Fernando Alonso

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.

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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 …

Why Spain is the start of F1’s ‘second season’

Formula One hits Europe for the first time this year in Barcelona – here’s five things to watch for as the season resets after the flyaways.

THIS STORY ORIGINALLY APPEARED ON REDBULL.COM

It’s the great guessing game of any Formula One off-season; the never-ending quest to work out which team is fastest and why before the cars hit the track for pre-season testing and, you know, actually demonstrate that for themselves. And then do some more guessing as to who is holding something back after testing for the season-opener in Australia

Another F1 truism? We spend the opening quartet of flyaways from Albert Park debating the pecking order of teams one through 10 on the grid with one qualifier: wait until they return to Europe for the Spanish Grand Prix. Spain, as the first GP much closer to home for the teams after the races in far-flung Melbourne, Sakhir, Shanghai and Baku, marks the start of F1’s unofficial ‘second season’, where teams bring significant aerodynamic and performance updates that have been finessed in factories while the machinery itself stays largely in launch spec, chasing victories far away from base.

What do we know about the season so far? The big three of last year – Mercedes, Ferrari and Red Bull – are still the top triumvirate in F1, but the true order of that trio remains to be seen. Mercedes has dominated since the advent of the V6 turbo hybrid era in 2014, and a familiar pattern looked set to emerge when Lewis Hamilton demolished the opposition in Australian Grand Prix qualifying in March. But since, Ferrari (Sebastian Vettel) has taken three straight poles, Red Bull (Daniel Ricciardo) has won a race in China, and it was Hamilton who belatedly took Mercedes’ first win of 2018 in fortunate fashion in Azerbaijan last time out, his teammate Valtteri Bottas retiring late with a puncture after the Finn looked set to win a race Vettel had in his keeping until a late race safety car for … well, you know what.

The Circuit de Barcelona-Catalunya, site of round five of the season this weekend, is one that every driver and team knows like the back of their hands as F1’s pre-season testing track of choice, and it’s one that provides every type of corner (even if we miss the fearsome big-balls right-handers that used to be the final sequence of the lap). Meaning there’s few unknowns about the venue; but what of the cars?

What might a technical shake-up do to that enormously-analysed pecking order we talked about earlier? Will we see technical directors entering the paddock with last-minute go-fast bits in their hand luggage ahead of qualifying on Saturday? (Answer: yes). And what trends might be revealed in Barcelona that set the scene for the races to follow?

Here’s five things to keep an eye on for this weekend.

1. Look for Silver to shine
Azerbaijan has been a tricky track for Mercedes in recent years despite it winning seemingly everywhere else, the propensity of its cars to overheat its rear tyres in the stop-start early part of the lap diluting its overall performance advantage over the rest. Catalunya, therefore, comes at the perfect time for a team that hasn’t yet hit its usual heights this season, Hamilton admitting after Baku that “Ferrari still hold the upper hand”, particularly in qualifying.

Since F1 made its big power-plant shift in 2014, there’s only one time Mercedes hasn’t won in Spain, and that came after Hamilton and Nico Rosberg committed the cardinal sin of crashing into one another (yes, other teams do it too) on the first lap for Max Verstappen to sweep through to win on his Red Bull debut in 2016.

Mercedes spent much of the pre-season running at the same circuit sandbagging so as to not show its superiority over its rivals, and while the team trails Ferrari (by four points) in the constructors’ championship, you’d be shocked if that didn’t change come Sunday night. Should Ferrari be able to hang with Mercedes in Spain, we might just have a title fight that’ll rumble on for the remainder of the year.

2. Running of the Bulls in Spain?
Ricciardo won in China, sure, but Barcelona shapes as Red Bull’s best chance for a strong result in a relatively normal race, not the safety car-generated tyre gamble that was Shanghai last month. Yes, the RB14 might labour down the lengthy front straight, but the sweeping curves that feature across much of the rest of the lap should see Ricciardo and Verstappen in their element, especially in the super-long Turn 3 and the quick right flick of Turn 9 onto the back straight. Passing is notoriously difficult at the Circuit de Barcelona-Catalunya and tyre debris off-line tends to shrink the racing line, but the Bulls should be quick enough in clean air to do some damage at a circuit that shapes as one of their most suitable for the season.

3. Making sense of the midfield
The top three teams are clearly the same as last year, but what have the first four races told us about the order of who follows them? Barcelona, as a track everyone is very familiar with, should help in sorting out the midfield minefield, with the identity of who is the next-best team seemingly switching by the race.

McLaren (fourth in the constructors’ championship with 36 points) lead the chase for now, but that’s largely on the back of Fernando Alonso being one of just three drivers in the field to score points at every race (Hamilton and Vettel, first and second in the championship, are the others).

The Spaniard always lifts to another level at home, but can he keep his 2018 form up against the likes of Renault (fifth, 35 points, and who have had both drivers in Q3 in all four races) and Force India (sixth, 16 points, and who had Sergio Perez on the podium in Baku)?

The other team to keep an eye on is Haas (eighth, 12 points), who could have had more points than that from either Romain Grosjean or Kevin Magnussen in Australia alone had both their pit stops not gone awry. Two points finishes from a possible eight (and Grosjean being just one of two drivers yet to score at all, along with Sergey Sirotkin of Williams) isn’t an accurate reflection of the American team’s pace, and Spain could be the start of them finishing where their speed suggests they should.

4. When is 1 worth more than 66?
When it comes to qualifying in Spain, that’s when. Sunday’s race is 66 laps long, but history suggests whoever has ‘1’ next to their name after qualifying 24 hours earlier is in the box seat to take the victory. More races are won from pole in Spain than anywhere (even Monaco), and with the current generation of fast-cornering cars, turbulent air and tyre marbles can turn the Spanish GP into a largely processional affair, one where the field can be strung out quickly. Last year’s one-on-one Battle of Barcelona between Hamilton and Vettel was both highly unusual and completely exhausting for its sheer intensity, but few remember that third-placed Ricciardo was the only other driver on the lead lap by the end, and he was a whopping 75 seconds adrift. We’ll know more about the true pace of all the cars after Sunday, but it’s hard to imagine Spain will serve up a race as compelling chaotic as Baku was, or build to a thrilling finale like Shanghai did.

5. The animals line up in pairs
With Catalunya being a track that rewards car pace more than allows individual drivers to shine, the grid can take on a ‘Noah’s Ark’ feel, the teams often lining up side-by-side based on the optimum performance of their machinery. Which means teammates can often set up next to one another for the long (740 metre) run the right-handed first corner, after which a switchback into Turn 2 always catches a few drivers out. If you’re a team principal, you could be forgiven for watching the first 30 seconds with your hands over your eyes …

10 fearless predictions for the F1 season

What our crystal ball is telling us about what will happen on four wheels in 2018, with one big asterisk …

THIS STORY ORIGINALLY APPEARED ON REDBULL.COM

Eight days of testing are in the rear-view mirror as the Formula One teams and personnel arrive in Melbourne for Sunday’s season-opening Australian Grand Prix, with something of a pecking order emerging after a pre-season held in rain, shine and snow (yes, really) at the Circuit de Barcelona-Catalunya earlier this month.

Which means it’s time to take a brave pill and peer into the crystal ball to see what will happen in 2018. Who shines? Who stumbles? Where will the biggest driver rivalry be? Which grandee team will fall from grace? And is there anyone who can elbow their way into the equation to stop Lewis Hamilton and Mercedes winning both world championships again?

Here’s 10 cast-iron guarantees (well, nine at least) for Albert Park this Sunday and the 20 races to follow in F1’s 69th season.

1. Halo won’t be a talking point for long

No, really. Hear us out. Most drivers won’t say much publicly against the cockpit protection device that makes its race debut in Melbourne (Haas’ Kevin Magnussen aside, who raged against it in testing), and yes, it’s an inelegant solution to a problem that clearly needs addressing. Yes, there are serious visibility concerns for spectators to ascertain which of a team’s two drivers is in a car as it flashes past (expect the sport’s organisers to address that pronto with an edict that car numbers must be bigger to counter the lack of helmet recognition caused by the halo). But like anything new in F1, it’ll be abnormal until it isn’t, and before too long we’ll be talking about Mercedes vs Ferrari, which Red Bull driver rules the roost, how many laps McLaren has managed before breaking down and so on – regular F1 topics.

Is it ugly? Absolutely. Will drivers be harder to identify in Melbourne? Most certainly. Will we stop grouching about it? Daniel Ricciardo has some thoughts. “I think people are going to get used to the halo pretty quickly and we won’t talk about it for too long,” he wrote in his column for redbull.com. “Remember back in 2009, the year that Brawn won the championship, and the cars that year looked so different with the small rear wings, almost like F3 cars? People threw their hands up and talked about it a lot at the start, but then we all got used to it and just moved on.” We reckon he’s right. Even if we don’t like it.

2. Ferrari can’t win the constructors’ title

It’s been 10 years since the Prancing Horse won a teams’ title, and it won’t win this year’s one, either. The reason? You need two drivers capable of scoring big points to unseat Mercedes, and while Red Bull has them in Ricciardo and Max Verstappen, Ferrari simply doesn’t in Sebastian Vettel and Kimi Raikkonen. Raikkonen’s past four years at Ferrari have seen him finish 106 points behind teammate Fernando Alonso in 2014, 128 points adrift of Vettel (2015), 26 points behind Vettel (2016) and 112 points in arrears of the German last year. And, in case you’d forgotten (and you’d be forgiven), it’s five years since he last won a race (Australia 2013 for Lotus). The Finn is wildly popular with the fans, has world champion (2007) pedigree, offers invaluable technical feedback, and doesn’t rock the boat internally at Ferrari. All employable attributes. And none of which mean the Scuderia will be sailing to a constructors’ title this year, no matter how good the SF71H is.

3. Which ‘V’ will have more victories?

Will Vettel at Ferrari, or Verstappen at Red Bull win more races in 2018? Last year was 5-2 in the German’s favour, with Verstappen’s victories in Malaysia and Mexico coming in the latter half of the year when he finally had some luck with reliability. The Dutchman looks set to go up another level this year, and Vettel’s old team may be poised to present him with a two-pronged headache with Verstappen and Ricciardo likely to out-perform Raikkonen. Ferrari will likely be more reliable, but in a head-to-head fight, we’re predicting Verstappen, by a hair.

4. Renault will make podiums, plural

The French team hasn’t sniffed the top three since it returned to the sport as a fully-fledged constructor three years ago, but this has to be the year. A chassis that’s striking for its aerodynamic progress, momentum from late last year and two strong drivers in Nico Hulkenberg and Carlos Sainz makes us confident that there’ll be a podium photo or two with a yellow hue this year. For Hulkenberg, who holds the dubious record of most starts without a single top-three finish (135), it’ll be long, long overdue.

5. Force India will fall

The British-run Indian-owned team has been hugely impressive in the past two seasons, finishing fourth and as the unofficial ‘best of the rest’ behind Mercedes, Ferrari and Red Bull. Pound for pound, Force India does the most with the least on the F1 grid, aided by a heady dose of Mercedes engine power. But this year shapes as the one where the team could slide, with Renault surging, McLaren given new life by jettisoning its troublesome Honda engines, and the likes of Toro Rosso and Haas making strides. The latter two teams look to be a step or two away from fourth, but we could see a world where Force India drops behind the bigger and wealthier Renault and McLaren outfits – which would likely mean the Sergio Perez/Esteban Ocon driver ‘partnership’ that produced several flashpoints last year could get really tense …

6. Standing starts after red flags will be dumped

This new rule probably won’t last long. In the event of a red flag stopping a race, the drivers will be led back onto the circuit behind the safety car, at which point they will line up on the grid in the order they were in when the red flag was thrown for a standing re-start. Exciting for TV and spectators trackside, sure, but Romain Grosjean was adamant that safety needs to be considered after the new system was trialled in testing in Barcelona, particularly if drivers are forced to stay on the same worn tyres they were on when the race was stopped. “In my experience I feel like it’s dangerous,” the Haas driver said, adding “it could be carnage” if the rule stayed as is. “Maybe the others don’t feel the same, but I don’t feel confident going with cold tyres,” he said. Expect the drivers to raise this issue well ahead of time this season, and a compromise to be reached.

7. McLaren will get it right, eventually

Yes, we saw the pre-season testing mileage stats that had McLaren last on the ‘laps completed’ board by some distance after problems that ranged from oil and hydraulic leaks, turbo failures and the engine cover being smouldered by the car’s exhaust. Yes, we know that McLaren’s horrendous pre-seasons of the past three years were a sign of what was to follow as a once-great team managed to only beat Sauber in the constructors’ championship last year. But the MCL33 isn’t slow, and when (note use of ‘when’) it runs properly, it can be a serious contender for fourth place in the teams’ title. Renault’s engine, by degrees, will surely be more reliable than the Honda that preceded it, and in Alonso, the team knows it has a driver who, when motivated, will haul a car into places it arguably shouldn’t be in. We’re backing them in to be a strong points finisher by the second half of the season, and Alonso snaffling a podium or two wouldn’t be a shock.

8. Williams’ decline will continue

Renault will rise, Toro Rosso are bullish, McLaren can hardly get worse and Force India will be a consistent presence in the midfield. Not everyone can improve, which leads us to Williams. Only Toro Rosso (with Pierre Gasly and Brendon Hartley) have less experience than Williams pair Lance Stroll (one season) and Sergey Sirotkin (rookie), and while the Russian is better than your average pay driver, you have to question the motivation behind his employment when data suggests he’s slower than the man he replaced, the retiring Felipe Massa (and that’s the 2017 Massa, not the near world champion Massa of a decade previously). The team has Mercedes power again, which is a plus, but after a conservative approach to pre-season testing that came after a fifth-place finish last year with 55 fewer points than the year before, is a slip to the bad old days (ninth in the constructors’ championship in 2013) on the cards?

9. Hamilton will win his fifth title

We’ll give you a minute to come up with an alternative world champion for this season. (Pause) No, we can’t think of one either. Mercedes’ pre-season confidence, Hamilton’s blazing form when it really mattered last year and a teammate in Bottas that doesn’t present the same challenges Nico Rosberg once did all adds up to five for us.

10. Where will Ricciardo be driving in 2019?

Speaking of Bottas, he might have as much to do with point 10 as point nine. Or maybe he won’t. Regardless, that giant asterisk we mentioned earlier? We’re using it here …

What do we know about the 2018 F1 season?

Testing is over and Australia is just a week away – here’s five pointers the pre-season has suggested as we count down to lights out in Melbourne.

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The phoney war is over – that phoney war being Formula One pre-season testing, where fresh liveries and new faces in new places occupy our attention initially, after which point F1 fans and insiders scratch their heads trying to work out who is fast, who isn’t, and why.

So what did eight days of running at the Circuit de Barcelona-Catalunya really tell us about the 21-race season that’s to follow? We’ll get back to those eight days later on, but with the season-opening Australian Grand Prix a little over a week away, we can paint something of a picture before the lights go out for 2018.

Here’s some of what we can deduce from testing – and a few pointers of what to look out for when the new season is officially ‘go’ in Melbourne on March 25.

Silver still holds sway

Don’t make any rash predictions on the season ahead based on testing, common convention suggests. You never know what fuel loads teams are running, tyre choice can make a fast car look slow, teams with plenty of spare space for sponsor stickers can be tempted to chase a headline time to squeeze some extra cash out of a potential backer, and so on. Don’t do it …

So we will. Mercedes has dominated F1 since the advent of the V6 turbo hybrid era in 2014, and testing presented few signs that anything will change any time soon. How can we tell? Something Mercedes didn’t do, and one thing they did.

Looking purely at the overall lap times, seeing Lewis Hamilton in eighth and teammate Valtteri Bottas 10th is quite a shock, until you consider how the Silver Arrows approached Barcelona. Consider, for sake of comparison, McLaren, who came into 2018 testing off a horror season last year and finished the test with the third-fastest time overall with Fernando Alonso. The devil in the detail? McLaren did 99 laps at the final test on the hypersoft tyre, Pirelli’s quickest rubber for 2018, while Hamilton and Bottas didn’t complete a single lap on the pink-walled tyre, and did more than half of their laps across the two tests on the medium tyre, suggesting there’s pace to burn when they fit the right rubber for qualifying in Melbourne. Pirelli’s estimate of the time gain when switching from mediums to hypersoft? North of two seconds a lap …

Another indication of Mercedes’ confidence came in comments from technical director James Allison, who, while explaining the differences between last year’s car and this one, suggested the 2017 Merc would be “blown away” and “utterly hopeless” compared to its successor. Let’s not forget that the W08, last year’s car, won 12 of the 20 races, took pole position 15 times, finished on the podium 26 times of a maximum 40 and won the constructors’ championship – for the fourth year in a row – by a massive 146 points. Allison’s comments could have barely been scarier if they were accompanied by the theme music from ‘Jaws’ …

The rest of the pack will move forwards – progress in F1 is a constant – but to expect anyone else other than Mercedes to start the year as favourites is foolish.

Asterisks are still alive

Ah, the old game of posting a fast lap time and then adding an asterisk to it as soon as you get out of the car. Sebastian Vettel posted the fastest time of testing (1min 17.182secs, breaking the circuit record), while Ferrari teammate Kimi Raikkonen was just 0.039secs slower on the final day, the Prancing Horse pair six-tenths of a second faster than the next-best runner (Alonso’s McLaren). So, Seb, you’d be pretty pumped up about that, then? Er, no. “I think it’s the wrong conclusion to look at the timesheet, there’s more to it than a good lap,” he said with a convincingly furrowed brow in Barcelona. “We still need to work on the performance and the feeling. I think today the track was quite fast, we ran a little bit different program to others. There are some things we still need to get on top of.”

The reality is that Ferrari aren’t Mercedes-level fast – nobody is – but are part of the top three along with Red Bull as they were last year. How good could they be? It’s hard to know, and neither driver is telling …

For feedback purposes, we preferred Max Verstappen’s take as testing came to a close, the Red Bull racer reasonably untroubled by finishing 20th of the 22 drivers who turned a lap in the pre-season. How does the RB14 feel compared to its predecessor, in which he took two wins late in the 2017 season?

“I know it feels faster,” he grinned, clearly playing along.

“The car feels good. Everyone of course wants to know where we think we are in relation to our opposition, but honestly it’s impossible to tell until we get to Australia, as you don’t know what everyone else is doing.

“It’s still all to be discovered.”

Renault to the four

No, that’s not a typo; we mentioned earlier that this year’s quickest trio of teams appears to be the same as last year’s, but the picture of who will be crowned king of F1’s unofficial second division appears to have a yellow hue, with Renault looking to have made giant strides over the off-season to challenge Force India’s recent hold over fourth place in the constructors’ race.

Carlos Sainz (fifth-fastest overall) and Nico Hulkenberg (11th) were relatively happy with Renault’s pace in Barcelona, and while the team suffered with gearbox gremlins on the final day of running to leave some question-marks hanging ahead of Australia, the tighter aerodynamic packaging of the RS18 was notable compared to its predecessor, the team’s chief technical officer Bob Bell admitting that Renault had “pushed like hell” with the new chassis in an attempt to take the next step.

Recent history suggests engine reliability is always a question with Renault, but with arguably the strongest driver line-up of the midfield teams and a renewed focus in year three of its return to F1 as a full factory team, the French outfit could be flying early in the season.

McLaren are out of excuses

You’d have been forgiven for having flashbacks to 2017 (and, to be fair, the two years before that) in Barcelona when testing was regularly stopped for stricken McLarens being brought back to the pits on the back of a flatbed truck, but this year, there’s no Honda for the team to point the finger at, the British squad aligning itself with Renault power for 2018.

A car that has, in the words of team racing director Eric Boullier, an “ambitious design” was plagued by myriad problems across the eight days in Spain, and the team managed just 599 laps in all between Alonso and teammate Stoffel Vandoorne, nearly 100 fewer than the next-worst team, Haas, and 441 less than Mercedes at the top of the tree (remember what we said about that ‘Jaws’ music?)

The MCL33 – when it works – is quick enough, but would you be comfortable predicting both orange cars will last long enough to see the chequered flag in Melbourne, a bumpy, technical street circuit that will undoubtedly be harder on machinery than a resurfaced Barcelona, which resembled a billiard table for pre-season testing? With Honda getting off to a strong start in its new partnership with Toro Rosso (only Mercedes and Ferrari’s drivers managed more laps than STR duo Pierre Gasly and Brendon Hartley), McLaren only have themselves to blame if things go south this time.

Testing in Europe is useless

Remember the eight days of testing we mentioned earlier? It seems ludicrous that a sport as sophisticated as F1 allows for eight days of what is, effectively, pre-season training (your local park football team probably does more than that), and as preparations for a 21-race season go, eight days seems woefully inadequate. Throw in the weather to hit Barcelona in the first week (track temperatures didn’t hit double-figures on the second day, and the third day was a complete write-off after snow), and you wonder why F1 keeps persisting with scheduling testing solely in countries where weather can scupper the best-laid plans of a billion-dollar business.

Taking a leaf from MotoGP – which ran its pre-season tests in Malaysia, Thailand and Qatar this year – would be a sensible decision. Barcelona doesn’t need to be abandoned, but what about adding, say, Bahrain to the mix? No snow there …

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.

Five reasons we’ll be watching the Chinese Grand Prix

Are Red Bull back in the game, will Mercedes muscle in, or can Ferrari spring another Shanghai surprise?

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The new-for-2017 Formula One opened in Australia last month to mixed reviews – for all of the positive press about wider cars that look and are faster, the lack of overtaking at Albert Park caused some consternation as to what sort of a season the quickest cars in F1 history can produce over 20 races.

Racing in Melbourne has always come with an asterisk, as the high-speed street circuit has never been one where passing is easy, and rarely produced a race that has stolen the headlines save for a massive first-lap pile-up or a local hero making good. China, and the Shanghai International Circuit, should give us more of an insight into the true picture painted by the new cars – and it remains to be seen if that picture will have a red hue once more after Sebastian Vettel opened the season with a win for Ferrari at Albert Park.

There’s a million reasons to keep a close eye on the action from Shanghai this weekend – not least because it’s one of the rare overseas races for Australian fans that doesn’t end in the wee hours of the following day – but we’ll restrict ourselves to these five.

Are we really about to get a Vettel v Hamilton title fight?
The second and fourth-most successful drivers in F1 history have spent a decade sharing the world’s racetracks, but have never really featured in the same title fight. With 53 wins, Lewis Hamilton has found the majority of his success in the past three years as Mercedes dominated the era immediately following the Vettel/Red Bull march for four straight titles from 2010-13, where the German took 34 of his 43 career victories to date.

Most forget the duo made their debuts within six races of one another in 2007 (Hamilton for McLaren at the season-opening Australian Grand Prix, Vettel as an injury replacement for Robert Kubica at BMW at that year’s US Grand Prix at Indianapolis), and while they finished just 16 points apart in the epic 2010 title chase, Vettel had Fernando Alonso and teammate Mark Webber in closer proximity at the end of that season.

The German’s win over Hamilton at Albert Park raised hopes that this might be the year they both have the machinery at their disposal to have a proper head-to-head title fight; having more than one team racing for the drivers’ and constructors’ crowns after the past three years of Mercedes domination can only be good for F1 diehards and casual fans alike.

Is the Prancing Horse a one-trick pony?
Valtteri Bottas’ first weekend for Mercedes in Melbourne went largely under the radar, but the unassuming Finn couldn’t have a done a lot more in his first GP as Hamilton’s teammate. Bottas was third on the Australian grid, two-tenths of a second slower than Hamilton, and finished 1.2 seconds behind him in the race, showing that Mercedes will be able to launch a two-car assault on this year’s titles. Meanwhile, that red speck you saw in the background was Kimi Raikkonen; Bottas’ compatriot was more than half a second behind Ferrari teammate Vettel in qualifying and 22 seconds adrift of him after 57 laps in the race despite the pair starting line astern.

The Finnish veteran showed well against Vettel in qualifying last year, but was that down to his speed or Vettel slightly lifting off the throttle mentally when he didn’t have a race-winning car at his disposal, which seemed the case in 2014 at Red Bull when he was trounced by Daniel Ricciardo despite being the reigning four-time world champion?

When he returned to Ferrari in 2014, Raikkonen was out-scored over the season by then teammate Alonso (by 106 points), and then in 2015 by a motivated Vettel (by 128 points). If the 2017 Ferrari is genuinely a race-winning car, as Vettel suggested it was in Australia, then it’d be nice to have a driver capable of winning races driving it. Put it this way: would you put your money on Raikkonen beating Vettel or Hamilton in a straight fight?

Can Red Bull bounce back?
Red Bull’s Australian Grand Prix was underwhelming in the extreme, with neither Ricciardo nor Max Verstappen able to challenge the Ferrari-Mercedes duopoly at the front, and Ricciardo’s home race snowballing out of control after a qualifying shunt on Saturday preceded a race of technical disasters on Sunday. The team seemed to lurch from one set-up solution to another but never found the RB13’s sweet spot in Melbourne, and with no significant engine upgrade likely until round seven in Canada, the opening trio of flyaway races could prove to be some hard sledding for a team expected to make the most of the relaxed aerodynamic regulations in 2017.

China has been a happy hunting ground for the team in the past; in addition to Vettel’s 2009 win, Ricciardo was second on the grid last year, and Daniil Kvyat was third in the race. While the SIC is a more ‘normal’ circuit than the atypical Albert Park, it remains to be seen if the Bulls can charge into the fight with the top two.

Fernando’s future
Webber and Alonso are good mates, so when the retired Red Bull racer said the Spaniard might not see out the 2017 season at McLaren as its alliance with Honda remains stuck in neutral, the F1 world raised an eyebrow. Webber is as savvy a media performer as exists, and it’s unlikely he’s making a public statement to that effect unless he senses or knows something is up.

F1 is so much better with Alonso in the mix for something meaningful, but the most recent of his two world championships in 2006 must seem like an eternity ago. At the end of 2014, when Alonso left Ferrari to return to McLaren and hopefully reprise his glory days of yore, Vettel had 39 career wins and Hamilton 33 to Alonso’s 32. Since? Hamilton has 20 wins, 35 total podiums and two world championships, Vettel has won four races and taken 21 total podiums, and Alonso hasn’t finished better than fifth in a race. Exasperation doesn’t even begin to describe it.

The Spaniard’s driving at Albert Park was sadly compelling as he muscled and willed a dog-slow car to the back-end of the points through sheer force of will until it broke, leaving him to describe his race as “probably one of the best I’ve had”. What might China reveal about his plans to carry on with the team when he comes out of contract at the end of 2017?

What bonkers Chinese GP experience will we get in 2017?
There’ll be something, because there always is in China. In 2005, Juan Pablo Montoya’s McLaren had to retire after it ran clean into a manhole cover that had come loose. In 2011, Jenson Button pulled up in Red Bull’s pit box to take service and new tyres – the only problem being that the Brit was driving for McLaren. Hamilton won the 2014 race that ended prematurely after the chequered flag was erroneously waved a lap too early, while a year later, a spectator ran across the track in the middle of free practice, jumping the pit wall because he wanted to have a go of F1 machinery himself. Last year was relatively incident-free for China, which can only mean we’re due …