It looks to be yet another Mercedes dominated season, but the battle for the ‘best of the rest’ seems to be the hottest of the hybrid era so far. Alex Layzell looks into which team seems set to edge the other in this fiercely competitive 2017 season.
We could all be forgiven for thinking after the first race of the season, Ferrari finally had built the car to mount a serious challenge for the World Championship. Despite a Scuderia ‘bottle-job’ on the strategy and retirement for Raikkonen; a solid second row lockout and superior starts off the line to the Silver Arrows certainly helped the Maranello team make their presence on the grid felt. Sure, the Iceman’s retirement would have caused a little uncertainty, but for a team which boasts such a strong record of consistency in recent years, not many people would have seen this as a long-term concern.
Kvyat failed to start the season opener, but the ever-smiling homeboy Danny Ric impressed by finishing 4th in a car that boss Christian Horner even admitted ‘could be outpaced by Toro Rosso’. By Bahrain, the Milton Keynes team racked up another 18 points as Dan echoed his result in Australia, with Kyvat trailing in 7th. Raikkonen finished second to single-handedly match the tally of both Red Bull drivers, but was also the sole Ferrari to finish after Sebastian Vettel’s spectacular engine blowout on the formation lap, giving the German his first ‘DNS’ of his career. Could this be the start of the Scuderia’s title hopes diminishing in smoke?
Red Bull surprised in China with a podium for Kyvat, and yet another 4th place for the ever-smiling Aussie of Riccardo. First lap contact between the Ferrari’s left Kimi to settle for 5th, however Seb recovered well to 2nd position. A good recovery drive but arguably still no clean race for the boys in red. Then came Sochi; a controversial race for both the Scuderia and Red Bull. After crashing into Vettel on lap 1, retiring him, Kyvat fell down the order. The Iceman grabbed the final podium place behind both Mercedes. A non-score for Red Bull and 18 points for Ferrari allowed a lead to finally open in the Championship. The phrase ‘what could have been’ once again rung out amongst the Ferrari garage, as Vettel looked to have the pace to recover from a penalty-ridden qualifying.
After qualifying had concluded in Spain, there were many perplexed faces in the Ferrari garage as to how both Red Bull cars had locked out the second row ahead of them. The newly promoted 18-year old, Max Verstappen, proved his worth to take the Red Bull to 4th position. A first lap incident caused the Mercedes duo to collide and retire by turn 4, swiftly turning the attention to Red Bull and Ferrari. Despite running behind the boys in blue, this race was Ferrari’s to lose; and ultimately, they lost it. Arrivabene ensured No.1 driver Vettel reacted to Riccardo’s 3-stop strategy. Meanwhile, the flying Dutchman and the Iceman fought it out at the front on the superior 2-stop, and incredibly, Verstappen held off the 2007 Champion to take his first victory, becoming F1’s youngest ever race winner. Holding off the arguably stronger Ferrari certainly begged the question, have Red Bull finally caught up?
Both teams suffered one DNF each in Monaco: both Max and Kimi suffering terminal damage through unforced errors. While Seb drove a fairly mediocre race to finish in 4thwhere he qualified, his old teammate Ricciardo shone in the wet conditions. Having qualified pole, he maintained the lead; only losing out due to a pit-stop blunder: there were no tyres ready for the Aussie driver! What should have been the full 25 points for Dan simply was not to be. Montreal exacerbated the power difference between the Renault and Ferrari engines. Vettel kept Lewis in his sights and finished in a very respectable 2nd position, just under five seconds adrift of the 3-time world champion. Max and Dan finished 4th and 7th respectively, with Kimi slotting in-between in P6.
Nico Rosberg was gifted an easy victory at the inaugural GP in Baku; winning by over 16 seconds to Ferrari’s Sebastian Vettel. Sergio Perez achieved his second podium of the year, beating Kimi to 3rd position. Still, a 2-4 is a result to be happy with when your closest rivals finished a distant seventh and eighth; the smiler ahead of the teenager. For the second time this season, Max held off Raikkonen to finish 2nd in Austria. Ricciardo’s 5th place and Vettel’s third DNF of the season aided Red Bull’s campaign to catch Ferrari in the bid to be the ‘best of the rest’.
Silverstone, Budapest, and Hockenheim rounded out the first half of the season, and all 3 races fell in favour of the Milton-Keynes team. They capitalised on a very poor showing for the prancing horse at Silverstone with a 2-4 finish. A 3-5 finish in Hungary and a double podium in Germany meant that by the summer break, Red Bull were now second in the Constructors Championship. There would be no break for the Scuderia as they desperately tried to rectify their sudden loss of competitive edge, but did they bounce back as hoped?
Spa was our destination upon return, and it was hard to get a sense of who stood where. Ferrari continued their run of good starts, as they found themselves second and third into Turn 1. However, a combination of an audacious dive-bomb move by young Max, ruthless squeeze by Seb on the outside, and poor Kimi having nowhere to go, resulted inevitably in contact. All 3 drivers struggled with damage; Max finishing out the points, but Seb and Kimi recovered to 6th and 9th respectively. The pace of the Scuderia didn’t look too bad, but once again, first-lap contact corrupted the potential end race result.
The glitz, the glamour, the passion, the tifosi. Surely if Ferrari were going to leave Red Bull in their dust, it would be at Monza. The home fans on their side, and the track all about engine power ensured a second row lockout and a podium for Vettel, behind the two Mercedes. After Lewis’s poor start promoting the Scuderia boys to 2nd and 3rd for a time, if they had mirrored the strategy of the Silver Arrows, could a higher finishing position be feasible? We will never know.
Ferrari are still in the shadow of Horner and crew, but you would still have to be very naïve to discount the most successful team in Formula 1’s illustrious history. So don’t rule out the Scuderia. Especially in what seems to be one of the most competitive F1 grids in recent times.