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Sebastian Vettel after the qualifying session at Silverstone. Photo: AFP
Sebastian Vettel after the qualifying session at Silverstone. Photo: AFP

F1: Three-way title fight at half-point

Ferrari's revival this season has made a big difference to the way the 2017 championship is playing out

At the British Formula One Grand Prix (F1 GP) last weekend, Mercedes recorded their second one-two finish of the season, with Lewis Hamilton claiming a record-equalling fifth career-win at Silverstone and teammate Valtteri Bottas driving from ninth to finish second. Nearly a month ago, the duo had taken the first two positions at the Canadian GP in the seventh race of the season.

Over the last three years, halfway into the Formula One season, Mercedes have had two one-two finishes in 2016, six in 2015, and another six in 2014. The latter two seasons were a true indicator of Mercedes’ advantage over rivals after new engine rules came into force in 2014.

In 2016, Hamilton was locked in heated intra-team rivalry with the now retired former champion Nico Rosberg, so Mercedes’ record suffered a bit.

How did other teams fare? In 2014, Red Bull had one win at the halfway mark (Daniel Ricciardo won the Canadian GP). In 2015, Ferrari had two wins (Sebastian Vettel won the Malaysian and Hungarian GPs). In 2016, Red Bull again had a solitary win (Max Verstappen won in Spain).

At the halfway mark this year, there are four non-Mercedes winners. Ricciardo won the Azerbaijan GP, while Vettel won in Australia, Bahrain and Monaco. Vettel leads the points table, with Mercedes’ Hamilton one point behind and Bottas third.

Contrary to expectations, Vettel didn’t register a single victory in 2016, and Ferrari’s revival this season has made a big difference to the way the 2017 championship is playing out. The four-time world champion is spearheading a title challenge for Ferrari after 2012, when Fernando Alonso lost the title by three points.

This turnaround in Ferrari’s fortunes owes much to the rule changes this year. After an engine-dominant formula, the sport has finally moved back towards aerodynamically dominant cars, with broader tyres and more downforce coming into play.

Ferrari threw the kitchen sink at their 2017 challenger design during the off-season, and the change is evident in the way Vettel charged to successive podium finishes in the first six races. In fact, he didn’t finish lower than second until the Canadian GP (fourth), taking an early 25-point championship lead.

It was a somewhat unfamiliar position for both Hamilton and Mercedes. Over the last few seasons, Hamilton had fought large deficits against Rosberg but that was an intra-team rivalry, with the variables controlled, because the two drivers were racing in similar cars and the rest of the field was always playing catch up.

Ferrari’s title challenge means that for the first time since 2012, Mercedes no longer have a handle on Hamilton’s direct competitor. Hamilton has, however, managed wins in both Canada and then at his home circuit Silverstone, cutting Vettel’s championship lead to just one point.

It’s no longer about math though. It was in Azerbaijan (23-25 June) that the Vettel-Hamilton rivalry came to a boil. Vettel complained that Hamilton had “brake-tested" him at the end of a safety car period during the chaotic race in Baku; he, in turn, drove into Hamilton’s car.

Vettel was penalized and only narrowly escaped further punishment by the Federation Internationale de l’Automobile (FIA), the sport’s parent body. He apologized to Hamilton, but Vettel admitted that their friendship had suffered.

“It’s not the same, because I messed up," Vettel said at the next race in Austria. “I told him I understand if he’s not happy and not cool about it. But I hope time will fix things."

The script is quite similar to the Hamilton-Rosberg rivalry, though it spurs the British driver, who completed a near-perfect racing weekend at Silverstone.

“When Valtteri caught him, I was super happy and thinking that yes, we will take that (result). I couldn’t have imagined that Vettel would have a problem at the end (referring to the puncture). So to close the gap, and this close, at the British GP is fantastic. But we have got to keep pushing and fighting," said Hamilton, after becoming only the second Briton (since Jim Clark) to win five home races.

While Hamilton’s post-race demeanour was very different from Austria, where he finished fourth and trailed Vettel by 20 points, there is a third angle to this season’s championship that is only now starting to emerge. Hamilton may have finished the victor in Mercedes’ three wins in the last four races, but it is his teammate Bottas who is enjoying a richer vein of form.

The Finn won in Austria (his second win after Russia), but, more importantly, finished second in Canada, Azerbaijan and Silverstone.

Bottas, who replaced Rosberg after the latter announced a shock retirement in December, trails Vettel and Hamilton by 23 and 22 points, respectively. As the unpredictable British GP showed, it’s a gap that can be closed quite speedily on track.

Chetan Narula is the author of Skipper—A Definitive Account Of India’s Greatest Captains.

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