F1 came roaring back in Belgium, where legions of Max Verstappen fans formed an orange sea of screaming lunacy. Ferrari and Mercedes each brought big updates for the weekend while Vettel and Hamilton picked up right where they left off by trading faster times during qualifying. Hamilton prevailed once again with his rival lining up alongside. The fight was on.
Lights out saw both cars get away cleanly with Vettel tucking in right on Hamilton’s gearbox. Behind them Nico Hulkenberg out-braked his Renault and creamed Fernando Alonso into turn 1. This sent the McLaren driver and his car into flight, clipping Charles Leclerc’s Sauber. All three races were finished in an instant. Replays showed Alonso’s tire heavily impacting the Halo surrounding LeClerc’s head, very clearly validating its need. It would not be the only instance during the season.
Vettel chased Hamilton down the Kemmel straight and completed a pass for the lead just as the safety car was called. He would go on and cruise to a win by 11-seconds. Hamilton, helpless down a long straight for the first time in the turbo/hybrid era, had to settle for second with hometown kid, Verstappen, taking the third step. It seemed to be a clear indication Ferrari and Vettel had come back from the break as strong as before with an intention to limit mistakes.
The win in Spa closed Hamilton’s championship lead to seventeen points, 231 to 214. Most importantly, it validated the idea that Vettel had put the German Grand prix disaster behind him and was now marching into one of his dominant second-half seasons. The championship was truly up for grabs.
Other notable finishers in Belgium was the suddenly-feelgood team, Racing Point Force India coming home fifth and sixth in their triumphant return to the grid. An uptick in form would follow as the team would achieve 13 points finishes between their two drivers over the final 11 races. 2019 will be interesting to see how they collectively respond to this year’s adversity with a new owner, full development and re-tooled driver lineup.
The Temple of Speed
Following Spa is Monza, the Italian Temple of Speed and F1’s fastest track. Ferrari arrived at the home of their loyal Tifosi after trimming the team’s deficit to Mercedes down to only 15 constructors points. They then locked out the front row, courtesy of Kimi Raikkonen on pole – to the minor annoyance of Vettel, who had not gotten a tow during qualifying like he wanted.
It was at this unlikely point that Ferarri were suddenly abandoned by the racing gods, Vettel in particular. Perhaps it was moaning about his 38 year-old teammate capturing pole that earned their ire – though Hamilton had previously engaged in far more shameful self-absorption in Great Britain.
The recently-departed Sergio Marchionne had perhaps left one last hurdle for the team to climb. Maybe, it was just one mistake too many. Whatever the case was, Ferrari turned a front row lockout at home into a 2nd and 4th.
Monza has changed over the decades of its existence. Gone are the original banked-curves that plainly allowed cars too much speed; in their place flat surfaces and two unforgiving chicanes do their best to keep control of superhuman cars within human ability.
Raikkonen led a clean start for everyone but found himself quickly being hounded by his teammate. Into the second chicane, Vettel had hastily sought a place down the inside of his teammate but was nowhere near completing the move before Raikkonen shut the door. This left Vettel way inside with room for another car on his outside.
Hamilton, who had started third, didn’t need an invitation. He slotted his Mercedes aggressively on the outside of Vettel and kept the position heading into the corner. Vettel had one of his imaginary moments where the other car simply disappears and turned into Hamilton’s side pod.
But, unusually, this sent the German into a spin where he had to watch nearly the entire field pass by before resuming. From there, it was a recovery drive to fourth when a win was likely. This had the double effect of leaving Raikkonen unprotected from attack. Lap by lap the distance between the popular old man of F1 and the four-time champion chasing him shrunk.
The whole F1 world quietly hoped Kimi would get one more win before bowing out of F1 and this might be his chance. With held breath, we watched as he managed to hold off a charging Hamilton for 44 laps – until his overheating tires couldn’t hold on anymore.
This win became the birth of the 2018 Hamilton monster that would consume the second half of the season. No longer interested in competing or leaving circumstances to chance, this was Lewis flawlessly closing the door as much as it was Ferrari throwing it all away. At this point, Vettel was 30 points down in a fight he should have been leading.
Just past the midway point of a dreadful campaign, Lance Stroll and Sergey Sirotkin of Williams came home ninth and tenth, respectively, for likely the only points of Sirotkin’s career. Force India continued their new found resurgence, following Spa with another double points finish. A constant across the season, the midfield competition remained tight and exciting. However, the championship race now felt truly in peril.
Still I Rise
Singapore is a Ferrari track. Since the dawn of the hybrid era it has been this way. The Marina Bay circuit is also a place Sebastian Vettel likes to win, having done so four times prior to 2018. Unless they found a way to implode, like they massively did in 2017, this was a chance to regain their dominant early season form and keep the championship within reach.
After narrowly missing being cut in Q1, Hamilton shockingly willed his Mercedes to pole, followed by Verstappen. Vettel salvaged third but was unable to make up any ground during the race on the tight circuit. In fact, the top six all finished exactly where they started.
The legendary Fernando Alonso followed with, sadly, the final points of his amazing career. It was the ninth finish in the points in 2018 while driving a car widely regarded as just better than the Williams offering. As though to prove that point, Alonso finished the final six races out of the points or retiring. Renault, quietly spending the season locking up best-of-the-rest honours, finished with their seventh double points classification.
This acceptable-but-not-enough racing Vettel put together over the final grands prix of the season was against a determined Hamilton taking wins in six out of eight weekends. He followed Monza with wins in Singapore, Russia and Japan. The only controversy during that time was a needless team order in Russia gifting him the win over his deserving teammate, who was leading.
Japan also saw not one, but two, suddenly common mistakes from Vettel to sacrifice points. He spun on his flying lap during qualifying, starting ninth, and lost out during the race in a clash with Verstappen. Hamilton won, but at that stage of the year it was already becoming a moot point.
The Finnish Flash
Next, the F1 circus rolled into America for the USGP in October. Vettel found another way to extend his disadvantage by receiving a 3-place grid penalty for failing to slow during a red flag period during practice. His penalty lifted Raikkonen to second, behind Hamilton – who captured yet another pole position – one of 11 for the season.
Off the start, the Ferraris made up immediate places with Raikkonen out-hustling Hamilton into turn One. The Finn held position as the race progressed but his teammate fell back following contact with Ricciardo. For two races in a row and three total, Vettel made relatively minor contact that resulted in a spin.
Ferrari aggressively left Raikkonen out on track during a Virtual Safety Car incident that saw the other lead cars pit – clearly hoping for a one-stop miracle while Mercedes had conservatively gone for a two-stop. A wily veteran, Raikkonen did his part while ahead of Hamilton by slowing him to keep the Mercedes from moving into the distance.
Following the second round of pitstops, which Max Verstappen also skipped in lieu of a one-stop strategy, Hamilton found himself chasing the Red Bull and Ferrari with time ticking down. Ultimately, Max’s fight and maturation over the course of the season withheld under immense pressure from Hamilton to hang on to second place after starting in 15th.
Behind those two, Vettel chased down Bottas for fourth on a day his car wasn’t as great as his tenacity. However, the story of the day was Raikkonen. He sealed a victory for the first time in 113 races – only made possible by his adept skill holding Hamilton back before his sole pitstop. It was an extraordinary, and long overdue, finish for one of F1’s most popular drivers.
Tying up Loose Ends
The finishing order meant the title fight continued into Mexico. The entire grid fought through tire issues with Verstappen repeating his win from 2017. Vettel and Raikkonen rounded out the podium places but it was not enough to keep the driver’s title from Hamilton’s hand. Finishing fourth meant his points lead in the championship was insurmountable.
In spite of Ferrari’s mammoth first-half challenge, he had remained steadfast in his performances, rarely putting a tire in the wrong place. At the time of his crossing the line, the championship felt like a formality months in the making. One had a hunch watching Vettel pound his steering wheel in Germany that the season would wind up at this place.
Naturally, Mercedes followed Lewis’ championship with a team one in Brazil. But it was far from an ordinary day at the office. The race start had gone basically according to plan but within a few laps Verstappen had his Red Bull setting a blistering pace. By lap 20, he had slid into the lead ahead of Hamilton. Having lost that lead during his pitstop, he immediately retook it. More and more, his maturation through the season was becoming complete.
And then the arrogance of Max took a turn at the wheel. While being passed by a lapped Esteban Ocon, he tried closing the door far too much and made contact with the backmarker. He spun, lost the lead and blamed Ocon – who was given a penalty for his actions.
However, the replay plainly shows Verstappen at fault for turning into the aggressive Force India. His blindness to his own actions was so absolute, it led him into the Force India garage after the race for a hilarious and minor altercation.
Hamilton inherited the lead and took the win ahead of a seething Verstappen, with Raikkonen using another steady performance to capture another podium finish. The team finishing order, made worse by another bad day at the office for Vettel, meant Mercedes sealed the constructors championship for the fifth consecutive year.
With both championships settled before the final race in Abu Dhabi, it left little reason to be tremendously excited for the final race of 2018. Hamilton won, Vettel second, Verstappen third. The best fights were in the midfield, in particular between Ocon, Romain Grosjean and Stoffel Vandoorne (who had been whitewashed by his teammate Fernando Alonso all season). But, we were treated to another episode of Hamilton’s shameless self-promotion on the podium.
Luckily, Abu Dhabi held one lasting, unmissable memory. While the race conclusion is no stranger to a few donuts from victorious drivers, this year saw both Hamilton and Vettel spinning their cars on the start/finish straight. What made it unmissable was the presence of the retiring Alonso, also spinning his McLaren in a smokeshow.
11 combined championships doing donuts is an end of the season image not easily repeated – or forgotten. It’s easy to understand Alonso’s reasons for leaving the grid, but it doesn’t make watching it happen any easier. Oh, what could have been…..?
The Year F1 Broke My Heart
2018 started like the dream it was originally meant to be. A real championship fight with the mighty Mercedes team has been slowly building momentum that could have crashed to shore this year. But, during the most crucial moments, Ferrari faltered.
A worrying pattern of compromising mistakes emerged after a scintillating start. Driver and team share the blame. The car got slower through developmental blunders, the team made strategic blunders, the lead driver made avoidable mistakes.
Far from being a case of one factor, it was a gradual and complete collapse that, perhaps, may have started with Sergio Marchionne dying in June. The man had steered Ferrari’s increasingly-successful direction for several years and died just as it was bearing fruit.
While Ferrari came undone, Mercedes came alive. They now look to be the spiritual successor of the doninant early-2000’s Ferrari team that won five consecutive championships – and another two years later. Under Toto Wolff’s direction Mercedes have become the complete machine, a juggernaut.
Possessing a car adaptable to almost any track and any condition with a driver putting together the most complete and flawless seasons of his career, it is now difficult to see where they stop. For two years it has looked like they had been caught, or even surpassed, only to have it revealed they had one more gear to go.
Hamilton deserves a mountain of praise; he was perfect. His car always in the right place, he stuck every move and capitalized whenever possible. True, his machine is nearly unmatched. But, taking his teammate’s performance in the same machine into account, it is easy to see the difference he makes. On nearly an even keel after the Belgium Grand Prix, Hamilton then knocked off six wins, four consecutive, out of eight races.
Red Bull enjoyed one of their most successful campaigns since 2013, sharing four victories between their drivers. Unfortunately, they also shared 11 retirements. Ricciardo won two of the opening six races but then went on to retire in six of the remaining 15 events, finishing off the podium in the other nine. Max Verstappen put a hot and cold first half filled with incidents – that drew comparisons to Jacques Villeneuve – behind him and accumulated 156 points over the final 11 races, second only to Hamilton during that span.
Renault, led by the steady Nico Hulkenberg, finished fourth in the constructors standings in a sure sign of their overall improvement. While their path back to winning races is long, it shrinks every winter. More reliability and more horsepower out of their power unit could change things significantly. Next year, Hulk will be joined by one of the best talents on the grid. Their anticipated progression should be fun to watch.
Haas were arguably the best team outside the Big Three. Had Romain Grosjean not endured such an utterly miserable first half there is a reasonable chance they would have finished ahead of Renault. This is a team to watch in 2019.
While McLaren started the season off well with double points finishes in three of the first four races, they fell off dramatically after the first round of updates and never truly got back on track. The few highlights of the season usually started with the word “Fernando” and ended with the word “Alonso.”
Force India/Racing Point was a tale of two seasons. Initially, the lack of funds led to a lack of development, associated lack of performance and a human resources nightmare. It took Sergio Perez taking the team to court in order for the ball to get rolling on a path forward. But, once that was done and Vijay Mallya was removed, the consistently overachieving team started to do just that.
Having a current-spec Ferrari power unit helped Sauber to perform much better than in 2017. Having a future champion behind the wheel, in the form of Charles Leclerc, also paid big dividends. For once, the earnest competition actually seemed to bring out more of Marcus Ericcson’s potential as well. Leclerc finished in the points 10 times in 2018, Ericsson six times: a vast improvement. And the team was a lot of fun to watch.
Red Bull’s junior program, Toro-Rosso, consistently develops the program talent to start their careers. 2018 was no exception. Running two rookie drivers with an improved package, courtesy of the aforementioned better Honda power unit, meant a few more points in 2018 than last year.
Running a highly talented rookie added a significant level of buzz surrounding the team; Pierre Gasly brought a similar level of interest to the garage just as Leclerc did for Sauber. Occasional excellent results were produced.
Williams produced the same awful car as the year prior, counting on their supreme Mercedes engine for any lucky points. Neither driver was very impressive and the team literally never had any fight in them.
2018 will go down as one of F1’s greatest near-misses. Until Sebastian Vettel’s writing on the championship wall was clear, the season had unfolded like it was going to be the historic greatest. The disappointment remaining after the balloon collapsed will only begin to wane when the 2019 cars hit the track in March. But for Ferrari, and Sebastian Vettel, the sting may never totally fade from memory.
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