Welcome to F1’s crown jewel. Nothing exudes glamour like the Monaco Grand Prix. On Sunday, twenty cars will contest 78 laps round the narrow streets of the rich principality, on a circuit which is as unforgiving as it is beautiful. Monaco takes no prisoners.

To successfully traverse Monaco you will want good grip, high downforce and keen senses. Run wide at most other venues and you’ll either meet a run-off area or a gravel trap. Make a mistake here and you’ll meet a solid barrier that will end your race. Another problem is with overtaking – Monaco can be notoriously processional, with pit strategy key. It’s likely we’ll get a one-stop race, as teams won’t want to risk relying on their drivers having to pass on track. We can expect qualifying to be tense – grid position here is more vital than anywhere else.

Last year saw Lewis Hamilton pick up his second win here, at a race that he desperately wants to do well at, in order to emulate his boyhood hero Ayrton Senna. Daniel Ricciardo might have won, if not for a calamitous mistake from his pit crew, who cost him several precious seconds by failing to be ready for him. This time, it seems unlikely Red Bull will be in a position to seriously challenge Mercedes or Ferrari, though Monaco is a track that places huge importance on aerodynamics, more so than any other race, so it might be that Ricciardo and Verstappen are closer here. They certainly need to be, given that Ricciardo was 75 seconds behind Vettel’s Ferrari in Spain.

The most likely scenario will once again involve a tussle between Ferrari and Mercedes. Monaco will expose whichever team has the slightly weaker overall design, but it will also come down to a test of mettle between Hamilton and Vettel. Who will be prepared to brake just that fraction earlier, hit the power quicker, get just that tiny bit closer to the barrier? That is what will determine qualifying, and with it, the race.

The first race in Europe is done, and at the venue where F1 carries out pre-season testing, it was Mercedes who came out on top, albeit yet again not without a demonstration of how razor-thin the margin is between themselves and Ferrari.

A pulsating race started with a bang – Lewis Hamilton had put his Mercedes on pole but Sebastian Vettel had narrowly missed out, only 0.051 behind, having locked up slightly at the final chicane to cost him top spot. Further back, Fernando Alonso confirmed his reputation as a miracle-maker by putting his McLaren into 7th – an astonishing piece of magic from the maestro. Vallteri Bottas had beaten Kimi Raikkonen into 3rd on the grid, with the two Red Bulls just behind, albeit some way off the pace, despite a completely revised chassis.

As the race got underway Hamilton and Vettel both enjoyed good starts and Vettel actually got ahead into the first corner. Hamilton followed him round but behind them, Bottas, squeezing around the inside of Raikkonen, bumped the Ferrari and bumped him straight into Max Verstappen’s Red Bull. Raikkonen retired there and then with damaged suspension, whilst Verstappen limped back to the pits, where he too retired. In the chaos, the Williams of Felipe Massa forced Alonso wide at the exit of turn 2, and sustained a puncture in the process, ending any hope either man had of any points, though Alonso would go on to finish a race for the first time this season.

After just one lap Vettel had opened a 2.5 second lead over Hamilton, once again showing how strong Ferrari are this year. This gap would remain more or less the same for several laps, with both cars on the soft tyre. Hamilton would pit first, on lap 14, switching to the medium compound tyre, whilst Vettel wouldn’t pit for several laps, going into the soft again. Vettel came out behind Bottas, who played the role of rear-gunner for Hamilton for a couple of laps, but could nothing as Vettel sold him a dummy on the main straight, ducking around the Finn. It was a move with echoes of Mansell’s famous one against Piquet at Silverstone in 1987 – and it seemed that the advantage was back with Vettel.

The race would turn on its head though, when Stoffel Vandoorne was pushed onto the gravel at turn 1, leading to a virtual safety car spell. Hamilton pitted under this, losing less time than his rivals, whilst Vettel stopped just after it had finished, switching to the  medium tyre. The Ferrari came out of the pits just as Hamilton was shooting down the start/finish line, and the two were wheel-to-wheel as they approached the first corner, where (yet again) we would see a clash of wheels, as Vettel pushed Hamilton off-track. In the eyes of some Hamilton clipped a speed bump and should have driven to the left of a bollard – yet the replays showed that, at worst, only one of Hamilton’s rear tyres caught the bump, whilst it has to be remembered that he had been pushed off-track.

Hamilton would trail Vettel for a few laps, with the two encountering traffic and with Vettel benefiting from DRS as a result, but once the traffic was cleared, Hamilton seized his chance, closing in under DRS on the start-finish straight and breezing by the Ferrari. He would open up a small gap, though it’s to Vettel and Ferrari’s credit that on the slower tyre, they didn’t lose too much ground. However, the Mercedes would hold on to stay ahead, allowing Hamilton to claim his 55th career win, and 2nd win of 2017. For Hamilton’s teammate Bottas, it was a different story, as mechanical failure ruled out any points.

With one each from Mercedes, Ferrari and Red Bull all out, there were opportunities to be had for other teams. Fourth and fifth were snatched by the Force India duo of Perez and Ocon, whilst Nico Hulkenberg continued to impress with 6th for Renault, dramatically eclipsing teammate Palmer. Spanish driver Carlos Sainz was classified 7th for Toro Rosso (bumped up a place after a time penalty for Pascal Wehrlein, whose sterling performance is worth singling out in a moment). Daniil Kvyat was 9th for the other Toro Rosso, and Romain Grosjean completed the points positions with 10th for Haas. Coming back to Wehrlein, his four points for Sauber may prove invaluable for the small team, who are now ahead of McLaren in the constructor’s championship, and Wehrlein (whose team put him onto a gutsy 1-stop strategy) held off a lot of pressure from Sainz, over a prolonged spell. His composure and performance serve as a reminder of his potential, during a season where several contracts at big teams are up.

Back toward the front of the field, hopes that Red Bull would close the gap on the top two evaporated. Ricciardo was the only driver to avoid being lapped, but he was 75 seconds behind Hamilton come the end. This is a crushing margin, in spite of upgrades to the Red Bull, which clearly needs improvements to the Renault engine to be a serious contender. The next race, at Monaco, will highlight aerodynamic strengths, but even with Red Bull’s quality in this area, will it be enough to offer even a sliver of a chance for anything other than best of the rest?

So, after five races (we are 25% of the way through the season), Vettel leads on 104 points, Hamilton is second on 98 points, with Bottas third on 63 points, and Raikkonen is fourth, with 49 points. In the constructor’s championship, Mercedes lead on 161 points, with Ferrari on 153, and then a big gap to Red Bull, who are on 72 points. Force India are looking good in fourth, with 53 points, comfortably clear of Toro Rosso (who are on 21 points).

Next up is Formula 1’s crown jewel, Monaco! 

 

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With Spain, we are, incredibly, already at a quarter-distance. F1 2017 is well underway and patterns are emerging. Ferrari can match Mercedes and no one else can come close to the top two. That might change with Spain.

Why is that? Red Bull are planning to bring a new chassis to Spain, that might get them closer to the front. At the moment they’ve been unable to exert any pressure on Mercedes and Ferrari, but they’ll be hoping their new design will at the very least allow them to get closer. Regardless, this should still be a straight fight between Ferrari and Mercedes. That being the case, are there any potential sparks to be had here? Well, the Circuit de Barcelona-Catalunya is a venue extremely familiar to every Formula 1 team and driver – this is where pre-season testing happens, so in theory there should be no issues with car setups or driver hang-ups.

Last season’s race certainly produced sparks – Lewis Hamilton and Nico Rosberg had a collision on the first lap that ended their races and paved the way for Max Verstappen to claim his first F1 win, on his debut for Red Bull, though that was at least in part due to a strategic error that cost Daniel Ricciardo a win. It seems unlikely that we’ll have a repeat of this sort of event this time around, but what are the points of interest around this track?

It is regarded as a tough venue to overtake. The long dive into turn 1 is immediately followed by a series of corners that are fairly quick, which with the current F1 cars will make it tricky for anyone to get close enough into turn 5 (which isn’t a particularly easy opportunity anyway). Turn 10 might prove a possibility, being a meaty left-hander. Beyond that, it is likely to prove a good examination of how familiar the teams and drivers have become with the 2017 designs.

 

Before I get writing in earnest, it’s important to note that I didn’t get to enjoy much of this race! I was at work (fair enough), but with the race starting at 1pm, there was always the chance that the store would be quiet by then. Instead, 1pm appeared to be the signal for wave after wave of customers to come into the store – typical!

The consequence is that I don’t have a great deal to offer. I know Fernando Alonso retired on the warm-up lap, marking his fourth retirement of the season – in as many races. To say he is probably nearing the end of his tether with his current situation is a bit of an understatement! I also know that Palmer’s Renault collided with Grosjean’s Haas on lap 1 – I have no idea who was at fault as I haven’t seen the incident. Finally, I did spot, in the corner of my eye, Ricciardo’s Red Bull pulling into the pits to retire early on – I am not all too sure why, though he was mentioning very hot brakes at one stage.

So four early retirements, an early safety car too (the result of the Palmer/Grosjean accident), and a lightening start from the Mercedes of Bottas, who slipped by both Ferraris at the very start to assume the lead. Without having seen much of the race I can’t say much else at this point. So let’s rewind for a mo.

The Ferraris of Vettel and Raikkonen had locked out the front row of the grid, the first time a Ferrari was on pole since 2015 and the first lock out since 2008 – Vettel took pole, and looked comfortable, though for the first time this year Raikkonen looked pacey. Bottas was pretty close, but Hamilton was well off the pace, unable to find the right balance with his car. It was a situation that would continue into the race itself, with Hamilton adrift in fourth, devoid of a chance. Up front, Bottas would eke out a small lead over Vettel, who in turn steadily pulled away from Raikkonen.

What I did manage to see of the race underscored a theme that’s emerged over the course of the first few races – strategy has been crucial to determining the winner. As the pit stops took place, and the cars donned the super-soft tyres (the ultra-soft being the initial preference), the Ferraris (well, Vettel’s Ferrari) came alive. Vettel began to catch Bottas, and a mistake from the Mercedes man (he locked up badly at one stage, hurting both front tyres) allowed Vettel to reduce the gap quite considerably. By the end of the race Vettel was loitering around a second or so behind Bottas, but the question over strategy is – had Vettel pitted a lap or two sooner, might he have had more time to hunt Bottas down? Raw power is no longer the factor behind who wins – Ferrari can match Mercedes for pace, so it’s the little details – staying out an extra lap, traffic, tyre choice – that are going to have the main impact on the championship. Vettel couldn’t quite catch Bottas (who had a little bit of help from a cheeky Massa as the pair came to lap his Williams on the final lap), leaving the Finn to claim his first win in 81 races.

The outcome is that Bottas is now only ten points behind teammate Hamilton, and 23 points behind championship leader Vettel. Mercedes are a point ahead of Ferrari in the constructor’s championship. Now that Bottas has demonstrated he can win races, it will come more naturally to him, and will raise difficult questions for Mercedes, should he start to look like he can compete for the title. Vettel is more or less unchallenged (at least so far) by Raikkonen at Ferrari, but the two Mercedes drivers could end up costing each other valuable points. We shall see.

Elsewhere, there were positive performances to be had from a few quarters. Nico Hulkenberg took points for Renault with 8th place, following 10th in qualifying. The Force Indias of Perez and Ocon were 6th and 7th respectively – a good performance from them, that keeps them firmly in fourth place in the constructor’s championship. Verstappen was anonymous for Red Bull in fifth; the car just wasn’t up to the task, though Red Bull are promising a major chassis update for Spain.

Speaking of Spain, this is where we shall resume battle. I look forward to it!

 

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From Russia with love. Or alternatively, from Russia with twenty fast F1 cars, tearing around a circuit built into the former winter Olympics venue at Sochi. This will be the fourth time the Russian Grand Prix has been held here, following from a pretty average race in 2014, and with only moderately more exciting races in 2015 and 2016. Last year’s race marked the moving of the event from near the end of the season to near the start, as logistically it proved easier to manage.

2016’s race was significant in that it more or less ended Danill Kvyat’s immediate hopes of being a front-runner. He twice crashed into Sebastian Vettel on the opening lap, which led to Red Bull demoting him from the senior team and back to Toro Rosso, and promoting Max Verstappen. The rest is, as they say, history.

In the context of 2017, Formula 1 returns to Russia with Ferrari man Sebastian Vettel leading the championship by seven points from Mercedes’ Lewis Hamilton. After three races, Vettel has won two of them, and the exciting thing about the season so far is that either Vettel or Hamilton could have won any of those races. The Ferraris are quick once again, so both strategy and pure racing skill are playing their part in what could be an absorbing championship battle. Russia is likely to continue that battle, though raw engine power may not be quite so much of a factor here.

The key area is the run from the start/finish line to turn 2. This is the first tight corner and it starts a sequence of repeated acceleration and braking that doesn’t really allow for the cars to sprint. With several sharp corners, this track will favour aerodynamic developments more than the previous rounds, so Red Bull could be closer to the front here. The smart money will still be on either a Ferrari or Mercedes victory, but interference from Verstappen and Daniel Ricciardo will add another layer of intrigue into proceedings.

I look forward to it!

Back to F1 2017

I can’t speak too much about this race, as I haven’t seen most of it, so I’ll speak about what I have seen, and speak a little about what I’ve read too. This was a triumph for Sebastian Vettel and Ferrari, despite the early promise for a comfortable Mercedes win.

That promise was founded on the qualifying performance of Bottas and Hamilton, that saw the former claim his first ever F1 pole and Mercedes enjoy a half-second edge over Ferrari, light years in Formula 1 terms. Quite where that extra pace had come from was a mystery, given how close the practice times had been, yet Mercedes were a lot quicker when it counted. They would not make that advantage pay.

At the very start, Bottas got away well and led but Vettel got by Hamilton and was keeping within a second or so of the Finn, undercutting Bottas at the first set of stops. There was a safety car when Stroll and Sainz (Williams and Toro Rosso respectively) came together, but I haven’t seen the incident and can’t judge as to who caused it. Having not seen the race I can’t speak too much of the permutations that followed, but Hamilton got a five-second penalty for slowing down when entering the pits and holding up the Red Bull of Ricciardo whilst the safety car was out, and twice Bottas would be asked to let his faster teammate past.

Hamilton would chase down Vettel during the final twelve or so laps, but was too far behind to catch the German, and one has to wonder if Vettel was taking it easy. A second win in three races for Vettel means the title race is firmly on, but if not for that penalty, might it have been closer? We’ll never know.

Meanwhile, there was more pain for McLaren. Vandoorne didn’t even make the start of the race, whilst Alonso retired with two laps to go, casting a frustrated figure as other cars outpaced him easily. Three retirements in a row (two of them from points-scoring positions no less) for arguably the most talented man on the grid will continue to raise questions about his future. There was better news for Renault, with Hulkenberg following up his good qualifying performance with 8th place and four points, whilst Force India got both cars into the points, with Perez climbing from 17th to 7th. Ricciardo was 5th for Red Bull, with teammate Verstappen crashing out early on due to brake failure.

So, after the opening three rounds the scores look like this: P1: Vettel – 68 points. P2: Hamilton – 61 points. P3: Bottas – 38 points. P4: Raikkonen – 34 points. Ferrari are on 102 points in the constructor’s championship, with Mercedes on 99. There remains hope that Red Bull can close the gap but they need to do so sooner rather than later. Next up, Russia.

 

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It feels like it’s been barely a week since the last race – and that’s because it has only been a week! The 2017 F1 season is well underway, and round three takes us to a dusty, hot venue that in recent years has literally served up sparks – and produced a cracking duel in 2014 between Mercedes rivals Lewis Hamilton and Nico Rosberg. Will we get any measure of a repeat this time? Given the pace Ferrari have, and the competitive streak in both Hamilton and Sebastian Vettel, anything is possible…

The heat and the nature of the braking zones in Bahrain is likely to prove tough on brakes and might even hurt the new, tougher tyres. The cars scream toward the tight turn 1 and have another sharp corner at turn 4 (on my F1 2009 game I would often loop wide here). Turn 8 is a hairpin and turn 9 is another big braking zone. Besides this, turns 1, 4, 11 (which then leads into a sweeping uphill complex) and 14 may well present overtaking opportunities, even given the increased difficulty this year (and both Vettel and Verstappen showed it can be done in China).

With so many long straights, Bahrain is likely to be dominated by Mercedes and Ferrari – the question is, who will come out on top this time?

Round two of the 2017 F1 season is done and dusted, with a reasonably comfortable victory for Lewis Hamilton and, after a few hijinks, a reasonably comfortable second place for Sebastian Vettel too. The race (that saw all but one driver start on intermediate tyres, due to water on the track) provided a better examination of the new cars than Australia did, as well as providing some interesting tests on the difficulties of overtaking. A couple of guys reaffirmed why they are held in high regard, and for a few others, it was a race to forget.

Williams’ Lance Stroll was a very early casualty – his rear-left tyre was tagged by Sergio Perez’s front-right, sending the youngster onto the gravel and out of the race on the very first lap. That brought out the virtual safety car, which became the safety car itself on lap two, when the Sauber of Antonio Giovinazzi met the front of the pit wall, having crashed in qualifying a day earlier. Between the VSC and SC, the race was more or less handed to Hamilton; Vettel had pitted early (something a few drivers were doing) to don dry weather tyres, but the safety car handed a more or less free stop to Hamilton, who controlled the race from there.

Further back. Max Verstappen had enjoyed a strong start and the Red Bull man went from 16th to seventh on the first lap, enjoying the slippery conditions. He was helped by Carlos Sainz going more or less backwards in his Toro Rosso – Sainz had been the only guy out on slick tyres, and not only did he start badly, he span at the first sequence of corners.

Daniel Ricciardo had put his Red Bull ahead of Kimi Raikkonen’s Ferrari, and after the early flurry of pit stops it was Hamilton out front with Ricciardo behind him and Verstappen bearing down on his teammate. Valtteri Bottas managed to end any hopes he had of a podium finish when he span as the safety car spell came to an end, and had to work his way back up the order.

A brief battle ensued between Ricciardo and Verstappen, whilst behind them the two Ferraris battled each other, with Vettel struggling to get by Raikkonen. Before too long, Verstappen had swept by Ricciardo and was setting off after Hamilton, but the Red Bulls’ pace was very much due to the supersoft tyre, whilst both Mercedes and Ferrari were looking comfortable on the softs. Hamilton began to edge away, never really troubled. Behind him, Vettel darted by Raikkonen at turn 6, catching his teammate by surprise, and on lap 22 showed Raikkonen how to pass a Red Bull, going to wheel to wheel with Ricciardo through the first six corners, with the two even banging wheels on the exit from turn 6. After this, Vettel bore down upon Verstappen, who would lose second place after locking up hard into turn 14.

A second round of pit stops didn’t do too much to unhinge the established order, though Raikkonen did fall behind a much-recovered Sainz, who had taken advantage of circumstances to put himself back up to 6th. Raikkonen did manage to get by the Toro Rosso but his chances of catching the Red Bulls had been hurt, whilst Bottas staged his own recovery and would eventually get up to 6th himself, but 7th for Sainz was still a great effort.

Spare a thought for Fernando Alonso. He had dragged his McLaren into the points, battling for 7th at one point – but on lap 33 a problem – either a fuel pressure issue or trouble with the drive shaft – put him out. Teammate Stoffel Vandoorne had suffered a similar fate earlier on – another bleak day for McLaren.

Elsewhere, Kevin Magnussen took 8th for Haas and both Perez and Esteban Ocon (who had also fought his way up the field) took the final points places for Force India.

So Hamilton and Vettel are now tied at the top, albeit with only two races run. If not for strategy calls being affected by the safety car, it’s entirely possible Vettel would have been a lot closer to Hamilton. Meanwhile, Mercedes are now a point ahead of Ferrari in the constructor’s championship. Next up is Bahrain, in a weeks’ time!

Two weeks on from Sebastian Vettel’s victory in Australia, the emerging duel between Ferrari and Mercedes (and excitingly, Vettel and Lewis Hamilton) has journeyed to China, where long, powerful straights will emphasize the difference between the teams with engine power, and those without. It will also highlight any weaknesses in a team’s chassis – sector two in particular features slow and mid speed corners that will be a test of the downforce the new cars can generate. You might think that the long, sloping curves of turns 1, 2, 3 and 4, not to mention the loops of turns 7 and 8 (plus the surprisingly fast 9 and 10) would play into the hands of teams like Red Bull, but after farcial scenes in practice (FP1 was cut short and FP2 cancelled completely because of bad weather preventing the medical helicopter from running), qualification brought about a 1.3 second difference between Raikkonen’s fourth-placed Ferrari and Ricciardo’s fifth-placed Red Bull.

It’s clear that Ferrari are a lot closer to Mercedes this season. Hamilton snatched pole for Sunday’s race by 0.186 seconds, with Vettel slotting into second, just 0.001 seconds quicker than the second Mercedes of Bottas. Raikkonen wasn’t too far behind either – 0.275 seconds behind Bottas. Less than half a second is between the top four, which could make for a fascinating race tomorrow.

It could be that the race is won and lost at the first corner. It remains to be seen if overtaking will be easier here, with the tight turn 14 lying at the end of a monster straight being an obvious chance, but only if the chasing car can close in. There could be opportunities to be had at turn 1, and the sequence that follows, but it may well be that, as in Australia, pit strategy is decisive. One man who will be keen to demonstrate overtaking skills is Max Verstappen, who starts 19th following car trouble. Ocon (in the Force India) is lining up in another car that is somewhat displaced, the result of Giovinazzi’s heavy crash in Q1 unhinging a few flying laps.

All in all, we are set for an interesting and intriguing contest tomorrow.

The dawn of a new era in Formula 1 began this morning with the promise of faster cars and more durable tyres – this proved to be more or less true, as did pre-season predictions about team pace – Ferrari are back, and they mean business. In qualifying the story was a familiar one from Lewis Hamilton – the Mercedes driver put his car on pole, albeit not by an especially huge distance from Sebastian Vettel’s Ferrari. Hamilton out-qualified new teammate Bottas by a fair margin, whilst the second Ferrari of Raikkonen lined up in fourth. Home favourite Daniel Ricciardo had an accident in Q3 that would force him to start 10th, and 10th became a pitlane start following problems with the car – with things only getting worse from there. Ricciardo didn’t get going until two laps had already passed, and faced a huge battle to even make the points.

At the start (which was actually at the second attempt) Hamilton led Vettel away and Bottas remained ahead of Raikkonen. Verstappen briefly threatened the Finn’s Ferrari but after that settled in behind. Despite the promise of difficulties in following another car, Vettel was able to keep to around 1.5 seconds behind Hamilton, and was showing the pace that Ferrari had threatened to show. Before too long, the ultra-soft tyres of Hamilton began to show signs of wearing out, and Hamilton had to make a decision – pit, and risk the over-cut, or stay out and risk the under-cut. In the end, Hamilton pitted first, and crucially, came out behind the Red Bull of Verstappen.

Max was in no mood to move over, and here is where a potentially critical weakness of the Mercedes was exposed – aside from the difficulties in overtaking that the new designs represent, the Mercedes struggles when following other cars (a weakness we’ve seen before). Hamilton was frustrated, and this would have been a bigger problem when he saw Vettel emerge from the pits, just ahead. The lead was lost, and with it, the race. Verstappen would soon pit, but Hamilton lacked the pace to catch the Ferrari. Behind him, Bottas started to close in, posing the possibility of a battle for second that Hamilton didn’t need. A combination of traffic and (possibly) Hamilton simply nursing the car kept Bottas at bay, but the real winner was Vettel, who secured an ultimately comfortable win that laid down an important marker. Ferrari looked quick, and Mercedes will have a fight on their hands. Intriguingly, Vettel finished 23 seconds ahead of fellow Ferrari man Raikkonen – is that gap between the two really that big?

Elsewhere, Verstappen settled for 5th, with veteran Massa 6th for Williams. Perez was 7th for the pink-liveried Force India, and there was a double points finish for Toro Rosso, with Sainz leading Kvyat home in 8th and 9th. The second Force India of Ocon claimed the final point, though for a while it seemed as though the McLaren of Alonso might take it – until almost inevitably, the car stopped working. His teammate Vandoorne was the last classified runner, finishing 13th.

Both Haas retired, as did Ricciardo, and Palmer, and Ericsson, and Stroll, for Redbull, Renault, Sauber and Williams. The new era of F1 has proven tough on the cars, at least to start with.

So, Ferrari have drawn first blood. In just over a week F1 rolls into China. Will the different nature of the track play into Mercedes’ hands, or will Ferrari continue their early form?