Sebastian Vettel, Britain
The British Grand Prix was supposed to be Lewis Hamilton’s sixth triumph at the former airfield; only an act of the racing Gods could ruin it.
A day earlier, he laid down a blistering lap to claim pole a few hours before England’s massive football win over Sweden. That set the table for the country’s favourite racing son to be crowned that afternoon in front of more than 140,000 rabid British sports fans. It was just too bad nobody let Sebastian Vettel in on the plan.
While his title rival tried too hard to get away quickly, Vettel made a perfect launch and split the Mercedes on the front row before they had a chance to cover him off.
He would charge through the opening laps and build a 5-second cushion by the first pit stops. But this was not a day the German would get to cruise to victory.
A series of mishaps and driver errors led to multiple safety cars in the second half of the race. Teams tried to gain a tactical advantage over each other through differing strategies; Ferrari and Red Bull pitted both cars for new tires but gave up track position to Mercedes by doing so.
Once the dust had settled and racing was underway it was Hamilton’s teammate Valtteri Bottas – who had also bested the Brit off the line – followed by Vettel, Hamilton, Max Verstappen and Kimi Raikkonen. With nine laps to go it was the four strongest cars to scrap for the lead, which they duly obliged.
The battle to watch, the one for the lead, was brilliantly fought by Vettel. On Bottas like a hound since the restart, he finally made a very late inside move stick with five laps to go. From there the remaining podium places were up for grabs but the win had been sealed by the most deserving driver.
The magnitude of the triumph was outstanding; a decisive Ferrari win on Hamilton’s soil left a nasty sting in the mouth of the Brit, who sulked away from the race afterward. It stands out as the best win from among the best races in the hybrid era.
Charles Leclerc, Azerbaijan
Coming off three poor showings to start his F1 career, Charles Leclerc had been openly questioned as a driver by some members of the F1 media.
Frederick Vasseur, Sauber Team Principal, knew something all those experts did not and admonished them for their questions. He was right too; in Azerbaijan, the fourth event on the calendar, the 20-year-old threw down the gauntlet.
Following back-to-back championships in GP3 and F2, the young Monegasque driver was highly rated but had shown few initial signs of deserving it. Everything changed with a different approach to his car setup.
Foreshadowing championship smarts in adjusting a technique, Leclerc moved from an oversteer focused setup to one that understeered. He suddenly found himself driving a quicker, less-unpredictable car.
This allowed him to finally rely on his ability, which only needed a better car to carry him into the second part of qualifying for the first time. The rookie would come from seemingly nowhere to qualify 13th.
Exhibiting the early-race prowess to take advantage when others falter, Leclerc moved up into the sixth position.
When the faster cars behind him eventually caught and passed the Sauber, he moved down in the top ten through no fault of his own. However, after more incidents, he would find himself benefitting again and fighting back to sixth.
Along for the battle for that place was none other than Fernando Alonso. In what may one day come to be seen as a passing of the best-on-the-grid torch, Leclerc resisted Alonso at every opportunity, eventually finishing in sixth for his first points in F1.
Critically, after suffering a spate of poor results, Leclerc made an adjustment that allowed his natural talent to shine. He not only got the most of his car, he bested his more experienced teammate and triumphed over a multiple-times world champion.
This kid has everything it takes to win; Azerbaijan was his coming out party and one of the best drives of the season.
Lewis Hamilton, Germany
After his demoralizing defeat to Vettel on home turf, Lewis Hamilton desperately needed a measure of revenge.
But his once all-conquering Mercedes let him down to start the German Grand Prix weekend; a hydraulic failure scuppered his chances in qualifying and left him sitting 14th on the grid for the start.
To make matters worse, the front of the pack all got away cleanly; Vettel led from his pole position and the day looked desperate. The race played perfectly into Ferrari’s hand until 25 laps remained.
Rain began to fall but just on the final sector of the track with only Mercedes getting the forecast right. Everyone else scrambled to find the right tire with Toro Rosso even betting on full wet compounds being necessary.
Hamilton, who had made his Soft tires last an amazing 42 laps from the start, fitted Ultra-softs in a gamble counting on his unmatched wet-weather driving. It turned out to be a perfect match.
Before the rain hit, it was clear sailing for Ferrari. A 1-2 finish was possible but, most importantly, Vettel was a sure thing for the win. Except the conditions became extremely tricky during the rain; several drivers having off-track moments.
The racing Gods must have felt guilty for robbing Hamilton so painfully on his home track so they cast a minor wheel wobble into Vettel’s Ferrari at the Sachs Kurve.
He surprisingly crashed out of the lead in front of his home crowd, pounding the steering wheel in clear and terrible frustration. Hamilton, previously stuck behind the front-runners and likely to finish a damage-limiting fourth, stayed out on the track and inherited the unlikely lead while many cars once more dove for the pits.
He had done a steady job cutting through the field earlier and his superior rain skills when it mattered most put him in a position to win after starting from 14th, which he did.
Revenge had come just a week later in Vettel’s home country. With Vettel crashing, the title momentum Hamilton had lost immediately swung back his way.
It could not have been more stunning or perfectly driven in challenging conditions; an unforeseeable development and rates amongst Hamilton’s greatest drives.
Sebastian Vettel, Bahrain.
Vettel’s triumph in the desert came on the heels of a lucky win in the season-opening race in Australia.
Throughout the Melbourne weekend, the pace of the Ferrari did not look to be a match for Mercedes. But when the race took a minor Virtual Safety Car turn, Ferrari outsmarted and Vettel out-hustled the Silver Arrows for what some considered a lucky victory.
By the time Bahrain rolled around, it was only a question of if Mercedes was going to exact a huge revenge or just squeak by. Whether they would win or not was never really up for debate. So, when Vettel snatched pole on Saturday it was a bit of a surprise. Ferrari had indeed made gains over the winter and was now showing it.
From the race start, in what has become commonplace in 2018, Vettel made a perfect launch to keep his lead.
Behind him, Bottas jumped Raikkonen to split the Scarlet cars, launching a strategic battle. Hamilton weathered a ninth-place start – thanks to a grid penalty – and was climbing past the second-tier cars quickly.
Following a safety car to remove Daniel Ricciardo’s stricken Red Bull, Vettel maintained his lead, hounded by Bottas and Raikkonen.
Even though he had built a two-second lead by the time the first pit-stops came around, all three drivers seemed to have a legitimate shot at victory. Surprisingly, Mercedes fitted both their cars with Medium tires after Ferrari had committed to Softs.
They seemed to have pulled off a masterstroke; neither of their cars would have to stop again while the Ferrari’s almost certainly would. Raikkonen did, but wound up getting knocked out of the race due to a nightmare pit-stop. This left Vettel to fend for himself, in the lead, on less-durable tires.
Surely, he would have to stop again and gift Mercedes a 1-2 finish.
Then, a funny thing happened on the way to inevitability: Vettel’s lap times should have dropped off but they did not. His tires were supposed to be at the end of their life and he was supposed to come in.
He persisted, his armour not showing any cracks until the laps were down to ten.
By then, a second stop was never going to happen but the tires had become so worn Vettel could hardly keep his car on the racing line. What started as an 8-second lead with 10 to go turned into a 2 second lead over Bottas with two laps to go.
Still, he stuck to his tactic, clinging to his lead with a rival on his gearbox. Bottas made one late lunge at Turn One that Vettel resisted and the show was over.
The German had simply mastered his tires and racecraft under the lights of Sakhir. He had willed his Ferrari to cross the line first and thrilled everyone watching in doing so. It was beautiful.
On the cool-down lap, his radio message to his engineer said it all: These tires are DONE. DONE!
Pierre Gasly, Bahrain
Bahrain routinely creates exciting races; 2018 was no different. Another driver that shone at this year’s race under the lights was Toro Rosso’s Pierre Gasly.
Out of nowhere, the young Frenchman put it all together to qualify a best-of-the-rest sixth on the grid. Even better, he was mystified why his car had suddenly been so fast.
After a disappointing opening round in Australia, both the team and their engine supplier, Honda, brought a large update package to the second round.
It appeared the aerodynamic and engine upgrades worked better than anyone imagined as the back-marker team was suddenly qualifying ahead of some significant players in the midfield. It would still take a fast performance to extract the best the update could offer.
On Sunday, Gasly kept his race clean and won a hard-fought battle over Hass’ Kevin Magnussen to bring the car home in fourth.
His finishing position was aided by both Red Bull cars and Kimi Raikkonen retiring but that’s just racing. What could not be argued was the poise the Red Bull junior driver exhibited in delivering the result few could have dreamed of.