School’s out for summer. Lewis has gone to a beach and half the drivers, and teams, on the grid are worrying about the future.
It is half-time in the Formula One World Championship, that three-week break when the factories close for two and paddock regulars are forced to take a European summer break from arguably the most cut-throat of all the elite global sports.
It is a great time to relax for the winners, but a tough time for the losers in one of sport’s hardest schools.
So, where to begin a mid-season report?
The landscape of F1® has featured many dramatic changes since the season-opening race at Albert Park – the muddled confusion over qualifying formats, wild knee-jerk rule changes and inconsistent penalties among them.
Red Bull and Toro Rosso have swapped a couple of drivers, leading to the emergence of the astonishing Dutch teenager Max Verstappen as F1®’s youngest race winner and luckless Russian Daniil Kvyat losing his confidence and his way.
Ferrari have gone from potential runners-up to potential also-rans, the prancing horse looking more like a donkey than a thoroughbred at times in recent races.
Their star driver four-time world champion Sebastian Vettel refused to pit when requested during last Sunday’s German Grand Prix (when in a regulations u-turn teams’ radio conversations were broadcast in full).
“Negative,” he told them, firmly. Firmly enough to need a decent on-message explanation after the race… In a year of expletives and bleeps, Ferrari are the team that uses most English profanities.
Or the resurgence of Red Bull where following the arrival of 18-year-old Verstappen, whose no-nonsense and aggressive style has made him a star already? It has also, by coincidence, given his team-mate Australian Daniel Ricciardo a firm jab somewhere in his sensitive nether regions – and made the Perth racer faster and more focused.
No, even as Sauber struggle to survive, as Rio Haryanto toils to stay and Valtteri Bottas wonders where he can go next after Williams, there is only one real story.
The intra-team duel at Mercedes, which has been the big contest of the last two seasons, has continued to deliver all the Hollywood storylines this year.
And, if anything, it is an even bigger and more widely enjoyed dramatic sporting soap-opera than ever before as the boffin-like family man Rosberg analyses his chances against the raw rock star from the mean streets of Stevenage, Hamilton.
Nobody writes about the colour of their skin, but it also a factor just like their backgrounds – the Monegasque rich kid against the boy from a broken home and a mixed marriage on a council estate.
But that is just the back-story.
This season has seen the rivalry deliver more intensity and suspense than ever before – plus a few bangs, bashes and crashes.
Both 31, long-time team-mates and sometime friends, they have produced a classic first half with Rosberg reeling off four wins in succession.
He looked supremely motivated and had the identity and image to be a marketing man’s dream with Silver Arrows’ success.
Hamilton looked haggard, hit by bad luck, mechanical failures and opening lap collisions as he gathered himself to respond.
And then, after the trips to Australia, Bahrain, China and Russia, came Spain. The first European race on familiar ground at Barcelona – and with it came… CRASH!
The first lap shunt that took out both men handed the race to Red Bull and they handed it to Verstappen on a memorable day in warm Catalan springtime sunshine.
Mercedes’ pit wall was livid. The bosses in Stuttgart were stunned. The boys had gone too far this time….
And they touched again in Canada, but survived, and whacked wheels hard – and a bit more – in Austria. The pain was palpable on team chief Toto Wolff’s face. He was ageing before our eyes.
By then, of course, Hamilton had rediscovered his mojo, regrouped his team (many of his mechanics had crossed the Mercedes garage in an off-season shake-up) and found some good fortune. No more engine failures.
He ended his drought with a sumptuous triumph in Monaco, repeated the feat in Canada and then slumped into a qualifying sulk in Baku, at the European Grand Prix, where Rosberg hit back.
The German had regained the momentum. Or had he?
July arrived with Hamilton looking serious. He had bounced off Rosberg in Canada and he survived another crash on the penultimate lap on his way to winning in Austria, passing the leader in the process.
Rosberg fell back to finish fourth, a psychological blow that enabled Hamilton to rise and race like a true champion – delivering superb victories in succession on home turf at Silverstone, in the heat of Hungary and in front of Rosberg’s fellow-Germans, and the Mercedes top brass, in Hockenheim.
Six wins in seven, four in a row… No wonder he was bouncing like a teenager and heading for the beach. Rosberg, hurt, confused and unable to explain how he had thrown away two successive pole positions, had gone form 43 points ahead in May to 19 behind his nemesis by August.
One day, this season may be worth transforming into a movie. It has all the ingredients so far…
Behind the marvellous Mercedes team, Red Bull rose to overthrow Ferrari – where internal strain is apparent after the mutually-agreed departure of technical chief Briton James Allison, home to England following the death of his wife Rebecca – and emerge as a serious threat to the Silver Arrows.
To make the next step, however, someone has to beat Hamilton, a racer who Wolff believes is unbeatable when he is at his very best.
“The guy has great talent and speed and on a good day he’s unbeatable,” said Wolff. “But then it’s still a mechanical sport, he’s human and you can have bad days and worse…”
Perhaps realising what he had said, he added that Rosberg “can recover... There are still nine races to go, with still over 200 points to collect. And anything goes.
“He’s mentally very strong and nothing’s done yet...”
True Toto, but if we have learned anything so far it is that Hamilton is on course for his fourth title.
Last year, when he partied for the final three races, Hamilton won five of ten to take his third title with ease. Despite his best efforts to toughen up, Rosberg is still a suspect softie in wheel-to-wheel races where Hamilton bosses the mob.
So, here are 10 half-time lessons learned:
- It is Hamilton’s title to lose
- Ferrari are sliding and face a crisis of confidence to recover. Vettel may be losing faith, too, as the internal politicking of old threatens to engulf Maranello.
- After a torrid time in 2015, Red Bull are riding high again, their upgraded Renault engine is delivering more power and the drivers look like a match for anyone.
- Max Verstappen is a rising star and future champion only if Red Bull – and Adrian Newey in particular with new technical rules next year – can give him a race-winning car.
- If that happens, expect a proper Aussie response from Ricciardo and some of the rivalry seen at Mercedes to be repeated in the Milton Keynes team.
- Williams have a fight on their hands to fend off the challenge from improved outfits like Force India and Renault.
- Sauber have seemingly risen from the dead, or dying, and found new investment to enable survival. The Swiss team belong in the sport and give F1 a depth and range that is important.
- Manor are minnows, but strong ones and let’s hope that Indonesia’s first and only F1 driver Rio Haryanto is given the backing he needs to keep his seat.
- After ruthless demotion from Red Bull, Kvyat is struggling to survive – emotionally and professionally – and deserves support at Toro Rosso to bring his talent back to life. But F1® is no place for tears…
- Finally, the sport needs rules that do not change every week. Yellow flags are not red. The track is not a wide unmarked road that can be abused at will. And let the racers’ race and the teams’ talk so everyone enjoys the show.
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