‘F1 is broken’ proclaimed a handful of fans after a somewhat dull Australian Grand Prix. Fast forward another two races and Formula One has not looked this good in quite some time. We have six cars able to fight for victories, we have an incredibly close midfield pack and we have so many storylines that it’s difficult to know where to look.
The 2018 season of Formula One is shaping up to be a cracker. After three races, the title hunt is wide open and just as Sebastian Vettel looked to have an advantage, his lead was cut down to nine points after a topsy-turvy Chinese Grand Prix, which has left just seventeen points separating the top four in the Drivers’ Championship.
The year after a major regulation overhaul tends to give us close racing; you can take the 2010 season, arguably a modern classic, as an example of this. The Mercedes age of domination appears to have most certainly passed, and Ferrari now appears to be the team to beat. And yet despite not being dominant, and not winning a race so far in 2018, Mercedes still lead the way in the Constructors’ standings – albeit by a solitary point.
Is Ferrari the one to beat?
While Mercedes may be on the decline, Ferrari is looking better than they have in a long time and they have the statistics to prove it.
Sebastian Vettel took his first back-to-back pole positions for the Prancing Horse in Bahrain and China, while Kimi Raikkonen qualified just behind his teammate at both events to give the team their first back-to-back front row lockouts since 2006.
Furthermore, two successive wins at the start of the season marked Ferrari’s best opening to a year since Michael Schumacher’s final title-winning season in 2004. Sure, their first win of the season in Australia may have been due to a fortuitously timed Virtual Safety Car, but Bahrain utterly belonged to the scarlet car of Vettel, taking one of the finest victories in his illustrious career.
Raikkonen is driving at his strongest since his return to Ferrari in 2014 too, which is certainly helping the Scuderia in their quest for championship glory for the first time since 2008. China showed, though, how Raikkonen already seems to be playing a supporting role to the team’s number one driver.
What will be fascinating in the immediate future is whether Ferrari is really quicker than Mercedes as we head to the power-reliant Baku City Circuit.
In the longer term, over the course of the season, last year Ferrari showed how quickly things can fall apart in Formula One with a string of poor reliability and poor results in the Asian races.
Can Ferrari prevent themselves from imploding as the season moves forward and the pressure increases?
What’s happened to Mercedes?
As I’ve already pointed out, Mercedes haven’t won a race yet this year, although maybe not all is as that statement makes it appear. It looked like usual service was restored in Australia, Lewis Hamilton led the opening practice sessions, set a blinding lap in qualifying and took pole position by a hefty margin before leading much of the race. But for a badly timed Virtual Safety Car, Lewis would have taken the full 25 points on offer.
In Bahrain, Valtteri Bottas finished right behind Sebastian Vettel and in China, Bottas undercut Vettel following his pit stop, and probably would have won the race – once again, if not for a badly timed Safety Car period.
Hamilton hasn’t won a race since last October’s US Grand Prix. It’s one of the longest win-less periods in his Formula One career, and certainly the longest since his lull at the start of the 2016 season. His qualifying lap in Melbourne proved that he hasn’t lost it, but perhaps Hamilton’s issue is one of pressure. Not a presence of it, but a lack of it.
Unlike drivers who crack under pressure, the four-time champion thrives on it and he simply doesn’t have any on him, at least not yet. Will we see the now-expected Hamilton resurgence as his points deficit begins to creep up? Hamilton himself says he can’t let the gap to Vettel grow much more – a sign perhaps that he is about to start delivering.
On the other side of the Mercedes garage, Valtteri Bottas is under pressure with his future at the team as yet undecided.
His season may have got off to a shaky start with a qualifying crash and a disappointing eighth-place finish in Melbourne, but since then Bottas is out-qualifying and out-racing his team-mate. A little more daring on the final lap in Bahrain, and the Finnish driver could be just a few points behind Vettel in the championship.
Nevertheless, Bottas has emerged as an early-season contender for the title – but the question now is whether he can he keep it up, continue to out-race his team-mate and stay on top of his game, unlike last season.
Red Bull joins the fight
While we have a dogfight between Ferrari and Mercedes, both need to start looking behind them. Red Bull have proven they have a car capable of winning this season. Very few would have predicted both Ferrari and Red Bull to win a race before Mercedes in 2018, yet that is how this year has transpired.
Daniel Ricciardo continues to prove himself to be hot property with his masterful overtakes and his well deserved Chinese Grand Prix win. Red Bull is now just one podium shy of their 150th rostrum appearance – a feat which only five other teams have managed.
The mystery of Max Verstappen is another unravelling story. A spate of rookie errors means that he hasn’t yet had a clean weekend in 2018 – a spin during the race in Australia, a crash in qualifying and a coming together with Hamilton in the race in Bahrain and, most costly, a collision with Sebastian Vettel in China. With over sixty Grands Prix of experience, the blame can no longer be placed on youth.
Nobody doubts that Verstappen has the potential to become one of the greats of the sport, but over-driving the car and making mistakes will certainly not help his reputation. It will be interesting to see how, and indeed if, the Dutchman bounces back from his early-season misdemeanours.
Why is 2018 so exciting?
What’s making this season so memorable already? We have Pirelli to thank for some of it.
Each tyre compound this year is one stage softer than its 2017 predecessor, meaning that a 2018 Soft tyre is akin to a 2017 Supersoft tyre. The difference between the compounds means we’re seeing more varied tyre choices and, more importantly, more varied strategic decisions; Red Bull’s switch to a two-stop strategy in China aided them to victory, while in Bahrain Sebastian Vettel stayed on a one-stop strategy as Valtteri Bottas behind him opted to do two stops, leading to a grandstand finish to the race.
Of course, Vettel’s strategy was forced in part due to the pit-stop disaster for Kimi Raikkonen, which left Ferrari mechanic Francesco Cigarini in hospital with a broken leg.
In all three of the race weekends so far this year we’ve seen pit-stop fiascos, whether it be Haas’ ultimately terminal issues in the opening round, Ferrari’s horror stop in Bahrain or Stoffel Vandoorne being sent out with a loose tyre during Free Practice for the Chinese Grand Prix. While pressure on the teams and pit-crew is immense during pit-stops and has led to some high excitement in the races, we need to ensure that the pit-stops remain safe for all involved.
Midfield successes and disappointments
Haas and Renault are the midfield success stories so far in 2018. While Haas’ heartbreak in Australia, caused by two botched pit-stops, means their total points tally is 22 points less than it could have been. Nevertheless, Romain Grosjean and in particular Kevin Magnussen, are having a good run of form recently.
One of the most disappointing aspects of F1 2018 is that the gap between the top three teams hasn’t shortened and, if anything, it has grown. While there’s no doubting the significant steps in performance which the likes of Renault and Haas have made, on any normal race day, there’s still no real chance of them taking a podium finish.
Force India and Williams seemed like the only teams capable of taking podium finishes outside of the top three teams last season, but they’ve both taken major steps backwards so far this season. Maybe an inexperienced driver line-up is in part to blame for Williams’ tricky start to the season, while Force India’s lack of stability seems to be a real issue in getting their VJM11 into major points-paying positions.
Intriguingly the teams which have fallen backwards are Mercedes customers, while the teams which have moved forward are Ferrari-powered. Perhaps this is indicative of the increase in performance from the Ferrari engine, and Mercedes’ loss of advantage in the power stakes. Nonetheless, the teams struggling at the moment may gain from updates when the European season begins.
It’s difficult to gauge whether McLaren is a success story or a failure at the moment. Talk of them fighting for the title now that they’re equipped with Renault engines appears to be wide of the mark after the first trio of races, but their points tally at this stage is looking a lot healthier than it did after three rounds in any of their Honda-powered years. Sure, they’ve improved – but is ‘best of the rest’ the improvement which the team would have hoped for when signing on the dotted line with the French manufacturer?
Likewise at Toro Rosso, taking McLaren’s old partner’s engines has been a double-edged sword. On the one hand, Pierre Gasly provided a great result – Honda’s best since their return to F1 – with a fourth-place finish in Bahrain, but on the other hand, the power unit isn’t particularly fast, nor is it as reliable as it needs to be.
For Toro Rosso to be a works team is still a huge coup, nevertheless, and provides Red Bull with an insight to the Japanese manufacturer’s way of working, should they choose to switch engine supplier for 2019.
At Renault, one of the shocks of the year so far is that Carlos Sainz is being consistently out-performed by teammate Nico Hulkenberg. The German has beaten the Spaniard in all three qualifying sessions so far this year, while on Sundays Hulkenberg has scored seventeen more points than Sainz. Given Sainz’s close battles with Verstappen during their time at Toro Rosso, the result from the first three races is, as others have pointed out, making Hulkenberg look like a very decent driver indeed.
So much more to come…
His performances against Hulkenberg so far this season won’t be doing Sainz any favours in securing a Red Bull seat next year, should one become available.
If rumours are to be believed, there will be an opening there next season, as Daniel Ricciardo has reportedly already signed an agreement with Ferrari for 2019. Meanwhile, Spanish outlets have reported that McLaren is preparing to wave goodbye to Fernando Alonso and say hello to Lando Norris next season. The point here is that we’re three races into the season and talk is already starting about where the drivers will be for 2019. The Silly Season will be an extra juicy sub-plot to what is already shaping up to be a season full of intrigue.
Furthermore, it looks like the second half of the championship will be spiced up by the new limit of three power units per season.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, it seems the Toro Rosso pairing will be first to fall foul of this rule, with Pierre Gasly and Brendon Hartley both having used two turbochargers and MGU-Hs so far this year.
At the front of the grid, Sebastian Vettel and Valtteri Bottas have both used their full allocation of two Control Electronics, while Bottas has also used two Energy Stores. With top-tier cars already getting through engine elements after just three Grands Prix, grid penalties may well play a part in the championship race after the summer break.
More immediately, Formula One lands in Baku, Azerbaijan for round four – a race which proved to be the most talked about event in 2017.
After that, it’s a run of races which are always fun – Spain, Monaco and Canada. In Spain, the traditional start of the European season, the teams typically bring their first major updates and upgrades. It always seems that this is around the time we get a clearer picture of who the real title contenders are.
It’s still just a little too early to know if anyone other than Sebastian Vettel and Lewis Hamilton will be genuine title contenders this season. There’s still a glimmer of opportunity that we could see a repeat of 2010, with five drivers in the hunt until the closing stages; Vettel and Hamilton, Bottas if he can maintain his momentum, and Ricciardo if the Red Bull car is truly competitive. Seventeen points separate those four at the moment.
If the gap is still that small after twenty rounds, no doubt this season will go down as one of the greats – and that’s without Raikkonen and Verstappen joining the fight.
The next run of races will give us a clearer picture of where the trophies are heading for 2018 but right now it feels like anything could still happen.
We’re just one-seventh of the way through the season and this year is already shaping up to be a modern-day classic… remember when people thought the halo was going to ruin F1?