Ferrari-Mercedes rivalry, Hamilton's tepidity, Force India's admirable start: Takeaways from F1 season so far

As the dust settles on the events of the Russian Grand Prix, now is a good time to look back at the first four races of the season to understand what exactly is going on this season — and possibly, what lies ahead.

Things are mixed up, and how

Let me take you back to last year, this time. Nico Rosberg had won four races on the trot in an ultimate show of Mercedes dominance — while Lewis Hamilton was nowhere in sight. Thank God the situation is very, very different this year. We have had three different race winners in four races. Even better, we have two teams who have won races and are capable of fighting for the title with only a one-point difference at the top of the Constructors’ table.

Mercedes driver Valtteri Bottas won the first title of his F1 career at the Russian Grand Prix. AP

Mercedes driver Valtteri Bottas won the first title of his F1 career at the Russian Grand Prix. AP

While the trend in the first three races seemed to suggest that Mercedes’ qualifying pace was unmatched while Ferrari were quicker on race pace, Russia blasted that theory too. Essentially, we have a real battle on our hands and everything to play for.

Will the real Hamilton please stand up?

After last season’s stinging loss, we were expecting F1’s rockstar Hamilton to be fired up and super aggressive. Surprisingly, that hasn’t quite been the case. Despite winning in China, Hamilton has been fairly tepid overall. We are not seeing him ruthlessly dominate Valtteri Bottas as we had expected — in fact, Bottas has out-qualified Hamilton in the last two races. Moreover, Hamilton finished 36 seconds behind Bottas in Russia (despite no specific incident or penalty), which will be cause of concern to him.

Mercedes' driver Lewis Hamilton has had a relatively tepid season so far, with just one title to his name in 2017. AFP

Mercedes' driver Lewis Hamilton has had a relatively tepid season so far, with just one title to his name in 2017. AFP

Even off the track, Hamilton has been strangely low-key. Whatever happened to the partying with Rihanna, the jet-setting across the Atlantic and the motorbike selfies? As F1’s new owners know only too well, Hamilton’s off-screen persona is exactly what the sport needs to add interest. Bring back the real Lewis, we say.

Inside Mercedes

When it first became evident that Mercedes’ era of unquestioned dominance is over thanks to Ferrari, we wondered whether Mercedes had forgotten what it was like to compete. Surely their new decision on team orders is a sign that they are thinking about defending their championship while trying to be as fair to both drivers. Mercedes will also be keen to continue pushing Bottas towards greatness, while trying to keep Hamilton engaged (and inspired). Their vision for the future will be a crucial factor in determining whether they choose to extend Bottas’ one year contract or not.

Meanwhile at Ferrari, a crucial factor in their championship success is Kimi Raikkonen — and I really hope that he doesn’t land up being their ‘weakest link.’ As we head into the start of the ‘contract negotiation’ window, there are questions abound. Will Raikkonen be granted yet another year at Ferrari, or is the team eyeing a newer, younger talent? Moreover, should Ferrari choose to not retain Raikkonen for 2018, how will they keep him motivated to give his best through the season?

Making sense of the midfield

Force India are showing us that their 2016 finish was no fluke — by attempting to finish fourth again. This overachieving team has a lot to be proud of, and their start to this season is one such thing. In fact, 2017 has been the team’s best start to a season yet — amassing 31 points in 4 races, 13 ahead of Williams in fifth place. Interestingly enough, Sergio Perez is equal on points with Daniel Ricciardo in the drivers’ standings.

Sahara Force India's drivers Sergio Perez (R) and Esteban Ocon (L) during the launch of their 2017 car. AFP

Sahara Force India's drivers Sergio Perez (R) and Esteban Ocon (L) during the launch of their 2017 car. AFP

What’s working well in Force India's favour is consistency and that both their cars are delivering points. Surely, Perez will be looking to impress again this season (he had two podiums last season) with cockpits potentially available at Mercedes and Ferrari for 2018. Esteban Ocon’s four out of four scoring finishes won’t go unnoticed either.

Felipe Massa seems to be genuinely enjoying himself this season, and he’s having his best season since 2008. Lace Stroll needs to start pulling things together for himself (finishing his first-ever race in Russia is a good step ahead) to avoid being written off as a ‘Pastor Maldonado type.’

Red Bull Racing

This is one team that has had a disappointing start to 2017. Not only have they failed to keep pace with the front of the grid (about 30 seconds off the lead Mercedes/Ferrari), but they’ve suffered from recurring break troubles too. They will also be looking to solve their engine issue via Renault’s upgrades expected in Canada. No use having an ultra talented driver line up without a worthy car for them to drive. Hopefully, their upgrades will kick-in for the Spanish Grand Prix and we’ll see them gaining ground.

It’s important to remember that for Red Bull Racing, which is not a car manufacturer, the biggest takeaway from Formula 1 is the brand imagery they create. In 2017, they’ve been so quiet and low-key that they’ve gotten minimal coverage and chatter.

McLaren, what do we say?

It seems like Mclaren’s woes will never end. They’ve had two DNS (Did Not Start) situations in the past two races, and team morale is probably at an all-time low. The team really does need to make some big interventions (and no, not from a marketing or brand point of view) to save itself. How long will McLaren bear this, and how much longer before they show Honda the door?

Interestingly enough, Zac Brown recently said that they would consider Hamilton and Sebastian Vettel if Fernando Alonso chose to move on from the team. If Alonso departs, does McLaren have the package to attract big names to drive for them? Also, with Sauber also moving to Honda power in 2018, there is added pressure on the engine suppliers to get it right.

The Spanish Grand Prix will herald the start of the European leg of the sport. Teams and drivers have tested at the Circuit de Catalunya more than they have tested at any other circuit venue in the recent times. Given the aero-heavy nature of the circuit, will it deliver yet another a classic or will it be a Russian-type dud? The 2017 titles are a two-way fight yet with Red Bull Racing having lost considerable ground in the opening four rounds. Will they recover from Spain? Tune in and find out.

Updated Date: May 02, 2017 17:33 PM

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