The 2018 Formula 1 World Championship has already thrown up a few surprises! Three races into the season and we haven’t had a Mercedes win yet, with Sebastian Vettel taking two victories and Daniel Ricciardo winning in China.
All through the pre-season testing, Mercedes seemed to be a step ahead of the Ferraris and Red Bulls, and sure enough, when we got to Melbourne, Lewis Hamilton was in devastating form. The reigning World champion has lost none of his motivation and remains the championship favourite.
However, three races into the season, it’s become clear that Vettel and Ferrari are determined to win the Italian team’s first driver’s World Championship in 11 years. At the season opener in Australia , the Mercedes man was running away with the win, and in fact, it was Kimi Raikkonnen who was proving to be his closest challenger rather than Vettel. After Lewis and Kimi pitted, a virtual safety car period allowed Vettel to pit without losing the lead. Mercedes misjudged the gap they needed over Vettel to win the race, and that miscalculation was all Vettel needed to take the lead. From that moment on, he was in control of the race, taking an unexpected victory.
A fortnight after Melbourne, we had an excellent Bahrain Grand Prix ! This time Ferrari had the faster car and locked out the front row of the grid, with Vettel going on to win. It had been a long time since we had a race with multiple strategies at play, combined with some amazing wheel-to-wheel battles at the sharp end of the pack, and I think everyone thoroughly enjoyed that!
So how did Ferrari turn a significant deficit in Australia into an advantage in Bahrain? Tyres were the key.
If we look further back to pre-season testing, the Barcelona circuit had been recently re-surfaced. Throw in the cooler conditions and we didn’t perhaps get as clear a picture on where the pecking order was. The tyre degradation was very low and the heat build-up in the rear tyres wasn’t a major problem for the softer compounds over the qualifying simulations.
The asphalt in Bahrain is very abrasive, and with some reasonably long corners and track temperatures in the low 30s even at night, the tyres take quite a beating. The drivers were all doing very slow out laps on the super soft tyres to try and ensure they still had life in them in the final sector of their hot laps. It did seem that in hotter conditions last year, the Ferraris were better at managing the thermal degradation, and I wonder if this trend seems to have continued into 2018. We only have a very small dataset of information at the moment, so let’s wait and see. If that’s the case, then Ferrari and the tifosi should be praying for a European heatwave this summer!
Hamilton had a grid penalty for a gearbox change, which left him down in ninth on the grid. Even so, it was Valtteri Bottas, recovering from a poor Australian GP weekend, who was the closest challenger to the Ferraris.
I believe that this was one of Vettel’s best wins. There’s a reason the guy is a four-time World champion. Ferrari started off the race aiming for a two-stop strategy, but as the race unfolded, Bottas switched to the medium compound tyres, unlike Vettel on the softs, and it became clear that for Ferrari to win the race, Vettel would have to stretch an amazing 39 laps out on one set of softs. He judged it to perfection, balancing speed and battery usage from the hybrid power to win by less than one second.
In Shanghai , the weather was all over the place. Throughout Friday (April 13) and Saturday (April 14) it was freezing cold, and everyone was expecting the Mercedes drivers to fight back. At the start of the weekend, Hamilton looked devastating in the opening practice session, but as the weekend developed, Ferrari got stronger and stronger. By the time we got to Qualifying, Ferrari was utterly dominant and this surprised Lewis, Toto Wolff and even Ferrari! The margin of half a second is a huge one in F1 terms.
On Sunday (April 15) the sun came out and it was game on! We had the Ferrari and Mercedes drivers on the soft compound tyres and the Red Bulls on the ultra softs, so there were certainly going to be some interesting strategies. Vettel took the lead at the start, while Bottas swooped around Raikkonnen into Turn One with Max Verstappen following him through. From there on, the two leaders looked to be in a class of their own with Verstappen hanging on and then Kimi, Lewis and Daniel Ricciardo struggling to match the pace of their team-mates.
Mercedes pitted Bottas first and Ferrari were too slow to react which allowed the Finn to leapfrog Vettel into the lead. Bottas was driving beautifully and looked like he was firmly in control of the Grand Prix. However, the two Toro Rosso cars got into a tangle, and when the safety car was released, Red Bull were the fastest to react, bringing both their cars in for new tyres. This is where Mercedes and Lewis lost the race. Lewis was ahead of both Red Bulls, and if his team had been as quick to call him in, then he would have emerged in front and probably won the Grand Prix.
Verstappen was the man in the pound seat after the safety car, but he made a mess of things by first running off the track while trying an over-ambitious move on Hamilton, and then clumsily drove into the side of Vettel.
This gave Ricciardo the mantle of being the man on the move and he didn’t fail to deliver. The Aussie underlined his reputation as the best overtaker in F1 by passing Kimi, Lewis, Vettel and then boldly past Bottas to take the lead.
It’s been a fantastic opening three rounds of the 2018 F1 World Championship, and as we head to Baku, we have the top five drivers within 24 points, which is less than one race victory. A topsy-turvy, exciting and unpredictable season lies ahead which is exactly what the fans want!
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