Formula 1 is two weeks into its mid-season break, which provides the perfect occasion to reflect on the first half of 2016.
Mercedes brilliant but not without bruises
The reigning champions rocketed out of the starting gate in 2016 and haven’t faced a consistently noteworthy challenge from anyone. Nico Rosberg obliterated the competition with four victories in a row and built a commanding lead over teammate Lewis Hamilton in the driver’s standings.
It appeared that Rosberg had finally mastered his mental demons and would make a serious bid for championship glory. But Lewis Hamilton was calm the face of Rosberg’s domination and sometimes even a bit detached from his points deficit. Nearly a decade and several clutch moments in the sport provided Hamilton with an abundance of experience and the knowledge that the championship was far from out of reach.
He not only closed the gap but also took over the lead on the driver’s table going into the break. The nagging question about Rosberg’s psychological toughness has roared back to life especially after that controversial collision with Hamilton in Spain and Austria.
While Rosberg and Hamilton rub carbon fibre instead of wheels Toto Wolff and co has threatened to enforce team-orders. But this is unlikely to happen, as neither driver will accept it. The championship is far from over but it’s clear that right now Hamilton has the edge on form and crucially in mentality.
The team started the season with Daniel Ricciardo and Daniil Kvyat in the cockpit of a car seriously lacking in grunt. Two vital changes turned the season around for the Austrian team. First, Kvyat was demoted to Toro Rosso in favour of Max Verstappen. The young Dutchmen immediately repaid the faith but winning the Spanish grand prix.
The second big change came in the form of a power unit upgrade from Renault. It not only catapulted Red Bull past Ferrari on pace but summarily halved the gap to Mercedes. Yes, there is still work to be done for Red Bull to be serious competition for Mercedes but the manner in which they’ve recovered their 2016 season is an impressive feat.
In pre-season testing the Italian team looked set to challenge for victories and perhaps even a championship title if thing well, it didn’t. In Australia the wrong strategy call kept Sebastian Vettel from victory. Several dubious and costly strategy calls would follow throughout the first half of the season.
With that several gearbox penalties dogged particularly Vettel as he started race after the race down the grid. Team principal Maurizio Arrivabene finally admitted that their aggressive approach might have cost them points on reliability.
But the biggest blow came with the departure of chief technical director James Alison. Whatever the reason for Alison leaving the team it’s never a good sign when a senior member leaves a team midway through a season. Rumours are abounding that Ferrari are trying to bring Paddy Lowe and James Key into the stable. However, while both these men as exceptional at their respective jobs bringing them in at this point is unlikely to have a significant impact.
Ferrari is flailing in a manner that is unbecoming to its history and the only reason why it’s not being called catastrophic is because of their two drivers who somehow wring results out of their car.
McLaren moving forward
Though it’s still not where either of these champions want to be the Japanese manufacturer is doing just enough to keep Alonso and Button satisfied and believing that 2017 may be their year.
Haas’ good start fades
The American Haas team started the F1 season in spectacular fashion with Romain Grosjean. Several solid point scoring races and brilliant strategy calls belied the fact that this was a new team in Formula 1.
However, as the season progressed so the good times were consigned to the past. As other mid-field teams like Force India began to move forward and evolve their cars Haas seemed to stumble. Gone were the regular points scores to be replaced by a confused and frustrated Frenchman over the radio.
The good news for Haas is that Esteban Gutierrez’ performances have improved from the start of the season. There also isn’t an impression of negativity from the pitwall or the team boss. They are well aware that trying to hack it as a new team in F1 is a difficult prospect. They’re keeping their eye firmly on the ball and that’s what matters.
Force India resurgence
While Sergio Perez has scored two podiums Hulkenberg has none. Some would be surprised at this stat as Hulkenberg is so highly regarded in the paddock. If the team can keep the car competitive in the mid-field the fights between its two drivers should develop into one worth keeping an eye on.
The F1 season returns 26 August with the Belgium grand prix.