Bob Varsha

Volume 43 Issue 23

Nov 11, 2018

One of the most satisfying feelings a motorsports fan can have at the end of a long season is the knowledge that the “right” driver captured the championship. No complaints about lucking into success or “points racing.”

    One of the most satisfying feelings a motorsports fan can have at the end of a long season is the knowledge that the “right” driver captured the championship. No complaints about lucking into success or “points racing.”

    As the current Formula One season winds down, there is little doubt that Lewis Hamilton’s fifth world championship, clinched last weekend in the Mexican Grand Prix with two races remaining, his fourth title in the last five seasons with Mercedes AMG, was well-earned.

    Even his nearest rival, Scuderia Ferrari’s Sebastian Vettel, admitted as much when he blew off post-race interviewer David Coulthard and rushed to embrace the newly-crowned champ in front of the cameras, declaring to the press afterward that “He has driven superbly all season, he was the better of us, and he deserved it.”

    And so he does, from both a sporting and statistical perspective. Despite finishing the Mexico City clincher in fourth place, Hamilton’s season totals as of this writing include an unapproachable nine victories and an equal number of pole positions (Vettel next with five of each), podium finishes in fifteen of nineteen races (Vettel and teammate Kimi Räikkönen with eleven apiece) and aside from a single non-scoring effort in Austria due to a fuel pump failure, Hamilton’s other finishes were two fourth places and a fifth.

    His fifth title pulls him equal with “The Maestro” Juan Manuel Fangio with two years remaining on his contract and 71 wins on his resume, giving Hamilton a solid chance to equal or surpass the record 91 race wins and seven world titles achieved by Michael Schumacher.

    But perhaps more telling is that over the nearly five-year era of the V6 turbo/hybrid powertrain in F1,  Hamilton won precisely half of the races, 49 of 98 as of this writing, helping drive his Mercedes team’s sweep of every Constructors championship of the era, with a fifth a mere-formality in 2018.

    Things looked very different a few races into the 2018 campaign, when the title favorites had to be Sebastian Vettel and Ferrari.

    With a car, the SF71H, that incorporated some of the best 2017 developments of “Big Three” rivals Mercedes and Red Bull Racing in downforce and aerodynamics, the latest Prancing Horse most importantly was armed with a powertrain that had closed the horsepower gap to the all-conquering Silver Arrows.

    And yet the Ferrari seemed kinder to the new-for-2018 Pirelli tires, including an additional (seventh) specification at each end of the range, the so-called Superhard and Hypersoft, and compounds one step softer than last season across the entire dry-weather product range, giving the teams lots to think about.

    Vettel won the first two races in Melbourne and Malaysia, with help in the former from a fortuitous safety car that allowed Vettel to make a “free” pitstop and rejoin the track ahead of Hamilton.

    Lucky or not, Vettel appeared off and running toward not only his own fifth championship, but his long-awaited first for Ferrari.

    Both drivers finished off the podium in the third round in Shanghai, but given Hamilton’s consistent scoring from there on, averaging nearly twenty points per race, things didn’t go far off the rails for Vettel, but they went just far enough: the German averaged fifteen points per remaining start, including a single no-score in his native Germany.

    But despite the Ferrari often being the better car, the combination of shaky team strategy calls, driver error (including Vettel crashing out of the lead in his home race at Hockenheim), some flawless driving by Hamilton and timely, effective updates from Mercedes, especially following the summer break, enabled Hamilton to score critical wins where they seemed unlikely.

    This was especially true at Hungary, Monza and Singapore. It was not that Ferrari failed to improve their car; essentially, Hamilton was able to exploit his team’s hard-wrought improvement, Vettel less so.

    It’s also worth wondering how much off-track distractions cost Ferrari.

    I can think of three: the unexpected death of company president Sergio Marchionne, who made public demands for team success and threatened to pull the team from the series over future technical rules; the status of team principal Maurizio Arrivabene and his rumored departure for a position with the Juventus soccer club; and the annual saga over whether to retain Kimi Räikkönen as Vettel’s teammate.

    When the announcement finally came that Räikkönen second stint at Ferrari was over in a seat switch with Sauber’s rising star Charles Leclerc, all semblance of team tactics in qualifying and the races evaporated, and Vettel moaned that he was fighting the Mercedes juggernaut without a teammate.

    Ironically, Räikkönen later claimed victory in the USGP in Austin in October. It was his first in five years and 112 starts, breaking Riccardo Patrese’s record of 99 races between wins, and Schumacher’s longevity standard of 14 years from a driver’s first victory to his latest, Kimi’s hugely popular win coming 15 years 212 days after his first. It must have been a sweet moment indeed, for everyone’s favorite F1 bad boy.

    In contrast, Hamilton’s Mercedes sidekick Valtteri Bottas remains in year-to-year limbo. Despite glowing appreciation from the team, and particularly the champion, for his loyalty, the “other Finn” remains the unquestioned number two, forced to swallow hard and surrender track position to his teammate.

    His least convincing effort to hide his disappointment came at the Russian GP at Sochi, a track where Bottas always goes well, and was enjoying his best shot at a 2018 win that would relieve him of the stigma of being the only “Big Three” driver without one.

    If Bottas wins in the final two races at Brazil and/or Abu Dhabi, consider it part of his consolation package. Granted, should Bottas desire to find a starring role as leader for another team, he has nowhere to go to match the car Mercedes gives him. But frustration makes us do odd things on occasion.

    Just ask Daniel Ricciardo, who shocked the series mid-season by announcing his departure after five seasons to join the Renault factory team. Despite often outperforming Vettel in their time as teammates at RBR, the Aussie has had his hands full with fast-improving Max Verstappen.

    Each has two victories on the season as of this writing, but the Red Bull-Renault partnership has never been easy, all four wins coming on circuits where top-end engine power is secondary, such as Monaco, or the gentle impact of the car on its tires allows for strategies other teams cannot match, as in high-altitude Mexico City.

    Ricciardo was simply fed up with the tension and disappointment, exacerbated by no fewer than eight technical failures on the season. After falling out in Mexico, his sixth DNF in the last eleven races, Ricciardo said he could see no reason to even attempt the remaining two races, declaring his car “cursed” and offering it to his replacement for next season, Pierre Gasly of the Red Bull junior team, Scuderia Toro Rosso.

    Whenever Gasly does arrive, it will be interesting to see how he matches up with the incumbent, Verstappen. Undeniably talented but headstrong, the Dutchman got off to a first half dotted with spins and questionable driving behavior, often in the vicinity of Vettel’s Ferrari.

    Max insisted at first that there was nothing wrong with his driving and he had no intention of changing his approach, but later admitted that he was over-driving, perhaps to compensate for the same car-engine shortcomings that led to Ricciardo’s frustration.

    You could argue that Verstappen’s personality and performance bear a strong resemblance to Vettel’s; a debut in F1 as a teenager, early success, a unique driving style, a stubborn resistance to criticism, and so on.

    You could also argue that while Verstappen at age 22 has already come to the realization that less is sometimes more on the stopwatch, Vettel at 31 has not.

    Much has been made this year about the battle behind the “Big Three” teams, sometimes referred to as “Best of the Rest,” “Class B,” and “Formula 1.5.” Nevertheless, the exploits of Renault, Force India, Haas, Toro Rosso, Sauber, McLaren and Williams have been entertaining, both on and off the track.

    There has been real improvement among the group as well, particularly from Renault, Haas-Ferrari and the Toro Rosso-Honda, at least in Gasly’s hands.

    However, the difficulty of making the step up to the level of Mercedes, Ferrari and Red Bull is massive: of the 57 total podium positions on offer through the first 19 races of the season, all but one, a third place in Azerbaijan by Force India’s Sergio Perez, went to a driver from the top three teams.

    Looking ahead, most of the driver movement for next season comes from this group, with at least nine of the fourteen seats changing hands.

    None is more significant than Fernando Alonso’s departure from the sport entirely. The two-time world champion’s second tenure at McLaren was initially scuppered by an abysmal association with Honda power, and sunk when a switch to Renault for 2018 provided little relief, with just twelve points total in 38 tries for Alonso and Stoffel Vandoorne.

    Both are gone next season, replaced by Carlos Sainz, over from Renault, and young British newcomer Lando Norris.

As mentioned, Renault welcomes Ricciardo to partner incumbent Nico Hulkenberg, who somehow remains winless after 153 attempts.

    Force India, rescued at the door of bankruptcy by a group headed by billionaire Lawrence Stroll and renamed “Racing Point Force India”, will feature the owner’s son Lance Stroll, over from Williams, and incumbent Perez.

    Toro Rosso will team Thai-born British youngster Alex Albon with returning veteran Daniil Kvyat, reports say. Sauber-Alfa Romeo landed the ageless Räikkönen, presumably to pair with Ferrari development driver Antonio Giovanazzi.

    Finally there is Williams, like McLaren a former giant of the sport fallen on hard times, giving an opportunity to development driver George Russell and a funded driver yet to be named, possibly Russian GP2 driver Artem Markelov.

    That leaves Haas-Ferrari in position to score a best-ever finish of fifth in the Constructor standings.

    The Kannapolis, NC-based squad appears to be standing pat with drivers Kevin Magnussen, whose occasional edgy defense of his track position has earned criticism, and Romain Grosjean. America’s lone Formula 1 team has also picked up title sponsorship from British beverage company, Rich Energy.

    2019 will bring little new in the way of rules, and an unchanged season schedule.

    Will Lewis Hamilton be able to claim a sixth championship?

    Will Sebastian Vettel finally come through with his first for Ferrari?

    Will a new talent on the order of those two be revealed?

    Will American fans be treated to television coverage tailored to their tastes and desires?

    Sorry, couldn’t help myself there. It should be a terrific season. Enjoy.


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