This year’s battle for the Formula 1 World Championship has been brilliant so far, but how will the endgame play out? Charles Bradley looks ahead.
After the summer break, Sebastian Vettel restarts his championship campaign with Ferrari this weekend 14 points ahead of Mercedes’ Lewis Hamilton. It’s the head-to-head between these two that we’ve wanted to see for years, and the Baku collisions nonsense has given it extra bite too – as their mutual respect has waned into something decidedly more fractious.
Vettel’s campaign received a much-need boost with victory in Hungary, and the relief was palpable as he crossed the finish line – despite his left-hand-down-a-bit steering wheel.
Mercedes is the only team in F1 2017 with back-to-back race wins, and it’s telling that each time that happened it was a Valtteri-Bottas-then-Lewis-Hamilton streak.
Having two ‘equals’ is working in some respects – certainly for the manufacturers’ championship and intra-team harmony so far – but Ferrari’s clear focus on Vettel is paying off in the drivers’ standings.
But don’t forget Kimi
The fact that it moved to announce the renewal of Kimi Raikkonen’s contract this week was as much about Vettel as Kimi.
This new deal ensures Raikkonen’s eighth season in total with the Prancing Horse, and his fifth successive year since returning from his WRC sojourn and Lotus period. He remains Ferrari’s most recent World Drivers’ Champion (2007), and is Vettel’s top pick for teammate.
And yet one wonders if this move isn’t more about calming the waters this season rather than a statement of its 2018 ambitions. It’s surely all about not rocking the boat while Vettel sits atop the points table.
It’s also likely the last piece of the jigsaw before Vettel himself commits for the long term, as he bids to recreate in his 30s the success he enjoyed with Red Bull in his mid-20s. Vettel knows that the line of least resistance to this title is a non-political, less-rapid ‘number two’ – and in Kimi, he has just that. But…
Hamilton’s insane run-in form
Let’s look to history as a guide: Last year, Lewis Hamilton scored an astounding 115 points in the last five races – winning the final four rounds. Of course, this was his backlash after the Malaysian engine failure, that truly burst his title assault bubble.
But compare that with Vettel’s scoring rate last year, and it took him 11 rounds to score more points than Hamilton scored in the final five. Their respective scoring rate in the last nine races of 2016 was Hamilton 163, Vettel 92.
Irrelevant, you may argue: At this point last year Vettel was 104 points behind Hamilton, rather than 14 ahead. And Hamilton is, ironically enough given his race number, 44 points behind where he was this time last year.
Ferrari’s improved pace and reliability (remember Vettel didn’t even make the start line in Bahrain last year!) has been the key factor in this season’s exciting title duel. And with Red Bull Racing still off the ultimate pace, boy, have we needed that.
Does Mercedes feel it has an ace up its sleeve with the longer wheelbase W08? We’ve heard about the car's ‘diva’ tendencies – but with some fast, flowing tracks ahead of us (Spa, Monza, Sepang, Suzuka, Austin) you just wonder if that will help swing the battle towards the Three-Pointed Star. Would you consider betting any money that Ferrari would beat a Mercedes to pole on those tracks?
The technical war
Apart from building a faster car with a stronger engine, one area where Ferrari president Sergio Marchionne demanded improvement this year was in-season development.
For more on this, here’s Peter Windsor and Craig Scarborough analysing the technical aspects of the Ferrari so far…
And how has that compared to the ‘diva’ Mercedes? Here’s Peter and Craig again…
Just as it has done from the very start to the season, Ferrari still has it all to prove in the second half. You’d consider Singapore, Mexico and Abu Dhabi as must-wins if Vettel is to stay clear of Hamilton, but can it hold a candle to the Merc around the faster venues? Brazil should certainly be epic, as it plays to each cars' strengths in equal measure.
And will reliability play a part? After Hungary, Vettel is one behind Hamilton in number of turbos, energy store and control electronics – is there the spectre of grid penalties ahead? And remember what happened to Hamilton in Malaysia last year… One slip up, and it could be curtains for either of them.
Questions that will be answered in time, and despite his points deficit going into Spa, I still feel that Hamilton has the stronger hand as the game heads towards its conclusion.