Inside Line: Let the games resume!

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I for one enjoyed the summer break, but at the same am relishing the prospect of ‘returning to work’ as it seems ages since the last race in Hungary.

The second half of the season premises so much – nine decisive races – in a championship that at last is not all about Mercedes as Ferrari have raised their game impressively during the past winter and are serious contenders for the 2017 Formula 1 drivers’ title beyond the midway mark.

My ‘comeback’ after a sun-packed holiday in the Algarve is to dust off my (normally inaccurate} crystal ball and predict what might be in store for the great readers of this site and F1 fans in general. Here we go:

Championship Battle

The drivers’ title is a has evolved into a two horse race between championship leader Sebastian Vettel and Lewis Hamilton, with Valtteri Bottas waiting in the wings ready to pick-up the pieces.

Vettel has been mega, no doubt aided by the fact he is the undisputed number one in his team. Kimi Raikkonen has struggled to match him and when he has (eg. Monaco) things went ‘wrong’ for the Iceman.

Seb leads Kimi in wins 4-0, and tops the championship standings while the Finn is down in fifth and 86 points adrift of his teammate. The tactics will be obvious as the Reds put their might behind their German superstar, with help from the other side of their garage when and where possible.

The goal will be more one-two finishes by the pair as was the case in Monaco and Hungary. Kimi’s task will be to steal as many points from Mercedes as possible, particularly from Lewis Hamilton.

This role of rear-gunner is likely now that Kimi has been granted an extension to his contract for another year. For many this is a year too much for the Reds’ last world champion. He simply is not the man that thrilled fans with his raw speed and race-craft a decade or more ago. But the deal is done for at least another season.

Whatever the case this will suit Seb who can focus on winning the title this year without a challenge from within and perhaps, even again, next year if Maranello continue to keep the upward trajectory beyond this season.

I predict that one of two scripts will emerge: the first that Seb will be a contender right to the very end and his chance of winning will be 50/50 as the title race intensifies or the second scenario whereby things implode with the Reds losing ground as the season gets to the critical point.

I hope the former prevails as no matter where one’s allegiances lie, a strong Ferrari is always a thrill for die-hard fans and important for Formula 1’s popularity.

Meanwhile Mercedes are chillingly composed and, despite the Hungarian hiccup, look to have put behind them a far from perfect first half of the season, but they have showed in the latter part of the first half that they have their mojo back. They appear unbeatable at fast venues, of which several are on the cards in the forthcoming nine races.

Word from the Silver Arrows camp is that the team may shift their focus on Lewis for the remaining races, with Valtteri the rear-gunner despite the fact that the quiet Finn only trails his illustrious teammate by 19 points. He may well be the surprise package.

Hungary was very interesting from a Mercedes team orders perspective as Valtteri was instructed to allow Lewis through to attack the Ferrari duo with the proviso that he would relinquish the position should the attack prove fruitless… it was and Lewis abided by the orders to reverse positions.

It was a mighty show of respect and sportsmanship amid a championship that may be decided by a point or two. Those three points he gave up may be decisive when it matters, but it also shows the integrity and discipline within the team. What transpired afterwards behind closed doors only a few know. Whatever the case it was an impressive show of taking one for the team by both drivers.

Will the harmony continue within the Silver Arrows camp? Only time will tell. The only certainty is that Mercedes are going to do all in their power to destabilise Ferrari by doing their talking on track and most importantly enhance their arsenal in the development race between races.

Ferrari had the upper-hand at the start of the season, but an immense effort by Mercedes has kept them in the hunt with a car – that by their own admission – is a ‘prima donna’ when it comes to setup. But they seem to have tamed it and the daunting Spa-Francorchamps (followed by equally legendary Monza) will reveal exactly the pecking order and I for one would not be surprised if the three pointed star does not have the edge over the prancing horse.

The refreshing thing is that at least we are talking about two different teams as contenders, as opposed to the monotony of which Mercedes will win of the past three years. Throw into that the thawing of the feel good relations between Seb and Lewis, in the aftermath of the ‘road rage’ incident in Baku and we have a sumptuous contest in prospect.

No Man’s Land

Perhaps the most disappointing aspect of this season has been the no show by Red Bull. With two of the sport’s most exciting drivers in their cars – Daniel Ricciardo and Max Verstappen – they have simply not provided the talented duo the tools to match the pace setters.

Max graciously reckons they are missing around three tenths, but I would venture that the gap is bigger. In qualifying it’s almost a second and in race trim probably half a second. In modern Formula 1 this is an age and even the genius of Adrian Newey (not helped by a wonky wind-tunnel) is unlikely to see the gap reduced significantly.

At the same time Renault’s strange slow-but-steady development programme is hardly helping their cause as at the front the ‘space-race’ is frantic, rapid and non-stop.

Daniel continues to grow in stature, often there when least expected. His victory in Baku was one of dogged determination, impressive driving and opportunism, making the most of what good fortune may came his way, while others faltered.

Max and Daniel in the mix would add massively to the show this year, but it seems unlikely that Red Bull will close the gap to Ferrari and Mercedes. Their role appears destined to be one of picking up the pieces when the others fumble, albeit way ahead of the teams behind them.

The Plight of the Have Nots

‘Have nots’ in terms of budgets hardly applies to McLaren and Renault. The Woking outfit spending close to half a billion dollars this season, while Renault pump in over a quarter billion dollars to their F1 programme. What they don’t have is engines capable of making them contenders for anything other than the minor points – so on this pretext we throw them in with the have nots.

The gulf separating the top three teams and the rest is alarming. It is a clear case of two categories in F1. The gap between the mid-field and the pace setters is anything between 1.5 seconds and 2,5 seconds in qualy trim and around one to 1.5 seconds in race trim.

Unless something drastic happens to the leading six drivers there is very little chance of a top three finish being scored by any of the rest. Ironically the only driver to ‘steal’ a podium was much criticised Lance Stroll whose shares shot up after finishing third (nearly second) in the anomaly which was the Azerbaijan Grand Prix. Beyond that only Ferrari, Mercedes and Red Bull drivers been on the podium.

In my book this is something of a Formula 1 crisis which needs addressing and by all accounts also bugs the powers that be. How they ‘fix’ this will be interesting and only time will tell.

Meanwhile this situation is the reality of the sport right now and things unlikely to change unless a Baku style race happens, which of course is possible…

Should this be the case then I would expect a Force India driver or two to step on to the podium as Sergio Perez and Esteban Ocon have invariably been the best of the rest. In fact it could be argued that of the pair had not collided in Baku they could both have been on the podium and in Canada only Sergio’s stubbornness prevented Esteban from bagging a top three finish.

Whatever the case the boys in pink are having a almighty internal ding-dong which I predict will get even more spicy as Esteban continues his impressive path to establishing himself as a big team contender continues, while Sergio does everything to maintain the upper-hand and impress Ferrari enough for the Reds to consider hiring the Mexican at some point in the future.

On the other side of the coin one would have expected Nico Hulkenberg and Renault to be up there slugging it out with Red Bull. They do share the same power unit, but clearly the RS17 is not a chassis comparable to the RB13.

Although Nico has been impressive in some qualifying sessions, I for one expected more from the Hulk in his first season with Renault. But without the tools few driver can do much more, and if you compare him with Jolyon Palmer then the German is  doing very well. Or alternatively the Briton is out of his depth.

I fear the latter for Jolyon, while forced to highlight that the guy must be one of the unluckiest drivers on the grid. With Robert Kubica in the wings and Fernando Alonso shopping for a drive, Jolyon needs to turn his season around dramatically to remain with the team, and F1 for that matter.

His team have been remarkably patient and supportive, perhaps expecting a turnaround like he did it in the latter half of last year, so let’s see what he can do this time around. But right now the clock is ticking for the Briton.

Williams have disappointed massively. Their drop in the pecking order has been substantial despite the arrival of Paddy Lowe to re-energise the sport’s third most successful team.

Lance Stroll gives credence to the old motorsport saying: throw enough money at it and you will win. On the positive side he seems to be a well balanced lad who desperately wants to prove he is where he is on merit, but at the same time is prudent enough to acknowledge that Papa’s money helped his cause substantially.

Like it or not Lance is in it for the long haul and it will be interesting to see how he develops in a situation where he lacks for nothing as he racks up the mileage and gains experience.

However the truth is that he is not the solution to Williams’ problems. And it’s sad to say that neither is his teammate Felipe Massa the answer to the team’s woes.

Needless to say the veteran Brazilian has performed better than his rookie teammate, but that is to be expected. However (I admit I have difficulty pin-pointing the problem) he appears to be wallowing in the fact that he is still in F1 (and lobbying aggressively for another year) rather than totally committed to turning the team around. 

Haas continue to soldier on but the reality of Formula 1 has descended on team chief Gene Haas, and one wonders if phase two of their short tenure at the pinnacle of the sport needs a boost of sorts – what that may be is debatable.

Nevertheless credit to them for making their presence felt in the mid-field despite Romain Grosjean’s regular rants and new boy Kevin Magnussen in the process of familiarising himself.

Problematic brakes continue to be a major issue for their drivers. The fact that this problem is a year in the making, afflicting both last year and this year’s cars, is confusing to me.

Nevertheless it is also worth remembering that this is only their second season, and credit to them for making it feel that they have been around for a long while!

Sauber have inherited the ‘backmarkers’ tag with their year old Ferrari power units. Their cause not helped by the ‘civil war‘ that has resulted in big management changes and a huge shift in focus. Ferrari B-team is being talked about for the future – so expect more sweeping changes.

McLaren…

Last but by no means Least

What a season of discontent for the Woking outfit! So much has been written about their plight, with engine partner Honda and the ‘adventures’ of their headline grabbing driver Fernando Alonso, that the issue of their immense slump is bordering on boring.

With 182 Formula 1 victories, second only to Ferrari, McLaren is not a team that should be languishing in the midfield or back of the grid – where they are relegated to so often thanks to their woeful engines. In my book they have a huge legacy in the sport and are as important as Ferrari for the sport.

Light at the end of the tunnel appears not to exist. However I will venture to say that the only glimmer of hope is: if any organisation can turn the hopeless situation around it is Honda.

The reasons being that they need to save face amid the debacle of their return to the sport and they (more than any other manufacturer on the grid) have the resources to turn things around. Do they have the know how? Not right now. But they can buy it for sure.

The crisis is likely to continue beyond the summer break, as will the agony of substandard performance and meagre results. It will be interesting to see how Fernando continues to endure his plight and deal with his future.

The latter half of this season will determine much for McLaren, Honda and Fernando… Is this his last season in F1?

Conclusion

We are in for an intriguing and, I say with confidence, a thrilling second half to the 2017 season. Anything can happen in the ‘war’ for the title which will probably go down to the wire in Abu Dhabi.

But that is by no means all we can expect, as the rest of the field is packed with further intrigue, duels, civil war, uncertainty – all the ingredients that make Formula 1 the best sport in the world.

Strap yourself in for nine awesome races and the non-stop shenanigans that makes it all so addictive. We at GrandPrix247 will – as always – bring you everything you need to know to add value to the rest of your season. Enjoy!

Your Opinion: What does your crystal ball tell you about the remainder of the 2017 F1 season?