Season Review Part III: The Fight for Five

2017 saw Sebastian Vettel and Lewis Hamilton battle it out for the world title, poor reliability from Ferrari and mistakes from Vettel meant Hamilton would join Vettel as a four-time champion. 2018 would be set up to these two giants recommence battle to claim a 5th world title and become the second most successful driver of all time.

Pre-Season testing showed a lot of promise with Ferrari, Mercedes and Red Bull all looking relatively close on pace. Australia would host the first round of the season and it would be the home race for Red Bull driver Daniel Ricciardo but he would feel the wrath of the stewards after he failed to slow for a red flag in practice and would incur a 3-place penalty.

Valtteri Bottas was keen to prove a point and show he had what it takes to take the fight to his teammate Hamilton but he would make a mistake into turn one in qualifying and crash out of Q3. Hamilton had no such issues and worryingly claimed pole position by over 0.6 tenths ahead of Kimi Raikkonen and Vettel. There was much discussion over the “party modes” that Mercedes had available to them in Qualifying but Hamilton would dismiss this and say that he enjoyed “wiping the smile” off of Vettel’s face.

Hamilton would lead away ahead of the two Ferrari’s while the Haas of Kevin Magnussen would get the jump on Verstappen with Riccardo behind Grosjean courtesy of his grid penalty. With overtaking difficult Bottas was struggling to make ground up and would see any chance of a podium finish slip away. Verstappen would make an unforced error and spin in the same place Bottas crashed in qualifying losing important track position.

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Copyright: Motorsport Images

Both Hamilton and Raikkonen would make their one and only stop while Vettel would stay out on track, he had trailed his teammate all race but was now running a different strategy to the Finn. After both Haas cars retired due to loose wheel nuts the Virtual Safety Car was deployed which presented the perfect opportunity for Vettel to pit, he came out just in front of Hamilton to take the lead of the race.

Vettel would eventually take the victory ahead of Hamilton and Raikkonen, Ricciardo battled to 4th while Verstappen finished 6th behind Fernando Alonso who also benefited from the VSC, Bottas would have to settle for 8th.

In Bahrain Hamilton would have to incur a grid penalty for an out of sequence gearbox change comprising his weekend, Verstappen would crash out of Q2 after he pushed too hard while Vettel claimed his first pole of the season. On the start Bottas would move up into second place behind Vettel and hound him through the first phase of the race. Disaster would struck Red Bull with both cars retiring for battery issues, a frustrating matter with both cars looking like they had the pace to challenge for the win.

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During Kimi Raikkonen’s second pit stop a mistake would see Raikkonen strike one of his mechanics after a failure with the pit stop light signalled the Finn to go despite work still being done on his car. This would cause Raikkonen to retire and the Mechanic to go to hospital with a broken leg, all of this would mean Ferrari couldn’t service Vettel while Mercedes swapped Bottas’ tyres. Vettel would have to run a long stint while Bottas made big gains on Vettel’s lead on fresh rubber, on the final lap Bottas would have a look at Vettel but did not commit to a move resulting in Vettel taking two wins from two ahead of Bottas and Hamilton.

China would see Red Bull claim their first win of the season with Daniel Ricciardo while teammate Verstappen would make his 3rd mistake in as many races. Vettel initially led from pole ahead of a fast starting Bottas but Bottas would take the lead after making his stop first and getting the undercut on the German. Ferrari would then leave Raikkonen out and back him up into Bottas to slow him down.

The safety car was deployed after debris was left on track after the two Toro Rosso’s would tangle, both Red Bulls would opt to pit along with Raikkonen. With fresh tyres it appeared Red Bull would have the advantage but Verstappen would run off track trying to overtake Hamilton and would drop behind Ricciardo, the Aussie would complete his move and would not long overtake Vettel for 2nd and then 1st after passing Bottas.

Verstappen would make a mess of overtaking Vettel and would spin the German around landing himself a penalty and running Vettel’s race while Ricciardo would take his 6th career victory.

Azerbaijan would prove to be another chaotic race, Both Red Bulls would collide after a race long scrap with many believing the collision was caused by Verstappen’s late defensive move. Bottas would take the lead after pitting under the safety car, on the restart Vettel would make a desperate move into turn one to retake the lead but would lock up losing several positions. With only a couple of laps remaining Bottas would suffer a puncture gifting Hamilton the race win and his first of the season.

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Spain would see Mercedes dominate to a 1-2 victory with Hamilton making it two wins in a row with Max Verstappen claiming his first podium in 3rd despite making another error on the restart damaging his front win against Lance Stroll’s Williams.

In 2016 Daniel Ricciardo would be denied victory in Monaco after a botched pit stop, he was keen to put this right in 2018 with many putting Red Bull as the favourites. Verstappen would continue his poor form and crash in final practice writing his car off for qualifying putting him last for the race meanwhile Ricciardo claimed his second ever pole position ahead of Vettel and Hamilton.

Ricciardo would make the perfect get away and lead Vettel and Hamilton until and MGU-K issue would cripple his efforts costing him almost a second a lap but Ricciardo made full use of the narrow circuit to prevent Vettel overtaking him and nursed his car home to victory and his second in three races.

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Come Canada Renault and Ferrari would bring new power units but issues with Mercedes’ “B-Spec” would prevent them from bringing their upgrade and with Canada being power dependant it would leave Ferrari with the advantage, Vettel would claim his third victory ahead of Bottas and a resurgent Verstappen.

France would see a return to Mercedes dominance, now with their new spec engine they took a commanding lead over the weekend. Vettel would spoil Mercedes party when he made an error in judgement pitching Bottas into a spin in turn one, lap one. This left Hamilton to dominate and take his 3rd win of the season while Verstappen and Raikkonen returned to the podium.

Vettel would incur a grid penalty in Austria after blocking Carlos Sainz in qualifying while Bottas would seal his first pole of the season. He wouldn’t be able to convert this into pole when his car broke down before the first stops, Mercedes would not opt to pit Hamilton under the VSC while his contenders chose to make their stops. This meant Verstappen would lead the race at Red Bulls home track after Hamilton stopped but he  struggled to close the gap on the front-runners. Hamilton would eventually suffer the same fate as his teammate and retire, Verstappen would seal the win putting his early season form behind him.

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Vettel would claim his 4th win after Ferrari made the right strategy call under the safety car to pit while Mercedes opted to stay out, it would be his first win at Silverstone since 2009.

Germany would be the ultimate tipping point in the championship, Hamilton suffered a mechanical failure in qualifying preventing him for fighting for pole while Vettel took the pole in his home country.

The race however would show the first signs of cracks in Ferrari’s operation, Raikkonen would find himself ahead of Vettel after the Finn found himself on a better strategy but Ferrari were very coy about issuing team orders causing Vettel to lose time to the two Mercedes who were chasing him down. Vettel would regain the lead but would lose concentration and crash out of the race, this would lead to many scrapping to pit under the safety car with Hamilton making a late call to stay out. On the restart Mercedes had a 1-2 and Mercedes management order team order to prevent the two from fighting; something Ferrari failed to do, this led to Hamilton winning the race and taking the lead in the championship on Vettel’s home track.

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Prior to the Hungarian Grand Prix it had been announced that Ferrari’s chairman Sergio Marchionne had passed away due to complications in a shoulder operation, a situation which left the Scuderia dejected. The weekend would continue to be poor with Ferrari underperforming in a track which should suit their car and Hamilton claimed victory heading into the summer break.

During the summer break Ricciardo would make the shock announcement that he would leave Red Bull after 5 years to switch to Renault in 2019, Red Bull would waste time in announcing Pierre Gasly as his replacement while speculation was rife that Charles Lerclerc would take Raikkonen’s place at Ferrari.

Vettel would win in F1’s first race after the summer break in Spa but with Hamilton second it would only be 8 points taken out of the Brits lead. 2018 would be Ferrari’s best chance to take victory in the Ferrari homeland in Monza but it was Kimi Raikkonen not Vettel who would claim pole much to Vettel’s anger as he did not benefit from Raikkonen’s tow like he felt he should. His weekend would go from bad to worse when Vettel would get pinched by Hamilton into turn 5 pitching him into a spin. This left it as a straight head-to-head between Raikkonen and Hamilton, Hamilton would pound the pressure on Kimi resulting him the Finn blistering his tyres and allowing Hamilton to make the overtake to win the race.

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This would spell a four race dominance with Hamilton taking a clean sweep of victories while Vettel & Ferrari would make strategic and wheel-to-wheel errors in Singapore and Japan. Red Bull would have to contend with grid penalties for power unit changes and mechanical failures, particularly for Ricciardo.

Russia would see Bottas lead from pole but team order from Mercedes would see the two swap positions cementing Bottas’ new found “number two” position in the team. The title fight had swung well into Hamilton’s favour and it would take a miracle for Vettel to regain momentum.

Austin, Texas would see Vettel suffer another blow to his chances when he incurred a grid drop for failing to slow under red flags like Ricciardo in Australia. This meant Hamilton started ahead of Raikkonen but it was the Ferrari driver who took the lead into turn one, Hamilton was unable to make an impression on Kimi and failed to overtake despite making an extra stop for fresh rubber, this allowed Raikkonen to take his first win since 2013.

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Mexico would be the scene where Hamilton would claim his 5th world title, he would finish 4th which would be enough to match Jaun-Manuel Fangio on the all-time list. Max Verstappen would take his second win of the season while Ricciardo who had started from pole would continue with his poor run of reliability with another DNF.

Just like last season Bottas would suffer a massive dip in form in the second half of the season and looked set for a winless campaign. Hamilton would win the final two races of the season and over half the races that year in what has been probably his strongest season of his career.

While we saw Hamilton crowned a world champion we also saw Max Verstappen grow in stature and primed to Hamilton’s new challenger if the Red Bull can compete in 2019. Hamilton was the victor in the fight for five and now he sets his sights on being F1’s number one as he hunts Michael Schumacher’s title record.

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