MERCEDES AMG PETRONAS MOTORSPORT – POINTS: 655 | POSITION: FIRST
2018 was forecasted to be the year that Mercedes AMG Petronas Motorsport‘s white-knuckle grip on the sport, in its modern era, was severely threatened. For the first half of the year, it looked to be playing out that way. Sebastian Vettel and Scuderia Ferrari had buried any lingering wobbles after their ’17 challenge fell spectacularly in Asia, handing the championship double to Mercedes and Lewis Hamilton.
They had worked on an evolution of the SF70-H and were confident in what they had produced. Vettel was approaching his fourth season with the team and was a more settled personality. Ferrari had made massive improvements on the engine front too, the unit could arguably have been considered as the frontrunner in the class of ’18.
Yet, the same thing happened. This time, it was even earlier. And who was there to pick up the pieces? Mercedes and Hamilton, with ruthless efficiency.
When looking at the numbers, 2018 was an astonishing year for Mercedes’ Formula 1 squad. Hamilton recorded 11 victories, equaling his total from ’14, took 11 pole positions, reached the podium 17 out of a possible 21 times and totted up the highest points total in an individual season in the sport’s history with 408 – 88 points ahead of Vettel.
The Constructors’ Championship was also won for the fifth year in succession. 655 points, 84 ahead of Ferrari, 11 victories – all courtesy of Hamilton – 13 pole positions and 25 podiums. As if anyone was correct to doubt them!
Stability has been a key component in Mercedes’ continued success in Formula 1. The new role of Technical Director was taken up by James Allison, previously of Ferrari, to great success in 2017 – following the departure of Executive Director Paddy Lowe to Williams Martini Racing. Aside from that key player shuffle, the unit has stayed together and continued to build on previous success.
The car, the complexly monikered F1 W09 EQ Power+, also followed this theme. Largely similar to its predecessor, the ’18 car saw Ferrari-inspired narrow sidepod inlets and the mandatory introduction of the halo in the interests of safety. This wasn’t down to complacency, as Hamilton and team boss Toto Wolff emphasised their need to improve year after year in order to stay ahead of elite level competition.
“[2017 was] an amazing season but by no means a perfect one,” Hamilton said, in an interview with title sponsors Petronas.
“There are always areas you can improve on. I think Red Bull will be quicker and Ferrari for sure will be fast again. We can’t stand still – we have to keep moving forwards.”
Wolff echoed the feeling that previous successes bear no relevancy in the present.
“Each of us has the mindset that last year’s Championships belong in the past; yesterday’s trophies don’t win today’s games,” he said.
“A new season feels like climbing Mount Everest – we’ve done it successfully in the past, but we’re only in the base camp at the moment. It will be a tough journey, with the same target, but different challenges to master along the way.
“Right now, we start this long season on zero points like every one of our rivals.”
Winter testing was a modest time, the focus on mileage and consistency in difficult, cold conditions at the Circuit de Barcelona-Catalunya. Between them, Hamilton and team-mate Valtteri Bottas recorded an impressive 1,035 laps with the former topping the timing screens on just one out of the eight days.
But there were still thoughts that their pitlane neighbours may get the better of the all-conquering machine.
Come Saturday afternoon at Albert Park, the doubters fell quiet. Bottas’s crucial second season got off to a terrible start with a big collision with the wall after taking liberties with the astroturf at Turn 2, leaving him fifteenth after a five-place grid drop. Hamilton meanwhile thrashed the lap record with a jaw-dropping time of 1 minute 21.164 seconds, almost seven-tenths clear of closest rival Kimi Räikkönen.
But like the 2017 edition of the Australian Grand Prix, Mercedes were caught out on strategy. This time, it was hardly their fault. Having brought Hamilton into the pits on lap 17, both Haas F1 Team cars suffered problems with their pitstops and had to stop on track – triggering a Virtual Safety Car. The cynics came out in full force, citing the Haas/Ferrari link with threadbare arguments, as Vettel emerged ahead after pitting and went on to take victory by five seconds. At a track not know for its overtaking opportunities, Bottas could only salvage eighth.
Bahrain brought more frustration. Another gearbox penalty, this time for Hamilton, left a Mercedes down the order. The Brit scrapped from ninth to take third place, while Bottas had Vettel – on supposedly “done” tyres – and the race win in his sights.
A lack of decisiveness saw him pull out of making a move at Turn 1 to great criticism. Was he really the right man to fight for a championship? Vettel continued his 100% win record in 2018, pulling 17 points clear of Hamilton.
TO FINISH FIRST, FIRST THE FINN MUST FINISH
The next two races piled more woe and pressure onto Bottas’s usually broad shoulders. In China, another VSC period and Mercedes’ reluctance to bring either driver in saw Daniel Ricciardo hunt down the top five on fresher tyres, passing the colliding Vettel and Max Verstappen, Hamilton, Räikkönen and Bottas with a breathtaking move at the Turn 6 hairpin for the win. But worse was to come in Azerbaijan.
The Azeri capital threw up another captivating spectacle, with Bottas leading as the Safety Car for Verstappen and Ricciardo’s contentious meeting pulled in on lap 48 of 51. This time he was on brand new tyres at a track that suits his – and the Mercedes’ – style. No pussyfooting, Vettel laid all of his cards on the table from the restart and lunged for the lead at Turn 1. He got it wrong and had to rejoin on flat-spotted tyres in fourth. By the time lap 49 arrived, the Finn had over a second’s lead to Hamilton, before a stray piece of debris from the Red Bull tangle punctured his right rear tyre and forced him to retire. Wolff was seen in shock in the Mercedes garage, unable to comprehend what he had just witnessed. Hamilton too was almost sheepish in inheriting a 63rd career victory, his first of the season.
“I have very mixed emotions today. Valtteri deserved to win,” he ceded. “He did an exceptional job and had a faultless drive.”
“I would not have got by him in the remaining laps if he hadn’t had his tyre blow.”
In an interview with F1 Racing, issued in October, the Finn opened up about the full toll it took on him.
“It was very painful,” he admitted.
“I stayed in Baku that night and I remember when I got back to the hotel room I just collapsed on my knees and was crying like a baby. I’d never done that before.”
There was more disappointment to come too. After being tagged into a spin at the first corner by a kamikaze Vettel in France, Bottas said he didn’t know whether to “laugh or cry” at his misfortunes as he finished a lowly seventh. One week later in Austria, the 29-year-old bounced back to take his second successive pole at the Red Bull Ring but dropped to fourth with a shaky start. Having swiftly climbed back to second, lap 13 and hydraulics failure marked the end of his charge. Indeed if circumstances had been different, Bottas could have been entering the British Grand Prix the following week with a rather sizeable lead in the Drivers’ Championship. However ifs and buts don’t carry any real meaning and instead, he languished outside the top five and remained winless.
If one side of the garage was trying desperately to fight against the current, the other was gaining traction. Victory in Baku paved the way for wins in Spain and France for Hamilton but, like Bottas, mechanical retirement halted a frustrating trip to the Styrian mountains. It was Mercedes’ first double retirement since the Spanish Grand Prix in 2016, a first double technical retirement since Sir Stirling Moss and Karl Kling in the 1955 Italian Grand Prix.
Vettel had recovered from a dip in form, even taking a commanding win at a ‘Hamilton circuit’ in Montreal, thanks to some late simulator work on the Friday evening from Ferrari reserve Antonio Giovinazzi, and the British Grand Prix. That left the Brit trailing by nine points heading into Vettel’s home race at the Hockenheimring.
Ferrari were still growing in confidence, and had the best all-round package by the summer. Another hydraulics issue, this time caused by Hamilton running over some aggressive kerbs at Turn 1 in Qualifying 2, left the Mercedes to start from fourteenth. Valiantly, he tried to get his car back to the pits against team requests – even getting out to push – before accepting his fate just before the stadium section. He slumped against the side of his car on the escape road as Vettel charged to pole with a lap record time two-tenths better than Bottas’ stellar best effort.
LAP 51, SACHSKURVE, 15:23, 22 JULY 2018
A rainstorm had threatened to hit the circuit during the race, and it did. Most of the field continued on dry tyres – Hamilton had just come in for a fresh set of ultra-soft tyres after a long first stint- with few ill effects. In a crazy sequence that started with Bottas and Räikkönen squirming around while scrapping and Sergio Pérez spinning at Turn 9, Vettel lost control into the banked Sachskurve and was powerless to retrieve the situation, hitting the wall.
Team orders prevented Bottas from challenging new race leader Hamilton, who kept a remarkable and unlikely victory after a stewards enquiry declared him not guilty of transgressing pitlane entry rules. There was confusion over the radio in regards to bringing the champion in for a pit stop, a late call left him to scamper across the grass and rejoin the track.
The decision saw him take a 17 point lead in the championship with one round before the summer break. Rain in Hungarian qualifying saw Hamilton hit his top form, the adverse conditions helping Mercedes achieve an unfancied one-two. Even in the dry, Hamilton used his knowledge and speed around Budapest to help himself to a commanding victory over Vettel, increasing the gap to 24 points just prior to a three week hiatus. Ferrari had to stew over their losses.
Germany marked the turning point of the season. Having claimed four victories, one behind Hamilton’s five in the first 12 rounds of the season, Vettel could only manage one more victory before the year’s end. It came immediately after summer had passed, in Belgium. There were talks of a revival, but a number of driver and team strategy errors – most pertinently in Italy and Japan – put paid to that.
Mercedes and Hamilton continued to get results, in an almost Manchester United under Sir Alex Ferguson way. They didn’t have to be at their best, but they kept their composure and Hamilton delivered when needed. Against any of the other 18 drivers on the grid, Verstappen’s lap in qualifying for Singapore would have been good enough to take pole by a healthy margin. Unfortunately for the Dutchman, Hamilton moved up another gear to arguably produce the greatest lap of his career.
Russia proved to be the most contentious race in a relatively quiet second half of the season. At another of his specialist circuits, Bottas had the upper hand over Hamilton and looked on course to break a winless run that stretched back to the final round of 2017. Once again, strategy got the better of him and he was ordered to make way for Hamilton. He obliged, but it left a sour taste in the mouth after the weekend ended.
In the formal post-race press conference, Hamilton once again felt a sense of unjust in the way he won and developed a 50 point lead.
“I said [over the radio]: “just tell him to speed up”.
“I was waiting to get some news [regarding a position switch at the end] or something like that but I knew that the team wanted it to end that way.
“It’s obviously never, ever in my whole life been the way I’ve wanted to win a race. I just want to shine it on to Valtteri.”
Three races, one win and another podium later, Hamilton wrapped up the title in Mexico – for the second year in succession – with fourth place. Going against the grain, he didn’t ease up in the remaining two rounds and claimed two more victories – Brazil saw the Constructors’ crown sewn up. Few could argue with Hamilton and Mercedes deserving the titles, they maintained a level of consistency that Vettel and Ferrari could not match. Unfortunately for Bottas, he became the first Mercedes driver to fail to take a win since Michael Schumacher in 2012 and must improve next year if he is to stay for much longer. Another unwanted plaque, his tally of seven second places without taking a win in a season is a Formula 1 record.
2019 AND BEYOND
For Mercedes, the goal is simple: to take another Drivers’ and Constructors’ Championship title. Achieving it won’t be just that. Ferrari will return with Vettel and the eager Charles Leclerc in place of Räikkönen; a proper double threat may take the championship beyond rounds 19 and 20.
Referring back to stability, there are changes for ’19. In a “significant moment” for the team, an internal reshuffle sees head of engineering Aldo Costa move to a technical advisor role for personal reasons, the Italian wishing to spend more time with his family. His berth is taken by John Owen, previously the team’s chief designer.
Mark Ellis is retiring as performance director, with Loic Serra being promoted from chief vehicle dynamicist. Ellis will stay as a mentor to Serra until mid-2019.
Additionally, The Checkered Flag wishes that non-executive chairman Niki Lauda can make a full return to the paddock next year, following his recovery from a lung transplant last August.
Hamilton and Bottas remain for the foreseeable future. Despite seeming rather blasé about the issue, you get the suspicion that Hamilton will try and break or equal Schumacher’s seven titles and 91 victories. Should he and Mercedes continue their trend, both could happen by the end of 2020.
Bottas has a new pressure in ’19. Esteban Ocon‘s Mercedes ties counted against him in the race for a seat outside of the Racing Point F1 Team and he has had to settle for a reserve and testing role. With manager Wolff eager to make Ocon a Mercedes champion in the future, the Finn’s days are looking increasingly numbered by the day.
There was, however, good news for another of their prospects in 2018. George Russell took the FIA Formula 2 series championship and sealed a move to Williams for next year. He too will be snapping on Bottas’s heels if he impresses against the returning Robert Kubica.