Who’s under pressure in F1’s second half?
Formula One’s mandatory midseason breather is at an end, and the sport is about to launch into a three-month, nine-round conclusion starting in Belgium this weekend.
Spanning Europe, Asia, the Americas and the Middle East, the remaining circuits offer the sport a rounded conclusion not just to the title fight but also to the rest of the field’s burgeoning narratives.
CAN FERRARI SUSTAIN THE TITLE CHALLENGE?
This intriguing question has persisted since the Canadian Grand Prix in June, the first of a five-race streak of Ferrari non-competitiveness.
Ferrari’s marginal car advantage early in the year was truthfully partly down to Mercedes struggling to understand its ‘diva’ 2017 concept. Ten consecutive days of 24-hour work after the Monaco Grand Prix resolved many of those problems, however, and as Mercedes began taking steps forward Ferrari looked worryingly static.
Victory in Hungary went some way to quelling fears that the Scuderia had begun lagging, but mitigating was that the Hungaroring had always been earmarked as a circuit that would suit Ferrari’s car.
Worse is that Red Bull Racing is catching up to the protagonists — it could well have won in Budapest were it not for first-lap friendly fire. If Mercedes has jumped Ferrari, RBR taking points away from the red cars could decide both titles.
The majority of the remaining circuits are likely to favour Mercedes. With Sebastian Vettel leading the title by just 14 points, Ferrari’s first championship since Räikkönen’s in 2007 hangs in the balance.
SERGIO PEREZ’S DEFINING SEASON
Sergio Perez’s disastrous year at a collapsing McLaren in 2013 did much damage to his reputation, but his soft landing at Force India in 2014 marked the start of a painstaking rebuild his bruised career. Today he is regarded a contender for a top-tier drive.
With the effectively rookie Esteban Ocon as teammate, the 2017 season was meant to be Perez’s signature year as he got amongst the driver market, but Ocon, a Mercedes-backed Frenchman, has harangued him the get-go.
Just 11 points separate the pair in seventh and eighth in the standings, with a predictably strong start from the more experienced driver making the difference.
Flashpoints in Canada, where Perez refused to yield to the faster Ocon, and in Azerbaijan, where the pair collided after a safety car restart, served to highlight how hard the pair is racing, and with the team deciding against the use of team orders, expect both to continue their hammer-and-tongs approach to this intra-team rivalry. Their reputations, after all, depend on it.
THE DIFFICULT BATTLE FOR FIFTH
Fifth in the constructors standings brings with it not only prize money but also much-needed pride for a group of teams that know they should be doing better.
Williams currently occupies the place, but its 60-point gap to Force India in fourth is already a failure for a team that was third in the standings only two years ago. In part this is down to signing Lance Stroll (and his cash) this year, and though his Azerbaijan podium demonstrated potential, the balance of his results are illustrative of his inexperience.
Toro Rosso sits two points behind Williams, but Daniil Kvyat has contributed just four points to the team’s 39-point haul, with the sensational Carlos Sainz maximising — if not over-delivering on — the potential of the car.
Haas, ten points further back, has improved its halfway points tally by one in its sophomore season — an achievement given the year’s regulation changes — but the team knows the car can be quicker if it were predictable: Romain Grosjean’s seventh-place qualification and sixth-place finish in Austria was a frustratingly brief glimpse of the car’s potential.
Renault, 15 points behind Williams, is the final team in contention, but it too is counting the cost of lost points. Nico Hülkenberg, excelling in his first works drive, has scored all the team’s 26 points while teammate Jolyon Palmer has languished off his pace. Had the pair scored evenly, the team would be comfortably ahead of Williams.
CAN McLAREN KEEP ALONSO — AND DOES ALONSO HAVE A CHOICE?
The breakdown in McLaren-Honda’s relationship has been an enduring story, with the sting in the tail being the spectre of Fernando Alonso’s defection from the team if it doesn’t find another engine partner.
Conventional wisdom suggests Alonso, the best of his generation, would be welcome anywhere, but with the top seats already tied up only Renault remains a possibility for the Spaniard — but the French team has cautioned it isn’t ready to sign a big-name driver.
Meanwhile McLaren’s search for an alternative to Honda is proving fruitless, with only a reluctant Renault left at the negotiating table — and even then the question remains whether Formula One would allow Honda’s sole customer to leave the Japanese manufacturer locked out of the sport.
It seems increasingly likely that for all its bluster McLaren will remain with Honda in 2018, leaving the ball in Alonso’s court: does he make good on his threat to leave regardless of the (or without an) alternative, or does he suck it up for another season and hope for an escape route by 2019?