcuffed Toro Rosso for last year after the team elected to run 2015-spec Ferrari engines for the season before a move to Renault power for this year. While Sainz (and Kvyat) were usually sitting ducks on the tracks where power was king, the Spaniard’s performance in Austin, where he fought over fifth place with compatriot and idol Fernando Alonso late in the race in a clearly inferior car, was all the more meritorious considering the length of the back straight of the COTA layout.

What changes in 2017?
Other than the Renault power beneath his right foot, not a whole lot under the skin for Toro Rosso and Sainz; on the surface, thanks to arguably the most eye-catching livery of 2017, plenty of people will notice STR more than usual this season. With Ricciardo and Verstappen locked in at Red Bull Racing until the end of next season under their current deals, short-term chances for Sainz to move within the ‘family’ are zero, which leaves him in a quandary – does he pursue a chance that emerges elsewhere, or does he bide his time, keep improving his standing in the sport, and wait in case an opportunity arises at what is a perennial front-runner? All he can do for the time being is keep producing, and hold onto the number one driver tag within Toro Rosso that he earned last year after thoroughly dominating Kvyat after the Russian re-joined the team from the Spanish GP.

Number to know
Of the teams that managed more than three top-10 finishes last year, only Romain Grosjean of Haas (100 per cent of his team’s 29 points) contributed more than Sainz’s 73 per cent of Toro Rosso’s tally of 63 points for the season.

Chief rival
Kvyat had the appearance of a lost soul at STR when swapped for Verstappen last year, and Sainz easily had his measure, scoring 42 points to the Russian’s four in the final 17 races of the year. Kvyat is clearly much better than that, as two F1 podiums will attest, and Sainz needs to pick up where he left off last year and be the dominant driver within his own team. If a Toro Rosso is nibbling around the back-end of the top-10 points-paying positions, or qualifying further up the grid than it should be with a banzai Saturday lap, it needs to be Sainz at the controls.

Dream outcome
Scoring more points than the previous year (Sainz had 18 points to finish 15th overall in his rookie season in 2015, and 46 to finish 12th last year) is the bare minimum. But the real dream is a shot at a Red Bull drive, right?

Nightmare realised
A slow start through factors out of his control. Toro Rosso had a problematic opening test for the 2017 season in Barcelona last week – Sainz and Kvyat managed just 183 laps between them, fewer than any other team, and covered one-third of the mileage completed by the all-conquering Mercedes outfit. Improved reliability is critical for a team that generally banks a decent slab of points from the opening flyaway races at the start of the year before F1’s return to Europe sparks the next big development push. Pre-season testing, given there’s so little of it, is crucial for all 10 teams, but a smooth four days at the Circuit de Barcelona-Catalunya this week could remove much of the early-season uncertainty for STR.

Fearless prediction
Red Bull motorsport advisor Dr Helmut Marko believes Toro Rosso should be a good midfield team – “their aim is to finish fifth,” he told Sky Sports this week – which leaves Sainz in the perfect place for a top-10 championship finish this season. Beating the Mercedes, Red Bull and Ferrari drivers looks a bridge too far, but after that, he’s right in the mix. Fifteenth in 2015, 12th last year – how about ninth in 2017 to continue that trend?

Why we can’t wait for F1 in 2017

Faster cars, no No.1, fresh faces and a Bull battle? Count us in.

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From our vantage point, there’s only one good thing about the end of a Formula One season – it’s that the next one kicks off right here in our backyard, as the season-opening Australian Grand Prix is next up in March.

But it’s more than Albert Park’s name at the head of the calendar that has us more pumped than usual for F1, 2017-style. A big regulation reset, some fresh faces set to stand out, and – let’s not forget – a race between 22 drivers to fill the post of world champion vacated when Nico Rosberg said goodbye to F1 earlier this month.

Looking for a reason to get excited about F1 in 2017? Here’s five.

Wider, fatter and faster

‘More aggressive-looking cars’ was the mandate for 2017, and a host of regulatory changes will give the sport a distinctive new look next season. The cars will be wider – by 20cm, looking more like their predecessors from the mid-to-late 1990s – and the tyres fatter – the rear Pirellis next season will be 20 per cent wider than this year’s rubber. Why? More mechanical grip equals more speed, and more speed should lead to a more spectacular spectacle, with lap times expected to tumble by five seconds. From the front, the noses of the cars will be longer (by 20cm) and pointier, while at the back, rear wings will be 15cm lower and 15cm wider.

How significant are the changes? Toro Rosso’s Carlos Sainz says the new cars look like “another category”, while his team’s technical director James Key told Autosport the changes are “massive”, adding that the amendments to bodywork, suspension and tyres are bigger than anything he’s experienced in close to two decades in the sport.

The cars will be much more physical to drive too, Daniel Ricciardo one driver who knows that his off-season will be more challenging than usual. “I’m actually looking forward to getting back into the training because of the rule changes next year and that the cars are going to be a fair bit quicker in the corners,” he said earlier in December. “We’ll have to change some things up in the preparation … being able to put on some strength and muscle will be more challenging and more rewarding, so I’m up for that.”

Will the changes lead to any increase in overtaking? Don’t hold your breath. Will the cars look more lively, fast and be more difficult to drive? Absolutely yes.

No number one

About the only team with any reason to be less than optimistic about the changes are Mercedes, and after the three-pointed star shone brightest by winning 51 of the 59 races since F1 switched to V6 turbo hybrids in 2014, you can understand why. When you add the departing Rosberg into that equation, the Silver Arrows clearly have the most to lose in 2017, which is great news for everyone else. As the drivers fight their new cars and one another in the chase for number one, bear in mind that 2017 will be the first season since 1994 that there’s no defending world champion on the grid. Sounds like the perfect recipe for someone to step up, doesn’t it?

New blood

Out at the end of 2016 went Jenson Button and Felipe Massa, who combined for 555 Grand Prix starts, 26 wins and a world championship (for Button in 2009) since 2000. Replacing the departed veterans are a pair of newbies who’ll attract plenty of attention in 2017. Well, Button’s replacement Stoffel Vandoorne is a nearly-newbie; the Belgian stood in at McLaren in this year’s Bahrain GP after Fernando Alonso’s monster shunt in Melbourne left him sore, and duly scored a point on debut for 10th. ‘The Stoff’ will be Alonso’s teammate this time around, and he’ll start his first full season in Australia on his 25th birthday in late March. Alonso sets a formidable benchmark for any driver in a sister car, but expect Vandoorne to acquit himself well.

The F1 world is less certain what Massa’s replacement at Williams, 18-year-old Canadian Lance Stroll, will do, but the son of Tommy Hilfiger fashion tycoon Lawrence Stroll couldn’t be more ready, spending much of 2016 pounding around circuits in Europe testing a 2014-spec Williams in between his regular schedule in the European F3 championship, which he won with ease. The progress of the new kids on the block will be a story to watch in ’17.

A Bull battle?

Ricciardo’s grin is (other than his shoey celebrations) his Formula One signature. Max Verstappen is generally pretty cool and calculated, and atypically mature beyond his 19 years. The Red Bull teammates have been pretty amicable in their time in the same garage so far, but with the team (and everyone else) consigned to sweeping up any scraps that may fall from the Mercedes table for the past three years, it’s easier to row the boat in the same direction when winning happens only occasionally. Could tensions rise if the rules reset for 2017 brings Red Bull right back into championship contention? Both drivers acknowledge that the stakes will be raised if a title fight materialises, and watching the pair regularly go all-out for victory – which we got a taste for in last season’s Malaysian Grand Prix won by Ricciardo – will be can’t-miss viewing if it eventuates.

A good start

A common bugbear for F1 fans in recent times has been race starts behind the safety car in wet weather, which drag on endlessly as drivers with more to lose moan about the conditions while rivals who want to take a chance express their desperation to get started. All before the head-shaking sight of drivers diving into the pits to change for intermediate or even dry rubber as soon as the safety car releases the field, making a mockery of the decision to delay the start for so long. In a procedural change for next year, cars will now line up on the grid once the race director deems it appropriate for the safety car to peel off the circuit and let the world’s best drivers get on with it, adding the unpredictable element of a standing start in less-than-ideal conditions to the show. That sound you hear? The applause of F1 fans the world over.

The F1 report card

It’s the F1 mid-season break – so let’s assess who has shone (or bombed) in 2016.

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We know, we know. Yes, it’s not technically the F1 half-term report – the halfway point of what will be the longest season in F1 history actually came on lap 26 of the British Grand Prix last month. But with the season in recess, factories shut down for their compulsory break and the drivers ensconced in their various tax havens or swanning around after supermodels (or maybe both), it’s time to press pause and run the rule over the season that has been in 2016.

But first, by way of explanation: we won’t be labelling drivers or teams ‘winners’ or ‘losers’. You can score a lot of points and be the latter, or barely get noticed in the TV coverage and be the former. It’s all about expectations, perception versus reality, and context. So with that in mind, here’s who sits where with school being out until the Belgian Grand Prix in three weeks’ time.

Dux of the class

Nico Rosberg won the first four races of the year (and seven straight dating back to the end of last season), but has coughed up his hefty championship lead rather too quickly and been nowhere when it’s rained this season, so it’s not him. Lewis Hamilton started the season slowly, made some mistakes and had some rotten luck, but has flipped a 43-point championship deficit into a 19-point lead with six wins in the past seven races. But it’s not him either. No, the dux of the 2016 class is the Mercedes W07, the car that threatens to redefine the very meaning of the word ‘dominance’ by the end of 2016. At the halfway stage, Mercedes has won 11 of 12 races, taken 11 poles, recorded 16 of a possible 24 podiums and led 588 of a possible 682 laps (86 per cent) – we’re not counting Barcelona, where the Silver Arrows smashed into one another four corners into the race and had a dreaded double DNF. The scary part for the rest of the field is that as the new-for-2017 rulebook looms ever closer, teams will largely leave their 2016 cars as they are – meaning we could have a repeat of 2013 all over again, when Sebastian Vettel and Red Bull won the final nine races of the year before the rule reset of 2014. Can Mercedes win 20 of 21 races this year? To answer one question with another, who or what stops them?

Teacher’s pet

When you win your first Grand Prix at an age where you could still almost be in school (18 years and 228 days), is there any other candidate for this spot? Max Verstappen’s composure when given a chance to win his maiden Grand Prix in Spain in round five – on his first weekend for Red Bull Racing, no less – was almost as impressive as his speed, and he’s barely looked back since. Multiple podiums, a detached calm over the radio in the heat of battle and scant consideration for the reputations of his opponents when in a fight prove that Red Bull was right to promote him – and that he could be doing this for the next 10-12 years at least. For all of his feistiness in wheel-to-wheel battle, you get the sense that someone might lean on Verstappen before too long to prove a point, as Martin Brundle suggested after Hungary and his fight with Kimi Raikkonen. “Max’s defensive technique is too junior-formula for my liking,” the respected TV pundit said. “When he’s defending, he tends to loiter in the middle of the track and then at the last moment move to the side of the track where his opponent attacks, and cut them off. It’s asking for trouble. It’s clear the other drivers are becoming frustrated with it to the point that one of them will have him off to teach him a lesson. It’s what a (Nigel) Mansell or an (Ayrton) Senna used to do whenever they thought a young driver wasn’t showing due respect.” No matter what you think of his style, Verstappen deserves huge credit for what he’s done so far.

On the teams’ side, Force India do too, the Indian-owned British-based squad on track for the best season in its existence, and with fourth-placed Williams in its crosshairs as it routinely does the best it can with what it has. Speaking of making the most out of the least, Raikkonen’s management deserves a special shout-out for convincing Ferrari to re-sign their driver for another year …

Encouragement award

Let’s split this one in multiple directions. Sergio Perez has led Force India’s rise beautifully, combining his customary tyre-saving genius with bursts of stunning speed, and scoring podiums at Monaco and in Azerbaijan. Carlos Sainz didn’t hang his head after Verstappen was promoted from Toro Rosso to Red Bull, and has enjoyed a steady stream of points-scoring finishes in a car propelled by last year’s Ferrari engine that is clearly down on grunt. McLaren racing director Eric Boullier’s claim that his team has the third-best chassis in F1 would have been ridiculed a year ago, but the Honda-powered MP4-31 is a dramatic improvement on its predecessor, even if scrapping for points seems wrong for a team with McLaren’s pedigree. Sauber gets a gold star for simply staying on the grid and shoring up its previously tenuous financial future after doing a deal with Swiss investments company Longbow Finance before Hungary. And Pascal Wehrlein’s point for Manor for 10th in Austria was proof that the hype about the 21-year-old is very real, and that bigger things surely loom on the horizon for the talented German.

Could do better

Williams’ 1980 Formula One world champion Alan Jones never pulls any punches at his most diplomatic, and didn’t take long to respond when asked before the season what his old squad needed to improve on its third-place constructors’ finishes the past two seasons. “I think it’s called a budget,” Jones said, and as the season has gone on, the Grove-based outfit has found itself under increasing pressure to retain fourth overall from Force India, with third-placed Ferrari a whopping 146 points in the distance at the mid-point of the season. Valtteri Bottas has finished all 12 races but been a bit-part player in most of them besides Canada when he finished third, while Felipe Massa is on track for his worst season in seven years, and seems unlikely to be retained in 2017. With most eyes now focused on the new rulebook, Williams’ predicament doesn’t look likely to improve unless it can make a splash at circuits like Monza and Mexico, where its prodigious straight-line speed can be unleashed.

Needs a strong second semester

It’s amazing what one win by a teammate – who was, as it turned out, placed on a clearly advantageous strategy in Spain – can do for perception. But the reality for Daniel Ricciardo paints a different picture. He sits third in the championship, has a form line that reads as a good omen (his last four race results: fifth, fourth, third, second), has dominated his teammates in qualifying like no other driver (11-1 in 12 races), and took pole position at Monaco with what might go down as the best single lap of 2016. But with Verstappen the undisputed new darling of the sport, Ricciardo needs to continue to assert himself against his teenage teammate and take the momentum from his podiums in Hungary and Germany into the final nine races. Anything less, and those with short memories will continue to raise their voices. He seems like he’s more than up for the fight, and third in the championship is a must in the race for best of the rest behind the Mercedes duo.

Elsewhere, Massa’s afore-mentioned woes might mean it’s a case of Renault or bust next year, while Esteban Gutierrez’s return to F1 has been underwhelming, Haas teammate Romain Grosjean scoring all 28 of the new team’s points in the opening 12 Grands Prix.

Extra detention

It wasn’t supposed to be this way for Ferrari, which came into 2016 confident it could take the fight to Mercedes, and has instead found itself lagging further and further behind. Things looked good when Vettel led for a lot of the season-opening Australian Grand Prix before an overly-conservative strategy call allowed Mercedes to swoop, and while he made the year’s best start in Canada, Ferrari couldn’t hang with Hamilton in Montreal when it mattered most. Technical chief James Allison is gone, chairman and CEO Sergio Marchionne’s voice is growing ever-louder, and Vettel’s frustration was evident in his decision to so publicly question Ferrari’s strategy call at Hockenheim, choosing instead to run the race his own way. After three wins for Vettel last year, 2016 has been a massive let-down.

On the drivers’ side – and we hate to kick a man while he’s down – Daniil Kvyat’s freefall after being sent back to Toro Rosso after his error-strewn display in Russia has been painful to watch. That he was on the podium in round three in China seems inconceivable, and his reaction after his Q1 exit in Germany was quite harrowing to watch. Pierre Gasly’s name has been mentioned with increasing volume as Sainz’s teammate next season, and Kvyat’s F1 future may come down to what he’s able to produce in the upcoming quartet of races from Spa to Sepang.