Kimi Raikkonen

F1 2018: Who was best in class?

Who stood up and shone? Who stumbled backwards or stuttered? It’s time for our top 10 drivers of the F1 season.

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We’re making a list, checking it twice … no, not that one, even if it is December. The final month of the year finally hears Formula One engines fall silent after the equal-longest season in the sport’s 69-year history, and for some drivers (Red Bull Racing’s Max Verstappen, for example), more Grands Prix (to extend his run of five straight podiums to end the year) would probably be welcomed. But the off-season does give us cause for pause and a chance to reflect on who and what was good in 2018 – and who underwhelmed or went missing when it mattered. Which is where we came in.

In this space this time last year, we ran the rule over the grid to come up with our top five drivers of 2017. Halfway through this one; a report card that handed out the mid-season grades (and who needed to do their homework or stay back after school for extra detention). This time, we’re changing tack.

From the 20 drivers who lined up for the start of season school photo in Australia in March, we had a statistical anomaly this year – those same 20 drivers also posed for the end-of-year shot in Abu Dhabi last month, the first time in F1 history the same grid that started the season also finished it. But forget 20 – it’s a top 10 list for the season that’s of interest, and begs questions of how to arrive at one.

What were the expectations for each driver (and their teams) heading into 2018, and did they exceed those relative to their teammates, and the opposition? Who had outsize results in cars not worthy of them, or who squandered points and podiums in machinery that was superior? And do the final standings for 2018 tell the complete truth, or is context more important than counting points?

Before we reveal the top 10, two honourable mentions to those who just missed. Kevin Magnussen was comfortably the best Haas driver of the season for a fledgling team that finished a heady fifth in the constructors’ championship, and the Dane had his best season yet, scoring 56 points to finish ninth overall. A better year than teammate Romain Grosjean, but not one that slid him into our top 10. And Carlos Sainz, who finished right behind Magnussen in 10th after a strong sixth-place showing to wrap up his Renault tenure in Abu Dhabi, missed out by a whisker as he prepares to head to McLaren for 2019. Both tough, tough omissions … but if 10 make it, 10 have to miss.

So who made the cut? From 10 to 1, let’s count them down – the best F1 drivers of the class of 2018, and why.

10. Fernando Alonso

2018 summary
11th in world championship (50 points), best result 5th (Australia), 15 finishes in 21 races.

The verdict
Was Abu Dhabi, where Alonso performed a series of celebratory donuts on the start-finish straight after the race with fellow multiple world champions Lewis Hamilton and Sebastian Vettel, really the last time we’ll see the Spaniard in F1? We don’t know that for certain, but what 2018 taught us was that Alonso got everything he could out of a McLaren that, by season’s end, was the second-slowest car. He scored 50 of the team’s 62 points, and outqualified teammate Stoffel Vandoorne 21-0, the first driver to whitewash his teammate since … Alonso himself (Nelson Piquet Jr in 2008). Of those 50 points, 32 came in the first five races as he preyed on the customary early-season unreliability of rivals, taking a yard when an inch was on offer. Fifth in race one of 2018 in Australia was the best he could do all season. Let’s hope we see him again; how much better would F1 be if Alonso was sharing the same piece of track with Hamilton and Vettel on merit, not for nostalgic purposes?

9. Sergio Perez

2018 summary
8th in world championship (62 points), best result 3rd (Azerbaijan), 1 podium, 19 finishes in 21 races.

The verdict
Perez is the answer to what will eventually become a trivia question from 2018; by taking third in Baku, the Mexican was the only driver not from Mercedes, Ferrari and Red Bull to stand on the podium all season (Azerbaijan 2017, where Lance Stroll finished third for Williams, is the only other race in the past two seasons to end likewise, a stat fact F1 sporting boss Ross Brawn calls “unacceptable”). Nearly one-quarter of Perez’s points came on that one crazy afternoon in Azerbaijan, and while he’s a safe pair of hands who can be relied upon to pick up the crumbs thanks to his tyre-conserving style, his qualifying deficit to Racing Point Force India teammate Esteban Ocon (16-5) costs him a spot in our rankings from where he finished.

8. Charles Leclerc

2018 summary
13th in world championship (39 points), best result 6th (Azerbaijan), 15 finishes in 21 races.

The verdict
How good was Leclerc’s rookie season? Not since Verstappen (49 points for Toro Rosso in 2015) have we seen a newcomer this polished, and what made his maiden campaign all the more impressive was that he was driving for Sauber, which finished dead last in the constructors’ championship the year prior. The Swiss squad’s jump to eighth can be primarily pinned on the composed 21-year-old, who ended the year with a trio of seventh-place finishes on the bounce in Mexico, Brazil and Abu Dhabi, the best realistic results on offer behind the sport’s ‘big three’ teams. A brighter spotlight awaits as Vettel’s teammate at Ferrari, but nothing we’ve seen so far suggests it should bother him. Put your hard-earned on him becoming F1’s 108th race winner sometime next season.

7. Nico Hulkenberg

2018 summary
7th in world championship (69 points), best result 5th (Germany), 14 finishes in 21 races.

The verdict
Seventh overall, seventh on our list, seven races started from seventh place on the grid … there’s a consistent theme here for Hulkenberg, who was largely in control of F1’s ‘class B’ in 2018 despite not finishing seven of the 21 races, the second-worst in that category on the grid (we’ll get to number one on that list later, Australian fans). It took until round 12 in Hungary, where he finished 12th, for the Renault driver not to finish in the points in a race where he saw the chequered flag. Finished eight races in (you guessed it) seventh place or better in his best F1 season yet.

6. Valtteri Bottas

2018 summary
5th in world championship (247 points), best result 2nd (Bahrain, China, Spain, Canada, Germany, Russia, Japan), 2 poles, 7 fastest laps, 8 podiums, 19 finishes in 21 races.

The verdict
The Finn finished fifth overall, but we’re docking him a spot here based on what he did the year prior in the sport’s best team, and what his teammate did in equal equipment in 2018. Rewind 12 months, and Bottas took three wins and scored 305 points to finish third overall; this season, he went winless while teammate Hamilton won 11 times, the first time a world champion’s running mate failed to win a race since Mark Webber in 2013. Azerbaijan, where he suffered an untimely puncture within sight of the flag, was one that got away, but Russia, where he was ordered by Mercedes to gift the win to Hamilton to aid a championship quest the Briton eventually won by a mile, might have hurt his head as much as Baku hurt his heart.

5. Daniel Ricciardo

2018 summary
6th in world championship (170 points), 2 wins (China, Monaco), 2 poles, 4 fastest laps, 2 podiums, 13 finishes in 21 races.

The verdict
Two wins in the first six races had Ricciardo considering a championship charge, but as the year unfolded, it seemed the affable Aussie had spent the off-season that preceded 2018 walking under ladders while crossing paths with a black cat and breaking a mirror on Friday the 13th. In 21 races, he had eight non-finishes, all but one of them from reliability gremlins that could have broken someone of lesser character (for context, the Mercedes and Ferrari pairings, plus teammate Verstappen, had 12 DNF’s combined). When the car was fast, Ricciardo was often too far back with penalties to do anything with it, and when he started where he should have, the car regularly broke. In the final nine races of 2018, there were just two – Singapore and his Red Bull swansong in Abu Dhabi – where Ricciardo didn’t come into the race weekend carrying a penalty, or the car cried ‘enough’. His swashbuckling win in Shanghai and his defensive masterclass while nursing a crippled car in Monaco were top-shelf memories from a season he’ll be glad is over.

4. Kimi Raikkonen

2018 summary
3rd in world championship (251 points), 1 win (USA), 1 pole, 1 fastest lap, 12 podiums, 17 finishes in 21 races.

The verdict
The Raikkonen of 2018 is more Steady Eddie than one who drives with the searing speed that characterised the early part of his career, but in his final season with Ferrari before heading back to where it all began with Sauber, the 39-year-old was the perfect beta to Vettel’s alpha at Ferrari. He finished races (17 of them), didn’t get in the way (most of the time; many of the sport’s insiders were surprised he qualified on pole ahead of title-contending teammate Vettel at Monza, particularly after Vettel spun on the first lap fighting with Hamilton), and bagged a long-overdue win in Austin on merit, snapping a 113-race skid that stretched all the way back to Australia 2013 for Lotus.

3. Max Verstappen

2018 summary
4th in world championship (249 points), 2 wins (Austria, Mexico), 2 fastest laps, 11 podiums, 17 finishes in 21 races.

The verdict
If this list was being compiled from the second half of the year only, Verstappen would be a clear second; after scoring 105 points in the first 12 races, he gobbled up 144 from the last nine. Winning on Red Bull’s home patch in Austria made him more popular than ever, while for the second straight year, he made the rest look ridiculous in Mexico, winning that race by over 17 seconds while driving in cruise control for the final stint. The error-prone ways of the first half of Verstappen’s season seem like a lifetime ago already. Can Honda power lift the Dutchman higher in the standings (and this list) 12 months from now?

2. Sebastian Vettel

2018 summary
2nd in world championship (320 points), 5 wins (Australia, Bahrain, Canada, Great Britain, Belgium), 5 poles, 3 fastest laps, 12 podiums, 20 finishes in 21 races.

The verdict
Freeze season 2018 on lap 51 of the German Grand Prix, and this list – and Vettel’s standing in Ferrari’s history books – looks a lot different. A lap later, Vettel crashed out of his home Grand Prix while leading in the rain, allowing Hamilton to take an unlikely victory after starting 14th, and stealing the championship lead from his rival to boot. From there, things went south for the German – spins while fighting for position in Italy, Japan and Austin were costly, and by Mexico, Vettel was runner-up in the championship for a third time, Ferrari’s wait for its first drivers’ title since 2007 extending another year. Hockenheim was Vettel’s only non-finish of the season, but it was the beginning of the end.

1. Lewis Hamilton

2018 summary
World champion (408 points), 11 wins (Azerbaijan, Spain, France, Germany, Hungary, Italy, Singapore, Russia, Japan, Brazil, Abu Dhabi), 11 poles, 3 fastest laps, 17 podiums, 20 finishes in 21 races.

The verdict
It’s amazing to think, given how Hamilton’s season ended, that he didn’t win a race until round four in Azerbaijan, and he lucked into that one to such a degree after Bottas’ late puncture that he delayed the podium proceedings to console his Mercedes teammate before accepting the winners’ trophy with a sheepish face. The afore-mentioned win in Germany, and another the following weekend in Hungary where he produced a mesmerising qualifying lap in atrocious conditions, gave Hamilton the advantage, and he pressed that home to such an extent that he wound up winning 10 of the final 16 races, becoming the first driver ever to score more than 400 points in a single season. For lap of the year, look no further than his pole position in Singapore, where he dazzled as bright as the night lights that illuminate the sport’s most unforgiving track, and showed the gap he has over the rest when he’s at the top of his game.

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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.

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 …

Vettel exploits Mercedes miscalculation

THIS STORY ORIGINALLY APPEARED IN THE AGE NEWSPAPER

Once again, Lewis Hamilton was Formula One’s fastest man in Melbourne. But once again, Mercedes’ four-time world champion saw an Australian Grand Prix win slip through his fingers, Ferrari’s Sebastian Vettel riding his luck and making the most of a Mercedes miscalculation to take a second successive win at Albert Park on Sunday.

Hamilton had set the fastest lap in Melbourne’s 23-year F1 history in qualifying on Saturday and led for the first half of Sunday’s race, but a mid-race safety car – and quick thinking by Ferrari – saw his run of Australian outs continue.

The Briton has been on pole five years in a row for the season-opening race, but only once in that period, in 2015, has he converted Saturday speed into Sunday silverware, as Vettel won for the third time in Australia.

On pole by a whopping six-tenths of a second after his record lap in qualifying, Hamilton had the 58-lap race under control until it was turned upside down on lap 26, when a virtual safety car period was called to retrieve the stricken Haas of French driver Romain Grosjean, which had been released from its pit stop with a wheel incorrectly affixed and crawled to a halt at the exit of turn two.

The virtual safety car mandates drivers lap the track at a much slower mandatory speed, but that speed restriction doesn’t apply to the pit lane. With Mercedes miscalculating the pace Hamilton could carry under safety car conditions, Ferrari pounced.

Vettel, who had yet to make his tyre stop after running in third in the early laps, leapt into pit lane, changed tyres and was on his way before Hamilton traversed the start-finish straight.

Try as he might, the Briton couldn’t peg the gap to the Ferrari driver, running wide at turn nine with 11 laps to go and allowing Vettel the breathing space to escape to a five-second win.

“We got a bit lucky with the safety car,” Vettel admitted after his 100th F1 podium finish.

“My start didn’t really work, I lost my connection to Lewis and Kimi (Raikkonen). I was struggling with my tyres, I was praying for a safety car.”

Hamilton was crestfallen after the result, the Briton lingering in his car after returning to the pits, coming to terms with a familiar feeling of Australian déjà vu.

“We have to go back to the drawing board,” he said.

“We had pace, but it’s so hard to overtake here.”

Vettel’s teammate Raikkonen, who had started alongside Hamilton on the front row of the grid, rounded out the podium, the Finnish veteran narrowly repelling the Red Bull of Daniel Ricciardo, who missed out by seven-tenths of a second from becoming the first home driver to stand on the Australian Grand Prix rostrum.

Ricciardo’s teammate Max Verstappen, who had the measure of the Australian in every on-track session before Sunday’s race, finished behind McLaren’s Fernando Alonso in sixth place, the Dutchman damaging his car when he spun wildly at the first corner on lap 10 and dropped three places. He finished 21 seconds behind Ricciardo after looking set to challenge for the podium all weekend.

Penalised three grid places for a red flag infringement on Friday, Ricciardo started from eighth and made little headway in the early stages. Like Vettel, he was a beneficiary of pitting under safety car conditions, Grosjean’s retirement coming after teammate Kevin Magnussen suffered the same fate after his own pit stop, the third-year American team throwing away a significant haul of points after showing impressive speed all weekend.

With Raikkonen in his sights, Ricciardo vowed to “not let him breathe” as he closed in on the 2007 world champion in the final laps, and despite setting the fastest lap of the race with five laps remaining, he had to be content with matching his fourth place from two years ago for his best result at his home race.

Fifth was a significant result for Alonso and McLaren in its first race with Renault power after a disastrous three-year association with Honda engines, while Nico Hulkenberg (Renault), Hamilton’s teammate Valtteri Bottas, the second McLaren of Stoffel Vandoorne and Hulkenberg’s teammate Carlos Sainz rounded out the top 10, Sainz struggling with nausea in the closing stages.

Hamilton’s good timing stuns pit lane

THIS STORY ORIGINALLY APPEARED IN THE AGE NEWSPAPER

Right through Formula One’s eight days of winter testing in Spain earlier this month, Mercedes was conspicuous in its absence from the sharp end of the timesheets, world champion Lewis Hamilton and teammate Valtteri Bottas rarely showing the speed most of their rivals figured they had in reserve.

In qualifying for the Australian Grand Prix at Albert Park on Saturday afternoon, Hamilton let the cat out of the bag – and it was 81 seconds that sent shudders the length of the pit lane as the Briton took his fifth pole in Melbourne in succession, and a record seventh in Australia, surpassing the tally of his childhood idol, Ayrton Senna.

Hamilton’s pole position lap of 1min 21.124secs was staggering 1.064 seconds than his circuit-record lap set at the same stage of last year’s Australian Grand Prix, and more worryingly for his rivals, six-tenths of a second faster than second-placed Kimi Raikkonen, the Finnish veteran surprisingly emerging as the fastest Ferrari qualifier, teammate Sebastian Vettel in third.

Australia’s Daniel Ricciardo, consigned to a three-place grid penalty from wherever he qualified after a red flag infringement in Friday practice, will start Sunday’s 58-lap race from eighth place, the 28-year-old continuing a subdued season-opening weekend at home as he finished 0.273secs slower than Red Bull Racing teammate, Max Verstappen.

Persistent rain on Saturday looked to be the one potential spanner in Hamilton’s quest for the Australian pole record, but as the skies cleared enough for qualifying to be held on a dry track, the Briton took provisional pole on his first flying lap of the final 10 minutes of qualifying despite making mistakes at three of the final four corners.

On his second lap as the chequered flag flew, Hamilton unleashed the full power of the W09 that had been kept under wraps, lopping six-tenths of a second off his best time by the halfway point and improving by eight-tenths of a second overall to leave the field in his wake.

“I’m always striving for perfection, and that’s as close as I can get,” a beaming Hamilton said.

“You would think that with the results that we’ve had over the years that this would be the norm, but it was just as intense, my heart is racing.”

While there were smiles on one side of the Mercedes garage, Bottas’ mechanics faced a long night ahead after the Finn crashed heavily at the second corner on his first lap of the top-10 shootout, backing his car into the fence on the inside of the circuit and damaging the chassis so heavily that a five-place penalty for a gearbox change – at the very least – will take him out of contention for Sunday’s race win. The Finn, retained at Mercedes on a one-year deal after an inconsistent 2017, couldn’t have had a worst start to a crucial season in a year where several top-line drivers, Ricciardo included, come off contract at its conclusion.

While Red Bull were no match for Mercedes and Ferrari over one lap in qualifying, the team showed its strategic hand by indicating it will start Sunday’s race on the more durable supersoft Pirelli tyres, which Ricciardo and Verstappen used in the second phase of qualifying. While Hamilton and the Ferrari duo will start on ultrasoft tyres and likely be quicker at the start of the race, the Red Bull pair will elect to run the faster, less durable rubber for the closing stages, banking on taking track position early when their rivals pit and being on the faster rubber at the end on a circuit where passing opportunities against a car on similar tyres are few and far between.

Ricciardo was enraged when his penalty, which came after he was found to be driving too quickly in Friday practice when a timing cable had come loose on the start-finish straight, was handed out, and the normally affable Australian hadn’t cooled down when he arrived at the circuit on Saturday ahead of qualifying.

“I think it’s shithouse, I’m pissed to say the least,” he fumed, Red Bull team principal Christian Horner later commenting that he’d never seen the Australian so angry in his four years with the team.

“Yesterday’s news has been pretty bitter for me. I made a mistake, no doubt about it, but is that mistake worth a grid penalty in a practice session when no car is on track, no-one’s upside down? It was a cable on the track. I didn’t pass the incident … common sense should have prevailed.”

Ricciardo has struggled to match Verstappen’s pace in the sister Red Bull all weekend, and while he should be able to dispatch the likes of Haas pair Kevin Magnussen and Romain Grosjean, who were elevated on the grid because of his penalty, with ease, his chances of a maiden podium at his home race appear slim unless Red Bull’s tyre gamble pays big dividends.

Ricciardo hit with grid penalty

THIS STORY ORIGINALLY APPEARED IN THE AGE NEWSPAPER

Daniel Ricciardo’s hopes of a breakthrough first podium finish at his home Formula One race nosedived late last night, with the Red Bull driver handed a three-place grid penalty for Sunday’s race after a driving infringement in the second practice session at Albert Park.

The Australian was penalised for driving too quickly after the session had been red-flagged for a timing cable that had come loose on the start-finish straight. The red flag came as Ricciardo was completing his qualifying simulation run, his lap halted after two of the three sectors of the Albert Park circuit.

At best, Ricciardo will start Sunday’s race from fourth on the grid, should he take a second career pole in 130 starts in Friday’s qualifying.

Before the penalty it had been a quiet start to the Australian Grand Prix for Ricciardo, who was in sixth place in opening practice before spending a significant amount of time in the garage in the second session as the team changed his car’s suspension. The five-time grand prix winner finished in seventh place.

The Australian’s true pace remains a mystery after he wasn’t able to complete a low-fuel qualifying simulation run Friday afternoon, getting halfway through his best lap of the session when it was red-flagged because of the loose timing cable.

With rain forecast for Saturday’s qualifying, Ricciardo, speaking before being penalised, spied an opportunity to leap up the order.

‘‘We always enjoy some wet weather. I think it just evens everything out,’’ he said.

‘‘Today in the dry we didn’t look too bad, but the wet will give us potentially more of a chance. The last wet qualifying here was 2014 [when he qualified second]. That wasn’t too bad, so we’ll try to do that again.’’

Formula One world champions Mercedes chose to use pre-season testing in Spain this month to build bullet-proof reliability into their new W09 chassis, eschewing the temptation of chasing headline-grabbing times and leaving open the question of whether Formula One’s fastest were faster.

Was that question answered Friday at Albert Park? Yes, and no. Yes, reigning world champion Lewis Hamilton picked up where he left off last year by topping both practice sessions, but the chasing pack, led by Ricciardo’s Red Bull teammate Max Verstappen, was much closer than anticipated.

Hamilton’s fastest time, a lap of one minute 23.931 seconds set midway through the 90-minute second session, was 0.127 seconds quicker than Verstappen, with Hamilton’s Mercedes teammate Valtteri Bottas next, a further tenth of a second adrift.

Ferrari teammates Kimi Raikkonen and four-time world champion Sebastian Vettel rounded out the top five, the German a deflating half a second slower than Hamilton as the Scuderia’s championship charge started with a splutter.

While Mercedes’ Bottas had several off-track excursions on an occasionally ragged day for the Finnish driver, teammate Hamilton seemed to have plenty in reserve, storming through the final sector on his fastest lap to cement top spot.

The 33-year-old Briton, who will Saturday be chasing his fifth consecutive pole position in Melbourne, went faster than his best time of last year’s first practice session with half an hour remaining Friday afternoon, mildly annoyed that he’d had ‘‘a lot of traffic on that lap’’.

While Mercedes had gone under the radar on the pre-season timesheets, it was a throwaway line by the team’s technical director James Allison after the conclusion of testing that was ominous, Allison suggesting last year’s Mercedes would be ‘‘utterly hopeless’’ compared with the W09.

Bearing in mind that last year’s car, used by Hamilton to win his fourth world title, won 60 per cent of the races and took 75 per cent of pole positions while winning the constructors’ championship in a landslide, it was a bold statement, but one Mercedes looks capable of backing up.

Mercedes looked mighty through Albert Park’s one fearsome corner combination of note, the Turn 11-12 chicane.

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 …