Time to recharge the batteries

It’s not often that we have a year where the lead of the World Championship has swapped five times in 12 races and we have never had two quadruple World Champions racing head to head to secure their fifth title.

Lewis Hamilton leading the Hungarian Grand Prix.   -  Getty Images

The Hungarian Grand Prix marks the end of the first half of the season and the start of the official summer break. In true F1 fashion, the teams can’t just go on holiday – they have a carefully monitored break, with pre-agreed dates and the FIA policing their phones and email servers to ensure that they’re not doing any work. Nothing is simple in the world of Formula 1!

Rather than just looking at the Hungarian Grand Prix, I thought that I would use this column as a bit of a half-term report to look back at what’s been a very good season so far. It’s not often that we have a year where the lead of the World Championship has swapped five times in 12 races and we’ve never had two quadruple World Champions racing head to head to secure their fifth title.

The Mercedes versus Ferrari battle has been fascinating to watch. Every time the paddock thinks that we can start to draw a trend into their form, there’s always an update that tends to mix things up. The pace of development at the sharp end of Formula 1 is relentless at the moment and the two powerhouses are throwing absolutely everything at this championship.

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However, there are a few things that we can conclude at the halfway mark. The first and most important one is that Ferrari is a genuine challenger to Mercedes for pace more often than it has been for a long time. I still believe that the team should have won the title last year (the road rage in Baku, the crash in Singapore and the reliability woes in Japan and Malaysia cost it a load of points), but overall I felt that Mercedes was still the faster car over the season. This year, with the engine upgrades in Canada and the aero developments in Silverstone, the Italian giant goes into the summer break with the fastest car.

Yet, Sebastian Vettel is 24 points behind in the driver’s championship and the team finds itself 10 points behind in the constructors'. The crash in Germany that gifted Lewis Hamilton the win has been costly for both team and driver, while the first lap incident in France also cost Ferrari a few points. Vettel’s wins in Bahrain, Canada and Britain have been brilliant drives, but he needs to capitalise when Hamilton is having a bad day, like in Germany, or ensure that even on a weekend when Ferrari is slower than Mercedes, at worst, he finishes third. That’s the only way to turn around the points deficit.

Mercedes has not been perfect itself, with errors in strategy on more than one occasion. The miscalculation on the pit stop time in Melbourne was a particularly obvious one, while the highly publicised error in Austria was masked by a double mechanical DNF. Not realising that Ferrari had switched to a one-stop strategy early enough in Bahrain when it was pretty obvious also meant it spent too long pacing its drivers and in China and Silverstone, they seemed to be locked into strategies not to pit because their tyre allocation through the weekend meant that they didn’t have enough sets to change tyres during late safety car periods.

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In the past couple of weeks, I’ve been disappointed to see so many people on Twitter say that I’ve been biased towards Hamilton and Mercedes. That’s simply not true. The reality is that he’s driving very well at the moment after a couple of sub-par races in China and Canada where he was outpaced by Valtteri Bottas. It was a bit of a surprise in Montreal where he’s been brilliant in the past.

In Silverstone, Hamilton delivered a brilliant qualifying lap on a day when the Ferrari was the better car. In the race, his long opening stint was a great lesson in tyre management, something which he showed again in the opening stint in Germany where he did 42 laps on his first set of tyres. Yes, he benefited from Vettel going off and also from being on new ultra soft tyres when the rain started to come down, but he still made up 16 seconds on his teammate in seven laps! The pole lap in the wet track in Hungary cemented his place as the deserving leader of the World Championship.

Valtteri Bottas has been driving very well this season. I was a bit worried after Melbourne that he was going to be blown away by Hamilton, but full credit to Bottas for bouncing back and proving to be the perfect No.2 for the team. Yes, I said No.2 because despite whatever the team may say in public, the logical thing for Mercedes to do is to back Lewis for the title now. This isn’t a reflection of Bottas' pace, but just the reality of the situation with the way the points stack up now. He’s 81 points behind Lewis, having lost at least 62 points through bad luck which was no fault of his.

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If you were Toto Wolff right now, the conversation would probably be “Sorry, Valtteri, but this just isn’t your year. You’re signed up for 2019 and you’ll have another chance to chase the title, but now you’re the wingman.” Bottas may not like it, but he just needs to suck it up unfortunately.

Kimi Raikkonen seems to have lifted his game on Sundays and has been on a run of five podium finishes in a row. This seems to have switched the paddock chatter from “he’s definitely gone for 2019” to “looks like he’s going to hang on for another year now.” There have been too many occasions though when it seems like he’s going to outpace Vettel only to make a mistake during the crucial lap in Q3. To overturn the points deficit, Vettel and Ferrari need Raikkonen to be qualifying second and be a buffer between the German and Hamilton on the weekends where Ferrari is the faster car.

Of the rest, Red Bull Racing is having another season where it is just not quick enough on a Saturday. Renault appears to have made a step forward when it comes to the consistent power needed, but when the Ferrari and Mercedes cars turn it up in qualifying, it’s clear that they are a step ahead of the French engines. In fact, this is more clear when you look at how well Haas and Sauber have been qualifying of late, hugely benefiting from the surge in Ferrari power. Still, Daniel Ricciardo’s win in Monaco and Max Verstappen’s victory in Austria were probably the two most popular wins of the season and they’ve got another chance to potentially upset the title contenders in Singapore.

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The midfield battle has been brilliant this year with Haas, Renault, Force India, Toro Rosso and Sauber showing flashes of brilliance. Haas has emerged as the fastest of the midfield teams, but has cost itself a lot of points, which propelled Renault into fourth place in the points table. Sauber has been the ‘feel good’ story of the year, with Charles Leclerc emerging as an absolute star of the future.

McLaren and Williams have been the biggest disappointments of the year. McLaren still sees itself as one of F1’s giants and with an expensive shift away away from Honda engines (and the yen that came with it), the move to Renault power has been a bit of a shock and a reality check for the Woking squad. Having Fernando Alonso in the car has been the saving grace as he’s scored 44 points against eight for Stoffel Vandoorne, but equally the pressure he ramps up on the team is more than any other driver on the grid. The level of power and influence he has in that team is extraordinary, but, on the flip side, he knows just how valuable his relentless pace in a Sunday afternoon is to any team.

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After a month-long break, we’ll be off to the back-to-back races in Spa and Monza. Two high-speed circuits where horsepower will be crucial, and I’m fascinated to see if Ferrari can maintain its advantage over Mercedes when it comes to straight-line speed. If the Prancing Horse can out-drag the Silver Arrows, that could quickly slash the points deficit for Vettel.

Time will tell, but in the meanwhile, it’s time to relax and recharge the batteries!

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