When Lewis Hamilton crossed the finish line to win the British Grand Prix, it marked not only his fifth home victory, but also the mid-point of the 2017 Formula 1 season.
Before the racing began in March, we set out five things to watch out for this year, and the themes we identified in that post have indeed become the key storylines of the season so far. While there’s plenty of racing still to come in the rest of the season, the halfway point provides a good opportunity to take stock.
So, what does the evidence from the first ten races of 2017 tell us about the five questions we posed back in March?
1. WILL MERCEDES MAKE IT FOUR IN A ROW?
Mercedes came into 2017 having dominated the sport for three consecutive seasons, but the very first race in Australia confirmed that they wouldn’t have it so easy this year. Sebastian Vettel and Ferrari used a later pit stop to leapfrog Hamilton and claim victory – the first time since 2013 that Mercedes have failed to win the season-opener.
No longer do Mercedes arrive at almost every Grand Prix as the clear favourites to win it, as they had done for the last three years. A low point came at Monaco, where Hamilton qualified back in 14th and the team could only manage fourth and seventh in the race.
Nevertheless, Mercedes have managed to chalk up six victories from the first ten races and take a 55-point lead in the Constructors’ Championship. Hamilton’s win at Silverstone put him just a point behind Vettel in the fight for the Drivers’ Championship. Mercedes could well still win both championships this year – for the fourth year in a row – but it is proving a much tougher battle than they’re used to.
2. HOW WILL BOTTAS FARE Alongside LEWIS HAMILTON?
Replacing reigning World Champion Nico Rosberg at Mercedes, Valtteri Bottas had big shoes to fill. But he’s slipped into those shoes very well, securing two pole positions, two victories and seven podiums in his first ten races at the team. He now sits third in the Drivers’ Championship, just 22 points behind Hamilton and 23 behind Vettel, meaning that he has a genuine chance of challenging for the title.
Bottas is measuring up well against his triple World Champion teammate in qualifying. He’s beaten Hamilton four times so far, and on average he’s been just 0.07 seconds a lap slower. (For comparison, Rosberg was an average of 0.04 seconds a lap slower than Hamilton in qualifying over their four years together.)
He’s also acquitted himself well in the races, with just one ‘stupid mistake’ (as he described it) so far: a spin behind the safety car in China that probably cost him a podium. His two wins came in Russia and Austria, where he withstood immense pressure from Vettel on both occasions. But equally impressive was his drive from ninth to second at Silverstone, where he’d been forced to take a five-place grid penalty for an unscheduled gearbox change.
To the relief of his bosses, who had sometimes struggled to manage the rivalry between Hamilton and Rosberg, Bottas seems to have avoided ruffling his teammate’s feathers so far. For now, Hamilton is happy to see him taking points off Vettel, but their relationship may become more strained if Bottas is still fighting for the World Championship towards the end of the year.
3. CAN THE GIANtS OF THE PAST GET BACK ON TOP?
We said in March that Ferrari seemed well-placed to return to the front this year, and so it has proved. Vettel has delivered three victories and leads the Drivers’ Championship, albeit by a single point over Hamilton. And those victories have not come by chance: the Ferraris have generally looked about as fast as the Mercedes in the races, and have on occasion even been faster. Vettel and Raikkonen qualified first and second in both Russia and Monaco – the team’s first front row lock-outs since 2008.
The question for the rest of the season is whether Ferrari can keep up with Mercedes, who appeared to make a significant step forward at the British Grand Prix, and secure their first Drivers’ Championship since 2007 or their first Constructors’ title since 2008. But simply the fact that they are in the hunt is a sign of the progress Ferrari has made – and a welcome development for the sport as a whole.
Meanwhile, F1’s two other most successful teams – McLaren and Williams – have been rather less impressive this year.
McLaren continue to struggle with a slow and unreliable Honda power unit, despite the best efforts of Fernando Alonso. The Spaniard has only been able to finish two Grands Prix so far this year, but he did at least manage to secure a couple of points in one of them. Alonso has become so frustrated that he skipped the Monaco Grand Prix entirely to compete in the Indy 500 instead (only to suffer yet another Honda engine failure!), and has hinted that he might leave McLaren at the end of the year. McLaren is also growing impatient with Honda, and is considering switching to an alternative supplier for next year.
Williams’ season hasn’t been nearly as bad, but they look very unlikely to improve on their fifth place in the Constructors’ Championship last year. They have just 41 points, compared to the 95 amassed by Force India. The only real bright spot for the team came in Azerbaijan, where rookie Lance Stroll finished third – the first podium for a team other than Mercedes, Ferrari or Red Bull in 12 months.
4. WHICH YOUNGSTERS WILL MAKE THE BIGGEST SPLASH?
Despite suffering five retirements already this year, 19-year-old Max Vertsappen is continuing to impress at Red Bull. But the Dutchman’s now in his third year of F1, so can hardly be considered a newcomer. Of the more recent additions to the grid, Mercedes protégé Esteban Ocon has been the stand-out performer so far.
After nine races with Manor last season, the 20-year-old made the step up to Force India for 2017, and has consistently matched his experienced and highly-regarded teammate, Sergio Pérez, so far. Ocon is now eighth in the Drivers’ Championship, just nine points behind Pérez. If he can begin to beat his teammate consistently in the second half of the year, he’ll mark himself out as a real star of the future.
5. WILL LIBERTY MEDIA SPICE UP THE SHOW?
F1’s new owners, Liberty Media, haven’t had much time to shake things up yet. Ross Brawn – Liberty’s director of motorsport – is still assembling his team, and his focus is mainly on how the sport’s regulations will look in 2020 and beyond.
The change of ownership may not yet have had any effect on the actual racing, but it has had a big, positive impact on the entertainment side of F1. Liberty’s aim has been to open the sport up to its fans, as well as to attract new ones.
The clearest example of this so far is the free ‘F1 Live’ event that was held in Trafalgar Square before the British Grand Prix. 100,000 people had the chance to see 19 of the 20 current drivers in the flesh (Hamilton was the only no-show), as well as to witness F1 cars new and old power along Whitehall.
Liberty is also making much greater use of videos on YouTube and other social media platforms. This includes not just highlights of the on-track action, but also previously unseen footage such as press conferences and driver briefings. They’ve also allowed and encouraged the teams and drivers to be more open, resulting in this lovely story from the Spanish Grand Prix.
Thanks to the unfolding of these various storylines – as well as some fantastic racing – 2017 is shaping up to be one of the most exciting F1 seasons for a long time. Here’s hoping the second half lives up to the first.