Preseason testing suggested that this year’s Formula One championship would be dominated by Ferrari.
However, as we sit at the season’s halfway mark, that’s proved not to be the case.
As F1 rocked up in Australia for the opening race of the season, Mercedes stormed the field by 40 seconds.
That set the tone for the early part of the season; Mercedes locked in a tight intra-team battle with Lewis Hamilton and Valtteri Bottas splitting the first four races two apiece, and Bottas holding a single- point lead thanks to his fastest lap in Melbourne.
It was down to everyone else to play catch-up as Mercedes enjoyed their best start to a championship campaign. The German marque won eight races on the bounce. They were stopped in their tracks in Austria in the ninth race.
Of those eight, Hamilton claimed six of them and firmly stamped down his name as the frontrunner for the title.
But it wasn’t all plain sailing – Mercedes’ good fortune was aided by a lot of bad luck for their rivals.
Ferrari should have multiple wins on their record so far, but, ultimately, have gone all 12 races without a top-step finish.
Charles Leclerc performed admirably in Bahrain as he looked on course to take top honours until an engine issue dropped him down to third place, allowing Hamilton to pick up the pieces.
Then came Canada and one of the most controversial results in the series’ 70-year history as Sebastian Vettel was handed a penalty for impeding Hamilton on the track, meaning that, although he crossed the line in first place, he was actually second. Captivating scenes of anger and disbelief followed.
But Ferrari simply haven’t pulled it together across the season. Questionable strategy calls and sheer incompetence at times has cost the Scuderia results.
And so Mercedes capitalised when others faltered – but their luck would soon run out.
Red Bull made the switch to Honda engines from Renault for this year and quickly became the shock competitor that was needed to halt the Mercedes juggernaut.
Max Verstappen hasn’t finished lower than fifth so far this season and is the only man to beat Mercedes on track. An emphatic victory at Red Bull’s home race in Austria gave the team their first win of the year and Honda’s first since 2006 as Verstappen scythed past his rivals.
A repeat performance at the German Grand Prix thrust the Dutchman into the tail end of the championship battle.
It was a race in which so many slipped up on the day.
Mercedes came unstuck, with Hamilton sliding into the barriers twice and Bottas totalling his car in a hefty crash. Then Leclerc’s Ferrari crashed out.
Not to mention Verstappen’s maiden pole position in Hungary last weekend; it can easily be said that he is having his greatest season to date.
But what does all this mean for the second half of the year?
It’s a chance for teams to reset to some degree. Ferrari desperately need to claw something back from their disappointing opening stretch. With high-speed tracks such as Spa-Francorchamps and Monza coming up, they stand a far better chance of putting a dent in Mercedes’ year as their engines are the most powerful on the grid.
Once they get a handle on their internal struggles, the target will be to secure at least one win. Vettel is determined to prove he still has what it takes to triumph, and Leclerc is hungry for that elusive first victory.
Red Bull can, rather ominously, get only stronger. With a car that is one of the most aerodynamically slick on the grid and an engine that has proved to be a race winner, it would be very hard for the four-time champions to go far wrong from here on – especially with someone like Verstappen behind the wheel.
But all the pressure lies on Mercedes to maintain their vice-like grip on both championships. They hold a 150-point advantage over Ferrari in the constructors’ table, but won’t leave anything to chance.
Bottas sits on 188 points, 62 adrift of Hamilton on 250, who has always performed well after the summer break. If the Finn wants to mount a challenge, he needs to do it quickly.
If Bottas is hoping that Hamilton takes it easy after the break, he’ll be in for a surprise.
“One day I will have to stop, but I feel fantastic right now – physically, generally this year, and mentally. So I don’t have any plans of stopping any time soon. And there’s more to do, there’s more to win, and there’s more to achieve together, inside and outside of the car, within the sport and outside the sport,” he said.
F1 season so far