For the first time since nearly a decade, two big teams are starting the F1 season neck and neck, with every side hungry enough to win the driver’s as well as the constructor’s championships. Ferrari or Mercedes? Most F1 observers are posing a question that hasn’t been asked for a long time.
Vettel winning in Bahrain
Ferrari dominated with four consecutive driver’s championships with Michael Schumacher from 2000-2004, usually chased by his teammate Rubens Barrichello. Then came Fernando Alonso with Renault, Sebastian Vettel with Red Bull who also had his teammate Mark Webber as his main rival, then Lewis Hamilton with Mercedes with Nico Rosberg breathing down his neck. The idea of one team dominating with the best car and driver formula, in addition to taking away the V12s and the V8s, took much fun out of the game the past decade.
This season, with new rules and faster cars, people were optimistic, but they definitely didn’t see what was coming. Ferrari took advantage of the new rules and came out with a car capable of keeping up with Mercedes. There was a new strategy as well, with Vettel clearly the No 1 driver. Same for Mercedes which had a clear vision from the pre-season period when they brought in Valtteri Bottas, a good driver but who would never ask for more? What about Kimi Raikkonen? It may be obvious that the former world champion knew what Scuderia Ferrari’s Director Maurizio Arrivabene was holding from the start of the season but how patient is Kimi? That’s the question.
In the Chinese Grand Prix, Ferrari delayed Raikkonen’s pit stop, giving priority to Vettel who was fighting with Hamilton for the first and second positions which cost Raikkonen a podium finish. Another incident which the Finnish had in China was a problem with the torque in his car, which meant he neither had the best car nor even one equal to Vettel’s. The role of Raikkonen this season will be collecting as many points as possible. That holds true for Bottas at Mercedes who already had a sloppy start to the season, but what a comeback he had in Bahrain, scoring his first ever pole position, proving a point to his team, Mercedes.
So, what could possibly go wrong for the two teams? Red Bull might have something to say through their two eager drivers, Max Verstappen and Daniel Ricciardo, but that is only possible if Ferrari and Mercedes decided to, as it is crystal clear that the current Red Bull engines are out of the race to win the championship. Some might say that the team is miles away from threatening Ferrari and Mercedes, but Red Bull doesn’t have to be a title contender in order to pose a threat to Ferrari or Mercedes. Winning the points that the second drivers of Ferrari and Mercedes want to win, and keeping up the pressure throughout the season on Hamilton and Vettel will increase their chances of winning the constructor’s championship and maybe second place at the driver’s championship if the unexpected happens to either Hamilton or Vettel — maybe engine blows or accidents — like what happened with Hamilton last season, costing him the championship.
Arrivabene and Wolff
But Red Bull has a slight problem. Some maybe don’t call it that because they don’t like to show that they have a biased team strategy towards one of their drivers. Many still remember the fights and team radio shouts at the time of Vettel and Webber. In China a sign popped up that those days might be back, when Verstappen shouted through the team radio “it’s ridiculous”, when Ricciardo was putting pressure on him in the last laps. Verstappen even asked the team to stop giving him instructions.
The strategy is understandable. They are giving equal support to both drivers until one of them goes much further. Then he will be given priority. What is exciting about this to neutral fans is that both drivers know that, and they have already started battling. Verstappen seems to be much more aggressive and that’s what’s keeping him ahead. No wonder he was picked the best driver in the Chinese Grand Prix. But, again the car has a bigger role, and that was seen in Bahrain when Verstappen brakes failed ruling him out early, and toughening his championship ambition.
So, when it gets even hotter in the season, and despite Verstappen and Riccardo being on good terms, the duo will definitely show us some drama, even comedy.
So team strategies and qualifying seem to be the two main deciders this season. In Bahrain, even with Valteri Bottas ahead of Hamilton, the team was trying to get the last in front to chase Vettel.
Drivers and Teams Championship
With only five takeovers in the China Grand Prix, and a late pit stop by Ferrari costing Raikkonen a podium finish, those were certainly enough signs of how both Ferrari and Mercedes are aiming. And with Bottas back to life, Raikkonen will be asked to push more by his team, and he will certainly ask them for a strategy that supports him for sure, running the super soft tiers for 27 laps in Bahrain will probably not be accepted again by the iceman. Who will be the mastermind? Toto Wolff or Arrivabene? A question that will definitely be answered in the coming races.