A Remarkable Year
This year, 2018, was the F1 season we have waited for since Alonso’s last near-miss. Two of the three best drivers on the grid duked it out for a heavily contested fifth drivers title, a third team added wins to the mix, an unexpected race winner emerged, fights happened in the garage, a team owner was arrested, the six best cars all raced within two seconds of the lead at many venues and a final answer to the Halo question presented itself. This is to say nothing of the fascinating mid-field fight that took place at every race.
At least, that’s the fairytale version. In reality, the dream turned venomous just past the midway point. Mercedes gnashed their collective teeth and roared in Ferrari’s face. Goliath squeezed his foes again and heavy, red hearts were broken.
To understand the disappointment, many undoubtedly felt you have to start in pre-season testing. The dust had barely settled from Ferrari’s agonizingly close 2017 implosion when they openly began admitting their deficit to the Silver Arrows in Spain was real.
Last year, they had been the underdog fighting to take F1’s twin bones from Mercedes. While winter’s snow casually melted, championship expectations in Maranello and amongst fans grew. To say there was a deficit, after all that hope, was hard to hear. So, when Lewis Hamilton’s Mercedes crossed the line at the end of the first qualifying session nearly seven-tenths of a second up on the rest, it looked, again, like the season might already be decided.
A Tense Beginning
The Australian Grand Prix started according to plan: Hamilton led the field away and was pacing himself to yet another Mercedes win in the hybrid era. Crucially, his teammate, Valtteri Bottas had crashed during qualifying the day before and was not standing guard as a tail-gunner. Still, Hamilton looked unassailable.
That was before the miracle in Melbourne happened to right everything in the world. Vettel, lingering a little out of striking distance to Hamilton picked a brilliant moment for his trademark hustle. Some well-timed speed under a virtual safety car handed the race advantage to Ferrari with only a few laps remaining.
To the surprise of many including Toto Wolff and Lewis Hamilton, Vettel stole the opening race of the season. His teammate, Kimi Raikkonen, finished in third. It was a major, and shocking, miscalculation on Mercedes part.
Famously, in the post-qualifying press conference a day earlier, Vettel had prophetically told a cocky Hamilton that the race result would be for Ferrari to party – and it came true. Elsewhere, the first race of the new McLaren/Renault partnership blossomed into a double points finish, something an evidently-improved Haas was also on track to achieve before twin pit-stop blunders dearly cost Kevin Magnussen and Romain Grosjean. Red Bull’s Daniel Ricciardo finished in fourth, ahead of Max Verstappen in sixth – who had a mid-race spin all on his own.
A fortnight later, Ferrari used a lucky superior strategy combined with a Vettel masterclass to take the second race of the season; this time from pole position. It was an agonizing defeat by seven-tenths of a second for second place Valtteri Bottas. Vettel had clung on to win in a slower car with dead tires and ten laps remaining while executing one of his finest drives. The story of the rest of the field became Toro Rosso’s Pierre Gasly.
Ferrari’s perfect run came to an end in China, despite Vettel again capturing the pole position. Both he and Hamilton were handed bonehead strategy calls not to stop under the safety car from their respective teams and their teammates were left out on old tires for way too long.
Ricciardo’s predatory sense took full advantage. A day earlier, his car had been in the garage while the clock ticked down on Q1. His Red Bull crew had the indomitable task of changing his motor unit between FP3 and quali – with little chance of success.
Apparently, nobody told them that because the camera revealed a team absolutely scrambling around the garage. With a few minutes left, driver was strapped in the car and motor was running but bodywork was still being put on. And, with barely enough time to put in a blistering warm-up lap, Riccardo was on track and flying around the circuit while the mechanics high-fived a truly remarkable accomplishment. The camera followed his car around every scruffy move but he crossed the line to move into Q2 by 0.016 seconds.
Then, during an opportune moment of the race, the Red Bull pitwall made an incredible call – double-stacking tire changes under a safety car – to keep both drivers within striking distance of the top four. Contact between Verstappen and Vettel opened the door for Ricciardo.
The Australian was then free to pick off the remaining Mercedes and Ferraris. His impossibly-late-braking move on Bottas was one of the best passes of the year and capped one of the greatest weekends a team has enjoyed in years. It was only marred because of a Verstappen mistake for the third consecutive race that cost the team a one-two finish.
In Baku, a year prior to the 2018 running, we watched one of F1’s all-time classic races. It was always going to be difficult for this year to repeat the entertainment but that didn’t stop the teams from trying. From early on in the race you could tell the evenly-matched Red Bulls were both out for blood.
While most of the race unfolded in a natural way – Vettel had qualified on pole and managed to make it through another carnage-filled Azerbaijan opening lap – Verstappen and Ricciardo fought each other tooth and nail for every inch of the track.
Elsewhere, Fernando Alonso’s drive for points was on after overcoming a catastrophic start, Charles Leclerc had suddenly found the thus-far missing form promised of him and the midfield scrambled for position constantly. Fittingly, the fireworks started around Verstappen, who had produced some at every race. Ricciardo sold his teammate a dummy move into turn 1 and the Dutchman moved back to the inside line to block the inevitable pass – his desire to keep that place bordering on maniacal.
The panic in Riccardo’s tires could be heard as far away as Canada. The whites of the eyes of the entire F1 world became as wide as the Aussie’s while his car, lacking critical downforce, slid into the back of Verstappen’s at 200km/hr. Both cars screeched into the runoff area, carbon fibre strewn all over the track.
To compound the situation, under the ensuing safety car, Romain Grosjean lost control of his Haas and plowed it into the wall alone. By the time everything was cleaned up only 10 laps remained. Bottas had nailed a pitstop undercut on Vettel and now led the restart down Baku’s long front straight with the Ferrari driver, Kimi Raikkonen and Hamilton trailing.
In a hint of things to come, Vettel out-braked himself into turn 1, flat-spotted his tires and immediately gave away 2 places and tires that now needed to be nursed. Then Bottas hit a piece of debris two laps from the end and blew a tire: race over, win gone. All this left a relatively quiet Hamilton to inherit his first victory of the year and the championship lead with it.
Through the first four races of the season, three different drivers representing three teams had won races. The championship was neck and neck but at an early point in the season, that’s never an indicator or what is to come. There was something else; an inarguable something that made this year feel different from the preceding ones. Perhaps it was legitimacy; a ray of hope peeking through the clouds of Mercedes dominance.
Ferrari and Red Bull looked as fast as Mercedes, the Scuderia completely so. Pole position had been a pure shootout and all the wins had been on merit: nobody needed Lewis to take out Nico or other twin problems to win. They just had to be fast. Renault, McLaren, Haas and, by midseason, Sauber were routinely taking turns capturing the fifth through tenth position.
In Azerbaijan, a midfield team even scored a podium courtesy of Sergio Perez. Young Charles Leclerc came home sixth in Baku for his first points while F1’s other young standout, Pierre Gasly, pulled off a stunning drive in Bahrain. To say that 2018 started out on fire would be an understatement: it was riveting.
Calm Before the Storm
Spain became the first straightforward Mercedes romp to victory. But Max bucked his early season form to capture his first podium finish of 2018. Then Ricciardo avenged his unjust 2016 Monaco defeat even after developing a critical engine problem midway through the race. His superior racecraft fended off a much-faster Vettel to take a tense win in the Principality he craved so badly.
Two weeks later, in Canada, it was Vettel’s turn to avenge a race that felt like his. His 2017 charge through the field after dropping to last place left everyone in the stands feeling like he should have won. This year, he did so in dominant fashion from pole.
The French Grand prix, back on the calendar for the first time since 2008, saw an oddly desperate Vettel make a turn-one lunge down the inside of Bottas that largely ruined both their races. The move and resulting fifth place also surrendered his championship lead to Hamilton.
As though the universe was somehow trying to give Ferrari a push, momentum immediately swung back the Scuderia’s way on race day in Austria. A rare twin-Mercedes retirement left the door open for another opportune finish and Verstappen finally made good on his talent by taking his first win of 2018.
Kimi Raikkonen, enjoying a remarkably consistent season and a definitive return of pace, finished second with Vettel rounding out the podium places after starting in sixth due to a grid penalty. The Haas’ of Romain Grosjean and Kevin Magnussen came home fourth and fifth respectively to rubber stamp them as a team rapidly on the rise.
Unexpectedly, Great Britain gave us the best race of the year. It was supposed to be a coronation for pole-sitter Lewis Hamilton – a celebration for the entire country following their football team’s dramatic World Cup advancement the day before.
The hot sun beat down on an all Mercedes front row but shone just a little brighter on Vettel lurking in third. At lights out, he nailed the launch and split the Silver Arrows before they had a chance to look in their mirrors and cover him off. Into turn 3, it was Vettel, Bottas, Hamilton and Raikkonen but contact between the Finn and Hamilton sent the home favourite spinning.
He emerged in eighteenth and, after a lengthy outpouring of his trademark whining, began his march back towards the front. Vettel led comfortably, followed by Bottas and Raikkonen, who was having an immense fight with Verstappen. A Marcus Ericcson crash brought out the safety car, providing the logical opportunity all the teams had been waiting for to pit their drivers. Only Mercedes did not, allowing Bottas to inherit the lead.
Hamilton had fought back into the points and the strategy suddenly seemed obvious: making the tires last until the end, which was a borderline possibility, would give Mercedes a win and possible one-two finish. They would simply have to stare down both Ferrari drivers, with fresh tires and a fast car. No sooner had the safety car come in then it was redeployed for a massive crash between Carlos Sainz and Grosjean, who blamed each other for the racing incident.
This buoyed Mercedes’ dream of making their tires last. A feeling of tense immediacy hung over the restart. Bottas managed to keep his lead until lap 46, hounded relentlessly by Vettel. Suddenly, the German braked incredibly late down the inside of turn 6 to surprise Bottas and take the lead. Shortly afterwards, his tires began to fade and Bottas would eventually finish fourth.
However, the strategy had paid off for Hamilton, who finished second after being spun to eighteenth position on lap one. Raikkonen, who had served a penalty for this interaction with Hamilton, captured third. Most importantly, the four fastest cars on the grid spent the final dozen laps within two seconds of the leader, spitting distance from one another at times. That set of laps would perfectly personify the first half of the F1 season.
In contrast to Great Britain, where Hamilton was supposed to win in front of his home fans, the German Grand Prix would produce an uglier version of the opposite. Vettel, leading comfortably for 52 laps in front of his home crowd, pitched his Ferrari into a gravel trap and then the wall, leaving Hamilton to win.
A small rain shower had compromised the corner and caught him by surprise. Vettel sat alone in the car, pounding his fist against the wheel of his car in epic frustration. In hindsight, it is inarguable that this was a major point of the season. A sudden and slight sense of dread hung low over the championship.
Rain soaked Hungary gave F1’s modern rain-master, Hamilton, another pole and another win. Ferrari rounded out the podium and Pierre Gasly was brilliant in sixth, finishing up on Alonso, Magnussen, Sainz and Grosjean, proving his fourth in Bahrain was no fluke. This also served to show the Toro Rosso/Honda partnership could occasionally bear fruit – and hint Honda’s F1 program has finally gotten on track.
Hamilton extended his championship lead in Hungary but Ferrari had mitigated the effect well by finishing 2-3. It was a needed development following the damaging embarrassment in Germany and it sent the season into the summer break as tense as it had been since the beginning. It was announced in Hungary that the Force India team had been placed in financial administration and word began to leak out that bills had gone unpaid for months.
Team owner Vijay Mallya faces arrest in India relating to a large fraud case. With so many outstanding debts, the team had been unable to develop the VJM11 or pay personnel and their results on track showed it. Over the first 12 races, the team managed 10 finishes in the points combined for the two drivers – a far cry from what we are used to seeing from the little team that always could. Nevertheless, a buyer for the team emerged shortly before F1 was set to return from the break in Belgium and the team was saved.
Force India’s 11th-hour saving, now called Racing Point, was far from the only stunning news to come out. Daniel Ricciardo told the world he would be switching teams in 2019, abandoning the Red Bull family he has always known in favour of Renault. The Aussie is betting big on a stronger chance in the quest for a championship.
When viewed through the benefit of hindsight, it is easy to see how the conclusion of the first half of the season in Hungary could be viewed as a microcosm for 2018 as a whole. Hamilton was flawless in the victory while Vettel did just enough to be respectable in covering for a recent mistake.
The big questions lingering over the summer Silly Season were less about the moves happening for 2019 and more surrounding Hamilton’s ability to keep Ferrari at bay. All the Scuderia had to do was make fewer mistakes and keep charging. But, would they?