We had a real end-of-term atmosphere across the paddock in Abu Dhabi this weekend. Both World Championships were already settled and without the tension of a title battle, the longest ever season headed to the 21st and final hurrah of 2018 with teams and drivers all feeling a bit more relaxed, and tired, than on some previous occasions.
The race itself wasn’t a classic but there were various points in the race results that were particularly symbolic. Having Lewis Hamilton, Sebastian Vettel and Max Verstappen on the podium was a nice way to end the season as I do think that they will be the three main title contenders next year. Seeing Carlos Sainz and Charles Leclerc score points underlined Renault and Sauber’s progress this season and their quality as drivers, while the reliability issues for drivers throughout the weekend showed just how close to the edge the engines were being pushed to make it through the 21 races.
The Ferrari threat
Looking back across the season, we had seen a titanic battle between Vettel and Hamilton in the first half of the year. Last year, Ferrari looked like a strong challenger to Mercedes and they arrived at pre-season testing this year with an even more competitive package underneath them. At the opening round in Melbourne however, Hamilton and Mercedes stamped their authority on the field with a dominant pole position. But a pit stop time miscalculation under the safety car meant that they gifted Vettel victory.
Once we got to Bahrain however, it was game on. With every race that passed, the battle seemed closer than ever before and it seemed like we were in for the best season long battle that we’ve had in this current V6 hybrid era that’s been dominated by Mercedes since 2014. Ferrari genuinely looked like they had a car that was a match for Mercedes in every condition and their high power modes in qualifying seemed very potent. This was always an area where the Mercedes-powered cars had an edge until 2018, and all of sudden, we had some fascinating cat and mouse games going on, with neither team wanting to show their hand until we got to the final part of qualifying.
The championship lead ebbed and flowed between the two quadruple World Champions, both chasing hard in the race to become a five-time World Champion. The points lead swapped hands five times throughout this year and at the half way point after the British Grand Prix, the German led the title battle by a mere eight points, having won four races to the Brit’s three, but critically, it looked like Ferrari were starting to edge ahead in terms of car performance.
But then came a run of races that completely took the wind out of Ferrari’s sails and the championship challenge from the Vettel camp just fell apart. It started with the German’s home race at Hockenheim, a mere twenty minutes from his home town. Sebastian was out in front with a big twelve second lead while Hamilton, who started way down in 14 place after a problem in qualifying, was up to fourth and catching. When the heavens opened, the Ferrari man made the smallest of errors under braking for a hairpin, but with big consequences. He ended up off the track and in the barriers and all of a sudden, a potential extension to his championship lead turned into a 17 point deficit.
Hamilton then went on a brilliant run of races. Between Germany and Japan in October, he won six out of seven races, with a second place to Vettel at Spa the only black mark on an otherwise faultless run of races from him and the team. What made this all the more impressive is that on weekends such as Hungary and Italy, the Ferrari was the faster car but Lewis who put the pressure on them, delivered strong pace when it mattered either in wet qualifyings or the races and then took the wins.
Catalogue of errors
In contrast, starting from the crash in Germany, Ferrari and Sebastian have made a catalogue of errors this year. Vettel out-braked himself when going for the lead and finished 4th in Baku. In France, he crashed into the back of Bottas at the first corner, and then in Japan and Austin he made risky lunges to overtake a Red Bull and ended up spinning. Throw in grid penalties in Austria and USA caused by driver error and that adds up to a significant number of points lost.
But perhaps the weekend that summed up the second half of the season was Monza. Ferrari had the – slightly – faster car that weekend but in qualifying, instead of backing their number 1 driver, they bizarrely allowed Raikkonen to be in Vettel’s slipstream, which was worth enough time to give the Finn pole position. Then, instead of having a chat with Kimi on race day morning about letting Sebastian pass easily and playing rear gunner, they inexplicably told him that he was getting sacked at the end of the season!
Understandably, Raikkonen wasn’t particularly keen on helping Vettel on the opening lap and when Hamilton pounced on the German at the second chicane, Vettel chose to fight him hard which resulted in the Ferrari spinning and re-joining at the tail of the field. Hamilton then did a brilliant job of managing his tyres despite some strong race pace, causing Kimi to blister his rear tyres as he tried to push. This put Lewis in the driving seat and he duly took, what I believe to be, his best win of the season.
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Outside of the top two teams, Red Bull Racing have had an up-and-down season. There have been plenty of arguments with their engine suppliers Renault resulting in a divorce after this weekend in Abu Dhabi, but the team showed that when it comes to a weekend where it’s a less power sensitive track, their chassis is still pretty awesome. That was underlined by wins in Monaco and Mexico, as well as strong races in Singapore and Brazil. And Daniel Ricciardo’s win in China showed that the Milton Keynes squad is excellent when it comes to left field and opportunistic thinking strategically.
Max Verstappen had a messy start to the season but since the Canadian Grand Prix in June, he’s been exceptional. In fact in the second half of the season, from Germany onwards, Max has scored more points than either Ferrari driver, despite being in a less competitive car. If Honda can give them a power unit boost in 2019, both he and the team will be championship contenders.
This weekend was the last time we see Fernando Alonso racing in F1. The double World Champion has had an increasingly miserable time since 2012, the last time he was a championship contender. His last season at Ferrari in 2014 was poor and the move to Mclaren just hasn’t worked out for a driver who was arguably one of the top 3 drivers on the grid for the past 15 years in Formula 1.
It will be sad to see him leave F1 without the stats to back up the talent but that’s how life works out sometimes. People often quote the stat of Fernando being 8 points away from being a five-time World Champion, but sadly hypotheticals don’t really hold up as much as reality in this sport. For example, Lewis is seven points away from being a seven-time World Champion!
All in all, I’ve enjoyed the 2018 season. There have been plenty of stories up and down the paddock as per usual. Sauber have been the most improved team of the season, Force India have managed to maintain a very respectable level of performance and pace despite a very rocky year away from the track, Honda have started to show the first signs of genuine progress, while former F1 grandees Mclaren and Williams have had awful seasons.
I end my final column for the year by opening up a bit of a debate – my list of the season’s top 5 drivers:
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