Lewis Hammers Down Fourth World Title

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Ninth place at the Mexican Grand Prix was all that Lewis Hamilton needed to bring home his fourth World Drivers’ Championship. It was a luxury that Hamilton was able to afford after an astonishing run of races following the summer break. Starting from the Belgian Grand Prix at Spa in late August, Hamilton won five of the last seven races, with his only shortcomings being a second-place finish in Malaysia and the ninth-place in Mexico. Coming into this past Sunday’s race, Hamilton already had such a commanding advantage atop the championship standings. The man known for “Hammer Time” needed one final nail to firmly secure the 2017 championship.

After winning two out of three intra-team championship battles with then-teammate Nico Rosberg, Hamilton took on an inter-team foe this year, as Sebastian Vettel led an imposing Scuderia Ferrari campaign to topple Mercedes at the top of the grid. Ferrari’s SF70H machine was widely-considered as the best car among the rest of the field due to its versatility—it worked well on both low-speed and high-speed tracks. But Mercedes has been the best team in F1 since 2014 for a reason. Aside from still having the grid’s most powerful engine at the back of the W08 Hybrid, they executed as a team when it counted most, capitalizing on their rivals’ mistakes and making no mistakes of their own.

Mercedes clinched the Constructors’ Championship last weekend in the US Grand Prix, their fourth consecutive title, but the Drivers’ Championship had been openly up-for-grabs all season (at least up until the Hungarian Grand Prix). Vettel and Hamilton traded race wins very early on, as an unpredictable duel for the driver’s crown was built up.

For the past seven races, however, that particular duel has been a rather one-sided affair. The summer break was the turning point of the title race, where one driver (along with his team) kept his nose clean while the other driver (along with his team) not so much.

Hamilton carved a defining championship run over the past two months, beginning at the Belgian Grand Prix. At Spa, during a Safety Car restart, Vettel had one chance to challenge for the race lead but Hamilton eked out enough power out of his Mercedes engine to hold his rival off.

The following week, Mercedes marched into the Scuderia’s backyard and annihilated the entire field in what was arguably their most imposing race of the season, scoring the one-two finish with Hamilton taking the win. At that point, Hamilton took the championship lead but many thought that his new advantage would be short-lived, considering that the next few tracks supposedly favored the Ferraris.

Indeed in Singapore, the two best cars were the Ferraris and the Red Bulls. Vettel put on a breathless qualifying lap to assume pole position for the night race. The following night, a rain shower pelted the streets of Singapore right before the start of the race, an unprecedented situation of a wet night race. Heavily favored to win, it only took just over a hundred meters for Vettel’s race to meet catastrophe. Hamilton, starting from fifth on the grid that night, took the lead as the two Ferraris and the Red Bull of Max Verstappen all took each other out within the first half minute of the race. Counting his lucky stars after a calm, trouble-free start, he tiptoed his way around a damp Marina Bay Street Circuit to clinch the win and more importantly, an instant 25-point advantage against Vettel.

Looking for a bounce-back performance in Malaysia, Vettel would instead be hindered after an engine failure in Qualifying forced him to start the race from the very back, while Hamilton secured another pole position. For the Mercedes driver, all he needed was keep his cool under the punishing Malaysian sun. For the Ferrari driver, a valiant comeback drive was required. Hamilton led early but the red-hot Red Bull of Verstappen was hungry for a race win. Hamilton played it safe to finish in second place. Meanwhile, Vettel delivered on his requirements, clawing his way up the field to finish fourth.

A week later in Japan, the Mercedes looked strong, as Hamilton scored another pole position. Needing to keep pace with his rival, Vettel’s luck would run out completely when a rare spark plug issue forced him to retire from the race after only a few laps—easily another zero-points weekend for the Ferrari driver. Hamilton, shaking off a late challenge from Verstappen, would claim victory in Suzuka.

At the US Grand Prix, Hamilton started the race from pole and won. Vettel took the lead at the start but was overtaken later on. The Ferrari had no answer to the Mercedes as it became clear that Hamilton was running away with the championship and Vettel’s hopes were dimming.

Even with the odds heavily stacked against him, Vettel still fought for and claimed a pole position in Mexico. The Mercedes was again challenged, so Hamilton qualified third. At the start of the race, it was Verstappen, the second-place starter, who impressed with an overtake around the outside at Turn 1. Having lost the lead right away, Vettel drove a bit clumsily, losing pieces of his front wing following contact first with Verstappen and then Hamilton. The second contact resulted in a puncture to Hamilton’s right-rear tire. The two championship contenders had to pit immediately for the damages they sustained, falling to the back of the field. Vettel fought back to a fourth place finish while Hamilton could only go as far as ninth, since he lost more time in the first lap. Nonetheless, that result was good enough to beat Vettel in the championship fight.

There’s no doubt that Vettel pushed himself to the limit when it was required of him, as seen in his performances in Malaysia and Mexico. The costly accident at the start of the Singapore Grand Prix was a staggering blow to his chances but his early exit from the Japanese Grand Prix due to a faulty spark plug was the one that really hurt. On both occasions where Vettel was helpless, Hamilton maximized the damage by scoring wins.

Both the Drivers’ and the Constructors’ titles have made it back to Brackley. In a tense championship fight, Lewis Hamilton emerged triumphant by stringing together a strong seven-race run that proved decisive.

There are two races to go this season but no more titles are on the line. From now on, it’s all about bragging rights.

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F1 Memories: Remembering the Ferrari photo-finish in Indianapolis, 2002

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Photo sourced here

On the weekend of the 2002 United States Grand Prix, I was only seven years old. It was the same weekend that I had my appendectomy. I had the operation on Saturday morning and spent the next two days in the hospital, traumatized by the IV needle stuck in my left arm and the fact that I had just been professionally sliced open and had an organ, albeit useless, pulled out from my insides. Looking back, I’m quite amazed that I only spent two full days confined in hospital because I felt like I was there forever. After the longest 48 hours of my life, I was discharged on Monday morning.

When I got home, I still moved very gingerly but I thought that at least I wasn’t in the hospital anymore. And at least I can finally eat again after being disallowed to ingest any food by mouth for two days.

That evening, my dad and I caught a rerun of the F1 US Grand Prix on television. What better way to instantly lift my spirits back up! I sat back and tried my best not to get too excited over the start of the race lest I over-exert myself and my nightmare scenario of re-opening my surgical cut came true. Thankfully, I controlled myself and it was highly likely the first time I’ve ever watched an F1 race without jumping up and down in excitement.

The race featured a dominating Ferrari performance, typical during the early 2000s. Michael Schumacher led the way, followed closely by Rubens Barrichello. No wonder I didn’t get too excited because this was the kind of race that I was so used to seeing!

And then came the ending. Schumacher and Barrichello were pretty much cruising through the final few bends. Suddenly, Michael slowed down, allowed his teammate to get alongside him to finish the race side-by-side. On the official results, Rubens finished 0.011 seconds ahead of Michael to claim the win. The result had little effect on the championship, as Michael had already become champion at that point.

Two Ferraris taking the checkered flag line astern sure made for an awesome image. Earlier that season in the Austrian Grand Prix, Rubens was set to take the win but slowed down after the final corner, yielding the victory to Michael in a very controversial finish. In the Italian Grand Prix, the Scuderia’s home race, the two Ferraris finished together in formation but Rubens had a clear advantage of about a car’s length. In Indianapolis, they attempted it again and I never imagined that it would be so shockingly close at the line. I never imagined that Michael would slow down a bit too much and I thought that maybe Rubens would keep back a little more.

I was familiar that these finishes more often happened in American oval racing, so it was really special to see it happen in F1, despite the circumstances being that it was induced artificially. It was a moment that really popped out when I saw it for the first time and still pops out every now and then when I’d randomly recall F1 memories from my childhood as a dedicated fan of the sport.

Ultimately, this moment had a tiny bit of artistic purpose which was nonetheless fulfilled. It created a stunning image of two scarlet Ferraris crossing the finish line together. It created an eye-popping moment for the sport that would be remembered for years to come as one of the absolute closest finishes in F1 history. And personally, it created a colorful memory that made me immediately put behind the miserable time I spent as a patient in the bleak, austere environment of a hospital.

Shifting Back to Gear

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Sebastian Vettel (Car No. 5) now owns the fastest lap ever recorded around the Hungaroring. Credit: Official Formula 1 Website

The four-week summer vacation of the Formula One world is about to come to a merciful end as the tour heads over to the iconic Spa-Francorchamps circuit for the Belgian Grand Prix in a week’s time. As for me, wannabe Formula One writer that I am, I’m also returning to my writing hobby after being busy (and burned out) from actual work. I hope I have fully refueled my mind to get myself ready for what seems to be a cracking second half of the F1 season. Three drivers, two teams are all contending for the title with nine races to go.

I guess I’ll keep this post short since I’m not really feeling the mood to write a long article recapping all the news, storylines, and gossip over the past few months that I haven’t been writing. The only reaction I have from all the noteworthy news is that I sincerely wish for a full-on Robert Kubica comeback somewhere down the road.

Now, I will just write briefly about the previous race in Hungary. My main take-away from that is that it was a massively important win for Sebastian Vettel and a massively important one-two finish for the Scuderia. Vettel maintains his championship lead despite a dominating stretch of races from the Mercedes drivers.

 

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Lewis Hamilton turned in magnificent performances in Montreal and Silverstone. Photo from: Sky Sports

My last blog post was Ferrari’s win in Monaco and over the time I wasn’t writing, Lewis Hamilton and Valtteri Bottas quickly bounced back to remind us that Mercedes haven’t lost their touch. Hamilton dominated Canada and was supposed to win that intense Baku race if not for the unlucky headrest problem that crucially dropped him behind Vettel. In the scenic Mountains of Styria in Austria, Mercedes’ smooth operator Bottas left little doubt that he’d convert his second career pole position into his second career win. Finally, in front of his home fans at Silverstone, Hamilton repeated the dominance he had in Canada, while disaster struck the two Ferrari drivers in the form of imploding tires very late in the race. Vettel lost more valuable championship points by finishing a season-low seventh.

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Valtteri Bottas won in Austria and made tremendous recovery drives in Baku and Silverstone. He is so far only 33 points behind the championship lead. Photo credit: LAT Photographic

At Hungary, the Scuderia roared back with an emphatic front-row lockout in Qualifying but the race wasn’t exactly smooth sailing for them even though they eventually held their positions up to the checkered flag. Vettel had to endure a steering problem that came up at the race’s halfway point, slowing him and teammate Kimi Raikkonen down at the front of the pack. The two Ferraris quickly became vulnerable to the charging Silver Arrow of Hamilton at third but the twisty nature of the Hungaroring plus the traffic from the back-markers provided Seb and Kimi enough cushion for defense.

Vettel spent the four-week break still in command of the championship standings. His fourteen-point lead over Hamilton is definitely not invulnerable. Meanwhile, Will Buxton recently wrote a column on Bottas, likening him to a shark that smells blood in this year’s title race. I agree that the Finn is a dangerous threat but his window of opportunity closes a lot sooner than his teammate—Bottas needs to pounce immediately with a big result in Spa. While Mercedes are ready to quickly pick apart any weakness from their rivals, Ferrari ride on to Belgium fueled by the much-needed momentum boost they earned in Hungary.

No Controversy: 2017 Monaco GP Race Review

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Sebastian Vettel earned the win at the Monaco Grand Prix because of superior pace, pure and simple. Sky F1 commentators can speculate about intra-team politics all they want because quite frankly, Lewis Hamilton was irrelevant in this race, and they had to talk about something. Is Ferrari favoring Vettel over Kimi Raikkonen? Was this race confirmation of a driver hierarchy within the Scuderia? Crofty sure found a thousand ways to raise those questions for a better part of the race broadcast. So let’s cut through all the conjectures with Occam’s razor and stick to things that actually happened in the race.

But first, let’s set the background. The Mercedes’ handling looked twitchy all Saturday, during Qualifying. In Q2, Bottas had to wrestle his way into the top ten while Hamilton struggled to put together the usual smooth, fast, Lewis Hamilton brand lap. To make things worse, he was on his final flying lap before Q2 ended when the McLaren of Stoffel Vandoorne hit the wall, drawing yellow flags in the final sector. Lewis had to abandon his lap and ended up in 14th.

The top ten shootout was intense. Ferrari locked out the front row of the grid, with Raikkonen claiming his first pole in nine years. Vettel missed out on pole by just 0.043 seconds, while third-placer Valtteri Bottas missed it by just 0.045 seconds. Man alive, this is why Monaco is a great track for Qualifying, but not so much for racing.

At the start of the race, the top three stayed as is, while the two Red Bulls of Max Verstappen and Daniel Ricciardo followed closely behind. This order maintained itself for almost half of the race: Raikkonen, Vettel, Bottas, Verstappen, Ricciardo.

And then we get to the fun part. Here are the critical events of the race, occurring in short succession:

(A) Verstappen, running fourth, gets called to pit. A lap later, Bottas gets called in to cover off Verstappen’s attempt to “undercut” him. Bottas re-emerges still ahead of Verstappen. Red Bull’s undercut didn’t work.

(B) Shortly after that, race leader Raikkonen was called in for his pit stop, theoretically to cover off Bottas and Verstappen. Seems like a fair, safe, and sensible decision for Ferrari. This however, is the turning point of the race. Raikkonen encountered traffic on his proceeding laps. People who were rooting for Kimi to win are debating if this was the right call.

(C) When Raikkonen pitted, Vettel and Ricciardo inherited the top two spots. The two of them deferred their pit stops by roughly a handful more laps and just took off with blistering pace. It also helped that they encountered little traffic from backmarkers. For added luck, the Sauber of Marcus Ericsson pitted just as Vettel was about to catch up to him. Here is a tweet showing Raikkonen’s and Vettel’s respective lap times during these crucial moments of the race. Notice how significantly faster Vettel was. Pretty simple. This was the point that Pat Symonds was stating, which pretty much made him the calm voice of reason among the Sky F1 crew last Sunday (actually, every time he’s there).

(D) Ricciardo pits and emerges comfortably ahead of Bottas and Verstappen. This is a successful “overcut”, since Ricciardo was able to leapfrog those who pitted earlier than him. Flash forward to later in the race during the restart from a Safety Car period, Ricciardo grazed the wall on the exit of Turn 1 but suffered no damage and kept Bottas behind him in check. The Aussie kept third place until the end.

(E) Vettel pits and re-emerges ahead of Raikkonen, retaining the overall race lead. The overcut worked because Vettel turned in those fast lap times right after his teammate pitted. Vettel would continue on in the lead until the checkered flag, while Raikkonen’s pace faded. The Iceman settled for second.

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Kimi would prefer to drink that bubbly immediately as Seb celebrates Ferrari’s first Monaco GP win since 2001. Credit: Claude Paris / AP

It’s never fun to be a victim of an overcut strategy. Raikkonen and Verstappen were highly disappointed with the outcomes of their respective races. During the podium ceremony, Kimi’s dejection showed through his ever icy poker face. Some people say (speculate) that he’s angry at his team for giving him a pit strategy that ultimately didn’t work, but it can also be said that he was quite simply disappointed at himself. Right? Kimi took pole, made a good start, was in line for the win after leading almost half the race but his teammate was plain faster. He was already losing pace a few laps before his pit stop, while Seb was visibly catching up.

As much as I like Kimi, I think he lost this race by himself. Conversely,  Vettel earned this victory by himself. I think there’s nothing controversial about this result. If people want to talk about “team orders”, we can talk about Mercedes in Bahrain just last April. At least that one was blatant but to be fair, it was also reasonably necessary.

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Seb takes the flag. Credit: Sutton Images

Are Ferrari prioritizing Seb over Kimi? Based on Championship standings at the moment, it’s reasonable of them to do so (with all due respect, Kimi).

Did Ferrari sabotage Kimi’s race? No, I highly doubt it. Kimi lost cleanly. Seb won cleanly.

Let’s stop overthinking and move on to Canada, a fortnight’s time. I heard the infamous Wall of Champions is getting re-angled for safety.

Bottas Snags Maiden Victory: 2017 Russian GP Race Review

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A couple hundred meters into the start of the race, Valtteri Bottas took the lead from polesitter Sebastian Vettel. Photo credit: Clive Mason, Getty Images

Arguably the next star F1 driver coming out of Finland, Valtteri Bottas has finally achieved his first race victory after 81 career races. As the replacement to the retired reigning World Champion Nico Rosberg at Mercedes, the Finn has quickly proven his worth at the head of the field. In a race that did not feature lots of overtaking, the battle for the win was tense nonetheless, which involved Bottas trying to preserve his lead against the Ferrari of polesitter Sebastian Vettel, who was on fresher tires. But if there’s one quality that makes Bottas a future star of the sport, it’s his ability to be calm under pressure, and that was exactly what was put to the test on his way to his maiden win. Continue reading “Bottas Snags Maiden Victory: 2017 Russian GP Race Review”