Poised for an exhilarating finish

Quadruple world champion Sebastian Vettel and triple world champion Lewis Hamilton have once again underlined their credentials as F1’s A-listers. The battle between them has been everything that we wanted to see from top-level sportsmen — tense, controversial and high quality performances.

An in-form Lewis Hamilton is hard to beat. Considering the power unit gains Mercedes has made, more circuits are going to suit it for the second half of the season. And that makes Hamilton the firm favourite, according to the columnist.   -  Getty Images

The 2017 Formula 1 World Championship has been a fascinating battle between Ferrari and Mercedes, with the pendulum of form swinging between the two giants of the sport. Quadruple world champion Sebastian Vettel and triple world champion Lewis Hamilton have once again underlined their credentials as F1’s A-listers. The battle between them has been everything that we wanted to see from top-level sportsmen — tense, controversial and high quality performances.

When Hamilton has been on form, he has been outstanding. Six poles from the first 11 races attest to his general brilliance on a Saturday afternoon, especially considering the W08 hasn’t been the easiest car to set up.

While Ferrari has come a long way from an also-ran to a title contender again, Sebastian Vettel has responded brilliantly by rising to the challenge.   -  Getty Images

Races such as Silverstone also remind us that Hamilton is capable of being in a different league to the rest when Mercedes gets everything right.

But occasionally this year, it hasn’t, and in these circumstances — Russia, Monaco and Budapest in particular — Hamilton hasn’t looked comfortable. Lewis and the team need to understand why on these sort of weekends he has not able to maximise the package in a way Valtteri Bottas has done.

Ferrari seems to be better on circuits with short straights and requiring plenty of dirty down-force (meaning, there’s a big emphasis on grip in the corners and less on straight-line speed). On balance however, looking at the calendar, I do think that with the power unit gains Mercedes has made, more circuits are going to suit it for the second half of the season. And that makes Lewis the firm favourite for the title. It’s his to lose.

Bottas has been impressive this season, especially considering how late his Mercedes deal came together. Being 6-5 to Hamilton in qualifying going into the summer break is a lot closer than anyone would have expected them to be. Breakthrough victories under pressure in Russia and Austria have thrust Bottas into title contention. The fact that Mercedes agonised over team orders in Hungary shows just how seriously they’re treating Bottas’ title challenge.

Valtteri Bottas celebrates on the podium after winning the Russian Grand Prix in Sochi. Breakthrough victories under pressure in Russia and Austria have thrust the Finn into title contention.   -  Getty Images

If I were Bottas, I would be pushing for that Mercedes contract extension quickly, while in parallel getting on the phone to Ferrari, as he has now proved that he’s a genuine top-line driver.

Ferrari has transformed itself from also-ran into title contender again and Vettel has responded as he often did during his Red Bull days, by rising to the challenge. Vettel has looked sublime in qualifying despite the Scuderia often not being the fastest car over one lap. The victory in the opening race in Melbourne was brilliant and has showed that the Italian squad is now much sharper strategically than it was last year.

A touch with Max Verstappen that caused a puncture in Canada, a moment of anger-fuelled idiocy behind the safety car in Azerbaijan and a front-left puncture at Silverstone cost him a lot of points, but aside from that, Vettel has done a sterling job and is a very deserving championship leader. Now Ferrari needs to step it up to see that he stays there.

Daniel Ricciardo has registered some strong results since the Spanish Grand Prix, where he finished third. The Red Bull Racing driver has since had four podium finishes, including a victory in Azerbaijan.   -  Getty Images

It was nice to see Kimi Raikkonen take a popular pole position in Monaco, and he’s had other weekends like Budapest where he’s been close to Vettel, but overall, he’s been further away from Vettel than Bottas has been from Hamilton. This means that as the season goes on, Ferrari may well start to play the team orders game to support its number one driver.

Red Bull Racing started the season on the back-foot. Unhappy with the aero correlation between the wind tunnel and the track, the team has worked hard at making up for lost time. Daniel Ricciardo has bagged some strong results since Red Bull started sorting out its car properly in Spain, including that opportunistic win in Baku, and has even managed to get ahead of Raikkonen in the championship.

But Ricciardo has generally been overshadowed by team-mate Verstappen in terms of pure performance so far this season. Too often reliability has let Verstappen down and taken him out of strong positions — brake failure in Bahrain, battery failure in Canada, engine failure in Baku, clutch failure in Austria. But then, he’s also been too aggressive on the opening laps in Spain and Hungary. Overall, Verstappen has, once again, proved this year that he is a once-in-a-generation talent that will just keep getting better and better.

The midfield battle has been good this year again. Force India has emerged as the leader of the pack but mainly because they’ve had two drivers scoring points consistently. Esteban Ocon has seriously impressed Force India with his rapid rate of progress over the first 11 races. He’s a very good prospect for the future and while Sergio Perez is ahead in the championship, the pace gap between the two Force India drivers is getting tighter and tighter.

Renault have made more progress than anyone else over the winter, as Nico Hulkenberg has shown this year. Early on, Renault seemed to have good qualifying pace but faded in the races. But since Silverstone, the team has gotten a lot better at tyre management, and can legitimately make a claim to having the fourth best car at the moment, I think.

Jolyon Palmer has had a tough season with plenty of reliability issues coupled with a lack of one lap pace when compared to Nico. This has left him under pressure for the drive, but I think Renault will stick with him until the end of the year.

Williams, Torro Rosso, McLaren and Haas have all shown flashes of speed and results, and overall there isn’t much to choose between them across the season. They all have different strengths and weaknesses — the Honda power unit seems to have taken a step backward this year in comparison with the opposition, which is very frustrating for McLaren and its drivers. Fernando Alonso’s sojourn at Indianapolis was probably the biggest motorsport news story of the year, and it was another little reminder of how a great talent is being wasted in that McLaren-Honda package at the moment. I’m looking forward to the second half of the season starting in Spa (August 27). There is plenty of racing still to come, and the battle for the World Championship is likely to go all the way to Abu Dhabi!