(Photo credit: Artes Max)
Strategy is key
A lot of work goes on in the cockpit of a Formula 1 car during a race, but perhaps more so in the paddock. However, fans often forget how many races are won from the pit lane and today was a perfect example of the huge gains that can be made from bold but well-judged strategy call.
Mercedes were the winners from the first round of pit stops as they jumped both Ferrari’s by performing the undercut with Bottas and Hamilton. A slow reaction, and arguably poor strategy, saw Ferrari outsmarted not for the first time by the Silver Arrows. It seemed as if it was a race-winning decision to pit Bottas early, and even though we’ll never truly know, there’s a strong chance that the Finn would have secured his fourth career victory if it had not been for the Toro Rossos colliding.
This event triggered a safety car, and who was the quickest to react? Red Bull. Their cars may have been slightly further away from the pit lane when the safety car was deployed, thus giving them more time to decide, but the team not only made a brave call under pressure, but they also executed it to perfection by brilliantly double stacking their drivers in the pits.
Mercedes and Ferrari opted for track position whilst Red Bull went aggressive by giving both their drivers fresher and faster soft tyres. And it was this decision that ultimately won them a race. A race which under ordinary circumstances they probably wouldn’t have won. It goes to show just the difference a superior strategy call can make, and how F1 races can be won from as much from the pit wall as from inside the car.
The championship is wide open
After Vettel’s near perfect start to the season which saw him win the first two races, it seemed as if the season would be dominated by Ferrari and the German. Any suspicions of this, were wiped away in China.
Based on the last two races, it seems Ferrari have improved in one area they lacked in the last few seasons, qualifying. This will concern Mercedes who have notoriously held the edge over the Scuderia on Saturday’s, thanks in particular to Hamilton’s tremendous one-lap pace.
However, the cars seem much more closely matched in race pace, with little to choose between the two teams and Red Bull aren’t a million miles away either. The Austrian team may have had a tough start to the season, but they weren’t too far off the pace today and even without the safety car, they were in the hunt for a podium place.
With three races gone, it’s impossible to difficult who will be on top come the last race in Abu Dhabi - something that hasn't always been the case in Formula 1 over the last decade.
Verstappen must do better
It may seem harsh to criticise Verstappen this season since the Dutchman is still young and has a lot to learn in the sport. But Max is in his fourth season in the sport, and by now, many would have expected the Red Bull man to have matured significantly. To an extent he has as proved by his assertive drives in Malaysia and Mexico last season.
However, questions remain around his decision making when trying to pass on track as some of his manoeuvres fall into the ‘brave but foolish’ category of overtakes. The stewards deemed his collision in Bahrain with Hamilton as a racing incident, but even Max acknowledged he was at fault as he collided with Vettel today.
His attempt at overtaking Lewis Hamilton on the outside of the high-speed Turn Seven was also ill-considered. And this, along with his move on Vettel cost him a potential victory today, or at least a possible Red Bull one-two. Verstappen was ahead of his teammate when they came into the pits, and he was given the same strategy. The difference was that Ricciardo took his chance and won, whilst Verstappen finished fifth with a ten-second penalty.
Verstappen has had a woeful start to 2018 and needs a much improved performance in two weeks’ time.
Hulkenberg holds the early edge
It has been a brilliant start to 2018 for Nico Hulkenberg. Thanks to a seventh place finish in Australia, and two sixth place finishes since, the German sits in seventh in the drivers’ standings, having racked up an impressive 22 points for the team.
What will please him more is his performances relative to his teammate as Hulkenberg has out-raced Sainz in each of the three races and earned 18 more points than the Spaniard.
Coming into the season, I am sure Hulkenberg would have been feeling pressure as Sainz is a fantastic talent who showed his class at the tail end of 2017 in the Renault. But credit to the Hulk as he has responded well to those who said he may struggle against better intra-team competition (compared to Jolyon Palmer). Sainz will improve as the season progresses, and inevitably will beat his teammate to the line at some point. But it will be interesting to see how significant this early advantage proves to be in the races to come.
Fancy predicting the 2018 world champion after the first three races? Go on, be brave and let us know in the comments below.