Vettel vs Leclerc: The making of the most explosive partnership ever?

It was coming, wasn’t it?

In the dying laps of the Brazilian Grand Prix, following a safety car,  Ferrari’s talented Monegasque upstart Charles Leclerc dived down the inside of team-mate Sebastian Vettel going into turn one. Nothing wrong with that move. On the exit of turn three, however, came a moment that epitomised what has been a long and painful struggle for Ferrari over recent years.

Attempting to gain his position back, Vettel re-created his 2010 drama with then-Red Bull team-mate Mark Webber, and moved across on Leclerc, terminally damaging Leclerc’s wheel, and giving himself a race-ending puncture.

I know we can’t use one incident to suggest that this is already the most controversial team-mate battle in F1 history. It doesn’t come close to Senna vs Prost or even Hamilton vs Rosberg, but what happened in Brazil was the culmination of an incredibly tense season at the Scuderia. It was a volcano that wasn’t going to stay dormant for long.

Scuderia Ferrari Press Office

Vettel has a history of being more than a little incident-prone. Even during his spell of dominance at Red Bull, there were cracks under pressure, clashes with rivals, and an almost permanent sense of volatility. Then, after his move to Ferrari, there were incidents in Baku and Singapore in 2017, and multiple errors in 2018.

This year, his rivalry with Leclerc has seen a stark contrast with Vettel’s placid and comfortable relationship with Kimi Raikkonen. This year saw him come up against a young, quick, aggressive, motivated and extremely talented Leclerc. This pressure has in some ways pushed Vettel to become a better version of himself, but the mistakes have always been there, as has the flare that comes with competitive team-mates who simply will not accept number two status at the most historic and successful team in F1.

Success may seem distant for Ferrari at the moment, but as a team that dominates all of the papers in Italy and is the biggest talking point of a proud racing nation, the headlines are never far away. In typical Ferrari fashion, they have occupied them at every opportunity this year, but mainly for the wrong reasons.

On multiple occasions at the start of the year, Ferrari opted to swap their drivers over when chasing the quicker Mercedes cars, despite their cars being equal in pace. These decisions were puzzling to put it kindly, and led to friction that would dominate the rest of the season.

Singapore saw one of the most contentious incidents yet between the two. Leclerc was leading from pole, but Ferrari decided to give Vettel the undercut and inadvertently gave the German the lead of the race in the pit stops. Vettel won the race, ahead of a furious Leclerc.

At this point, tempers were sizzling, but Ferrari insisted that they had the situation under control.

Scuderia Ferrari Press Office

They came close to blows on the first lap of the US Grand Prix, and as soon as they went side-by-side in Brazil, you knew what was coming.

Ferrari have worked themselves into a situation that they cannot control. As in many races over the last couple of years, they have cost themselves valuable points with a combination of nonsense strategies and driver errors.

Regarding Vettel and Leclerc, there’s no need to explore specific points during races when Ferrari mishandled their driver situation. Forget China, forget Spain, forget Singapore, and forget Brazil. Ferrari were in trouble before the season even began.

Mattia Binotto started his role in the worst way possible. Before Melbourne, the new team principal stated that Ferrari would favour Vettel in the first part of the season and perhaps give Leclerc equal standing if he proved his worth as the year progressed.

I’m not sure I’ve seen a team boss make such a foreboding start to a reign as team boss. These comments will have created a lack of trust and a polarising divide between Vettel and Leclerc, because how are they supposed to race if they know they constantly have a team decision hanging over their heads? How does Leclerc hope to prove himself as a Ferrari race winner if the team will swap him and Vettel over anyway?

It gave the perception that Vettel had become Ferrari’s darling, and that Leclerc would have to be the bridesmaid. Binotto’s comments made it a personal battle between his drivers and they hadn’t even hit the streets of Melbourne for the weekend yet.

Would the tale have been different had Binotto been a bit more considerate in his comments? It’s difficult to tell, but I certainly feel there would be less animosity in Ferrari.

However, if you’re a neutral looking for exciting headlines every race, then Binotto’s a genius!

Scuderia Ferrari Press Office

Let’s face it, F1 has often felt stagnant in the last few years, because intense rivalries have been hard to come by. Lewis Hamilton’s battle with Valtteri Bottas has always been quite passive and amiable, despite Mercedes’ favouring the six-time champion.

Max Verstappen has had a grudge with Esteban Ocon, who will race for Renault next year, since their junior days.

Those rivalries aside, we are yet to see a battle to the extent of Hamilton and Rosberg. Looking back over the years, there has always been friction in such an emotionally-fuelled sport. The aforementioned battle of egos between Senna and Prost springs to mind, as does Mansell vs Piquet. Jacques Villeneuve wants to fight with everyone he meets, and who can forget Fernando Alonso’s beef with both Michael Schumacher and Sebastian Vettel?

This friction gives us talking points other than Mercedes and Ferrari winning, with Max Verstappen, to his credit, often helping to spice up the action at the top of the field.

However, it almost seems like F1 doesn’t have room for mind games and antagonism any more, despite other racing series proving it can still be done.

MotoGP riders do a good job of getting into each other’s heads, and the same applies to Formula E. Jean Eric Vergne, Sebastien Buemi and Lucas di Grassi don’t exactly have soft spots for each other.

And that doesn’t come down to snide remarks and below-the-belt comments in the media like we often see in F1, this is about drivers passionately confronting each other about incidents and making sure everyone knows where they stand on conflicts. Remember Sebastien Buemi going round screaming at every driver he saw after race one of the 2017 season finale in Montreal?

This is what F1 needs more of and hopefully the new 2021 regulations will bring the field closer together and we can see more on-track fights and debates between drivers every race.

Of course, we’re not asking drivers to get the boxing gloves out. All we want is drivers racing closely and entertaining us, giving us something to talk about. Is that so much to ask of a sport that has given us so many jaw-dropping moments over the years?

So, could Vettel vs Leclerc become a rivalry for the ages? Quite possibly, but let’s hope it’s not the only one we have to talk about in years to come.

Abu Dhabi Grand Prix Preview: The curtain falls on 2019

Abu Dhabi sees the curtain drop on another Formula One season. However, it is a slightly tatted curtain and, much like the Greatest Showman – sorry to anyone who thought it was good – it is the end of a somewhat dull and monotonous year.

Of course, it has not been all doom and gloom. There have been some stunning races in 2019, like Austria, Silverstone, Germany and Brazil. However, the exciting and scintillating moments we associate so strongly with F1 have been few and far between.

With that said, the F1 bandwagon arrives at the 5.5-kilometre Abu Dhabi circuit – an excellent and enjoyable track for the drivers, not so much for the fans.

(Photo by Clive Mason/Getty Images)

Abu Dhabi first appeared on the calendar in 2009, with Sebastian Vettel winning the race, and has played host to the last race on the calendar for eight of the last ten years.

However, the races have not always captured the eye for wheel-to-wheel magnificence. The circuit is rather clumsy to look at, especially the underground pit exit – which I am sure seemed a good idea to begin with – where it is difficult to mount cameras and no-one can actually see.

What rescues the track is the setting. The backdrop of the exhilarating Ferrari World, the grandstands and the pit complexes, and of course the pristine hotel with the LED lit roof, make the Abu Dhabi track quite the spectacle, and gives it a real feel of an end-of-season race. Speaking of which, this is the first time that the Formula One championship will have ever ended in December – hopefully the teams have remembered to pack their advent calendars.

Lewis Hamilton is a four-time winner in Abu Dhabi, and having wrapped up his sixth title already, he would love to see out the year in style with another victory.

As form has it, Mercedes have a good chance of another one-two finish under the lights. Abu Dhabi is predominantly a power track, but this has been a surprising area of inconsistency for both Mercedes and Ferrari all throughout the year, with the Honda power impressive in the back of the Red Bull and Toro Rosso cars. This was exemplified when Pierre Gasly out-dragged Lewis Hamilton to the line for a second placed finish in Brazil, so this race could yet be an interesting one.

2019 Brazilian Grand Prix, Sunday – LAT Images

2020 will likely not include Renault’s Nico Hulkenberg, and will definitely not include Williams’ Robert Kubica, and so these two drivers will probably make their F1 farewells this weekend. Although, the return of Esteban Ocon, mixed with Hulkenberg’s impressive consistency, could lead the German to believe that he has a shot at a seat in the future. Kubica’s seat at Williams seat is still up for grabs though.

Following Carlos Sainz’s remarkable podium finish in Brazil – McLaren’s first since Melbourne 2014 – he and Lando Norris, who has excelled in his first season in F1, have sealed fourth in the constructors’ in what has been a superb improvement on the last six years for the British team. 2020 could see them propel themselves even further in the right direction, but they are still a way off third best team Red Bull at the moment.

The real battle is for fifth in the Constructors’ between Renault, who currently occupy the spot, and Toro Rosso, who are just eight points behind. The midfield battle has been extraordinary this year, and Racing Point and Alfa Romeo are still mathematically in with a shot, but they are extreme outsiders. Haas are set to stay ninth in what has been an abysmal year for Grosjean and team-mate Kevin Magnussen, who managed to get both cars into Q3 in Brazil, only to fail to score points in the race.

All eyes are on the midfield then, but there are plenty of other places to look around the beautiful setting at the Yas Marina Circuit as Formula One heads into the final race of the decade.

(Photo by Charles Coates/Getty Images)

And at the end of what has been a tumultuous year, let’s not forget those we have lost.

Charlie Whiting passed in his sleep just before the Australian Grand Prix at the start of the year. The race director was one of the most influential pioneers in F1’s pursuit of safety. He was forever on the side of the drivers and the fans, had a human side that simply could not be matched, and he had an infectious smile that warmed the heart. What he did for Formula One is the reason we are able to watch races in the way that we do today. He will be missed.

We also said goodbye to Niki Lauda. The Austrian was a three-time world champion who drove for both Ferrari and McLaren, and even continued to achieve great success after his horrific accident at the Nurburgring in 1976. In his later years, he worked as non-executive chairman of Mercedes, but he was so much more. He played a part in race weekends, strategies and was a phenomenal mentor to their drivers. Lewis Hamilton was so affected by his passing that he was excused media obligations before the Monaco Grand Prix, demonstrating the effect that Lauda had on the entire paddock, both on a racing level and on a personal level.

And finally, we lost promising French star Anthoine Hubert, whose crash at Spa in the summer claimed his life and left Juan Manuel Correa in hospital. Correa is now recovering at home. Hubert was a ray of sunshine in the F2 paddock, and had the racing prowess to match. His death rocked motorsport, and a minute’s silence was respectfully held on race day in both F1 and F3 on the Sunday – F2 chose not to race that day. He was a brightly shining star taken from us far too soon.

Though we will move on from 2019, we, as a motorsport family, will never forget them.

 

[Featured image – Wolfgang Wilhelm]

Hamilton’s title party in Sao Paulo: Brazilian Grand Prix Preview

The 48th edition of the Formula One Brazilian Grand Prix will play proud host to the sixth title party for Lewis Hamilton, who wrapped up the championship last time out in the United States.

At the venue where he dramatically snatched his first championship from the tense and seemingly unrelenting grip of Felipe Massa 11 years ago, Hamilton may have it wrapped up already this year, but a third victory in the homeland of his hero Ayrton Senna would be another proud career moment for the man who needs eight more wins to equal Michael Schumacher’s race win record of 91.

While time has passed since the craziness of 2008, and the world championship has unscrupulously changed hands, the passion for racing at Brazil has never changed. From the days of the great Brazilian favourite Ayrton Senna to now in 2019, the race in Sao Paulo continues to be a fan favourite for drama and intense racing.

The 4.3 kilometre speed-fest of a circuit saw a champion claim the revered title three times in the space of seven years between 2006 and 2012, but Sebastian Vettel’s triumph seven years ago, beating Fernando Alonso after an incredibly tense and unbelievably exciting season, was the last time it has happened.

Much of this is indebted to Mercedes’ dominance after Vettel’s storm to 2013 glory, as well as Hamilton and former Mercedes team mate Rosberg taking their rivalry and psychological grudge matches to the final race in Abu Dhabi on two occasions.

Max Verstappen at the 2019 USGP. Image courtesy of Getty Images/Red Bull Content Pool

However this, by no means, goes to say that the spirit of racing in Brazil has departed – it stays strong to this day and continues to draw in the big crowds who want to see the most thrilling, high speed entertainment. And they have been treated with some spectacular helpings in recent times.

Wherever Max Verstappen has gone in the last few years, contentious moments yet magical performances have often followed in extremely close proximity. As was seen in 2016 with his immense wet drive to the podium and last year, when he clashed with long term rival Esteban Ocon while lapping the Frenchman, costing him the win to a fortuitous, grateful and jubilant Hamilton.

Interlagos this year could yet provide another opportunity for Verstappen to claim his maiden win in beautiful Brazil. A tough and demanding middle sector provides opportunity for the Red Bulls to make up time on the Mercedes cars, who should dominate the long run up from Juncao to turn one. It could be a chance for Alex Albon to claim his first podium in Formula One, having been confirmed as Verstappen’s team mate for next year. As for Ferrari, it is unknown where they will be, after inconsistencies due to a change in fuel flow system, which was controversially altered after appeals from other teams about illegalities in the car’s power. What we know for sure is that Monegasque Charles Leclerc will be bumped down at least five places from his qualifying position due to an engine change.

BrazilGP tyre information.Image courtesy of Pirelli Media

Due to the stunning combination of power and downforce, there will hopefully be another tight midfield battle between the likes of McLaren, Renault, Alfa Romeo and Toro Rosso. One or two of the midfield teams however, such as Haas, have already turned their attentions to 2020. The American team who would love points this weekend though after yet another horrible experience – this time at their home Grand Prix in Austin – last time out.

Mercedes boss Toto Wolff will be absent this weekend for the first time since 2013, but smiles on Mercedes affiliated faces will certainly not be, as Valtteri Bottas and Lewis Hamilton look to grab another win for themselves at Sao Paulo in what has been a wonderful 2019 season.

BrazilGP infographics .Image courtesy of Pirelli Media

Featured image courtesy of Ferrari S.p.A.

US Grand Prix Preview: Hamilton’s American dream to finally become reality

Having missed out on winning a dream championship in the ultimate sporting holy grail last year, Lewis Hamilton has a chance to realise this goal 12 months later. He needs just four points this weekend to seal a sixth world championship.

It would make him only the second driver in history to claim six titles, and put him one behind the great Michael Schumacher. What’s more, for the first time in his career he is set to win the championship three years running. He would be one behind Sebastian Vettel for consecutive championships won (2010-2013) and two behind Michael Schumacher (2000-2004).

The stats are both remarkable and stunning. Hamilton is a living legend of the sport right in front of our eyes, but for him, and many others, it is not just about the numbers.

It was evident last year, when Kimi Raikkonen took the win away from Hamilton, that a moment which would have achieved hopes and dreams conceived long ago had escaped Hamilton’s grasp. It was no secret that he would have loved to claim his fifth title at what is considered to be the home of world sport, with some of the most energetic and adoring fans of not just Formula One, but of many others too. To win the championship in the US, like he did in 2015, would be another huge accolade for Hamilton, and it is something that would mean so much to him personally.

His title rival Valtteri Bottas, however, will still be full of belief that he can at least overshadow his team-mate’s inevitable title celebrations with a victory at the 5.5-kilometre-long Circuit of the Americas. While it is almost impossible for him to win the championship from here, Bottas had a positive race in Japan, winning from second on the grid. But a stunning drive from Hamilton in Mexico, out-qualifying Bottas while the Finn’s Mercedes took a huge bite out of the barrier, saw him fend off Sebastian Vettel with a mega second stint to take a well deserved win, and put himself in prime position for the championship this weekend.

2019 Mexican Grand Prix, Sunday – Wolfgang Wilhelm

The Mercedes cars are expected to be challenged well again by Ferrari this year. The two teams been typically evenly matched at this circuit in each of the last two seasons, but Ferrari’s advantage in power this year will leave them hopeful of a victory again as they did last year, and team principal Mattia Binotto’s plans for ‘better race management’ in the last three races of the season may aid them achieve a win in what has turned out to be another heart-breaking season for the Scuderia.

The tricky first sector will certainly help to bring the Red Bulls into play, with Alex Albon’s impressive performances seeing him prove his worth at the Austrian team. He has out-scored Verstappen since they have been team-mates, although this has been down to a few slices of misfortune for the Dutchman, as well as one or two clumsy errors. Red Bull, however, should not be expected to challenge for the win, frustrating for them after a thoroughly wasted opportunity by Verstappen in Mexico.

Coming home this weekend are Haas, but we should not expect a particularly happy home-coming for them in what has been a confusing, tiresome and dire year. Kevin Magnussen and Romain Grosjean are really just looking forward to 2020 now, but the home crowd may just inspire a point or two from the French-Danish partnership which has been tested and strained at various different points of the season.

Though Lewis Hamilton’s partnership with race engineer Peter Bonnington will not return until Brazil, Hamilton has no intention of holding back on the title party this weekend, but Valtteri Bottas and Ferrari have no intention of seeing him stand on the top step on race day.

 

[Featured image – Ferrari Media]

Mexican Grand Prix stewards have set a dangerous precedent

When Valtteri Bottas crashed heavily at the end qualifying for the Mexican Grand Prix, his fellow drivers all slowed down when passing the incident and the subsequent double-waved yellow flags. That is, all but one.

Max Verstappen, Red Bull’s boisterous,  energetic, and head-strong superstar, did not lift, and went on to set a fastest final sector and improve on his provisional pole time.

This was a clear breach, not just of regulations, but also his safety, Bottas’ safety, and the safety of the marshals who needed to recover the stricken Mercedes.

Verstappen would have got away with it, but he was caught out by… himself. The post-qualifying press conference featured a moment which could only be described as absolutely bizarre. When asked about his failure to slow under yellow flags, Verstappen said, “It’s qualifying and, yeah, you go for it. But like I said before, if they want to delete the lap, then delete the lap.”

(Photo by Will Taylor-Medhurst/Getty Images)

The comments were completely devoid of consideration, and showed a complete obliviousness to the fact that he was admitting to a very dangerous breach of the sporting regulations, ultimately landing himself in trouble.

Following the press conference, the stewards decided to open an investigation into how Verstappen went quicker after Bottas’ crash, when his rivals all slowed down. He was then awarded a three-place grid penalty, and will instead start the race from fourth, with Charles Leclerc now on pole for the seventh time this season. Sebastian Vettel is promoted to second, giving Ferrari a front-row lock-out.

Verstappen’s mistake can be forgiven. Nobody was hurt, and in a roundabout way, he was aware that what he had done was wrong, and he appeared to accept that punishment would be coming his way. After all, he is a young racing driver, and consideration and evaluation of risk can be easily skewed when adrenaline is high, particularly during a qualifying run.

The real issue lies deeper. And this is where the blood boils.

It took Verstappen admitting his error in the press conference for the stewards to do anything about it, even after it was clear he set a purple final sector time following Bottas’ crash. It was clear, obvious and blatant that he had not slowed for the yellow flags. The stewards also had data from his car available to them, but either chose to not look at it or, even more outlandishly, see the data and opt not to award a penalty.

(Photo by Getty Images/Getty Images)

Either way, whatever actions they had endeavoured to take – or not take as the case may be – they, at first, decided to not award a penalty for a clear breach of regulations. This was a farce. They made themselves look foolish, and it was frankly an embarrassment for the sport.

But more than that, it was a breach of duty of care from the stewards to be so dismissive of the fact that a driver on track had risked the safety of so many people.

Their initial actions, or lack thereof, displayed a complete disregard for safety, and a serious lack of awareness of the precedent they are setting for the future. It was a statement that any driver can now go flat out through yellow flags after a serious incident, risk hitting someone on the way, and get away with it so long as they make sure they keep their mouth shut about the incident afterwards.

And it is very clear that F1 has somehow not learned its lesson from past cases, like that of Jules Bianchi in 2014, who tragically lost his life after failing to slow for yellow flags following a crash at Suzuka. Despite this, with no due diligence whatsoever, the stewards still saw fit to not act on a driver failing to slow for an incident when they know what the impact can be, and a precedent has now been set for the future –  it is a dangerous one.

It was a further example of stewards at a Grand Prix refusing to do their job, not only as rule enforcers, but as responsible adults charged with ensuring the safety of everyone involved at the event, and this is unacceptable.

If the stewards are not willing to act appropriately, and if they are happy to allow someone to endanger lives, then it shows an immaturity that cannot be condoned, especially at an event where the risks that come with motor-racing are so high.

It resonates with me that, not only have the stewards this weekend shown themselves to be unfit for the job of rule enforcers, but they are also evidently cannot be trusted with making sure that drivers in the future are completely aware that actions such as Verstappen’s cannot be tolerated.

Instead, F1 is left in a position where drivers are at risk of being uncontrolled by FIA regulations, which is why the events of yesterday’s qualifying are more significant, and dangerous, than many in the sport are making it out to be.

 

[Featured image – Photo by Mark Thompson/Getty Images]

Mexican Grand Prix Preview: Six of the best for Hamilton?

As the F1 circus rolls into the fun, vibrant, spirited Mexico City, Lewis Hamilton has an opportunity to claim the world championship for the third consecutive year, and sixth time in total, at the 4.3-kilometre Autódromo Hermanos Rodríguez.

Complete with a 1.2- kilometre-long home straight and a stadium section converted from a baseball pitch, the track sits 2,240 metres above sea level. The subsequent thin air creates an extremely tough physical challenge for the drivers, and the lack of oxygen results in the engines’ RPM being reduced, which is why the cars look visibly slower on this track compared to others. In fact, this track is the highest circuit to host an FIA-sanctioned event in terms of elevation.

Photo by Charles Coates/Getty Images

Feeling high off his third victory of the season in Japan is Valtteri Bottas. The Finn had struggled ever since his win in Baku all the way back in April, but a dominant performance at the wonderful Suzuka circuit, taking the lead after Sebastian Vettel’s botched start, saw him keep his albeit distant championship hopes alive, whilst team-mate Lewis Hamilton’s third-place finish secured Mercedes’ sixth consecutive constructors’ title.

Bottas will continue to keep his title dream alive if he finishes at least third in Mexico, but if Hamilton beats him by 14 points – the difference between a win with a fastest lap and a fourth-placed finish – a sixth drivers’ title will go the way of the irresistible Brit, who is 10 race wins away from beating Michael Schumacher’s record of 91 wins in F1. That record that seemed insurmountable when Schumacher claimed his last win at the 2006 Chinese Grand Prix, but now seems very possible. Hamilton and his record-breaking Mercedes team look to be hurtling towards yet more Formula One history.

Conversely, Ferrari will spend another winter wondering just where it all went wrong. Having looked unstoppable in pre-season testing in Barcelona, the Scuderia, save for a handful of races, have been blown away by the sheer dominance of Mercedes, and this is a track where Ferrari are expected to struggle once again.

With the altitude levelling the playing field in terms of engine power, downforce through the tricky second sector is vital. This is something Red Bull have unlocked to magnificent effect the last two years, with Max Verstappen storming to victory in both 2017 and 2018, but having his victories overshadowed by Hamilton’s title celebrations on both occasions.

Photo by Mark Thompson/Getty Images

This year will present another opportunity for the Dutchman, but Mercedes will no doubt push them hard with their improved downforce this year. Ferrari, meanwhile, have impressed at unexpected venues in the second part of this season after bringing an upgrade for the second part of the season, which has aided them spectacularly in races like Singapore, where they claimed a shock one-two finish.

With Thai-British driver Alex Albon yet to really stamp down his place at Red Bull after taking over from the demoted Pierre Gasly in the summer, we could be in for an exciting scrap this weekend.

It is always a festival when F1 goes to Mexico, particularly for home hero Sergio Perez, but will Lewis Hamilton be hosting yet another title festival in Mexico City? Valtteri Bottas and one or two others may have something to say about that.

 

[Featured image – Will Taylor-Medhurst/Getty Images]

Legendary Races Week: 2008 Brazilian Grand Prix

As part of our special week in which we celebrate some of the greatest races in the history of all forms of motorsport, we take a trip back to the dramatic Brazilian Grand Prix of 2008, in which McLaren’s Lewis Hamilton was up against Ferrari’s Felipe Massa for the title, with the two taking their fascinating, remarkable title fight going all the way to the last day of the season. Whoever would win, we were guaranteed a new champion, with Kimi Raikkonen out of the fight having taken the title from Hamilton in an equally amazing 2007 season at the same race.

The afternoon began with Hamilton leading the championship on 94 points – seven ahead of Massa. Almost as if the script had willed it, Massa had qualified on pole position, with Hamilton fourth. If Massa were to win the championship, he would need to win the race and hope that Hamilton finished sixth or lower, and he would win the title.

Prior to the race, the racing gods decided they wanted to gaze down upon a legendary race that would be talked about for generations to come, and thus, with the tension palpable already, the heavens opened.

Off the start, Massa held the lead from Toyota’s Jarno Trulli heading into turn one, and Lewis Hamilton maintained his grip on fourth ahead of Sebastian Vettel and former McLaren team mate, at this point in the Renault, Fernando Alonso. Further towards the back, chaos ensued through the Senna S, as David Coulthard took a whack from not one, but both Williams cars, end his last ever Grand Prix ended in retirement.

Around lap 10 of the race, many drivers started to notice that the track was drying, and so several took the option to pit for dry tyres. Hamilton was left out perhaps a couple of laps too long on his intermediate set of boots, and he falls behind Sebastian Vettel, Fernando Alonso and Giancarlo Fisichella, who had all made earlier stops. Hamilton had however managed to negotiate his way past Jarno Trulli, who had lost ground due to a slow stop, and this left him in P6, with Massa still leading. If things were to stay like this, Massa would claim the title on races won, as he and Hamilton were level on points as things stood.

Eventually, Hamilton did manage to get past Fisichella – though it nearly ended in tears – and he made his way up into fifth, right where he needed to be to take the title.

Vettel, meanwhile, was pressuring Massa for the lead, but to no avail, and he would eventually pit and re-join behind Hamilton, promoting the Briton to fourth.

The pit stops would all level out, and Hamilton found himself in fifth having needed to switch back to the inters because the rain had started again. Timo Glock, who had suffered an awfully long stop due to a sticky fuel nozzle, had actually found himself fuelled to the end. As a result, Hamilton had fallen behind him to fifth, and Vettel was breathing down his neck.

Photo Credit: Ferrari Media

Then, unbelievably, Sebastian Vettel made his way past Hamilton with 3 laps to go, and for the second year running, it looked like Hamilton is going to lose out on the championship at the final hurdle!

The chequered flag fell at the end of the seventy-first and final lap of a simply extraordinary afternoon of racing, and Felipe Massa won the race, and surely with it, the title.

Until… Timo Glock’s slick tyres had completely given up the ghost on the last lap of the race in the wet conditions. He crawled, slithered round the track, and as he got to Juncao, who’s on his inside? None other than Lewis Hamilton, who has just snatched the title from the jaws of the prancing horse, much to the disbelief of the Ferrari camp and the delirium of the McLaren garage.

In the most spectacular of circumstances, Lewis Hamilton had finished fifth, and by the finest of margins, at the final corner of the final lap of the final race, he took the championship that had so cruelly evaded him the year previous.

Massa, tears in eyes, displays the most heart-wrenching solidarity as he stands atop the podium in front of his adoring and equally distraught home fans, knowing that he did all he could, but believing that his chance, Ferrari’s chance, Brazil’s chance, would come again.

Hamilton, his father Anthony, his brother Nic, and all of the McLaren team start the celebrations, although they are almost too shell-shocked themselves to fully ascertain what has just happened in one of the craziest days in Formula One’s already esteemed and rich history.

A race that has been watched, re-watched, recalled – sometimes painfully so – in utter disbelief at the sheer drama of what happened that day and the tantalising way it ended. A drama so deep and rich that even the great William Shakespeare would struggle to conjure, this was the epitome of everything F1 should be about – the Brazilian Grand Prix of 2008 truly was a legendary race, not just in Formula One, but in all of motorsport.

Japanese Grand Prix Preview: As a typhoon looms, is Hamilton storming towards the 2019 title?

Just when things looked to be in peril for Mercedes in the second half of the season, stepping up to stop Ferrari was, erm… Ferrari.

An evident storm is brewing within the Italian giant as the rivalry intensifies between Sebastian Vettel and Charles Leclerc, and imminent typhoon Hagibis will either threaten to ignite that combustible tension or will give them the necessary push to overcome their Russian demons.

Indeed, the title is now all but wrapped up by the imperious Lewis Hamilton who leads the championship by 73 points with just 128 still up for grabs.

His tour towards his inevitable sixth world title brings us to the 5.8-kilometre Suzuka circuit. It’s easy to get tied up in knots here, with it being the only figure-of-eight circuit on the calendar, and having the awe-inspiring yet terrifying first sector, featuring high-speed esses that require skill, talent and bravery in equal measure.

2018 Japanese Grand Prix, Saturday – Wolfgang Wilhelm

Such sections tend to become more difficult in treacherous conditions, and we are expecting no shortage of those this weekend. The typhoon is expected to affect practice, qualifying, and the race, although it is difficult to predict with any certainty.

Form generally gets tossed out the window in conditions like the ones anticipated in Suzuka – cast your minds back to Hockenheim – and the favourites for the weekend would be tough to predict in normal situations. Suzuka requires a pinpoint balance of power and downforce, and Ferrari – save for their spectacular in Sochi last time out – have seemed to excel at both since the teams returned from the summer break, but Mercedes will fancy their chances through the technical first sector.

Indeed this is a big weekend for Ferrari. Vettel had a complete nightmare last year in Japan, when a crazy, kamikaze move on Verstappen cost him any chance of a podium finish, and Charles Leclerc’s race was ultimately ruined after an incident at the start of the second lap with Kevin Magnussen.

Ferrari were in trouble before the race even began in Russia last time out. They had planned for Leclerc, starting on pole, to allow Sebastian Vettel, starting third, to slipstream his way past to ensure they had a one-two off the start. This was all well and good, but there’s one aspect Ferrari failed to factor in – pride.

Vettel, who is no stranger to team order controversy, was never going to allow Leclerc back past as the team had planned. Leclerc is an upstart who has walked into Vettel’s team and all but overthrown him. He needed to make a statement to his team, his team mate, and the world, saying that he is a four-time world champion, and that this is his team.

GP RUSSIA F1/2019 – DOMENICA 29/09/2019
credit: @Scuderia Ferrari Press Office

Ferrari gave Leclerc the undercut to pass Vettel in the pitstops, only for the German to suffer an engine failure. He stopped the car off track, brought out the virtual safety car, gave Mercedes a free pit stop for both their drivers, and, ultimately, a one-two.

It is fair to say, then, that Ferrari have a point to prove, but so do Mercedes. They must prove themselves able to throw down with Ferrari after a post-summer break that has seen their form undulate. They want to change that, and issue an emphatic message to their counterparts.

Elsewhere, Toro Rosso will give an F1 debut to reigning Super Formula and Super GT champion Naoki Yamamoto. The Japanese home hero will take Pierre Gasly’s seat in the first practice session, before Gasly returns to the cockpit for the rest of the weekend.

It’s set to be a tough weekend with Typhoon Hagibis looming, and there’s a storm brewing between Mercedes and Ferrari as we head towards beautiful Suzuka.

 

[Featured image – Charles Coates/Getty Images)

Russian Grand Prix Preview: Ferrari’s revival to continue in Sochi?

‘From Russia with love’ – there wasn’t much love, however, from Daniil Kvyat when he came together with Kimi Raikkonen at the first corner in Singapore. He may wish to keep his nose out of trouble at his home Grand Prix this time, as he returns to the track which saw his career take a bit of a nose dive, when he collided with Sebastian Vettel and lost his seat at Red Bull in 2016.

And, invariably, Vettel would much prefer to complete this year’s Russian Grand Prix at the Sochi Autodrome without incident, to build on his first F1 win in 392 days last time out at Marina Bay.

That victory gave us the hand-rubbing prospect of an intra-team war at Ferrari between Vettel and team-mate Charles Leclerc, with the latter leaving Singapore unhappy at the team’s decision to pit Vettel first. The undercut resulted in the four-time champion winning the race ahead of his upstart team-mate who, demonstrating brilliance and maturity in his debut season with Ferrari and only his second season in the sport, had taken his fifth pole position the day before.

GP SINGAPORE F1/2019 – DOMENICA 22/09/2019
credit: @Scuderia Ferrari Press Office

However, despite the tension at Ferrari, they nonetheless sent a message to Mercedes and Red Bull with their first one-two finish since the Hungarian Grand Prix of 2017, at a track where we expected the Prancing Horses to falter under the superiority of their rivals on what is a downforce-orientated circuit.

This, coupled with the fact that Lewis Hamilton seemed concerned by Ferrari’s sudden upturn, will hopefully lead us into an exciting Russian Grand Prix this weekend.

With lots of 90-degree turns, a couple of lengthy straights, and a twisty middle sector, you would lean towards Mercedes having the upper hand, but Ferrari’s surprising performance last race has tossed things up in the air.

Further down the grid, Carlos Sainz comes into this weekend seeking some improved fortune. He retired from the Italian Grand Prix due to leaving the pits with a loose wheel, and then a collision with Nico Hulkenberg on the first lap in Singapore all but ended his race. He did recover to 12th, though, as McLaren continue to supersede the works Renault team with the French manufacturer’s own engines in the back of their papaya car.

Carlos Sainz, McLaren MCL34

Romain Grosjean did little to back up Haas boss Guenther Steiner’s decision to keep him on for the 2020 season by wiping out George Russell, while Kevin Magnussen will be dodging Russian plastic bags, with a bag getting caught in his front wing in Singapore, costing him a points finish and seeing him finish last of the runners.

Antonio Giovinazzi must now build on his point-score in Singapore with a strong result in Russia, as his seat at Alfa Romeo is still not secure. Nico Hulkenberg, out of a seat next season but continuing to perform impressively, is knocking on a few doors in search of a drive, having lost out on the Haas seat for next season.

The 2019 season had its dramatic flame reignited under the sweltering heat of Singapore, but will Ferrari’s revival cool with the weather as we head to Russia? Mercedes will certainly want to make that happens this weekend.

 

[Featured image – 2018 Russian Grand Prix, Saturday, Wolfgang Wilhelm]

Finally Ferrari at Monza? 2019 Italian Grand Prix Preview

Charles Leclerc tackles the first chicane. Photo credit Pirelli.

After a sombre, heart-breaking, mournful weekend at Spa following the death of Anthoine Hubert after a horrifying crash at Raidillon, the F1 paddock travels resolutely to Italy for the Italian Grand Prix.

Charles Leclerc was good friends with Anthoine Hubert, and after claiming an emotional first win last time out, he comes to the 5.7 kilometre Monza circuit hoping to hastily add a second to that tally, along with his Ferrari team, for whom it was also their first win of the season, and team mate Sebastian Vettel, who had a horrible experience on race day in Belgium and needs to put that behind him with a positive weekend here.

Monza is the oldest track on the Formula One calendar, and it is home to the oldest team in F1 history, add those two together and you get Ferrari fans – lots of Ferrari fans. The Tifosi enter this weekend knowing that their team come to their holy grail expected to deliver a win on home soil for the first time since 2010 – they cannot wait a decade since Fernando Alonso’s victory in what was one of the greatest seasons F1 has ever seen.

This, however, has been anything but as far as Ferrari are concerned, and the pace they promised in Barcelona in testing at the beginning of the year has been completely blown away by a dumbfounding Mercedes team, but a track where straight line speed is everything, and after a great start to the second part of the season, this is a golden opportunity for the Italian giants to begin washing away the image of incompetence that they have been portrayed in this season. A chance for Leclerc to send the home crowd into raptures in his first season, and a chance for Vettel to grab his first Ferrari win in Monza and turn around his terrible fortunes thus far in 2019.

But omnipotent is the sheer brilliance of the current and surely soon-to-be six-time champion Lewis Hamilton and Mercedes, who have won each of the last five races in Italy, including last year with Hamilton, despite a Ferrari front row lock-out in qualifying.

That weekend saw the fastest qualifying lap ever by Kimi Raikkonen, who will surely not be achieving such a feat this time around, but will be anticipating a better time of it than he had in Spa after being nerfed into turn one by the overzealous Max Verstappen, before the Dutchman planted his damaged Red Bull into the wall at Eau Rouge, much to the despair of the Dutch fans who came from the Netherlands to watch their hero race.

Their collision had left the door open for their respective team mates to capitalise and gain important points. A fantastic drive from Red Bull new boy Alex Albon saw him come home in fifth, while Antonio Giovinazzi met the wall in the closing stages at Pouillon having been on for points. He arrives at his home race chasing an improvement on his thus-far one point tally in 2019.

The midfield, featuring a McLaren team which saw Carlos Sainz’s car succumb to stalling issues and Lando Norris’ engine give up the ghost just one lap from the end while running in P5, should see a fair bit of overtaking at a track where passing is traditionally plentiful every year, and all six of those teams will fancy their chassis’ and engines’ chances of being best of the rest, while Red Bull are expected to be largely on their own as the third quickest, and Williams will sadly again be very much on their own at one of the tracks they will have been fearing the most.

The race sets for Monza.

Ferrari’s best chance yet at home redemption, but will the ominous Mercedes threat topple them again? Will Lewis Hamilton take another substantial step towards title number 6? Or will Ferrari finally break their duck in Italy? Monza awaits…