Sergio Perez

The F1 mid-term report

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

THIS STORY ORIGINALLY APPEARED ON REDBULL.COM

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

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

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

Dux of the class

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

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

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

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

Encouragement award

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

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

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

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

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

Could do better

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

Reason Ferrari will keep Kimi Raikkonen next year. Hungary.

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

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

Needs a strong second semester

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

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

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

Extra detention

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

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

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

6 things we know about F1 2017

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

THIS STORY ORIGINALLY APPEARED ON REDBULL.COM

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

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

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

Merc must make a call

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

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

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

Vettel is like a dog with a bone

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

It’s a big two, not a big three

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

It’s time for Raikkonen to go

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

Hands up who wants fourth?

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

Alonso is still a megastar

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

What we learned from F1 testing in Spain

The new cars look the goods, lap times aren’t everything, and there’s nowhere to hide as a rookie when the eyes of the world are watching …

THIS STORY ORIGINALLY APPEARED ON REDBULL.COM

Formula One arose from its off-season slumber in Spain this week, where the 10 teams gathered for the first of two four-day tests at the Circuit de Barcelona-Catalunya to prepare for the season ahead.

New drivers were unveiled, revamped liveries (both good and bad) were seen in action for the first time, and the usual pre-season secrecy and subterfuge were on show as teams kept a wary eye on the opposition while running through lengthy job lists ahead of the Australian Grand Prix in just three weeks’ time.

Concrete conclusions are notoriously difficult to ascertain after four days of testing (‘Ferrari faster than Mercedes!’ screamed one headline on an F1 website that should know better after day two), but we did learn plenty in Spain over the four days that sets the scene for what’s to come.

They’re the fastest F1 cars ever …
Compared to their predecessors, this year’s F1 machines look mean, fast and awesome, the unsightly shark fins employed to maximise the new aerodynamic regulations notwithstanding. But how do they perform? The changes in speed through Barcelona’s two signature corners – the never-ending right-hander of Turn 3 and the sharp right of Turn 9 heading onto the back straight – were noticeable, and while the drivers were far from “destroyed” physically as Force India’s Sergio Perez predicted before the test, they were worked hard, Mercedes’ Lewis Hamilton noting the “bumps and bruises where I’ve never really had them before” after the second day of running.

The fastest lap time of the test (a 1min 19.705secs by Hamilton’s teammate Valtteri Bottas on day three) was significantly quicker than Hamilton’s pole position time (1:22.000) at the same circuit for last year’s Spanish Grand Prix, and tyre supplier Pirelli reckons a 1min 18secs lap could be possible at next week’s second pre-season test as teams turn up the wick ahead of Australia.

World champion Nico Rosberg, who retired from the sport after winning last year’s title, was licking his lips over the challenges awaiting his former colleagues. “They look absolutely monstrous, very, very aggressive,” he said of the new cars after watching the action on day three. “The drivers are loving it, and I think this year they will be proper gladiators out there, with these cars, because the cars will take them to their physical limits. We might even see drivers losing race wins because of just being ‘game over’ physically – and that’s what we need.

But can they pass one another?
Er … This has the potential to be the elephant in the room. F1 pessimists would warn with all the extra downforce provided by the wider 2017 cars, plus stronger, more durable tyres from Pirelli, races could turn into one-stop precessions where the car behind will never be able to mount a serious challenge on a rival in front. Higher downforce makes it harder for a car to follow a rival in high-speed corners, as the trailing car loses front grip in the wake of the car in front.

After two days on track in Spain, both Hamilton and Williams veteran Felipe Massa commented that the new aerodynamic regulations may have created a problem, Massa adding that the extra downforce was nice “for the drivers, but for the show, I don’t know.”

Red Bull’s Max Verstappen, who set an overtaking record in F1 last year with 78 passes in 21 races, was less concerned, as you might expect. “It’s alright. I think it’s the same as last year,” he said after his first outing on track on day two. “It’s felt really similar. You have more downforce, you are going a bit faster through corners, so that cancels out a bit. I think it should be pretty similar, but we just have to wait and see. Hopefully we won’t need to overtake …”

The stopwatch isn’t everything …
Verstappen’s comment was made in jest, but while Red Bull didn’t look to be the outright leader in terms of lap time in Barcelona, they’ll certainly be in the conversation from Melbourne and beyond.

Labelling teams as ‘winners’ and ‘losers’ after four days of running, including the final day on an artificially-soaked track for Pirelli to test its wet-weather rubber, is foolish in the extreme, but what we can ascertain is that Mercedes aren’t going anywhere, and that Ferrari have started 2017 strongly, a year after the red team was left red-faced when very public predictions of being in the championship fight fell flat.

Mercedes and Ferrari were the only two teams to rack up 2000km-plus of track time across the four days, which left Renault driver Jolyon Palmer slightly envious. “I can’t understand how they’re doing so many laps,” the Briton said. “That’s impressive, especially when not only us but you look at the rest of the field, really, and everyone’s doing 50 or 60 laps in a day.”

Mercedes may have topped the times overall, but Ferrari’s workload – its drivers managed over 100 laps on three of the four days – definitely raised eyebrows.

But some are in trouble
Who’s at the other end of the scale, and who has a mountain of work to do before the second and final pre-season test next week? McLaren endured a rough run in Spain, the team losing the best part of the opening two days with engine gremlins, leaving a grumpy Fernando Alonso to comment “I have three days to prepare for a world championship, it’s not an ideal situation,” after his first day was compromised. Also filed under ‘tough start’, Williams – and more specifically, rookie Lance Stroll, who crashed on his opening day of running. The 18-year-old Canadian then binned it twice on day three, damaging the team’s chassis to such an extent that it couldn’t be rebuilt overnight, which deprived Williams of any wet-track running on the final day.

F1 emerges from the dark ages
For those of us who remember seeing vision of pre-season testing was a matter of scouring YouTube for badly-shot fan videos the next day before the sport’s gatekeepers had them removed, the first test of 2017 was quite jarring. F1’s official channels were dragged kicking and screaming into the social media age last year, with (gasp) actual on-track vision and paddock access available digitally for those who couldn’t be trackside or in the closely-guarded inner sanctum.

With Liberty Media taking over the running of the sport and Bernie Ecclestone being edged into the background, it was no surprise to see the restrictions of the past loosened, but seeing teams being able to post vision of the test on their social media accounts was quite the revelation, and very well received. What’s more, that the change came about because the commercial rights holder contacted the teams to encourage them to shoot short-form video for their own purposes represented a seismic shift to the norm. Will it continue? That remains to be seen, but the sport’s new marketing chief, ex-ESPN marketing guru Sean Bratches, flagged the changes that are afoot in an interview with Autosport.

“Every single thing that we’re doing has to pivot around the fan,” Bratches said. “The fan is at the centre of all our theses in terms of driving this sport because if we’re doing the best job we can serving fans, both the existing fans and the new fans, that’s a win. We have big events 20 times every single year in 20 different countries and there’s an extraordinary opportunity to detonate the fan experience in a very positive way.”

10 for testing: What to watch in Spain

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

THIS STORY ORIGINALLY APPEARED ON REDBULL.COM

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The 5 best F1 drivers of 2016

Who shone the brightest on four wheels in 2016, and why?

THIS STORY ORIGINALLY APPEARED ON REDBULL.COM.AU

The stats will show Formula One in 2016 was a two-horse race between Mercedes teammates Nico Rosberg and Lewis Hamilton that went down to the wire in the final event in Abu Dhabi, but to suggest that the continued domination of the Silver Arrows duo was the only storyline in the world’s premier four-wheel category this season is well off the mark.

One of the sport’s giants reverted to its bad old days, a new star emerged as someone who could become a multiple world champion before too long, and some big F1 and manufacturer names alike were outshone by rivals with smaller budgets and greater momentum.

A significant regulatory reset should ensure at least a partial shake-up of the established order for 2017, but that’s for the future. What about the past? Who were the best five drivers in F1 this year, and why? We’ve assessed the grid statistically and chronologically, let the drivers themselves have their say, and enlisted some expert analysis to break down the grid from five to one. Here we go.

5. Sergio Perez

The stats
Points/championship position: 101, seventh
Wins: 0
Podiums: 2
Poles: 0
Fastest laps: 0
Head-to-head vs teammate in qualifying: Perez 9, Nico Hulkenberg 12
Head-to-head vs teammate in race: Perez 13, Hulkenberg 8
Points compared to teammate: Perez 101, Hulkenberg 72

The summary
The top four drivers on our list will come as no surprise, even if our order of them might raise an eyebrow or two. More on that later. Finding the right man for number five wasn’t as easy. Sebastian Vettel finished fourth overall, but Ferrari’s apparent resurgence of 12 months previously, when he won three Grands Prix, stalled in 2017, and the German managed just two podiums in the final 13 races. Teammate Kimi Raikkonen finished in the points every time he saw the chequered flag, but didn’t make the podium after round nine in Austria. Fernando Alonso drove the wheels off his McLaren, but barely made the top 10 in the championship. No, our No.5 is Sergio Perez, the Mexican whose F1 career looked set for the scrapheap after a miserable year at McLaren in 2013, but has become a driver who always seems to punch above his weight after three years at Force India. The 26-year-old had podiums at Monaco and in Baku, qualified on the front row in Azerbaijan before being demoted for a gearbox penalty, and finished all 21 races, 17 of them in the points, to crack the 100-point milestone for the first time. He spearheaded Force India’s charge to a best-ever finish of fourth in the constructors’ championship, ahead of the likes of Williams and Renault, and was always there to pick up the pieces when others dropped the ball.

The quote
“It has been an incredible year for us. We started the year lacking quite a lot of pace but we worked hard and developed the car. We have done an incredible job.”
– Perez at the final race of the season in Abu Dhabi

Expert view: Dan Knutson
“Sergio believes this was his best-ever season in F1, and I agree with him. The Mexican is a master with dealing with the current era of Pirelli tyres that need to be babied.”
Dan Knutson covers F1 for Auto Action (Australia) and National Speed Sport News (USA)

4. Max Verstappen

The stats
Points/championship position: 204, fifth
Wins: 1 (Spain)
Podiums: 7
Poles: 0
Fastest laps: 1
Head-to-head vs teammate in qualifying: Verstappen 6, Daniel Ricciardo 11 (at Red Bull Racing), Verstappen 3, Carlos Sainz 1 (at Toro Rosso)
Head-to-head vs teammate in race: Verstappen 7, Ricciardo 10 (at Red Bull Racing), Verstappen 3, Sainz 1 (at Toro Rosso)
Points compared to teammate: Verstappen 191, Ricciardo 220 (in 17 races), Verstappen 13, Sainz 4 (in four races)

The summary
Where to start with assessing Max Verstappen’s second – yes, just second – F1 season? Memories such as his maiden F1 win on his first weekend for Red Bull in Barcelona, his sublime pass of Rosberg at Silverstone and his charge from last to fourth in Abu Dhabi would be showstoppers for any other driver, but what Verstappen did in horrendous weather in Brazil will live longest in the memory. Employing lines few of his rivals had apparently even contemplated, Verstappen stormed from 14th to third in 17 laps, producing a drive that evoked memories of Ayrton Senna’s second in a Toleman at a rain-lashed Monaco in 1984, or Michael Schumacher’s success at a sodden Spanish GP in a Ferrari in ’96. It was everything Verstappen has in spades – a calm head, sublime skill, total self-belief and a never-quit attitude – in one glorious 25-minute snapshot. Verstappen’s year wasn’t without its troughs – and his occasionally over-the-top defending irked several of his rivals – but for a teenager with 40 races under his belt, 2016 was quite something.

The quote
“I could hear the crowd going crazy when my engineer was on the radio, so I’m very thankful for the Brazilian fans for getting behind me. At the end when I crossed the line it felt like a victory, it was almost as beautiful as my race in Barcelona.”
– Verstappen after his stunning late charge at Interlagos

Expert view: Peter Windsor
“Verstappen never asks more from the car than he feels it can give. He perfectly manipulates the car in the braking/corner entry stage, creating a platform that makes the corner exit almost an after-thought: that’s why you rarely see Max (or Lewis Hamilton) with more than a few, subtle degrees of correction on the car as they leave a corner; that’s why from the outside, oblivious to the supple hand and foot movements going on in the cockpit, we’re lulled into the impression that Max and Lewis are making it look ‘easy’. It’s a product of their millions of unmeasurable, minuscule inputs through the steering, brakes (increasing and decreasing pressure) and throttle. Imagine trying to keep a set of billiard balls in the centre of a ‘floating’, constantly-moving table by very delicately changing the weight on each corner: that’s what Max and Lewis do better than any drivers on the F1 grid.”
– Peter Windsor is a long-time Formula One writer, broadcaster and analyst

3. Daniel Ricciardo

The stats
Points/championship position: 256, third
Wins: 1 (Malaysia)
Podiums: 8
Poles: 1
Fastest laps: 4
Head-to-head vs teammate in qualifying: Ricciardo 14, Verstappen/Daniil Kvyat 7
Head-to-head vs teammate in race: Ricciardo 13, Verstappen/Kvyat 8
Points compared to teammate: Ricciardo 256, Verstappen/Kvyat 212

The summary
Ricciardo’s rise to third in the 2014 championship behind (you guessed it) the Mercedes drivers was an ascension that seemed ahead of schedule, but this year’s same finish behind the same Silver Arrows duo felt more sustainable after his 2015 blip. He had two more wins two years ago than his sole success in Malaysia this season, but with eight podiums, a further five races in fourth place and just off the rostrum and a perfect 21 for 21 in race finishes meant that 2016 was the West Australian’s best year yet. His pole lap at Monaco – the only pole not taken by Mercedes all year – was 73 seconds of ragged-edge genius, while the Singapore/Sepang double-header was the ‘Honey Badger’ at his dogged, persistent best. Now 27, next year’s rule reset comes an opportune time for a man in the prime of his career.

The quote
“I finished third in 2014 as well and that was pretty significant because I was kind of unproven then, and that year it put me in front of Seb, who was the defending world champion. But this year has been good because at the start of it, I didn’t expect to be able to finish third.”
– Ricciardo after the Mexican GP

Expert view: Tom Clarkson
“That solitary victory in Malaysia doesn’t tell the full story of Daniel’s 2016 season. He would have won Monaco, had it not been for a pit-stop blunder; ditto Spain, had the strategists on the pit wall reacted differently to the Mercedes collision on the opening lap, and he got ever-so-close in Singapore. The upshot is that for the second time in three seasons, Ricciardo was the first non-Merc driver in the championship standings. He must be doing something right. But don’t take my word for it; have a read of Fernando Alonso’s thoughts. “Daniel is always very committed to everything he does,” says the two-time champ. “On-track, you cannot see any mistakes when you are together with him. In the overtaking manoeuvres, probably he is the best out there. When he commits to one movement, 99 per cent of the time he will achieve the result he wanted. Obviously 2014, together with (Sebastian) Vettel, it was an amazing performance. He was way ahead of Vettel in every single point: in the driving, in the approach, in the starts, in the pit stops, in the overtaking; he was beating Vettel so easily.”
– Tom Clarkson covers F1 for BBC Sport and Network Ten in Australia

2. Nico Rosberg

The stats
Points/championship position: 385, first
Wins: 9 (Australia, Bahrain, China, Russia, Europe, Belgium, Italy, Singapore, Japan)
Podiums: 16
Poles: 8
Fastest laps: 6
Head-to-head vs teammate in qualifying: Rosberg 9, Lewis Hamilton 12
Head-to-head vs teammate in race: Rosberg 10, Hamilton 10 (neither finished in Spain)
Points compared to teammate: Rosberg 385, Hamilton 380

The summary
For Rosberg to bounce back from two years of being humbled by Hamilton showed strength of character and mind that perhaps wouldn’t have come to the fore had he not endured the indignity of being brushed aside by his Mercedes teammate in 2015. The final three races of last year – which Rosberg won when Hamilton’s focus seemed to waver after securing his third title – set the German up beautifully for this season, and four straight wins before the teammates smashed into one another in Spain earned him a 43-point lead after five rounds. Victory in Singapore gave Rosberg the series lead again even before Hamilton’s engine eruption in Malaysia, and while he never looked likely to beat Hamilton across the final four races, he didn’t need to, his consistency and good fortune on the reliability front seeing him to a title 34 years after father Keke won the 1982 world championship for Williams.

The quote
“He’s just an amazing driver and of course one of the best in history, so it’s unbelievably special to beat him. The level is so high and that makes this … so much more satisfying for me. I took the world championship away from him which is a phenomenal feeling.”
– Rosberg after denying Hamilton a third straight title in Abu Dhabi

Expert view: Jonathan Noble
“Determination and a cool head. They are the two characteristics that stand out when you think about how Nico Rosberg turned the tables on Lewis Hamilton this season. Yes, you cannot ignore the reliability troubles that hurt his teammate, but equally there were events like Singapore and Japan where Rosberg dug deep and performed better. And in the finale – to keep a cool head amid the chaos and pull off a move like he did on Max Verstappen – shows why he is a more than worthy champion.”
– Jonathan Noble is Formula One editor of motorsport.com

1. Lewis Hamilton

The stats
Points/championship position: 380, second
Wins: 10 (Monaco, Canada, Austria, Great Britain, Hungary, Germany, USA, Mexico, Brazil, Abu Dhabi)
Podiums: 17
Poles: 12
Fastest laps: 3
Head-to-head vs teammate in qualifying: Hamilton 12, Rosberg 9
Head-to-head vs teammate in race: Hamilton 10, Rosberg 10 (neither finished in Spain)
Points compared to teammate: Hamilton 380, Rosberg 385

The summary
Was Rosberg a worthy world champion this season? Yes. Is Hamilton still the fastest driver in F1? Again, yes. There’s no denying that Hamilton endured the lion’s share of Mercedes’ unreliability woes this season – of the eight drivers supplied with Mercedes engines this season, Hamilton had more than half of their failures on his own – and the Briton had more victories, poles and podiums than the teammate who ended his two-year stranglehold over the sport. Hamilton twice won four races in a row this season, and there were races – Brazil in the wet as one example – when he was in a different league to Rosberg. Hamilton’s tactics in Abu Dhabi – backing his teammate into the pursuing pack to play his last card to keep his crown – wasn’t a matter of right or wrong, more a case of completely predictable. It didn’t work, but 2016 was a year where Hamilton overtook Alain Prost’s mark of 51 wins to become the second-most successful driver in F1 history, and he could well hold the all-time record for pole positions by the end of next year, finishing this one with 61, seven behind Michael Schumacher. F1’s best driver in 2016? Yes.

The quote
“I’m losing the world championship, so right now I don’t really care whether I win or lose this race.”
– Hamilton to his team over the radio in the closing stages of the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix

Expert view: Andrew Benson
“Apart from a couple of shaky weekends in Baku and Singapore, Hamilton drove as well as ever in 2016, which is to say he’s probably the out-and-out fastest man on the track. But some poor starts and a skewed reliability ratio unstitched his season. Without one or the other, he’d still have been champion. With both, it left him too much to do against Rosberg’s consistency, both of driving and reliability.”
– Andrew Benson is chief Formula One writer for the BBC

The F1 report card

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

THIS STORY ORIGINALLY APPEARED ON REDBULL.COM.AU

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

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

Dux of the class

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

Teacher’s pet

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

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

Encouragement award

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

Could do better

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

Needs a strong second semester

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

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

Extra detention

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

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

Bahrain GP review: Lighting up the night

HamiltonRosberg_Bahrain14THIS STORY APPEARS IN THE APRIL 9 ISSUE OF MOTORSPORT ILLUSTRATED NEWS

Take two very closely-matched drivers in equal machinery, free them from the blight of team orders that have so often spoiled Formula One, and let them race as hard as they can. Add diametrically-opposed tyre strategies, throw in a late-race safety car, and then hold on for a thrilling 10-lap ride until the chequered flag. If you think that sounds like a good recipe for an F1 race, you’d be right. And it’s what Lewis Hamilton, Nico Rosberg and Mercedes produced last Sunday in Bahrain as the new-look Formula One, which spluttered to a start with two processional races in Australia and Malaysia, showed what it could look like. It’s a look that produced one of the more enthralling races in recent years.

After Rosberg won the season-opener in Melbourne and Hamilton evened the score in Kuala Lumpur, all eyes were on Mercedes in Bahrain to see which of its drivers could hold sway under the floodlights in the desert. The pace advantage over the rest Mercedes demonstrated in the first two Grands Prix was only magnified by the 5.4-kilometre Sakhir circuit, its succession of long straights playing perfectly to the strengths of the Mercedes package. While Rosberg took pole after Hamilton made a mistake in qualifying and ran wide at the first corner on Saturday, a fight loomed large on Sunday given Hamilton had topped all three practice sessions leading into qualifying and looked to have the stronger race pace. And after Hamilton made the best of the start and emerged from the first corner in the lead, it was game on. And what a game the teammates and childhood friends played.

Read more: https://www.motorsportin.com/