Latest Race – Chinese Grand Prix – 15th April 2018
We entered this Chinese Grand Prix weekend keen that the story of the 2018 F1 season would reveal itself. Was Mercedes on top, as in Australia? Or was Ferrari on top, as in Bahrain? Yet if any story was confirmed in Shanghai it was Tales of the Unexpected. Red Bull and Daniel Ricciardo came from nowhere to ambush the race.
For the most part this looked a world away, as it seemed the tale being confirmed was that of a red revival. Ferrari dominated again, duopolised the front row of the grid with Sebastian Vettel on pole a whole half second clear of Mercedes. Come the race Vettel looked well in control out front too, controlling things in that familiar way of his – seen commonly in his Red Bull championship-winning days.
Vettel’s race unravels
But against all expectation Vettel’s day unravelled. First Mercedes’s Valtteri Bottas in second place looked out of range for an undercut – overtaking by pitting first and getting a lap on fresher rubber – but that’s exactly what he did during the pitstop round. A fine out-lap by the Finn combined with a tardy in-lap from Vettel and (understandably given what happened in Bahrain) and similarly tardy stop from Ferrari conspired to put the Merc ahead.
It looked like that would be that, but then the race was turned on its head again. The Toro Rossos – so strong in Bahrain – were far back in this one then ran into each other, a consequence of a “miscommunication” about one letting the other by. Whatever the safety car was brought out to clear the resultant debris.
Nico Rosberg’s review – Chinese Grand Prix
And it was sharp-as-a-tack Red Bull that took advantage. Of the front-runners only the Bulls had the quick thinking to pit both cars – Mercedes and Ferrari meanwhile stuck rather than twisted. And it put Red Bull into the box seats, the pair right behind the Mercs and Ferraris with 20 laps left and on much fresher tyres.
Red Bull seizes the day
It appeared at first that Max Verstappen was in place to win, but in a theme of 2018 he erred. First, he ran off track at the esses going for a pass of Lewis Hamilton that wasn’t on, then he drove into the side of Vettel at the hairpin putting both into a spin. It got him a 10 second penalty as well. Fifth was his lot.
This all left the ubiquitous Ricciardo in the box seat. He nipped by Max when the Dutchman had his esses detour, then got on with it in his typical style with a series of thrilling and decisive passes to clear Hamilton (who had one of his chin-on-floor days), Vettel then – most thrillingly of all – Bottas to claim a lead he wasn’t to lose. Vettel sank to eighth following his Max assault, while Hamilton actually gained in the title fight by coming in fourth.
All reflected too that a day earlier it looked like Ricciardo wouldn’t be able to even take part in qualifying after an engine failure earlier in the day left Red Bull having to break all records to replace the unit and get him out in the nick of time. Such lightness on its feet served the squad well on race day also.
Stunning and swift team work; other-worldly aggression. If Vettel’s early domination was reminiscent of Red Bull in its pomp, it was actual Red Bull and everything we associate with it that in fact seized the day.
The internet’s best reactions – Chinese Grand Prix
Chinese Grand Prix Top 3 Results
1. Daniel Ricciardo – Red Bull
2. Valtteri Bottas – Mercedes
3. Kimi Raikkonen – Ferrari
2018 Formula 1 Season’s Expectations
There are no miracles in Formula One. And no one at the outset of the 2018 season expected any.
As is the norm in a year with no great regulation shift from the previous one, pre-season testing in Barcelona suggested the ‘feed-in’ from 2017 to ’18 was strong. There will be no grand reshuffle, in other words.
Yet there were points of intrigue, not least the prospect of a tighter battle between the ‘big three’ teams – Mercedes, Ferrari and Red Bull.
Ferrari of course gave Mercedes a stern test last season, though twelve months on the Scuderia’s pre-season testing didn’t appear quite as strong as then. More it was enigmatic. But it did show flickers of pace and promise towards the end.
Then there is Red Bull which for once looks to be starting a season in as strong a state as it ended the previous. Again its chassis could be the one to have though its Renault engine power (or lack thereof) remains a source of doubt.
But not too many left Barcelona without a sense that Mercedes remains pretty comfortable out front. Not only as it has dominated this hybrid engine era but, soberingly, has conspicuous ‘easy’ gains to make for this year’s machine from last year’s ‘diva’. Its technical director James Allison spoke of this Merc blowing away the ’17 version. No complacency it seems has set in.
Another thing that there are no miracles about is that the big three will be in a race of their own – sheer budget and resource says that. Still the midfield scrap behind also offers intrigue – it’s expected to be tight and tough to call.
We started testing assuming McLaren, having replaced its dread Honda engine with a Renault, would be a clear fourth best, but its Barcelona running was bitty – occasionally quick but maddeningly unreliable and perhaps flattering itself with its tyre compound selections. Renault instead looked like it may have the legs of McLaren. Yet testing’s biggest surprise was Haas which somehow had vaulted forward, with the fourth quickest car by consensus.
Best of the rest incumbent Force India underwhelmed in testing but is never to be underestimated. Williams and Sauber have vastly altered their cars from last year, adding conspicuous complexity, and appeared to struggle to get their heads round it all in testing. Toro Rosso surprised with the mileage it got from the Honda but despite this didn’t look all that quick.
Not like the Mercedes of course.
F1 Changes for 2018
Halo – Cockpit Protection
Twelve months on from a fundamental change in F1 chassis the alterations for 2018 are minor, and largely cosmetic. Not least the halo, a new cockpit protection device designed to defect large pieces of debris from the driver’s head, introduced amid controversy. ‘Shark fins’ and horizontal ‘t-wings’ from the rear of the car also are banned.
3 Power Units For The Entire Season
Teams for 2018 only have three power units to get them through the entire season, down from four, and some already murmur about needing to take a ‘strategic’ grid penalty later this year as they will need an extra unit. Power unit manufacturers also are now obliged to provide all teams they supply with an identical specification of power unit, though it remains to be seen how that will manifest in practice.
Two New Tyre Compounds
Tyre supplier Pirelli has brought in two new compounds – one at either end of the scale: the hyper-soft (with pink writing on the sidewall) and super-hard (with orange writing, the hard changing from orange to ‘ice blue’). Combined with this it has promised greater differences between compounds in their performance and durability, with the aim of greater in-race strategy variation as well as a norm of two stops per race after one-stoppers became the norm in 2017.
The French Grand Prix returns for the first time since 2008, while the German Grand Prix is back after a year away. The Malaysian race is no more. There’s also a change to race start times, with most European races pushed back by an hour to try to attract a larger TV audience. All races also are scheduled to start at ten minutes past the hour, rather than on the hour, for the sake of broadcasters’ pre-race coverage.
|3||Daniel Ricciardo||Red Bull Racing-TAG Heuer|
|33||Max Verstappen||Red Bull Racing-TAG Heuer|
|11||Sergio Pérez||Force India-Mercedes|
|31||Esteban Ocon||Force India-Mercedes|
|55||Carlos Sainz Jr||Renault|
|10||Pierre Gasly||Toro Rosso-Honda|
|28||Brendon Hartley||Toro Rosso-Honda|
Race 1 – Australian Grand Prix – 25th March 2018
Modern-day Formula One can give a good impression of being mundane. Since the era of hybrid engines began in 2014 Mercedes has not only taken every championship but 63 race wins from 79.
But even so F1 races never are predictable. Not entirely anyway. We got a demonstration in the season-opener around Melbourne’s Albert Park.
After qualifying, it looked a foregone conclusion and a familiar one. As pre-season testing had indicated Mercedes indeed was far ahead – Lewis Hamilton whizzing to pole with a best time almost nine-tenths of a second under the nearest challenger. Plenty foresaw not just a race but a season of continuing domination.
There was talk, denied by Merc, of a special Mercedes ‘party mode’ offering more power for the last part of qualifying. And amid the jibing on the subject after qualifying, Lewis said to rival Sebastian Vettel that his late boost instead based on the desire to “wipe the smile off your face”.
“I think what goes around comes around,” Seb retorted. “He’s free to have a party tonight and then hopefully Kimi [Raikkonen, his Ferrari team-mate] and myself will have a party tomorrow.”
Death Of A Party
It seems he’s as good a mystic as racing driver. In the race we had our latest reminder that what goes around indeed comes around. Exterior events at half distance turned matters on their head.
And the self-same Seb was the grateful recipient of victory. For Lewis and Mercedes the party was over. Or at least postponed.
The race even started in familiar guise – Lewis led and while he didn’t run away he did look comfortable ahead of the pursuing Ferrari pair, Kimi ahead. But things started to go wrong. Perhaps they had already the previous day, as the chasing Italian cars in a two against one situation were able to perform a strategic pincer movement. Lewis’s stable-mate Valtteri Bottas binned it in qualifying, meaning he started 15th and was not around to assist.
Kimi pitted early-ish and Lewis covered him off by pitting a lap later. Seb stayed out, self-admittedly waiting for “something to happen”. And it did.
The Haas pair, as also indicated by testing, looked strong but their races were ruined when both were released from their pitstops with a wheel not attached. Romain Grosjean, the second whom this fate befell, parked immediately but in an awkward place that meant a Virtual Safety Car was deployed – all had to circulate at much reduced speed.
And these deployments have the ability to alter races almost beyond recognition, as pitstops can be made with around half of the usual loss time compared with pitting at normal racing speed. Seb of course pitted, and emerged – incongruously – in the lead.
It was a shock even to the Mercedes squad, which reckoned it had enough time in hand even in this eventuality. Boss Toto Wolff spoke afterwards of computer glitches. “We thought we had about a three-second margin,” he admitted.
And though around half the race remained that was that. F1 cars don’t follow each other very easily and the Albert Park track isn’t one that offers many overtaking opportunities. After a bit of to and fro Lewis conceded the win to Seb with a few laps left.
There were similar stories further back. Daniel Ricciardo, recovering from a grid penalty, similarly harried Kimi for third after the safety car but found no way through. And the wily Fernando Alonso was another winner in the mid-race shuffle as it vaulted him to fifth place. He similarly held off Max Verstappen who had a patchy run which included a spin. McLaren still is well shy of the ‘big three’ teams but undeniably has been boosted by ditching the Honda engine.
Seb was suitably sober, accepting that even in victory the main take from the weekend – unlike here 12 months ago – is that Ferrari is behind Mercedes.
“Last year we had more pace at this point,” he conceded. “If you look at the gaps the whole weekend and we’re not yet a true match.
“We got a bit lucky obviously…but we’ll take it.”
Explanation of how Ferrari beat Mercedes – Australian Grand Prix
Australian Grand Prix Top 3 Results
1. Sebastian Vettel – Ferrari
2. Lewis Hamilton – Mercedes
3. Kimi Raikkonen – Ferrari
Race 2 – Bahrain Grand Prix – 8th April 2018
The result looks similar to that of the opening round, but the implications could not be more different. Sebastian Vettel won the Melbourne curtain-raiser yet it owed a lot to an exterior event swinging the race his way. The consensus remained that Mercedes, and Lewis Hamilton especially, was going to walk 2018.
Yet Seb and Ferrari won the Bahrain Grand Prix too, and this time it was down to being quickest – helped along the way by the seat of the pants race strategy. Expectations for the year were thus frantically recalculated. As we are often reminded, this game is never predictable.
And the ‘why’ is not clear. Yes Ferrari did work on its troublesome front end grip between the two races, but more of the explanation may lay with Merc. Relatively speaking the silver car goes less well on softer tyres and when temperatures pick up, and this one was held in the clammy desert. Combine that with the abrasive Bahrain track surface (see the above infographic) and the silver car was overheating its tyres in qualifying, to the determinant of lap times.
Perhaps, like last year, Mercedes has a diva on its hands. Whatever Ferrari locked out the grid’s front row – Vettel on pole – with Mercedes next up, and looked hard to stop. Adding to the insult Hamilton was relegated by five places in the starting order from fourth to ninth after changing his gearbox since Australia.
Mercedes plays the strategy game
Mercedes though is never to be written off and sought to make a virtue out of its vice. If it didn’t like the softer tyres, then go for a one-stop strategy – when most were expected to pit twice – and run on the harder rubber for an extended period. It oh so nearly delivered a win.
With Lewis starting far back it was left to Valtteri Bottas to lead the Mercedes challenge. He cleared Kimi Raikkonen immediately then set off after Seb. And after what all assumed was the first of two rounds of stops it was clear Merc was trying something different as Bottas bolted on durable medium compound tyres, seeking to go to the end without another halt.
Vettel was well within range to lose the lead if he pitted again so Ferrari went for the tactic of maintaining the lead by hanging on for dear life, taking a set of tyres that wasn’t supposed to last more than 30 laps the whole 40 laps to the finish.
Vettel hangs on
It worked, just. Seb had eked out a lead of seven seconds but with 20 laps to go Bottas closed in as Vettel’s tyres got second hand. And with a handful of laps left he started to tear chunks out of the gap as the Ferrari’s tyre situation got critical; for a time it looked like the race would be his.
He got within striking distance by the final tour and indeed had a half-lunge for the lead at the first turn; he might though have been better served though to instead line himself up for a more plausible attempt at turn four. As it was he lost momentum and there was nowhere else to pass on the lap. The win after all was Vettel’s – reward for an unflinching performance.
Hamilton salvaged third after a spirited drive but even in the opening eight laps of clearing traffic he’d ceded ground to the leaders that he couldn’t recover. Raikkonen dropped out after a harrowing incident in the pits when he was somehow given green to go even though one of his wheels had not yet been removed let alone replaced. A mechanic was left with a broken leg.
Analysis of Kimi Raikkonen’s botched pitstop – Bahrain Grand Prix
F1’s capacity to confound was seen further down too as the Honda powered Toro Rosso driven by Pierre Gasly had a tour de force to finish fourth – not even the squad itself could explain where it came from. Honda’s ex McLaren had a rather desperate time (which Honda’s rise to prominence didn’t help presumably), but it recovered to finish seventh and eighth on race day. Haas maintained its Melbourne form as Kevin Magnussen bagged fifth.
Red Bull’s time was the most desperate of all though, as both cars were out within two laps – Daniel Ricciardo due to electrical failure; Max Verstappen due to getting too greedy in battle with Hamilton and sustaining a puncture which put him out. The smart money was on the Bulls having the fastest race day car of all.
The next big question is whether Mercedes’s Melbourne potency or Ferrari’s in Bahrain will end up being our norm. Then again, we shouldn’t rule out the possibility of something else entirely being our way of things. Given how the season is going it sounds this most appropriate of the lot.
Mercedes analysis of its race strategy – Bahrain Grand Prix
Bahrain Grand Prix Top 3 Results
1. Sebastian Vettel – Ferrari
2. Valtteri Bottas – Mercedes
3. Lewis Hamilton – Mercedes