Esteban Ocon

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?

THIS STORY ORIGINALLY APPEARED ON REDBULL.COM

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.

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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.

THIS STORY ORIGINALLY APPEARED ON REDBULL.COM

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.

10 for testing: What to watch in Spain

The 10 F1 teams gather for pre-season testing in Barcelona next week; here’s 10 reasons you need to pay attention.

THIS STORY ORIGINALLY APPEARED ON REDBULL.COM

It seems an eternity since Nico Rosberg (remember him?) won last year’s Formula One drivers’ title by finishing second to Mercedes teammate Lewis Hamilton in Abu Dhabi last November, doesn’t it? Fortunately for F1 fans, the wait will soon be over, with the sport set to awaken from its post-season slumber at next week’s pre-season test at the Circuit de Barcelona-Catalunya from February 27 to March 2.

Rosberg, of course, is now out of the picture by choice after retiring days after winning the world title, but the news cycle following the German’s bombshell over the off-season barely abated. New cars, new liveries, new controversies and predictions of what the new-for-2017 F1 will offer have been discussed ad infinitum over the past two months; now, it’s time for the talking to stop and the action to start.

Here’s 10 things we’ll be watching as F1 steps out in the Spanish sun next Monday.

1. Sandbagging. Will Mercedes pick up in the ‘new’ F1 where they left off in the ‘old’ one, or will they keep their powder dry as they bed in their new machinery and have new signing Valtteri Bottas in the car for the first time? How much will the Silver Arrows keep in reserve for the second test at the same venue a week later, or when it really matters – for qualifying on Saturday in Melbourne for the season-opening Australian Grand Prix?

2. Pumped up. If you’ve followed F1 on social media over the close season, you’d be forgiven for thinking that every driver has posted every detail of every workout on every platform imaginable, declaring how ready they are for the new hairy-chested F1 machines. Mind you, Barcelona in February isn’t the place to be getting around in a t-shirt showing off their revised and ripped physiques. Beanies and puffer jackets are more appropriate bits of kit. The drivers will tell you how fit they are though, but they might need some help. Enter the …

3. Physios. Turn 3 at Barcelona, the seemingly endless right-hander that has had to be babied by the world’s best in recent years, is expected to be 40km/h faster thanks to fatter, grippier tyres and better aerodynamics this season. Expect the drivers’ trainers and physios to earn their money, and the necks of the world’s best steerers to be shot after the first day. “I’m sure that when we start testing everyone will be destroyed,” says Force India’s Sergio Perez.

4. Speaking of injuries … Pascal Wehrlein’s unfortunate stack at the Race of Champions in Miami in the off-season has him sidelined for this test, with Ferrari reserve driver Antonio Giovinazzi given a chance to shine in the striking Sauber, which looks the goods with its splashes of gold as revealed this week. The GP2 runner-up from last year has a big chance to impress thanks to Wehrlein’s bad back.

5. Body language. Hamilton’s past week has featured comments on the shape of his Mercedes W08 (“it looks like a boat”), his lack of affection for newer circuits in isolated areas, and even the revelation – breathlessly reported by the British press – that’d he’d never partake in a shoey celebration, brought into F1 by Daniel Ricciardo last year. But his comments on data-sharing within the Mercedes team, as Bottas gets set to become his fifth F1 teammate, made more headlines than anything else he’s uttered over the off-season. “When I get in this new car, it’s seeing what the limit of it is,” he told Mercedes sponsor UBS in an interview. “And if I can’t do it on my own, then I’m not good enough and I don’t deserve to be there. And there are some drivers that don’t.” Without naming names, of course. Expect the press pack to run with this one in Barcelona, and expect Hamilton to shrug his shoulders and say very little on the subject.

6. Faster, but better? We’re not racing next week, but will cars capable of going four to five seconds per lap faster than their predecessors look the goods? It depends largely on …

7. Pirelli. Tyres are 25 per cent wider this year than in 2016, but the durability of the Italian manufacturer’s rubber will determine whether those lap-time gains are achievable, and for how long. Expect plenty of analysis of the long race-simulation runs performed by each team, not just the headline-grabbing top times.

8. Liveries. Are McLaren really going orange? Is there a lighter shade of blue on the cards for Toro Rosso? With all 10 teams set to reveal their 2017 hues by the day before the lights go out on testing on Monday, we’ll be craning our necks to see who has elected for revolution rather than evolution on the livery front. Less silver/grey on the grid would be a good start.

9. Overall-watch. Almost as anticipated as the new paint schemes on the cars are the first sightings of the drivers we know who have changed employers in the off-season. Nico Hulkenberg in Renault yellow, Bottas in Mercedes silver, Esteban Ocon in whatever combination of white/orange/black Force India elect to use this season, and Lance Stroll in Williams white. Will Stroll elect for the baggy style of overalls employed by Canadian compatriot Jacques Villeneuve back in his Williams days two decades ago, we wonder? The son of clothing mogul Lawrence Stroll would have too much fashion sense for that, surely?

10. Ferrari. A year after a winless season, the only team to have retained both drivers from this time 12 months ago, rumblings in the Italian press that the team is already concerned about its performance this year – there’s never a dull moment at F1’s most famous team, and a strong showing in Barcelona would get the pre-season pressure off. Well, a for little while at least.