Daniel Ricciardo

What happened at the Singapore Grand Prix?

Lewis Hamilton strengthens his grip on the F1 title with a dominant win, while Red Bull’s Max Verstappen makes the Singapore podium for the first time in second place.

THIS STORY ORIGINALLY APPEARED ON REDBULL.COM

The build-up
Arguably the biggest news of the entire Singapore Grand Prix weekend came before it started, when it was announced that Sauber rookie Charles Leclerc would take the place of Kimi Raikkonen at Ferrari from next season on a multi-year deal. The super-impressive Monegasque had been thought of as a nailed-on successor to the Finnish veteran for months, but what was more surprising was that Leclerc’s move from Ferrari-aligned Sauber amounted to a job swap, the 38-year-old Raikkonen re-joining the Swiss team he made his debut for way back in Australia 2001.

Red Bull Racing’s Daniel Ricciardo spoke for many of his peers when he said he was a “little bit” surprised by Raikkonen’s career arc coming full circle. “I suspected Ferrari would make the change they’ve made, but I thought if Kimi left then he was leaving, riding dirt bikes and spending time with his kids,” the Australian said. “His body language doesn’t always show he enjoys the sport, but obviously he likes it more than we think he does …”

Raikkonen’s current employers looked to be in the ascendancy as the teams went through the three practice sessions under the night lights of Singapore, but when it came to qualifying, championship leader Lewis Hamilton took his Mercedes to another level, beating last year’s pole lap by (no misprint) nearly three-and-a-half seconds to snare his 79th career pole. When you’ve had as much Saturday success as the Brit has – Hamilton has more poles than any driver in F1 history – topping qualifying might not be as exciting as it would be for another driver, but this was a lap that left him almost speechless. Every apex kissed, little or no wheelspin, millimetres from the walls – it was sublime. “That lap felt like magic,” he beamed afterwards.

For those wondering about the rate of progress in F1; Hamilton’s first Singapore pole lap, for McLaren in 2009, was 11 seconds slower than his time for Mercedes this year. We’ll just let that sink in …

Alongside him on the front row with what he felt was the best qualifying lap of his career was Red Bull’s Max Verstappen, who was three-tenths of a second off pole, but smiling like he’d taken top spot. “If I can take a metre against Lewis at the start, and get in the lead, there’s a good chance of a win as it’s a hard track to pass on,” he said, optimistically.

Not so happy were Ferrari, with Sebastian Vettel (third) and Raikkonen (fifth) not able to translate their practice pace when it counted against Hamilton, while the man who split the red cars, Valtteri Bottas, was seven-tenths of a second behind his Mercedes teammate, scratching his head wondering where Hamilton’s pace came from.

Verstappen was top dog at Red Bull again, Ricciardo looking strong until Q3 before finishing sixth, nearly a second off pole and six-tenths behind his teammate, while Sergio Perez was king of the ‘B’ division for Racing Point Force India, finishing seventh at a track where he typically races well, but qualifies poorly. “I think I produced a nearly perfect lap on a track where it is hard to achieve it,” the Mexican said.

Elsewhere, Haas were delighted (Romain Grosjean was eighth) and baffled (Kevin Magnussen was 16th) in equal measure, while Fernando Alonso made it a perfect 15-0 record against McLaren teammate Stoffel Vandoorne when he qualified 11th, the Belgian out in Q1 again in 18th. It was worse still for Williams, where Sergey Sirotkin was 19th and 1.4secs behind Vandoorne, while teammate Lance Stroll was nearly a tenth of a second slower than the Russian rookie. “It was really tough … more of a survival,” Sirotkin admitted.

Come race day, it was the usual Singapore talking points that were front of mind – would the 61-lap distance be completed within the maximum two-hour race window, and when, not if, the safety car would make an appearance given there had been eight safety car periods in the past five Singapore races.

More importantly for the championship, could Vettel peg back some of his 30-point deficit to Hamilton at a circuit where Ferrari, on paper at least, should be stronger?

The race in exactly 69 words*
Hamilton extended his championship lead to 40 points with six races remaining with a controlled victory, his fourth in Singapore and seventh for the season coming by a margin of over eight seconds from Verstappen, who took his maiden Singapore podium. Vettel rounded out the rostrum after a lonely drive to third in a race where the top six qualifiers finished in the same positions after 61 soporific laps.
(* 2018 is the 69th season of Formula One)

Ricciardo recap
At least he saw the chequered flag … sixth for Ricciardo, after he’d finished second on the Singapore streets for the past three years, wasn’t much to get excited about for Red Bull’s Australian, but seeing the finish line after three mechanical retirements in the four previous races was at least a tiny step in the right direction.

Starting sixth, Ricciardo made no headway in the opening stint of the race, but was able to roll a strategic dice with no pressure from behind, staying out longer than his teammate Verstappen and the Mercedes/Ferrari pairings to delay his sole pit stop to discard his hypersoft tyres until lap 27. He inherited the lead when Raikkonen pitted on lap 21 to head a race for the first time since he won in Monaco in May, and elected to fit ultrasoft tyres for the remainder of the race at his stop, the pace of the softer rubber theoretically enabling him to catch fourth-placed Bottas and Raikkonen in fifth ahead of him.

Ricciardo surged late in the race, setting several fastest laps along the way, but was never close enough to mount an attack on the Finnish pair, finishing nine-tenths of a second behind the second Ferrari and a whopping 45 seconds behind his teammate. Sixth in qualifying, sixth in the race and – not coincidentally – sixth in the world championship with 126 points, 22 behind Verstappen (who he led by as many as 37 points earlier in the season).

What the result means
There’s been several good Grands Prix this season, and even a couple of great ones. And then there was Singapore, where the top six cars finished where they started after 111 minutes of “racing”, the seventh-placed finisher (Alonso) was 50 seconds behind the driver in front of him (Ricciardo), every other driver was lapped at least once, and where there was precisely one overtake among the top six – through the pit-stop phase of the race – among the top three teams after the first lap.

Why? What made qualifying so exciting 24 hours before and saw record times tumble was the use of the hypersoft tyre for the first time, which ensured the top 10 qualifiers would do everything in their power to extend their first stint of the race so as to not have to pit more than once to cover the 61 laps. On tyres that Pirelli suspected might last 10-15 laps, Ricciardo eked his out to lap 27, while Vettel was the first of the fastest six drivers to pit on lap 14. How? By not pushing: the opening laps of the race after the manic opening corners were run at lap times 11 seconds slower than qualifying.

Vettel’s opening-lap pass of Verstappen at Turn 7 after using the superior grunt of the Ferrari engine to usurp the Dutchman’s Renault-powered Red Bull looked to have put the German into play to challenge title rival Hamilton, but Ferrari’s early pit stop – and the decision to fit ultrasoft tyres – backfired when Vettel found himself bottlenecked behind Perez for two laps on resuming, meaning Verstappen could pit three laps later, fit the more durable soft tyre, and sneak out of the pits just ahead to regain second place, which he held until the end.

With fading tyres and more than likely fading motivation, Vettel fell to 39secs behind Hamilton at the flag, and now needs to score an average of seven points more than his Mercedes rival in every race for the remainder of the season to win the title. Given Hamilton has finished either first or second for the past six races, that sounds like a very, very tall order.

For historical purposes …
Magnussen may have finished 18th – or, if you prefer, second-last – after a weekend when he could never get on the pace of Haas teammate Grosjean, or most of the rest of the field. But the Dane did set the fastest race lap (1min 41.905secs on lap 50) for the first time in his 76-race F1 career, and became the first F1 driver in his family to achieve the feat; father Jan, who started 24 races between 1995-98, never managed it.

The number to know
100:
the percentage of races in Singapore to feature a safety car intervention. Esteban Ocon’s meeting with the Turn 3 wall on the first lap (more of which later) made it 15 safety car periods in 11 races at one of the calendar’s most unforgiving tracks.

Under-the-radar winner(s)
Look no further than Alonso here, who took McLaren’s best result since Azerbaijan 10 races ago with seventh, using a marathon 38-lap first stint on ultrasoft tyres starting outside of the top 10 to leapfrog Grosjean, Perez and Renault pair Carlos Sainz and Nico Hulkenberg and maintain a strong pace throughout. Six points for the team after it had taken just four between its two drivers from the previous four races gave McLaren reason to smile in what has been a rough season.

It wasn’t all bad for Sainz and Hulkenberg either – eighth for the Spaniard, and 10th for his German teammate, saw Renault score five points on a day when Haas went scoreless (Grosjean 15th, Magnussen 18th) and increase its lead over the American team in the constructors’ championship to 15 points.

Singapore was a welcome return to the points for Sauber’s Leclerc, too; the 2019 Ferrari driver was ninth for his first top-10 finish in six races, a wretched run that included three non-finishes.

Those who lost out
The ‘new’ Force India lost out big-time in Singapore, when Perez nudged teammate Ocon into the wall on the opening lap to make the Frenchman the first (and eventually only) retirement of the race. Ocon was unimpressed with Perez squeezing him into the outside barrier; Perez said he was unsighted and had nowhere to go.

It was a rough race for the pink-hued team, with Perez later copping a drive-through penalty after swerving into Sirotkin after he passed the Russian at Turn 17 on lap 33, the Mexican’s frustration boiling over after being snookered behind the slower Williams for several laps.

Sirotkin didn’t endear himself to many of his rivals on Sunday, given a five-second time penalty for pushing Toro Rosso’s Brendon Hartley into the wall late in the race, while the Williams driver fought Grosjean’s Haas like crazy as the pair were being lapped by the leaders on lap 38, Hamilton nearly losing position to Verstappen and commenting “these guys are crazy” to his team. Grosjean was later given a five-second penalty for ignoring blue flags as he baulked Verstappen as his battle with Sirotkin raged.

What’s next?
After jetting all the way to Asia (while staying on European time for the night event of Singapore), F1 hits reverse and heads back to the northern hemisphere bound for Russia (September 30), which hosts the fifth world championship Grand Prix held at the circuit that winds its way around the stadiums used for the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi. Which, naturally, comes before Suzuka in Japan a week later (who organises these calendars?) Bottas will be one driver keen to see Russia come up on the schedule as he searches for his first win of 2018; the Finn was victorious in Sochi 12 months ago, while Mercedes has won all four Grands Prix at the venue, which is bad news for Vettel and everyone else.

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What happened at the Italian Grand Prix?

Lewis Hamilton strikes back with a win in Ferrari territory, while Daniel Ricciardo’s charge from the back flames out in what was a tense race at Monza.

THIS STORY ORIGINALLY APPEARED ON REDBULL.COM

The build-up
Ferrari’s enthusiastic tifosi arrive in their tens of thousands for the Italian Grand Prix every year, but they had a special spring in their step for this trip to Monza after Sebastian Vettel’s win at Spa a week earlier, and with most experts believing it was the Scuderia, not Mercedes, who now had the fastest car in their field.

Practice times indicated it would be a shock if a red car wasn’t on pole, but few would have thought Vettel’s teammate Kimi Raikkonen would have ended up as top of the pile after Q3, the Finnish veteran beating his teammate by 0.161secs with a lap of 1min 19.119secs that set an F1 record for average speed (263.587km/h). It made the 38-year-old the oldest pole-sitter since Nigel Mansell in Australia 24 years ago.

The brilliant lap was more than four-tenths of a second faster than the old record, held by Juan Pablo Montoya (Williams) at Monza in 2004, but predictably, most people were more emotional about Raikkonen’s pole than the ‘Iceman’ himself …

Vettel was miffed at not taking pole at a circuit where first in qualifying has translated to first on race day seven times in the past eight years, with many wondering if Raikkonen would be sacrificed in the race for Vettel’s title campaign, given their comparative deficits to series leader Lewis Hamilton (Vettel 17 points, Raikkonen 85).

Hamilton was just 0.014secs behind Vettel with a lap he felt he’d “squeezed everything out of”, and while Mercedes teammate Valtteri Bottas was fourth, his deficit to pole (0.537secs) was a truer indicator of Mercedes’ lack of pace compared to Ferrari.

Max Verstappen was next but a world away (1.496secs off pole) despite using Renault’s new engine in his Red Bull, while teammate Daniel Ricciardo was at the very back after also taking a new powerplant but accruing penalties for exceeding his season’s allocation, and not bothering to set a lap time in Q2, knowing he’d be at the tail-end anyway. “We’re as fast in a straight line as we can be at the moment which should serve me well in the race,” he said. “We’ll come through the field, brake late and hopefully finish up with some good points.”

Elsewhere, Romain Grosjean (Haas) and Carlos Sainz (Renault) had excellent sessions in sixth and seventh respectively, while Grosjean’s teammate Kevin Magnussen (11th) had a war of words after qualifying with McLaren’s Fernando Alonso (13th), the pair compromising one another’s laps in Q2.

“There are many classes of drivers and then there are the Haas ones, who have the third or fourth-best car of the grid and are out in Q2,” Alonso sarcastically said of the Dane, who didn’t miss the Spaniard with his retort. “I’m not going to let him pass me, and sacrifice my own lap. No way. I know he thinks he’s a god, but no way,” Magnussen said, adding: “He came to me after qualifying and laughed to my face … just outright disrespectful. I can’t wait for him to retire.”

Other notable performances came from Toro Rosso’s Pierre Gasly, who was ninth after expecting to struggle to make it out of Q1, while Lance Stroll was 10th for some desperately-needed good news for his beleaguered Williams team. “Sometimes you get in a rhythm and it just comes all together, and today that is how it went,” the Canadian said.

Come Sunday, all eyes were on the weather after it poured on Friday and threatened on Saturday, and whether Ferrari would orchestrate a switch of positions between its drivers on the run down to the super-tight first chicane, where first-lap accidents are almost an annual tradition. “We know as a team we can race but we need to be careful with each other,” Raikkonen said, cautiously …

The race in exactly 69 words*
Hamilton extended his championship lead with his sixth 2018 win, a combination of pace and tyre management seeing him beat Raikkonen after surviving a brush with Vettel on lap one. Vettel recovered from the back to fourth after a pit stop for repairs, while Verstappen fell from third on the road to fifth in the results after being penalised for hitting Bottas, the Finn inheriting the final podium place.
(* 2018 is the 69th season of Formula One)

Ricciardo recap
For the third time in four races, Ricciardo was an early spectator through no fault of his own, pulling over before the Turn 3-4 chicane on lap 24 with smoke billowing from the back of his Red Bull after “I heard something breaking” as he slowed for Turn 1. The Australian had just edged into the points after starting from the back row before his retirement, which is his sixth in 14 races this season; only Toro Rosso’s Brendon Hartley (who also had his sixth DNF of the year after contact with Sauber’s Marcus Ericsson seconds after the start) has finished as few races.

Ricciardo started on the soft tyre and had planned to run a long first stint of the race, but the safety car caused by Vettel’s first-lap tap with Hamilton and the debris from Hartley’s shunt saw him immediately pit for supersoft tyres in an attempt to make inroads through the midfield.

Contact with Gasly on lap nine saw him sustain some front wing damage, but he was still able to make steady if unspectacular progress into the points before what appeared to be another power unit failure, but was later revealed to be a clutch issue.

“It’s not always fun, looking at the whole year it has been pretty frustrating,” he said.

“I passed Stroll and then I could see smoke coming out of the back. If I got a penalty in Singapore, I probably won’t even show up …”

Since Ricciardo’s second win of the season in Monaco in round six, he’s managed just three fourth places, a fifth, and retired three times with mechanical failures. Between them, the Red Bull pairing of Ricciardo and Verstappen have 10 retirements, more than any other team on the grid.

What the result means
Former F1 driver Felipe Massa, conducting the post-race interviews, described Hamilton’s fifth Italian GP win as one of his finest races, and it’s hard to argue. For the world champion to head to the next race with a 30-point series lead – meaning he’ll retain that advantage no matter what happens on the Singapore streets – was an enormous result in the context of the title fight on a weekend where Ferrari was faster in all three practice sessions and all three periods of qualifying.

After surviving the tangle with Vettel, which was deemed a racing incident despite the German saying Hamilton had left him nowhere to go, Hamilton never challenged Raikkonen for the lead, but never let the Finn’s Ferrari out of his sight before Raikkonen pitted on lap 21. The ensuing eight laps until Hamilton stopped were the most critical of the race, Hamilton maintaining a strong pace on worn rubber, and Raikkonen – as it turned out – going far too hard too early on his new tyres, that still had to complete 32 laps, after he resumed.

Hamilton was initially concerned with the gap to Raikkonen once he made his own stop – the Ferrari pulled out five seconds as Raikkonen relentlessly pushed – but Mercedes was able to snooker Ferrari by having Bottas stay out longer than planned before his own pit stop, denying Raikkonen the free air he needed to escape the Briton’s clutches. Tyre wear – Raikkonen’s left rear tyre was ageing badly the longer the race went – saw Hamilton close rapidly, and it became a matter of if, rather than when, the championship leader would strike.

Eight laps from the end – on eight-lap younger tyres, remember – Hamilton took the lead into the first corner, and bolted to win by nearly nine seconds as Raikkonen was forced to drop his pace to such an extent that he was the slowest car on track in the closing stages as he nursed his tyres home.

Race pace, strategy calls, teamwork … Mercedes had it all over Ferrari in hostile territory. The radio message to Bottas as he and Hamilton drove side-by-side on the lap back to the pits after the chequered flag – “formation all the way home, just to show our Italian colleagues” – only served to rub it in.

Raikkonen (who scored his 100th podium finish) was understandably disappointed to miss his best chance yet of snapping a win drought that extends 108 races back to Australia in 2013, while for Vettel, fourth was as good as it could have been given he was last and facing the wrong way four corners into a race that, before qualifying started, he would have been odds-on to win.

Bottas’ team play was rewarded with a podium – although not on the road at the flag – after Verstappen clattered into him as they fought into the first corner on lap 42, the Dutchman given a five-second time penalty that dropped him behind both the Finn and Vettel in the results. Verstappen was not pleased, to put it mildly, suggesting the stewards were “killing racing”, adding to his team that “I’m losing time to Vettel, but I don’t really care” as the final laps loomed. In reality, fifth – behind the two Ferrari and two Mercedes cars – was as good, on pace, as Red Bull was going to achieve at a circuit where straight-line speed has always been king.

For historical purposes …
Hamilton’s win was his fourth Italian Grand Prix victory in five years, and ensured Mercedes won on Ferrari’s home patch for the fifth straight year after Hamilton’s former teammate Nico Rosberg was victorious in 2016. Since F1 switched to the V6 turbo hybrid engine era in 2014, Mercedes has never been beaten at Monza.

The number to know
30:
Hamilton’s points gap atop the standings is the largest enjoyed by any driver this season.

Under-the-radar winner(s)
Look no further to the back-end of the points for the biggest winners not on the rostrum in Italy – Williams. Stroll finished 10th and teammate Sergey Sirotkin looked to have just missed out on his maiden points finish in 11th, but hours after the race, the Russian was promoted into the top 10 after the disqualification of Romain Grosjean (sixth). Grosjean’s haul of points looked to have propelled Haas past Renault in the constructors’ championship, but the French team protested the legality of Grosjean’s machine, and the stewards agreed, saying the floor of the Haas was in breach of the sport’s regulations.

Grosjean’s exclusion elevated Force India pair Esteban Ocon and Sergio Perez into sixth and seventh, Sainz (and Renault) inherited eighth, and the Williams pair rounded out the points, the team’s first score since Azerbaijan 10 races ago.

Those who lost out
Haas (see above). The Ferrari fans; Alonso’s 2010 victory at Monza remains Ferrari’s most recent on home soil. Alonso himself, who was given a stirring reception from the crowd on the drivers’ parade before his final Italian GP, but was out after just 10 laps when his McLaren had a sudden loss of power. Ricciardo, who’s becoming a regular fixture in this space. And Raikkonen, despite finishing second. On pole, teammate out of contention and in the lead in the fastest car in the field with less than 10 laps left … you can’t help but wonder if he’ll ever have a better chance of nabbing that elusive 21st career victory.

What’s next?
The European leg of the world championship is now done and dusted, with the focus now shifting to Singapore (September 16) and the Grand Prix that has become one of the sport’s signature events. It’s hard to find a contrast between circuits greater than the flat-out blasts of Monza to the stop-and-go streets of the Asian city-state, which tends to suits Ricciardo down to the ground. The Australian’s last four races there: third, second, second, second. If he’s to snare another win before leaving Red Bull for Renault, this shapes as the race …

What happened at the Belgian Grand Prix?

A crazy crash-filled start didn’t deter Ferrari’s Sebastian Vettel in Spa, while Max Verstappen grabbed a podium at one of F1’s signature circuits.

THIS STORY ORIGINALLY APPEARED ON REDBULL.COM

The build-up
Plenty had happened since the most recent race in Hungary when the paddock reconvened at Spa-Francorchamps, so much so that all four drivers in the first part of the pre-event press conference (Daniel Ricciardo, Fernando Alonso, Carlos Sainz and Pierre Gasly) were all wearing shirts for teams they won’t be driving for next year …

On the teams front, the takeover of Force India, which went into administration at the Hungarian round, saw the team compete as an all-new entry under the banner of Racing Point Force India, with Sergio Perez and Esteban Ocon continuing to drive for the outfit, but all 59 constructors’ points earned by the team this year struck from the statistics as it raced as a ‘new’ squad for the first time.

Once the action got going on track, Ferrari led the way through all three practice sessions, but when Spa’s notoriously fickle micro-climate dumped rain onto the track in Q3, it was Mercedes and Lewis Hamilton who stepped to the fore as they did at the Hungaroring four weeks previously, the championship leader taking a record fifth pole in Belgium and sixth of 2018 with a lap that was right on the ragged edge.

“I don’t think I can quite put into words just how difficult the conditions were out there today, we were all tip-toeing around,” Hamilton said after beating Sebastian Vettel by seven-tenths of a second to top spot.

The rain and the length of the longest lap in F1 (7.004km) created the chance for a junked-up grid, but few would have believed you if you’d suggested Ocon and Perez would have locked out row two for their ‘new’ team. Third for Ocon was his best qualifying yet, and was timely given his 2019 future remains unclear because of the ownership change at his team. “A fantastic day,” he beamed.

Romain Grosjean used the grunt of Ferrari’s engine to qualify a strong fifth for Haas ahead of Ferrari’s Kimi Raikkonen, who was much further back than expected after a fuel miscalculation from his team left him stranded in the garage as the track improved later in the session. Others caught out by the weather included Red Bull (Max Verstappen seventh ahead of Ricciardo in eighth), while Hamilton’s teammate Valtteri Bottas didn’t complete a timed lap in Q3, the Finn consigned to a back-of-the-grid start no matter where he qualified because of engine component changes.

Nico Hulkenberg would join Bottas at the back because of his own Renault engine penalties, while there was no home comfort for McLaren’s struggling Stoffel Vandoorne, the Belgian qualifying last and at a loss for answers. “It’s a real shame that we don’t have better machinery to really put on a good show and give the fans a good result,” he said.

Gloomy and threatening weather on race morning, the two title protagonists sharing the front row, cars out of their normal position behind … everything was in place for a gripping race around one of the sport’s signature circuits.

The race in exactly 69 words*
Hulkenberg’s monster shunt with Alonso at the first corner eliminated both drivers and Sauber’s Charles Leclerc, and caused a safety car. Vettel blasted past Hamilton into Turn 5 just before the safety car neutralised the race, and was never headed thereafter, winning by 11.275 seconds. Hamilton retained his series lead with second, while Verstappen completed the podium with a lonely third. Ricciardo was one of five drivers to retire.
(* 2018 is the 69th season of Formula One)

Ricciardo recap
Ricciardo admitted he was left scratching his head after qualifying behind Verstappen for the seventh race running, saying he was losing time “everywhere” to the Dutchman, and not being able to put his finger on why. The Red Bulls started alongside one another on row four, but any plans of a battle between them were shelved when Ricciardo made a slow getaway, and had his rear wing damaged by Alonso’s flying McLaren after Hulkenberg sent the Spaniard skywards. Ricciardo then hit Raikkonen’s Ferrari with his front left tyre, and the Australian limped back to the pits for hasty repairs, and re-joined once the safety car released the field two laps down and on nothing more than an information-gathering run, where only attrition was going to lead to points. Once the pitstops had played out, the team chose to retire Ricciardo’s car so he can take a new gearbox without a grid penalty at the next race in Italy.

Ricciardo’s last five race results follow a pattern: DNF (Austria), fifth (Great Britain), DNF (Germany), fourth (Hungary), DNF (Belgium). Can we pencil him in for a third at Monza and a maiden Italian GP podium, then? He’ll be hoping so after an anonymous weekend at Spa where he fell behind Verstappen in the drivers’ standings for the first time this season.

What the result means
The prevailing view heading into the mid-season break was that Hamilton’s 24-point lead had been earned despite Ferrari having the stronger car, and Vettel proved that correct by setting a devastating pace at Spa that Mercedes simply couldn’t match. After one lap once the race resumed following the safety car period, the German tore off to a 1.6-second lead, and while Hamilton pegged the gap at around three seconds before he pitted on lap 21, Vettel stopped a lap later, fitted the same tyre compound (softs) as his title rival, and methodically built a lead of over four seconds within seven laps. By lap 30, with the lead over five seconds, the series leader had to concede defeat and take solace in having a 17-point championship lead with 13 of 21 races this season in the books. “He just drove past me like I wasn’t there,” Hamilton said of Vettel’s pace in the early stages, while the German’s post-race assessment (“I could turn everything down and control it”) sent Mercedes an ominous warning.

Verstappen’s fifth podium of the season, once he dispatched the Racing Point Force India (yes, that’s taking some getting used to) duo of Ocon and Perez, won’t go down as one of his most exciting drives, as he finished 20 seconds behind Hamilton and 31 seconds behind the race-winner. But it was a result that sent the hordes of Dutch fans home happy, and one that came in the country of his birth to please the locals just as much. “We just did our own race,” he said after jumping Ricciardo to fifth in the championship standings.

From the back, Bottas did the best he could to get up to fourth by the flag, despite having to make an early stop when he clattered into the back of Sergey Sirotkin’s Williams in the first-corner mayhem caused by Hulkenberg. With Raikkonen forced to retire with significant floor damage after being tagged by Ricciardo, Bottas’ 12 points helped Mercedes retain its constructors’ championship lead.

For historical purposes …
Sunday’s victory was Vettel’s 52nd Grand Prix triumph, moving him ahead of Alain Prost into third on the all-time winners’ list. Michael Schumacher (91) and Hamilton (67) are the only drivers who have won more.

The number to know
2:
the number of points Verstappen now leads Ricciardo by in the drivers’ standings after trailing him for the first 12 rounds. Ricciardo’s advantage peaked at 37 points after round six in Monaco, which was his last podium finish.

Under-the-radar winner(s)
Advocates of the halo, which came in amid howls of protest (from some) this year, were left saying ‘told you so’ when the device deflected Alonso’s flying McLaren from above Leclerc’s head in the scary first-turn crash that ripped every conceivable corner from the McLaren. Leclerc would have been disappointed to be a spectator after lap one for the second straight race, but, equally would have been thanking his lucky stars afterwards.

“The positive side is that we all three are OK, including Charles,” Alonso said. “I flew over his car and the halo was a very good thing to have. I think for him it helped, looking at the replay. I was definitely happier that I had the halo. We don’t need to prove that it’s a good thing to have.”

For his role in the crash, Hulkenberg was handed a 10-place grid penalty for the next race in Italy.

Elsewhere, fifth (Perez) and sixth (Ocon) was a fantastic ‘debut’ for the ‘new’ Force India, while a double points finish for Haas (seventh for Grosjean and eighth for teammate Kevin Magnussen) saw the American team draw within six points of Renault for fourth in the constructors’ championship after Hulkenberg’s DNF and Carlos Sainz’s 11th-place finish.

Those who lost out
Ricciardo, whose first race weekend back after his summer shutdown news barely got out of first gear. Raikkonen, whose five-race run of podiums was snapped. And Vandoorne, who finished last in every practice session, qualified slowest, and was the 15th and final car running at the flag for about as depressing of a home race weekend as can be imagined.

What’s next?
It seems like no more than 10 minutes ago that the 2018 season started in Melbourne, but the final race of the season in Europe is coming in a flash, the Italian Grand Prix at Monza taking place in just seven days’ time (September 2). Ferrari hasn’t won in front of the tifosi at home since Alonso saluted in 2010, with Mercedes annexing all four races since the sport switched to V6 turbo hybrid engines in 2014, Hamilton three of them.

The moment Ricciardo decided to drop a bombshell

THIS STORY ORIGINALLY APPEARED IN THE AGE NEWSPAPER

The plane stopped climbing, the seatbelt sign extinguished, and Daniel Ricciardo exhaled for what felt like the first time in months. The Australian Formula One ace was on his way from London to Los Angeles to meet some mates for a mid-season break, and was finally on his own time. No commitments, no fans, no media, no hangers-on. It was the headspace he’d been craving.

Out of contract at the end of 2018 and set to become an F1 free agent for the first time, Ricciardo had been determined to explore every option, even as the speculation over his future intensified by each passing month, and against the backdrop of teammate Max Verstappen committing to Red Bull Racing on a big-money deal until the end of 2020 last October. But the clock was ticking, and the 10 hours crossing the Atlantic gave him pause for thought. It was time to shake things up.

Earlier this month, Ricciardo dropped the bombshell that he’d be leaving Red Bull, home to all seven of his F1 wins since joining the team as the successor to compatriot Mark Webber in 2014, to join Renault, the French manufacturer ramping up its involvement in the sport as constructor in its own right in addition to being a supplier of engines to multiple teams, including Red Bull. It was a move few, certainly not Ricciardo’s current employers, saw coming.

Leaving a race-winning team to move to a midfield outfit with aspirations of reprising its most recent glory days of 2005-06 with Fernando Alonso is, Ricciardo admits, “ballsy”. But the 29-year-old feels it’s a move that’s necessary, both personally and professionally.

“I think a lot of people expected me to take the soft option and stay because they see me as a soft guy,” Ricciardo tells The Age in an exclusive interview.

“I’m maybe perceived as someone who is a friendly guy who wouldn’t push back and make a big decision. It’s good for everyone to see that I have the balls to make a call like this.”

For most of 2018, much of the speculation over Ricciardo’s future focused on Mercedes and Ferrari if he was to leave the only F1 family he’s ever known, his five seasons at Red Bull Racing following a two-year apprenticeship at its sister team, Toro Rosso. Mercedes has been the sport’s dominant team since F1 switched to V6 turbo hybrid engines in 2014, while Ferrari, with Sebastian Vettel leading its charge, seemed the squad most likely to knock Mercedes from its perch. But doors that could have flapped open never quite came ajar.

As Ferrari dithered over whether to retain Vettel’s 38-year-old teammate Kimi Raikkonen or promote promising young Monegasque driver Charles Leclerc, Mercedes elected to re-sign Valtteri Bottas to play support act to world champion Lewis Hamilton for a third season in 2019.

With a bottleneck at the top two teams, most expected Ricciardo to stay with Red Bull, where he’s demonstrated an ability to win multiple races in machinery that, in his tenure, has never been capable of a championship push. But a surprise player came onto the scene in the immediate aftermath of Ricciardo’s second win this season, around the streets of Monaco.

“Renault first expressed some interest around then, with Cyril (Abiteboul, Renault F1 managing director) contacting Glenn (Beavis, Ricciardo’s manager),” he says.

“There were several options. I spoke to Renault, I had a couple of meetings with McLaren, and I got to speak with (Red Bull company founder) Dietrich (Mateschitz) in Barcelona and again in Austria.

“Initially, I had it in my mind that I’d be staying (at Red Bull). But the more I thought about starting something different and taking on a new challenge, I got excited. I met with Renault and got a sense for their long-term plan. Obviously I want to win tomorrow, but the strength of Ferrari and Mercedes at the moment means it’s very hard for anyone to take them on in the short-term.”

Ricciardo says Renault didn’t promise him the earth – in fact, the French team did quite the opposite.

“The thing that struck me about Renault was that they were prepared to be honest,” he says.

“Straight away, they said ‘we’re not going to be quicker than Red Bull next year’, but what they told me about their plans for 2020 and for when the next rule changes come in for ’21 … they had some good structure in place, they’re recruiting a lot of good key people, and they’re preparing to win. They have a winning mentality and a realistic way of going about it, which I liked.”

As Renault’s approach became more serious, Ricciardo still had a two-year deal from Red Bull on the table, but something about the thought of standing pat didn’t feel quite right.

“There’s been times this year that I’ve felt exhausted, maybe a bit jaded, and for the first time in my career, not completely enjoying F1,” Ricciardo admits.

“There’s been times when I’ve thought ‘this is why (2016 world champion Nico) Rosberg retired’, and he had it a lot more intense than me. Or why Casey Stoner retired from MotoGP very young. I can see how you could feel burnt out or a bit over it.

“I pushed for a one-year deal which Red Bull agreed to, but still in the back of my mind, I wasn’t sure. What if I was in the same position, had the same feeling a year from now? Would there still be other options available? I didn’t want to snooker myself.”

Renault set a deadline for Ricciardo to accept its two-year deal over the Hungarian Grand Prix weekend in late July, but he needed more time to ponder his options.

“Renault wanted an answer in Budapest, and the Red Bull offer was still there,” he says.

“There was too much going on, so I managed to buy a few more days. But I had to make a call.”

Three days after that race weekend, Ricciardo was in London, bound for LA, and with a decision to make. He’d been on the phone to his manager right up until his flight boarded.

“For the first time in I can’t remember how long, I had 10 hours to myself, didn’t need to be at a race weekend, didn’t need to be at an event, and I was on my own time,” Ricciardo says.

“There was something about being alone on that flight that gave me the clarity I needed. The one thing I kept coming back to was being energised again, wanting a new challenge, and that the chance to change excited me. So as we got phone signal as I was coming into LA, I called Glenn and told him it was Renault.”

Ricciardo met his three friends in LA, and as the quartet headed to Las Vegas for the weekend, spent most of the four-hour drive on the phone.

“The others all went out when we got to Vegas, but I stayed in the hotel because of how exhausted I was,” he says.

“The next morning, I called (Red Bull motorsport adviser) Helmut (Marko) and then (team principal) Christian (Horner). Helmut said he wasn’t too surprised, that he expected it in a way. He said he had a feeling that I wanted to move on. Christian, at first anyway, thought I was taking the piss.

“After I’d made those calls, I felt like a big weight had come off my shoulders straight away. They weren’t easy calls to make. But my instinct was telling me it was right. My gut feel was telling me it was right. I was waiting to have that feeling the whole way through the process as it went for months, and I got it for the first time on that flight to LA. When I finished that last phone call and it was done, I knew. I turned my phone off and left it in the hotel safe for three days …”.

Ricciardo says the decision to leave is “one of the toughest” he’s made in life, not just his racing career.

“It’s been a 10-year journey with Red Bull, I was in their junior program in 2008, so amazing memories and things I’ll always be grateful for, and things I’ll never forget,” he says.

“I’m sad to move on, absolutely, but excited by the challenge at Renault. Personally I felt it was good for me to have a fresh start somewhere else, I think it will be healthy.

“I’ve been pretty stressed all year, and now life feels pretty stress-free.”

Who’s winning the F1 teammate battles in 2018?

Which teammates have the wood over one another? Who has the biggest presence in each of Formula One’s 10 team garages? We’ve crunched the numbers.

THIS STORY ORIGINALLY APPEARED ON REDBULL.COM

The first person as a Formula One driver you have to beat? Your teammate, of course, who (in theory) has the same equipment as you and the same opportunity for success, or failure. If you’re driving for one of the backmarker teams, you’re clearly not winning this year’s drivers’ championship – but one thing you can do is emerge victorious from the intra-team battle and be the biggest man in the garage over a full season. Careers have been made (or ruined) by less.

With F1 in its (northern) summer shutdown ahead of the Belgian Grand Prix in a bit over a fortnight’s time, we run the rule over each team and the mano a mano battle within them, and who has internal bragging rights at the mid-point of 2018.

Mercedes

Qualifying head-to-head: Lewis Hamilton 7, Valtteri Bottas 5
Races head-to-head (where both cars finished): Hamilton 7, Bottas 3
Best result: Hamilton 1st (five times), Bottas 2nd (five times)
Points: Hamilton 213, Bottas 132
Podiums: Hamilton 9, Bottas 5
Average grid position: Hamilton 3.17, Bottas 3.25
Average race finish: Hamilton 2.18, Bottas 3.9

Summary: No surprises here, but this is closer than you think despite Hamilton’s hefty points advantage after 12 races. Season 2018 has been a case of the reigning world champion making the most of the days when he shouldn’t win, like Germany and Hungary before the break, to go with the races like Spain and France where he runs and hides. Bottas could have won six races this year, but Hamilton’s ability to conjure a special qualifying lap or mesmerising race performance gives him the advantage.

Ferrari

Qualifying head-to-head: Sebastian Vettel 10, Kimi Raikkonen 2
Races head-to-head: Vettel 6, Raikkonen 4
Best result: Vettel 1st (four times), Raikkonen 2nd (twice)
Points: Vettel 189, Raikkonen 146
Podiums: Raikkonen 8, Vettel 7
Average grid position: Vettel 2.08, Raikkonen 3.67
Average race finish: Vettel 2.91, Raikkonen 3.2

Summary: It’s been a bloodbath for Vettel in qualifying – Raikkonen has only out-qualified the German in Australia and Hungary – but the Finn’s sheer consistency saw him arrive at the break with more podiums than any other driver besides Hamilton. Six of them though are for third place, and that’s partly down to Vettel’s grid-best average starting position. It’s been Raikkonen’s strongest season for some time, but the stats show he’s still the second-best Ferrari driver out there.

Red Bull Racing

Qualifying head-to-head: Max Verstappen 9, Daniel Ricciardo 3
Races head-to-head: Ricciardo 3, Verstappen 3
Best result: Ricciardo 1st (twice), Verstappen 1st
Points: Ricciardo 118, Verstappen 105
Podiums: Verstappen 4, Ricciardo 2
Average grid position: Ricciardo 6.5, Verstappen 6.83
Average race finish: Ricciardo 3.5, Verstappen 4.13

Summary: This isn’t easy to call, primarily because Red Bull’s rocky reliability has seen both drivers finish in the same race just six times, half of the 12 Grands Prix this season. Crashing out in the same accident in Azerbaijan didn’t help, of course, but the final four races before the break saw only one of Ricciardo or Verstappen make the chequered flag, the other an early spectator with a DNF. Verstappen has dominated his teammate in qualifying, but Ricciardo has the only pole between the pair (Monaco), and while the Australian has finished on the podium just twice in 12 races, they’ve both been victories (China and Monaco), which skews his stats somewhat. Like we said, not easy, and you could make an argument for either.

Renault

Qualifying head-to-head: Nico Hulkenberg 7, Carlos Sainz 5
Races head-to-head: Hulkenberg 5, Sainz 2
Best result: Hulkenberg 5th, Sainz 5th
Points: Hulkenberg 52, Sainz 30
Average grid position: Hulkenberg 9.92, Sainz 9.08
Average race finish: Hulkenberg 7.33, Sainz 8.27

Summary: Ask this question after three races, and it was all Hulkenberg, who had out-scored Sainz 22-3 and qualified higher all three times. Since, the German has just three more points than his Spanish teammate, although to be fair to Hulkenberg, he’s retired three times to Sainz’s one. The points gap suggests a clear leader, but this could easily flip by the end of 2018.

Haas

Qualifying head-to-head: Kevin Magnussen 9, Romain Grosjean 3
Races head-to-head: Magnussen 5, Grosjean 3
Best result: Grosjean 4th, Magnussen 5th (twice)
Points: Magnussen 45, Grosjean 21
Average grid position: Magnussen 9.5, Grosjean 11.5
Average race finish: Magnussen 9, Grosjean 11

Summary: Grosjean has the better race result of the Haas duo thanks to his outstanding fourth in Austria, but there’s been little else to cheer about for the Frenchman against his Danish teammate, Magnussen enjoying his most convincing season yet. Much of that is down to his qualifying superiority, and Magnussen has converted on Sundays, seven top-10 finishes seeing him more than double Grosjean’s points tally at the mid-point.

Force India

Qualifying head-to-head: Esteban Ocon 9, Sergio Perez 3
Races head-to-head: Ocon 7, Perez 2
Best result: Perez 3rd, Ocon 6th (twice)
Points: Perez 30, Ocon 29
Podiums: Perez 1, Ocon 0
Average grid position: Ocon 11.33, Perez 11.75
Average race finish: Ocon 9.11, Perez 10.36

Summary: Perez is the only driver outside of F1’s ‘big three’ teams to nab a podium this season, which came when he finished an opportunistic third after he picked his way through the late-race chaos in Azerbaijan. So that does that means he’s had a bigger impact that Ocon this season? Not exactly – the Frenchman enjoys comfortable leads in the qualifying and race head-to-heads with his Mexican teammate, and just – just – shades him in average starting and finishing spots. It’s the closest fight between teammates in any team, and one that will be played out for the remainder of the season amid uncertainty about Force India’s future.

McLaren

Qualifying head-to-head: Fernando Alonso 12, Stoffel Vandoorne 0
Races head-to-head: Alonso 6, Vandoorne 2
Best result: Alonso 5th, Vandoorne 8th
Points: Alonso 44, Vandoorne 8
Average grid position: Alonso 12, Vandoorne 15.1
Average race finish: Alonso 9, Vandoorne 12

Summary: Alonso may have turned 37 years old on race day in Hungary, but the two-time world champion remains a formidable foe – just ask Vandoorne, who is the only driver to have been beaten by his teammate in qualifying in every race this season (Alonso’s streak actually stands at 16, after out-qualifying the Belgian in the last four races of last season as well). Vandoorne’s star may have lost some of its lustre in his stuttering F1 career to date, but that’s only because of who he’s up against, and what both drivers are up against in driving the cars they’ve had. Gaps between teammates don’t get a lot bigger.

Scuderia Toro Rosso

Qualifying head-to-head: Pierre Gasly 9, Brendon Hartley 3
Races head-to-head: Gasly 2, Hartley 2
Best result: Gasly 4th, Hartley 10th (twice)
Points: Gasly 26, Hartley 2
Average grid position: Gasly 13.42, Hartley 15.92
Average race finish: Gasly 10.67, Hartley 13

Summary: Other than Williams (and we’ll get to them), Gasly’s impact on Toro Rosso’s points (93 per cent) is higher than any single driver in any other team, but it’s how they’ve come about that’s been eye-catching. The Frenchman has scored just three top-10 finishes to Hartley’s two, but they’ve all been superb results; a spectacular fourth in Bahrain, a strong seventh in Monaco and an assured sixth in Hungary, where he was the last car not lapped by victor Hamilton. Hartley’s first full season has been blighted by retirements; the Kiwi has five DNF’s, more than any other driver, and both cars have only finished the same race four times in 12 Grands Prix.

Sauber

Qualifying head-to-head: Charles Leclerc 9, Marcus Ericsson 3
Races head-to-head: Leclerc 5, Ericsson 3
Best result: Leclerc 6th, Ericsson 9th (twice)
Points: Leclerc 13, Ericsson 5
Average grid position: Leclerc 13.92, Ericsson 16.83
Average race finish: Leclerc 11.56, Ericsson 12.44

Summary: Leclerc has announced himself as a star of the future by virtue of what he’s done in the present, and scored all of his points in five races across a six-race run between Azerbaijan and Austria, bookending the start and end of the year’s first half with a trio of non-scores. Three top-10 qualifying efforts show that he’s been able to extract those last few tenths of a second out of an improved Sauber that Ericsson can’t. The pair are closer in the races than you’d think, though, with more than half of Leclerc’s points coming with his out-of-the-blue sixth in Baku.

Williams

Qualifying head-to-head: Sergey Sirotkin 7, Lance Stroll 5
Races head-to-head: Stroll 4, Sirotkin 4
Best result: Stroll 8th, Sirotkin 13th
Points: Stroll 4, Sirotkin 0
Average grid position: Sirotkin 16.75, Stroll 17.08
Average race finish: Stroll 13.8, Sirotkin 15

Summary: The good news for Stroll is that no other driver is responsible for 100 per cent of his team’s points; the bad news is that there’s just four of them, earned when he finished eighth in Baku. Sirotkin is the only one of the 20 drivers not to score a point yet this season, but the Russian rookie has been more rapid (relatively speaking) on Saturdays, ensuring his Canadian teammate has the lowest average starting spot on the grid. But really, there’s no winners here in what has been a torrid season for one of the sport’s most famous teams.

An unusual chat with Daniel Ricciardo

The first thing that was weird was that he was early. It’s not that Daniel Ricciardo is late, far from it – as sportspeople go, he’s as prompt as it gets. But on this day, it was odd that he wanted to talk, for a while, and preferably, right now. We’d had countless chats in Grand Prix paddocks and the like, but ghost-writing his driver column for his (soon to be past) employer gives you much more of an insight in to what’s going through his head; no filter, no prying eyes peering, no timetable to keep, no line to toe. We’d done loads of these chats, by FaceTime, in cars, by pools, in motorhomes, at the kitchen table … but this one was different. He was ready, I wasn’t, and the phone rang.

Just as weird: he did way more talking than I did, and he did a lot of it. We talked the recent British GP at Silverstone, where the 2018 cars carried such incredible downforce that some of the sport’s most feared corners had become little more than curved straights. “I know some of the other guys are all about the stopwatch, but I couldn’t give a shit about that really, I just want it to be fun,” he mused, wondering aloud if it should look easy-flat to scythe through Maggots, Becketts etc. We then kicked around some ideas for the latest driver diary, some serious, some not-so. Why don’t we touch on contracts while we’re at it? OK, came the response. What followed was 41 minutes and 50 seconds of audio that was compelling, revelatory, surprising in parts and completely understandable in others. And a column that, now, will never see the light of day. Which for two people’s sake, is probably for the best …

Moving to Renault, whose best-placed driver in multiple Grands Prix has been lapped by the race-winner this season, is a ballsy move. A good one? Way too early to say. But all along, Ricciardo was adamant he was going to explore his first chance at Formula One free agency properly, that he wouldn’t be rushed, that he wanted to canvass every option and that he wanted to take his time. After teammate Max Verstappen re-signed with Red Bull until the end of 2020 in October 2017, the questions over whether Ricciardo would stay or go started in earnest. For months and months. In Melbourne this year for a season that hadn’t started yet, he was being asked more about the next one than the one that was about to begin. Verstappen’s early signature ensured the spotlight shone brightly in his direction, but this was being done on nobody’s timetable but his. It was mentally exhausting and he knew that he “needed to get some time back” after feeling the pinch more this year than ever before. He’s now got a chance to do just that before Belgium in a touch over three weeks’ time – and then the questions will really start …

“It’s the first time I’ve had the position of, I guess you’d call it freedom, and leverage,” he said as we wrapped up. “I wanted to see what happened with that.” Something happened, alright. There’s more, much more, to say here … but for now, it’s time to find that French phrasebook while pondering what a grandstand full of yellow will look like at Albert Park next March.

The F1 2018 mid-term report

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 …

THIS STORY ORIGINALLY APPEARED ON REDBULL.COM

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.

Encouragement award

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.

Extra detention

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 …