2018 was the year F1 broke my heart. Like the lover of a promiscuous other, I kept welcoming hope and excitement back,, only to, eventually, find out, the situation sadly remained the same.
I was ready for another year of bland and predictable results, as so many have been since 2013, after a lacklustre spring testing session with ominous dark Mercedes clouds hanging over them. The dust from Ferrari’s agonizingly-close 2017 campaign had taken all winter to settle; the nightmares from those epic opening 15 seconds in Singapore might never be truly gone.
It was a heavy championship contest that felt a little like a last chance – like one more jilted love might be too much to bear – and to watch its disappearance felt a lot like 2012.
Hamilton qualifying three-quarters of a second ahead of everyone else in Australia was a small, frustrating, predictable formality. It was going to be another one of his wire-to-wire wins to confirm 2017 as the dream that almost was.
Then, out of nowhere, Sebastian Vettel pulled what seemed like a miracle in Melbourne and the blood in my veins immediately burned hot again. And, two weeks later, when he withstood the W09 of Valtteri Bottas in Bahrain on lifeless tires, the competition was real and alive. My god, we were witnessing actual racing again.
Daniel Ricciardo confirmed it in China (though there was never any doubt of the racer in his blood). That pass on Bottas turned heads. I spilled my morning coffee jumping up off the couch; there was no room for a car there, no way he wouldn’t go too deep into the corner. Yet, he did. And I was fully in love again. This field was tight.
Hamilton then emerging from the usual chaos of Azerbaijan was appropriate. Three races into the season without a Mercedes win was like cheating. Taking their titles after four years of hegemony wasn’t supposed to be easy. It was supposed to be an epic fight down to the wire, like Alonso, Lewis and Kimi in ‘07 or Godzilla versus Mothra.
But, the time had certainly come – too much of one team winning is bad for any sport. We can’t always be content to watch the fight for the third podium spot, as entertaining as racing usually is.
At least the seemingly inevitable finally happened that weekend at Red Bull. Daniel Riccardio and Max Verstappen are so unbelievably close and competitive that a massive accident simply had to happen at some point.
And, given the idiotic way Verstappen had driven in the opening races of the year, their interaction was a definite time bomb waiting to go off in his face. It’s indicative of one of the reasons I don’t see him ever winning a championship.
Still, watching the downforce abandon Ricciardo after he sold Max a dummy move and then his car careening into the back of #33 was almost a thing of beauty. The tortured sounds of the tires, the look on the pit wall, the impact that impact had on the race, the cluttered mess those idled cars made. More racing, please!
After clearly being out of his element to start the season, Azerbaijan also ignited F1’s blinding new light. Charles Leclerc came like lightening to finish sixth in his Sauber; a result he never looked back from.
The rookie’s sudden form would propel him to a deserved seat at Ferrari for 2019. At a time when the problems that would kill McLaren’s campaign hadn’t yet been fully realized, Alonso persisted around the track with two flat tires on the opening lap to finish the race in seventh, showing the beautiful tenacity that has marked his entire career.
Still, even with all these points, one can’t help but wonder how different the season might have been had Vettel not been so bloody desperate to retake his lead from Bottas at the end of the safety car.
Ricciardo, bless his soul, then somehow made the most boring race on the calendar interesting when he avenged his 2016 defeat in Monaco.
Everything else about that race was forgettable, as usual. Next it was Vettel, who hadn’t won in four races, taking the checkered flag he felt destined to in Canada.
Such was his pace last year, as was clear to all of us in the grandstands, that if he kept it clean at start, you knew he would win. The championship was bouncing back and forth until we got to Great Britain with nobody seemingly having an upper hand.
The day before had seen perpetual World Cup disappointments England advance to the quarterfinals shortly before Hamilton laid down an utterly-incredible pole-snatching lap. The electricity oozed from F1’s largest and most boisterous crowd into the TV and onto the living room floor. It was really hard not to be swept up in it.
It was a perfect, beautiful for racing. Warm sun bathed the track, a local hero sat alone in pole position while his chief rival lay waiting to pounce in 3rd. But, with lights out, Vettel pulled a flyer, splitting the leading Mercedes pair off the line and suddenly the preordained English party was in jeopardy.
Ferrari fans hated every second of it. That moment, to be forgotten by season’s end was all down to Vettel’s fleeting superior racecraft. Two corners later, Ferrari started to cheat, as Hamilton insinuated over the radio and in the post-race press conference, when Kimi went a bit too deep and they banged wheels. Depending on where you are from, or how clean your glasses are, it was either an “interesting tactic” or a racing incident.
Battle after battle danced around the track so frequently it was difficult to know what was happening everywhere. Kimi fought Max. Hamilton charged through the field from the back, Ericsson, Grosjean and Sainz crashed. It was surprising to see the usually conservative Mercedes pit wall take the initiative and leave their cars out during a safety car in order to gain track position.
Promoting Bottas into the lead and, more crucially, Hamilton into third would pay huge dividends at the end of the season. While they almost played ingenious spoilers, Vettel was flying.
His car scythed it’s way up to the rear of Bottas where, with five laps to go, he caught the Finn helpless with a late move down the inside to seal the win.
Astonishingly, Hamilton finished second with Kimi right behind. Vettel triumphed on an epic day of racing, extending his championship lead, but the damage had been effectively limited by Mercedes. It would make the results of the next race in Germany so much more important.
At this point in the season, we racing fans had it good. Ferrari, Red Bull and Mercedes all had worthy cars and only Max was regularly under-performing, despite flashing signs of his brilliance time and again.
Vettel’s Ferrari looked incredible at nearly every venue but Hamilton’s Mercedes was right alongside – and backed by a pit wall making better calls. It’s a beautiful feeling when nobody can be comfortable.
Those of us on the west coast of North America live where F1 means it’s way too early for beer. Start times being what they are, most venues require getting out of bed just before 5 am, an inhuman time to exist without coffee. I even got up at 3 am to watch Singapore 2017 while on vacation.
The yelling at the screen that morning luckily only woke up my daughter. So that’s my pre-game ritual: a scalding cup of joe and darkness. Sometimes, one of the kids will get up and join me and we’ll talk quietly about whether the red car is going to win today.
Leading up to F1’s summer break, the city was hot and the mornings were warm. Snarling sounds of F1’s modern engines kept me company on the mornings I was alone. This is an aspect of modern Formula One I do not understand: the engine sounds are fantastic.
Sure, they don’t scream like they used to and, just like those hideous early noses, they had a long way to go in 2014. But, they have. Maybe I get it because I’ve heard them in person or maybe I’m just drunk but somehow I doubt it. I think we’re all being fanboys looking for reasons to always think the past is greater than the present.
The race to five world championships was properly underway. Vettel had the door open, the points lead, the fast car, the protective teammate. Hamilton hadn’t seemed quite as invincible as past years. It was the Scuderia’s to lose.
“Noooooo!” I screamed at the TV watching Vettel crash out of the lead of German GP, 52 laps in. A sprinkle of rain had dusted the circuit in the perfect place and he slow-motioned off the track and into the barriers.
There was a moment of silence before we could start lying to ourselves. The gravity of the situation became apparent as poor Sebastian Vettel beat the shit out of his steering wheel. He comedically kicked a few stones, too.
To make matters worse, Hamilton had started 14th and, by skipping the last pit stop the other front-runners took, catapulted himself into the lead. Coupled with the grace-saving climb back to second at Silverstone, the championship momentum had instantly and definitively swung the Brit’s direction.
Like an old lady putting on her reading glasses, Ferrari’s naked mistakes became clear. It had been easy to write off pit wall errors in China and driver blunders in France and Azerbaijan when they were leading the championship or the early days hadn’t become important yet.
But, this latest disaster in Germany threw away a win, handed the driver’s lead to Hamilton and blew up Vettel’s confidence. What was going on at Ferrari? In the space of a week, it became ok to wonder that.
It had never felt like a sure thing when Vettel finished second to another Hamilton win next time out. But when he roared back after the summer break in Belgium, demolishing Hamilton down the Kemmel straight, it was a screaming, hesitant sigh of relief.
A hard-fought and outright win chipped the lead in the championship down to just 17 points with Ferrari-friendly tracks coming up. A chance for redemption would hang over the grid in Italy.
Then, in an instant, it was gone. Was Vettel confused or desperate? Why did he turn into the Mercedes instead of conceding that he had been beaten to the apex?
Either way, the supreme version of Lewis Hamilton had suddenly emerged. His line into the outside of turn 3, where Vettel spun, was perfect.He must have been shocked for that opening to appear and almost as astonished to see the Ferrari rotate after such slight contact between the two. He wanted that place. The race finished with Hamilton first, Vettel fourth.
Hamilton won again in Singapore, a Ferrari track, and again in Russia and Japan. Dating back to Germany, Hamilton had exploded by winning six out of seven races compared to Vettel winning once, retiring once and finishing off the podium twice.
The Scuderia were clearly blowing it but, oh, how we hope. Each race added incremental levels of anxiety. When were Ferrari going to get it right?
There was still a chance to avoid a Mercedes stamp on the season by the time F1 got to America. It was small, of course, but stranger things have happened and people filled with hope always look for the faintest signs to come true.
Two silver linings emerged for Ferrari in Austin. Kimi grabbed one more fantastic F1 win, likely his final, and Seb stole a fourth place that guaranteed the championship fight would continue. Max went about finally convincing the rest of us his poor early season form was a thing of the past by finishing second. The kid is good – when he wants to be.
Vettel upped his game in Mexico by finishing second to Max, who seems to have a thing for that track, but Hamilton’s fourth meant the title was his with two races to go.
Fate strung us along with tire issues for all the teams that looked like they might badly impact Mercedes but, in the end, Hamilton won. He deserved to.
It was almost depressing to be saying the same thing for the fourth time in five years. But this year, like last, he had to take his game to another level to ensure he emerged victoriously.
This was no 2015 yawning run to the finale. That he was able to not only do what he needed to but to also be basically perfect was mightily impressive. I’m not sure anyone would have beaten Lewis this season.
However, while it’s true Lewis’ driving looked unconscious over the second-half nobody can shake the feeling that the championship was given away by Ferrari. While I work alone in the darkness near the Arctic circle and ponder F1, I certainly can’t.
I think about the pit wall setting their drivers up at a disadvantage several times. The development team dropping the ball. The lead driver throwing away an astronomical number of points.
What would the season have been like if Germany hadn’t happened? Azerbaijan? China? Hungary? France? This, more than Hamilton putting everything together sublimely, left an acidic taste in this racing fan’s mouth.
Of course, I still watched every second of the remaining races. I still talked to the kids about it, pointing out the implications for each pass or win.
And, I was gladly amazed by Charles Leclerc in Brazil. His qualifying performance – not giving in to the team’s request to pit for new tires and demanding to take another run at improving his time – was one of those minutes in sports where you hold your breath. It was the standout moment of the season winding down. The talent in that 20-year old kid makes your head shake and I wonder if he is going to obliterate the competition in his Ferrari next year.
While every reasonable indicator points to the opposite, I truly believe am energizing Leclerc will bring out the real Vettel; the one from his four consecutive title runs. It won’t be like 2014 when Danny Ric stomped Sebastian, it will be a rebirth that ends in a Ferrari championship, for one of the drivers.
In six months you can call me right or wrong and I won’t care, because there is one implication from all this that is beyond doubt: they will both face another extremely motivated and near-perfect Lewis Hamilton – which also means we’ll see a lovely full-season of competition.
2019 is shaping up to be a fine year to do the same thing I do every spring and fall in love with Formula 1, again. Here’s to hoping that works the same for everyone.