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State of the 2018 F1 season — the frontrunners

The 2018 Formula One midseason break is almost at a close, with racing set to resume this weekend at Spa-Francorchamps for the historic Belgian Grand Prix.

While the backmarkers will be competing for relevance and the midfielders will vie to be the best of the rest, at the pointy end of the field the fight for the drivers and constructors world championships are headed for an enthralling climax — at least for two of the three teams.

Red Bull Racing — 3rd, 223 points

Daniel Ricciardo: 5th, 118 points
Max Verstappen: 6th, 105 points
Another year, another Red Bull Racing championship challenge that has failed to materialise.

The four-time constructors title-winner has long considered itself a champion in exile, its design nous stifled by regulations that put too much emphasis on power units and not enough on aerodynamics.

Renault, the engine supplier with which the team won all its drivers-constructors championship doubles, has been made to carry the can for the team’s underperformance from 2014, and while the truth comprises some combination of team and supplier fault, in 2018 the pressure on the engine manufacturer has been arguably at its highest.

Red Bull Racing has an unquestionably strong chassis this season, with Daniel Ricciardo’s dominant win in Monaco a powerful argument on behalf of the team’s aero abilities, and though Renault can contend it has powered the team to three wins so far this season, its contribution to Daniel Ricciardo and Max Verstappen’s litany of technical retirements — this season and last — speak equally loudly.

The outcome of another non-challenge is clear: Red Bull Racing has severed ties with Renault in favour of Honda. But even this move is as much political as it is performance-based — indeed Daniel Ricciardo’s defection to the Renault works team has an air of no-confidence in the RBR-Honda partnership about it.

The team’s approach to the rest of what is effectively a dead-rubber season is the only matter left to be sorted. Much attention will be rightly focused on ensuring its impending nuptials with Honda progress as smoothly as possible and, further, on getting right the changes to the 2019 aerodynamics regulations.

But this will see the gap to the leading two teams widen only further, meaning the Singapore Grand Prix could be the only real bright spot for the team in the final part of the season.

Ferrari — 2nd, 335 points

Sebastian Vettel: 2nd, 189 points
Kimi Raikkonen: 3rd, 146 points
Ferrari has the sport’s quickest car and has executed races strongly this season, so Maranello is undoubtedly disappointed to find itself behind Mercedes at the midyear break, particularly given it led both championships just two races before the summer thanks to a drought-breaking British Grand Prix win in July.

For the first time in the history of the turbo-hybrid regulations a manufacturer other than Mercedes has the most powerful engine, and Ferrari has put its power unit to good use in the back of what has become a formidable chassis to win races across the calendar’s spectrum of circuits.

Most impressive is that not only has the Scuderia shaken off the spectre of the imminent dysfunctional collapse that history tempts us to expect, but the team appears to have grown stronger as the season has progressed, contrary to the 2017 trend.

But its capitulation this time last year will still hang heavy, and in particular focus will be on Vettel to seal the deal. The German had to shoulder the lion’s share of the blame for 2017’s title defeat [https://www.theroar.com.au/2017/10/10/titles-tatters-dont-blame-ferrari/], and again in 2018 he has dropped points at key moments, including in Azerbaijan, France and Germany, the culmination of which has delivered his unlikely points deficit.

Kimi Raikkonen, meanwhile, has stepped up this season with a car that better suits his driving style and what appears to be a newfound contentedness with the sport. His able support of his teammate’s title bid and his healthy contribution of points to the team means Vettel and Ferrari have never been better positioned to claim the title, and with nine races remaining and deficits of 24 points and 10 points in the drivers and constructors standings respectively, only championship victory will do for the sport’s oldest team.

Mercedes — 1st, 345 points

Lewis Hamilton: 1st, 213 points
Valtteri Bottas: 4th, 132 points
Even as recently as July it would’ve been bold to bet Mercedes and Lewis Hamilton would be leading their respective championships during the midseason break, but by combination of good fortune and unyielding determination they find themselves in exactly that familiar position.

The team is under no illusions that the lead it holds this season is anything like those of its other more dominant seasons, however. The closeness of the championship battle means the smallest of decisions are having significant consequences on any given weekend, meaning even Hamilton’s healthy 24-point lead could evaporate on a single Sunday.

Nonetheless, it’s obviously better to sit atop the standings than to chase, and Mercedes’s championship-winning factory, already working at maximum capacity to understand its weaknesses relative to Ferrari, will be in overdrive to ensure the team can keep its advantage, fortuitous or not. As fast as the Ferrari car is, Mercedes’s capacity to develop cannot be underestimated.

While control of both championships is happily unexpected, cause for consternation is the way Valtteri Bottas has found himself on the outer of the championship fight, particularly after being deployed, apparently unwittingly, in defence of Hamilton’s Hungarian Grand Prix lead to ensure the Briton’s victory.

Bottas publicly voiced his displeasure over being called a “sensational wingman” in Budapest by team principal Toto Wolff, who later clarified that he wasn’t pigeonholing the Finn into the second-driver role — however, with Valtteri 81 points down in the championship, the decision to officially move him into that role must surely be imminent.

Fortunately Bottas isn’t the sort of driver to cause trouble for being asked to play the team game — certainly not when the number of the situation are so clearly stacked against him — but how the Finn reconciles playing second fiddle with the fact he is driving well enough to be a contender in his own right were it not for bad luck befalling him while he was in a winning position will be interesting to observe.

Could an unmotivated Bottas create a weak link in the Mercedes chain? Anything could happen as the 2018 championship hurtles towards what is sure to be a tense conclusion.

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