The verdict on F1 so far in 2017? Pretty positive. There’s genuine competition between teams for race wins and the drivers’ championship, which there hasn’t been in some time. The new-for-2017 regulations have delivered monstrously fast and mean-looking cars that look spectacular on track, but struggle to overtake one another, as the Hungarian GP made rather evident. Add to that, the craziest race in recent times in Azerbaijan when Daniel Ricciardo battled back from 17th position to win an incident-packed race, and there’s a lot to like.
What’s more, the look and feel of an F1 weekend in the post-Ecclestone era has been a breath of fresh air. Ladies and gentlemen, social media! Among various new enhancements to the television coverage, we’ve seen actual footage from inside a drivers’ briefing! Something extra for the fans at a race weekend. It’s been quite the eye-opener. We’re technically slightly past the halfway mark in the season as Hungary was the 11th race of 20, but the hiatus begins now and F1 doesn’t race again until Spa at the end of August.
We’ve been waiting a long time for a proper championship battle between Sebastian Vettel and Lewis Hamilton, since 2007 in fact, when both made their Formula One debuts in the same season (Vettel became a full-timer on the grid a year later). And at the halfway stage of the season, you have to say it’s Vettel who’s top of the class. But not by much.
Both drivers have four wins, but the German has led the title chase since taking the opening round in Australia, and has been his ever consistent self since. He’s finished all 11 races, eight times on the podium, and has a worst finish of seventh at the British Grand Prix, when he suffered a puncture in sight of the flag. It’s hard to see how he could have done much more.
The intrigue in this battle is how both protagonists go about achieving the same goal in different ways. Vettel’s metronomic approach contrasts sharply with Hamilton’s peaks and troughs. When the Mercedes W08 isn’t in the set-up sweet spot, Hamilton has been outshone by new teammate Valtteri Bottas, who seems better equipped to cope with a car that’s not quite there. But when the Mercedes is dialled in, Hamilton has been brilliant in qualifying (he has six poles in 11 races), and occasionally utterly dominant in races, his Silverstone weekend was as emphatic as it gets.
You can’t help but wonder if the three points Hamilton relinquished in Hungary after pulling over to let Bottas finish third to honour an in-race agreement will come back to bite him later in the season, though. The in-house tension at the Silver Arrows since the apolitical Bottas replaced the cunning Nico Rosberg has dissipated almost completely, but what if that new-found harmony comes at the cost of a title?
Force India also deserve plaudits for their performances this term. Fourth in last year’s constructors’ championship, the Indian-owned British-run team has consolidated that in 2017, with Sergio Perez and Esteban Ocon both finishing in the points nine times in 11 races. The pink-liveried team has clearly established itself as the best squad outside F1’s ‘big three’; now, all it needs is for its drivers to stop tripping over one another in races.
Respect also due to Ricciardo. Whenever an opportunity presents itself, he’s always there, pressing on relentlessly like a honey badger attacking a hive of bees. His Azerbaijan win was almost unsurprising in that he made the best of what was on offer on a crazy day, and that ‘best’ was good enough for a fifth career win. Is there a better or ‘cleaner’ driver in wheel-to-wheel combat?
The F1 circus has touched down in Spa ahead of the Belgian GP this weekend with Hamilton desperate to claw back the three points that he surrendered by giving up third place to his teammate Vatteri Bottas. The Brit could have finished third, but handed the podium place back to Bottas, in doing so proving to be a man of his word. The Finnish racer let the faster Hamilton past so he could attempt to overtake Kimi Raikkonen – but he couldn’t do so, and gave Bottas his place back on the final lap. He may have cost himself three points but keeping the Mercedes teammates’ relationship healthy is vital.
Last year’s race will be remembered for Kevin Magnussen’s huge accident at the top of Eau Rouge which brought out the red flags and caused a lengthy delay, but, remarkably, he walked away with only a few bruises. Daniel Ricciardo won here back in 2014 from fifth place on the grid so he’s had that winning feeling a Spa before. I don’t think he’ll manage to repeat the feat but I do reckon he’s got a better chance of getting on the podium than his odds represent.
Red Bull team boss Christian Horner says outscoring Ferrari in the remainder of the season is a “realistic and aggressive target” and clearly Ricciardo is going to play a key role. The ‘Honeybadger’ sadly had his Hungarian Grand Prix ended on the opening lap when Red Bull teammate Max Verstappen drove into the side of the Australian’s RB13 racer. Ricciardo called the Dutchman a “F—ing sore loser” over the radio after the incident.