Just under one week ago F1 returned to the Circuit de Barcelona-Catalunya for the Spanish Grand Prix. This race always gives fans their first real chance to assess the progress teams up and down the grid have made since the end of pre-season testing. While it wasn’t the most exciting race (although Romain Grosjean tried his best to take out half of the grid on the opening lap), it certainly made the race for the championship a little more interesting.
The First F1 Race
Despite the fact that Ferrari ruled pre-season testing, many fans once again headed into the 2018 Australian Grand Prix expecting Mercedes to leave the rest of the grid in their wake. Despite Valtteri Bottas’ crash in Q3 it’s fair to say that these fans looked to be correct when Lewis Hamilton took pole position by seven tenths of a second and bolted away on the opening lap, building a solid lead to Kimi Raikkonen in second.
What followed set the tone for the next few races, a virtual safety car brought out due to the stoppage or Romain Grosjean’s high running Haas car gave Sebastian Vettel the chance to take a ‘cheap’ pit stop, and come out ahead of Hamilton. From that moment on the win never looked in doubt for Ferrari.
Poor Start for Hamilton?
Clever strategy allowed Ferrari to take the win in Bahrain, though they looked like they had the faster package for the majority of the weekend, while Hamilton seemed to have one of his infamous “off weekends”. Qualifying in fourth and finishing third, the Briton never really looking like he could challenge for the lead of the race.
Hamilton’s poor form carried over into the Chinese Grand Prix, again qualifying fourth. Despite the chaos that unfolded during the race itself, ultimately allowing Daniel Ricciardo to take his first victory of the season (from sixth on the grid), Hamilton was never in contention and finished 16 seconds behind the eventual race winner.
Azerbaijan may have been the turning point with Hamilton qualifying on the front row for the first time since the opening race of the season. Though the race itself wasn’t one of his finest (it may have bee none of F1’s greatest however), he somehow managed to come out with a race victory – his first of the season and his first since the American Grand Prix (a total of six races without a victory).
When the dust had settled after qualifying in Barcelona, Hamilton had only just managed to steal pole position from his teammate Valtteri Bottas. Their pace during the race was not to be as close as qualifying would have us believe however, with Hamilton taking the chequered flag 20 seconds ahead of his teammate – the largest margin of victory we have seen in F1 this season.
Could it be that Hamilton has rediscovered the form that has made him not only a four time world champion, but one of the greatest drivers of all time?
An Interesting Start for Sebastian Vettel
Sebastian Vettel will be rueing missed opportunities from the opening five races of this season. The argument could easily be made that Vettel has been the top performer of the season so far, however this form has only translated into two race wins – the opening two races of the season.
While his victory in Melbourne was built on the foundation of lucky strategy followed by a masterclass drive to finish the race, his victory in Bahrain was a classic Sebastian Vettel drive – leading the race from start to finish, and despite the late challenge from Bottas he never really looked to be in danger.
It was at this point that fans and pundits alike began to question if we would be seeing Sebastian Vettel winning his fifth world championship at the end of the season, rather than Lewis Hamilton. Vettel was seemingly doing nothing to harm his chances after qualifying for the Chinese Grand Prix, putting his Ferrari on pole position. Jumped by Bottas in the pits, Vettel was pushing to try and catch the Finn when he was spun by an over eager Max Verstappen – a turning point in the season for Vettel. Eventually finishing in eighth place, and only collecting four points.
Vettel returned to the track next time out in Azerbaijan with a vengeance, snatching pole position from Lewis Hamilton and tearing away at the start, building a comfortable lead and never looking back. Unfortunately for Ferrari, the hail mary strategy Mercedes used for Bottas came off with the safety car coming out after the collision between the two Red Bull drivers. Bottas pit from the lead of the race under the safety car, his first stop of the day, and coming out ahead of an enraged Vettel.
A poorly timed lunge from Vettel after the restart resulted in a large flat spot on his front tyre, which would ultimately cost him as he lost speed around the track, passed by Sergio Perez and finishing in fourth place – another race win had slipped through his fingers.
While he never looked like challenging Lewis Hamilton in Spain, Vettel did manage to pass Bottas off the line to get himself up into second, though it was clear early on that the Ferrari would have to stop twice with the former champion being the first front runner to pit.
A poorly timed first stop resulted in Vettel being stuck behind the Haas of Kevin Magnussen and almost leapfrogged by Bottas in the pits. Thinking that Bottas would also have to stop a second time, Ferrari tried to use a mid-race VSC to their advantage, pitting Vettel in the hope that the stop would give them a comfortable gap to Bottas when he had to pit again.
Unfortunately for the Scuderia this stop did not go as planned, Vettel overshot his marker slightly and was then held in his box to avoid an unsafe release penalty. Vettel ended up coming out in fourth place, behind Verstappen, and despite the front wing damage the Red Bull was suffering from, the German was unable to catch. To add insult to injury Bottas managed to make it to the end of the race on his old medium tyres, completing a one stop strategy.
Will it be Lewis Hamilton, Sebastian Vettel… or Valtteri Bottas?
The 2018 F1 season so far has been a rollercoaster, with Hamilton and Vettel both making mistakes and dropping points. Heading into Monaco it is the Mercedes driver that currently leads the Drivers World Championship by 17 points – a worrying margin for Ferrari this early in the season.
A dark horse to keep an eye out for is Valtteri Bottas. Since his slow start in Australia, it could be argued that he was in with a chance of winning the following three races, and should be leading the championship. Fighting for a contract at Mercedes next season, will the Finn keep the pressure on the two four time world champions?
There is still plenty of racing left to be had in the 2018 Formula 1 season, and if the first five races of the season are anything to go by – this could be one of the most exciting seasons we’ve seen since Sebastian Vettel’s first title win, way back in 2010. Roll on Monaco.