While the Verizon IndyCar Series may be springing back into life this weekend with the ABC Supply 500 at Pocono Raceway, there is still one more week of summer to soak up before Formula 1 returns with the Belgian Grand Prix on August 27.
Sebastian Vettel moved into a 14-point lead at the top of the F1 drivers’ championship with victory in Hungary at the end of last month, leaving Mercedes rival Lewis Hamilton on the back foot once again after reeling him in at Silverstone two weeks prior.
With the early season blows being exchanged, Vettel and Hamilton are now gearing up for the home stretch to Abu Dhabi, starting at Spa next weekend.
In the third edition of our Formula 1 Roundtable series this season, MST writers Luke Smith, Tony DiZinno and Kyle Lavigne cast their eye on the year that has been so far and look ahead to what may come in the next three months.
1. What has been the biggest storyline for you in Formula 1 so far this season?
There are so, so many to choose from. The most surprising storylines have to be Fernando Alonso’s Indianapolis 500 run and Robert Kubica’s comeback from injury (more on that later), but the biggest? Ferrari’s return to the front of the pack, led by Sebastian Vettel.
It was an alliance born with great expectations, but after such a miserable 2016 season, it seemed possible that Vettel could leave Maranello in the same fashion Fernando Alonso did: frustrated, disappointed and without another title to his name.
Alas, Vettel has been in supreme form so far this season, with Ferrari’s SF70H car easily being the best it has produced in almost a decade. The pre-season testing showing was not a bluff, and while Mercedes may have since bridged the gap and perhaps even moved ahead in the development race, Vettel is in with a real shot of a fifth title this year.
There may be no favorites in F1, but having its most visible brand fighting at the very front of the field once again can never be a bad thing.
A welcome championship battle between two teams again, and two of this generation’s best drivers in Lewis Hamilton and Sebastian Vettel. Some circuits have favored Hamilton’s Mercedes and others Vettel’s Ferrari. Their rivalry was healthy and in good spirits at Spain; by Baku it had become tense once again.
Championship battles are the best in F1 when they feature either the greatest drivers or the greatest teams duking it out between themselves and after a period of Mercedes dominance, followed previously by a period of Red Bull dominance, it’s been nice to have a genuine back-and-forth cage match this season.
Most likely, the three best drivers on the grid are Lewis Hamilton, Sebastian Vettel and Fernando Alonso. Yet, despite being on the grid together since 2008, rarely have all three clashed together on the track, let alone of a full season. The only time all three entered the final race of the season with a shot on the world championship was in 2010, the first of Vettel’s four Formula 1 world championships.
While Alonso is unfortunately saddled with subpar equipment (his McLaren-Honda saga has been well-documented all year), Vettel and Hamilton each finally have the right tools to succeed in the same year…and we are being treated to a truly titanic duel. And not just between the drivers, but also between the teams, as the still relatively new Mercedes AMG Petronas F1 team goes head-to-head with the powerhouse Scuderia Ferrari.
The ebb and flow of the season has Vettel on top right now (202-188), while Mercedes leads the constructor’s world championship (357-318).
As Tony previously mentioned, having a genuine championship between two of the sport’s best drivers and two of the sport’s best teams, especially after years of dominance first by Red Bull Racing and then Mercedes, is a welcome change.
2. Silly season is ramping up in F1 – but which story has grabbed your attention the most?
Robert Kubica’s possible comeback has been the real story of silly season so far. For a driver largely seen as one of the sport’s lost talents, the Pole’s return from serious injury has been nothing short of staggering. No-one could have seen this happening.
But it is happening. After an initial run in a 2012 Lotus F1 car ‘for fun’ – like Kubica ever does things for fun – two further tests followed, the final one being against the rest of the F1 field. Kubica was on the pace and consistent as anything.
It all boils down to whether Kubica feels physically ready to get back into F1 full-time. The pace is there. Renault should jettison Jolyon Palmer at the end of the season, if not earlier, and if Kubica is ready to step up, it would be amazing to have him back in action where he belongs.
The Robert Kubica story is huge, no doubt, because of its surprise element and then the reality that oh, he’s still got it, and is in serious contention for a race return. I’m not sure what else to add here because Luke does a really good job of it above.
Elsewhere, the season-long McLaren, Honda and Fernando Alonso saga has been a talking point. One feels the combination can’t all continue together but yet where else do each of them have to go?
Where Fernando Alonso goes is probably the most intriguing silly season story, mostly because he could literally go anywhere. It’s possible he stays at McLaren if Honda shows dramatic improvement, or at least plans for dramatic improve. He could jump to another team within Formula 1 as well.
And, of course, he could completely leave the sport all together for something in the World Endurance Championship or the Verizon IndyCar Series. Or maybe he tries something completely out of the left field and gives the NHRA or power boat racing a go. (Okay, this last part is jest).
In all seriousness, any one of a number of scenarios surrounding Alonso seem equally possible, and it will likely be the biggest domino that impacts F1’s silly season.
3. Who has been your driver of the season so far?
There have been a number of excellent drivers through this year – Vettel, Hamilton, Carlos Sainz Jr., Esteban Ocon all rank highly for me – but I have to go with Valtteri Bottas. For a driver many were uncertain about as Nico Rosberg’s Mercedes replacement, the Finn has surpassed all expectations and become a real challenger at the front of the pack.
Bottas has raced like a true champion, soaking up pressure from Vettel in both Russia and Austria to hang on for victory. Not only were those defensive drives important for his own standing, but they could prove crucial come the end of the season in Vettel’s title fight with Hamilton.
Is Bottas in the race for the championship? Yes – but only just. In reality, this should boil down to Vettel and Hamilton in Abu Dhabi. But as number twos to have in your corner, there is no-one better right now than F1’s newest flying Finn.
This largely boils down to expectations – we knew Hamilton, Vettel and the Red Bull pair would be fine but we didn’t know how Valtteri Bottas would have slotted in to Mercedes at late notice, and replacing outgoing World Champion Nico Rosberg. He’s done rather well.
Bottas has been a far more consistent scorer than Hamilton, making fewer mistakes and then seizing the opportunities when he’s had them himself against Vettel. Neither his Russia nor Austrian Grand Prix wins were thrillers in the traditional sense of passing in-race beyond the start, but that he didn’t crack owed to his steely resolve. He’s lived up to the task at hand.
Further down the grid I’ve been fully impressed by Esteban Ocon at Force India. It’s easy to overlook this is his first full-time season although he isn’t classed as a rookie owing to his starts last year. Pushing Sergio Perez to the edge, occasionally overstepping it, has seen him take up the reins nicely vacated by Nico Hulkenberg and solidified Force India’s standing as best of the rest beyond the top four. It’s been impressive work so far by the young Frenchman.
I’m with my MotorsportsTalk colleagues on this. Valtteri Bottas has done a great job into the Mercedes team late in the game and getting himself up to speed. With a pair of wins and and eight podiums to his name this year, he has done more than enough to solidify his place as a big player on the F1 grid.
It’s highly unlikely he’ll emerge as a world championship contender this year, but future seasons could certainly see him as a legitimate title contender.
Honorable mentions: Esteban Ocon (for pushing Sergio Perez to the limit and helping to make Force India nip occasionally nip at the heels of Red Bull for third best amongst, Daniel Ricciardo (for getting as much of the Red Bull, and it’s under-powered Renault power unit, as he can, even sneaking out a win at Azerbaijan), and Alonso (his P6 at Hungary may be the drive of the year, and he has handled a very difficult situation with great dignity and humor).
4. Who will win the F1 drivers’ championship in 2017?
I’m torn – but I’m going to tip Sebastian Vettel to claim a fifth world title. I do believe that Mercedes has made serious gains on Ferrari in recent weeks to move ahead in the development race, but the Prancing Horse remains strong.
Spa and Monza will play towards Mercedes, but Ferrari should smash Singapore. The rest of the tracks on the calendar are fairly balanced, so it may come down to who out of Vettel and Hamilton can deal with the title pressure better.
The formbook favors Vettel. His second-half form in all four of his title wins was remarkable, particularly in 2012 when he overturned a 42-point deficit to Fernando Alonso to win the title, and in 2013 when he won the final nine races of the year.
This will go all the way to Abu Dhabi, but I’m thinking we will get – only just – a first Ferrari world title win since 2007.
The title will come down to the mental and psychological battle between Hamilton and Vettel as the year goes on – both have been tested so far, and it’s a question of who can respond when a big moment is needed.
Vettel, since joining Ferrari, has alternated between helping to lead the team’s rally back and then falling into a trap of petulant radio messages and outbursts. Quite how he handles adversity if he faces it the rest of the way – let’s say Mercedes gets on a mini-run at some point – will be fascinating to watch. His one bit of help is that he has a teammate in Kimi Raikkonen, who is undoubted second fiddle.
Hamilton has a more complex scenario to factor in the rest of the way. Bottas risks taking points off him at various races, but, Bottas has also proven more adept at denying Vettel points when the opportunity is there. Hamilton is also keen to get to a fourth World Championship, which would match Vettel. Beating him in a straight fight is something he hasn’t done in either of his previous three. His motivation to not lose a second straight title is incredibly high. For that, I’ll tip the Englishman to get the title this year.
Although Vettel maintains the upperhand at the moment, until someone firmly unseats Mercedes, who still lead the constructor’s championship, I have stick with Hamilton. Vettel’s propensity to occasionally come unglued (see Azerbaijan) is a definite chink in his armor. Although he somehow got away without losing points to Hamilton that day (he can thank Hamilton’s cockpit surround working its way loose for that), that propensity could ultimately cost points and/or a race suspension if it surfaces again, which swing momentum in a big way toward Hamilton’s favor.
I genuinely believe this year’s title will be a knockdown, drag-out duel to Abu Dhabi, but I see Hamitlon coming out on top.