Crashes, punctures, engine failure, an angry team boss, and a broken leg. The 2018 season has got off to an unpredictable start as we are now four dramatic races in with three different winners from three different teams. Each are highly skilled drivers from teams with the highest performing cars, but is it technology, skill or luck which earns race wins?
Technology breaks up the field in terms of pace and qualifying times. But with an abundance of safety cars interrupting any calculated wins during the first four races, having the fastest car or the best technology hasn’t played a huge part in this year’s racing – but that doesn’t mean it’s not yet to happen.
Ferrari have the best performing cars by a small margin to Mercedes and Red Bull. And by a large margin to other teams including Williams – whose deputy team principal Claire Williams says, “Our sport is basically broken” due to the “financial discrepancy” between teams and their access to new technology.
Williams haven’t won a title since the Spanish Grand Prix in 2012, and prior to that it was 2004. Their year for leading technology was 1987 when they paired with Honda to create the FW11, a leading car in its day. Now, Claire Williams says: “When I started, I really thought we could win again. Now I do not believe that any more.”
It’s no secret the team are struggling. Their Chief designer Ed Wood has left, and their main sponsor Martini, end their sponsorship at the end of the season. Williams are last in the constructor’s championship with only four points this season.
But it’s not just Williams who are struggling with technology, Force India are being held back by problems affecting the car’s balance into corners. A fault they have been unable to fix since pre-season testing, but it hasn’t stopped them getting on the podium.
In Baku, Sergio Perez of Force India managed to escape the Red Bull disaster, when the pair crashed, to finish third on the podium, ahead of Sebastian Vettel who led from pole.
Despite Perez having no race wins, or pole positions he’s had eight podium places in a car which isn’t performing at its best; largely indicating race wins aren’t all about the car. Race tactics and some luck can make up for the lack of technology.
The same goes for Lewis Hamilton, who despite winning in Baku believes he isn’t performing at his best. He says: “I struggled with the car, struggled with the tyres and that’s something I don’t take lightly. So I’ve definitely got to go away from here and work even harder to make sure that there’s not a repeat performance-wise.”
Although Mercedes have only had one race win, Valtteri Bottas has led in the first four races on the calendar, earning second place on two occasions and almost a race win in Baku – instead his chances were punctured. Bottas who is disappointed with his performance so far, and like his teammate vows to improve, said on Twitter: “Sometimes the sport you love can be tough, but I’ve learned to turn negative experiences into strength”.
If Mercedes can gain four podium positions including one race win in as many weeks when both drivers feel off the pace, we are likely to see more Mercedes victories in the coming weeks.
Safety cars cancel any pole leads
So far, starting on pole position hasn’t guaranteed anyone to win. Sebastian Vettel has had three pole positions in Bahrain, China, and Azerbaijan, and two race wins in Australia and Bahrain. Yet in Baku, despite leading from pole position, he suffered a devastating blow in the final few corners when he damaged his tyre and finished in fourth.
In the opening race in Australia, Vettel’s win came from a clever safety car manoeuvre to steal the win from Lewis Hamilton who led most of the race from pole. However, in Baku Hamilton returned the gesture.
Bahrain seemed a likely win for Vettel, with Hamilton starting fifth on grid after a penalty, and he had a stunning victory in what was a bittersweet race for Ferrari, as Kimi Raikkonen retired from the race and broke a mechanic’s leg.
Vettel’s win in the desert left him storming the championship 17 points ahead of last year’s World Champion Lewis Hamilton, who began the season disappointed with his performance yet now leads by four points.
The Red Bulls have thrown curve balls at what could have been calculated wins for Ferrari and Mercedes. The team are third in the constructor’s championship having only finished two races this year.
The safety car deployments are a result of their crashes which have caused chaos for the rest of the field – in Baku, wiping them both out of the race entirely. Daniel Ricciardo won in Shanghai after the team executed a double pit for both their drivers during a safety car deployment not involving the pair, leading them on the road to victory before Max Verstappen crashed with Vettel.
There’s plenty of fire in the Red Bull pit with Verstappen and Ricciardo. They are both fierce drivers who like to take risks with cars just as able as Ferrari and Mercedes. Although, Ricciardo’s decisions can be more calculated than Verstappen’s, as evidenced in Ricciardo’s incredible performance in China as the master of overtakes which rightfully allowed him to win; and the proof is in their passion for racing, even against each other, until they collide in the final 10 laps – putting themselves in the “dog house” with the Red Bull team boss Christian Horner who said they were both at fault and made to apologise to the team for driving too close to each other.
But that won’t stop their aggressive racing. Ricciardo admits he “only wins in interesting races”, which proves he’s a skilful driver who can react to situations unfolding on the track. Where does that leave Verstsappen?
The Dutchman has been tipped a future World Champion, and a young Lewis Hamilton, who was once an aggressive risk taker just like Verstappen. He already had three race wins to his name, and made his debut year in the sport as the youngest driver to ever win in Formula 1.
Just like his teammate, he’s skilful. He has the best technology on his team and the killer instinct to win, but he’s crashed in all four races so far. Has he been unlucky, or does his race performance need to improve?
He says: “It’s easy to comment. At the moment, it is not going the way I like. Does it mean I have to calm down? I don’t think so. It is very unfortunate those things happening. I just need to analyse everything and come back stronger for the next race.”
So far practice and qualifying races haven’t been good indicators of what’s in store for race day. On the one hand, Riccardo’s win in China was both unpredictable and well-deserved due to his engine failing in practice and during the race in Bahrain. He was last to post a qualifying time after team mechanics fixed his engine and he went on to win the race.
On the other hand, he was the fastest in practice in Baku, but fell short of any points after crashing with his teammate leaving them 59 points behind Ferrari in the constructor’s championship.
Could we have predicted any of the drama on the calendar this year? Formula 1 fans begged for an interesting season. Race wins for Hamilton and Vettel were on the cards, perhaps not in the way they imagined, and fewer than Hamilton expected. But for a mechanic to break his leg during a pit stop in Bahrain, Bottas to lose what would’ve been an incredible victory in a thrilling race to track debris puncturing his tyre in the final moments. Or for the Red Bulls to have had so many crashes and engine problems in just four races seems unlucky for all of them, yet lucky for Vettel in Australia, Ricciardo in China, and Hamilton and Perez in Baku.
All these drivers have comparable skills, technology, and race experience separated by extremely small margins, therefore is it luck on race day? You decide…