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Charles Leclerc on track at the 2018 Hungarian Grand Prix

State of the 2018 F1 season — the backmarkers

Formula One desperately needed a breather after its chaotic six-races-in-eight-weekends close to the first half of the season, and the August midseason break is providing an ideal opportunity to take stock of the first 12 rounds.

The 2018 season to date has been delightfully unpredictable for the most part, and though the competitive picture has become progressively clearer now we’re past the calendar’s halfway mark, the nine remaining races afford teams and drivers the time to turn the tables on their rivals.

But at the midseason break which teams and drivers are performing strongest and which have work still to do?

Williams — 10th, 4 points

Lance Stroll: 18th, 4 points
Sergey Sirotkin: 20th, 0 points

The time in 2016 Williams was fourth in the constructors standings. Last year it was fifth. The team’s slide down the competitive order has been as rapid as it has been uncontrollable.

Williams has lost staff in the process, in particular chief designed Ed Wood and aerodynamics head Dirk de Beer. Chief technical officer Paddy Lowe is now under pressure, and after the British Grand Prix he admitted this returning the team to health was the toughest challenge of his career.

It’s difficult to pick a nadir of the season to date, but the withdrawal of both cars from the grid in Silverstone to start them in the pit lane — necessary because the team was forced to change both rear wings, which were causing “catastrophic” aerodynamic problems that caused both drivers to spin off in qualifying — is surely a frontrunner and indicative of the team’s challenges.

It’s bad news for Lance Stroll, who was hoping to make career progress in his sophomore season, but worse for Sergey Sirotkin, whose debut in Formula One is taking place in arguably the worst conditions for a rookie.

The second half of the year will be about learning where the team’s overhauled 2018 design went wrong ahead of changed aerodynamic regulations in 2019, but with the loss of title sponsor Martini and the almost certain loss of Stroll’s lucrative backing via his billionaire father, who invested in Force India last week, it’s difficult to believe the short-term future will be anything but bleak for this historic team.

Sauber — 9th, 18 points

Charles Leclerc: 15th, 13 points
Marcus Ericsson: 17th, 5 points

In a season of surprises, Sauber’s resurgence has perhaps been the most unexpected.

The team replaced principal Monisha Kaltenborn with Frederic Vasseur in a tumultuous 2017, but the Frenchman’s decision to tear up a 2018 Honda engine contract in favour of forging closer ties with Ferrari has proved inspired.

Those Italian bonds led to a technical and commercial partnership with Alfa Romeo, which came with Ferrari junior Charles Leclerc and, later, Ferrari chief designer Simone Resta, who is now Sauber’s technical director.

But as much as the team’s competitive growth has been a good news story for Formula One, rookie Charles Leclerc’s form has been most impressive.

Some technical and mental tweaks after a rocky opening three rounds in which he was bettered by teammate Marcus Ericsson have delivered the Monegasque driver a commanding upper hand, including five points-scoring finishes in six weekends from April to July.

Leclerc, the reigning Formula Two champion, has done so well that he remains in the frame to replace Kimi Raikkonen at Ferrari in 2019, though the death of Sergio Marchionne may delay this plan.

Sauber stopped developing its car in July, switching its full focus to 2019. Moving up the grid will therefore be difficult this year, but next season will be a fascinating one for the independent team.

Toro Rosso — 8th, 28 points

Pierre Gasly: 13th, 26 points
Brendon Hartley: 19th, 2 points

Toro Rosso has been the least consistent team in the sport, seesawing dramatically between best-of-the-rest performances and painfully slow weekends.

Its fledgling partnership with Honda has been part of, but not all of, the cause. The team believes the Honda power unit is approximately on par with Renault, but there’s no getting around the fact it remains the least reliable, with Toro Rosso using 179 per cent more Honda parts than Red Bull Racing has used Renault bits.

Adding complication to the team’s development is technical director James Key’s pending defection to McLaren. Toro Rosso maintains the highly rated Englishman is on a long-term contract, but Woking is seeking to negotiate an early release.

Pierre Gasly has easily had the run of the team so far this season, scoring lucrative fourth, seventh and sixth-place finishes in Bahrain, Monaco and Hungary to deliver the lion’s share of Toro Rosso’s points total and put himself in the frame to replace Daniel Ricciardo at Red Bull Racing.

Teammate Brendon Hartley, on the other hand, has struggled in his transition from the World Endurance Championship to Formula One, with Pirelli’s tyres in particular causing him grief.

Red Bull has been looking to replace him since May, but the Kiwi is fortunate the Red Bull Junior Team has no ready candidates. This fact allied to a strong end of the season and Gasly’s possible promotion may yet earn him an unlikely second chance.

On the cusp of the backmarkers is seventh-placed McLaren. Though the Woking-based team is 24 points up the road from Toro Rosso and only seven points behind Force India in sixth, its early points-scoring form has slumped away since the opening fly-away rounds, leaving it likely to languish in a no-man’s land between the midfield and the back of the pack on the championship table.

Check back for a midseason stocktake of McLaren’s season, along with that of Force India, Haas and Renault, on Thursday.

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