Class of the field: How the drivers fared in 2017

Michael Lamonato Columnist

By Michael Lamonato, Michael Lamonato is a Roar Expert

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    Sergio Perez is closing doors to the big teams. (Red Bull Content Pool)

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    Barring a handful of catastrophic races for Ferrari, the 2017 Formula One season could have delivered the nail-biting season finale between Lewis Hamilton and Sebastian Vettel the opening half of the year so eagerly promised.

    But while the title fight fizzled in Hamilton’s favour, the rest of the drivers were busy staking their claims for progression, though not all of them were successful.

    Vettel comes off second best
    At the beginning of the year I wondered whether 2017 might end Formula One’s great sliding doors rivalry. Lewis Hamilton and Sebastian Vettel had never vied directly for the same title in their nine years racing together, but 2017 finally delivered both equal machinery and compliant teammates.

    The result was fierce, and both drivers revelled in the opportunity to fight not just another great of their generation but to do so with the might of an entire team behind them.

    Hamilton had the marginally quicker car at his disposal, but Vettel was able to access more performance more often. After 12 rounds just seven points separated the pair.

    But Vettel’s title challenge unravelled with a retirement in Singapore thanks to an overzealous defence of pole despite starting four places ahead of Hamilton. Hamilton stole a 28-point lead and claimed his fourth championship four rounds later.

    Though mechanical reliability played a part for Vettel, psychological fortitude decided this duel. Despite being infamous for being held hostage by his emotions, Hamilton refused to crack under pressure in 2017.

    Vettel, whether behind the safety car in Azerbaijan or from pole in Singapore, too often lost the composure required to seal the deal.

    Sebastian Vettel signs autographs for Ferrari fans at the Formula One Grand Prix in Austria.

    (GEPA Pictures/Red Bull Content Pool).

    A tale of two Finns
    Reigning 2016 champion Nico Rosberg’s Mercedes departure meant 2017 was always going to be about his replacement. Valtteri Bottas took the plunge knowing the results could range from rising his stocks considerably to killing his career.

    The result was somewhere in the middle. His early season form in a difficult car excelled even beyond Hamilton’s abilities, but his off days were low and his post-midseason break form slump were bleak days indeed.

    He finished 58 points behind Hamilton, who was in the best form of his career, and 12 points behind Vettel, a respectable enough result for a first season in a high-pressure environment.

    But Bottas’s performances were flawless compared to his once great compatriot Kimi Räikkönen. Kimi was an embarrassing 100 points behind Valtteri and would have finished behind Red Bull Racing’s Daniel Ricciardo had the Australian’s car not failed in the final round.

    Barring Bottas’s brief entry into title contention before the midseason break, both Finns, explicitly or implicitly, were tasked with bringing home the constructors title and supporting their senior teammates. Only one of the Finns succeeded.

    A new rivalry emerges
    Sergio Perez, now in his seventh season, and Esteban Ocon, a rookie except for his half-season with Manor last year, battled among themselves as though the title were at stake, much to the chagrin of team management, who watched helplessly as the pair hit each other on track.

    Perez and Ocon are teammates a two very different career stages. The former is frustrated by the lack of opportunities for him to move to a race-winning team. The latter, already backed by a race-winning outfit, is eager to impress his Mercedes bosses.

    Daniel Ricciardo, Lewis Hamilton and Sergio Perez on the Monaco podium

    Sergio Perez is closing doors to the big teams. (Red Bull Content Pool)

    It’s a formidable line-up, but Force India was caught off guard when it turned toxic. The team lost what could have been its first win when the pair collided in Azerbaijan, and a crash at the Belgian Grand Prix was bad enough – though it could have been so much worse – to force the team to order its drivers not to race each other for the rest of the season.

    The rivalry has since cooled, but with both retained at the team in 2018 and with more action likely in its band of performance, expect more fireworks between them next season.

    Toro Rosso’s merry go round
    The Red Bull Junior Team is notorious for its ruthless decisions, but its shaking up of Toro Rosso’s driver line-up this season was a step up on its usual bombast.

    Daniil Kvyat was dropped twice – three times including his 2016 demotion – to make way for 2016 GP2 champion Pierre Gasly, and former junior driver Brendon Hartley was drafted in when Renault successfully convinced Red Bull to trade it Carlos Sainz early.

    While few begrudge Gasly and Hartley their seats, that the team had to make three changes in as many weekends speaks to the once purposeful programme’s lack of direction – indeed Hartley’s return to F1 is not as a rookie but as a two-time WEC champion.

    But at very least Toro Rosso has delivered an interesting line-up. Gasly is undeniably talented, shifting almost seamlessly from GP2 to Japan’s Super Formula this year, and Hartley has grown exponentially since being dropped from the programme.

    Both have impressed in their sudden late-season debuts, and their 2018 progress will be fascinating.

    Honourable mention
    Antonio Giovinazzi’s two-round career to date may have ended in the barriers in treacherous Chinese conditions, but his impressive P16 qualification in Melbourne, where he qualified just 0.2 seconds behind his far more experienced teammate, Marcus Ericsson, and his P12 finish remain indicators of his potential.

    Sauber has tragically overlooked him this year despite Ferrari pressuring it to take him over Ericsson, but the Scuderia is keeping the faith with the Italian for a 2019 full-time debut.

    Daring to dream
    Robert Kubica’s return to F1 after his horror rally crash in 2011 burst from seemingly spurious rumour into a genuine possibility this season. Renault overlooked the Pole amid its politicking with Red Bull over engine deals, but Williams is now sizing him up as Felipe Massa’s replacement.

    Nothing is for certain, but Kubica’s steps to recovery in 2017, should they lead to a full-time return, would prove the year’s most remarkable story by far.

    Michael Lamonato
    Michael Lamonato

    Michael is one-third of F1 podcast Box of Neutrals, as heard weekly on ABC Grandstand Digital nationwide. Though he's been part of the F1's travelling press room since 2012, people seem more interested in the time he was sick in a kart — but don't ask about that, follow him on Twitter instead @MichaelLamonato.

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    The Crowd Says (8)

    • Roar Guru

      December 12th 2017 @ 2:20pm
      Connor Bennett said | December 12th 2017 @ 2:20pm | ! Report

      The Perez and Ocon battles were brilliant to watch! You can see why the team didn’t feel the same though with all the money that goes into these cars that the two drivers were happy to bump around.

      I was pretty disappointed in the way the season just kind of fizzled out, and I think that has a lot to do with the narrative more than the driving. Once it was clear Vettel had lost his shot at the title, a lot of interest for the season disappeared with it as well.

      I can’t see Kimi hanging around too much longer. He looks un-motivated, and unless he can find that drive again, he’s going to keep plugging away to average finishes.

      A good wrap of the season Michael

      • December 13th 2017 @ 12:35am
        Dexter The Hamster said | December 13th 2017 @ 12:35am | ! Report

        Agree, Ocon v Perez was amazing to see from a spectator point of view.

        • Columnist

          December 13th 2017 @ 6:02pm
          Michael Lamonato said | December 13th 2017 @ 6:02pm | ! Report

          Ocon’s definitely destined for a bigger drive one day. Hopefully Perez finds himself with more competitive machinery, too, though I think he’ll have to hope for some of the midfield teams catch up rather than for one of the bigger teams choosing to sign him.

      • Columnist

        December 13th 2017 @ 6:01pm
        Michael Lamonato said | December 13th 2017 @ 6:01pm | ! Report

        Thanks for the comment, Connor! I like how many times we keep saying we can’t see Kimi hanging around much longer only to find he’s been given another season! But, at the risk of putting on the commentators curse, I think you’re right and that surely 2018 will be his last year either because Charles Leclerc impresses big time at Sauber or because Daniel Ricciardo or someone else makes themselves available. The point gap was just embarrassing.

        I’ll be very interested to see what Force India looks like next year. If they’re fighting with other teams, I suspect Perez and Ocon will be able to control themselves. Their biggest issue this year was that the car was too fast for the midfield but too slow to fight with the frontrunners, so they had themselves as their only rivals. That’s always going to cause friction.

    • December 13th 2017 @ 12:33am
      Dexter The Hamster said | December 13th 2017 @ 12:33am | ! Report

      Michael, not sure if you choose the photos to be used to accompany your article, but the shot of Checo is from Monaco last year where good old Danny Ric has just lost to Hamilton due to his teams poor pit stop. Something that will stay with me from the 2016 season for many a year. Surely they could use something from this year to save me the heartache.

      Anyway…..

      Good wrap of the year. I thought the Force India battle was amazing, the best racing and competitiveness on the grid. Would have been great to see the Red Bulls do something similar, but Max had all the bad luck in first half of year, and Ricciardo had it all in the back half, so they didn’t go toe to toe on many occasions. And its been said enough, but Vettel blew it really. A couple of brain fades and the championship slid away from him very quickly. As a lad growing up watching Prost v Senna, it always seemed to me that Prost kept his head, knew what he had to do to win the Championship and he did it. He won 4. Senna (regarded by many as the best ever) won 3. If Seb keeps his head, he could have won.

      Bring on 2018

      • Columnist

        December 13th 2017 @ 6:07pm
        Michael Lamonato said | December 13th 2017 @ 6:07pm | ! Report

        Can’t say I chose the photos, mate. Must be running dry at the end of the season!

        Completely agree with your Prost/Senna parallel, and I think it’s really interesting that we’ve landed on Hamilton as the Prost and Vettel as the Senna at the end of their first proper season of rivalry. I know I wouldn’t have predicted that at the beginning of the season! I wonder how much of this is Vettel still adjusting to the unique pressure of being the lead Ferrari driver. I don’t think you can prepare for that at any other team, and I don’t think it’s a coincidence that his biggest brain fades came at times the team was under the most scrutiny. My biggest concern now, though, is that Ferrari won’t have the clear shot at Mercedes it had this year in 2018. Maybe if it were an equal three-team fight there’d be less spotlight on him and Ferrari and that’d be beneficial, but it’s hard to say.

    • December 16th 2017 @ 8:39am
      marfu said | December 16th 2017 @ 8:39am | ! Report

      Thanks Michael for a great roundup of the season’s salient driver issues. I find it amazing that Vettel can now be seen as the Senna-like personality rather than Hamilton as Vet mostly displayed Finn-like composure during his time at RBR as one would expect from a German. It must be the pressure from Ferrari and the Tifosi that makes him now exhibit Latin emotional responses more akin to Italians, Spaniards and South Americans. I think Hamilton really matured this year to keep his head in scoring points in every race by staying out of trouble with some big recovery drives from the back.

      The Ocon – Perez battles saved the back half of the season but I fear for Ricciado’s chances of landing a Mercedes seat if Ocon maintains his current rate of progress. This would leave the less preferable drives at Ferrari or Renault available for him. I see RBR are putting the pressure on for him to sign which to me indicates their desperation as they don’t really have a better option. Thank God for the glorious predictable unpredictability of F! as there is no other sport or business like it.

      • Columnist

        December 20th 2017 @ 8:31am
        Michael Lamonato said | December 20th 2017 @ 8:31am | ! Report

        Thanks for the comment, mate! I think the pressure of driving for Ferrari is definitely part of the problem. It’s relentless, and the only way to lift it, even if just temporarily, is to win the title. Who knows if that’ll be achievable next season.

        Hamilton undoubtedly stepped up this year. Whether that’s because, with Nico Rosberg gone, he had the space to breathe inside the team or whether it’s just him maturing is hard to say, but he’s certainly more formidably now than he’s ever been.

        I think you’re right, I don’t see Ricciardo’s path to Mercedes being clear. If Bottas were dropped, I’d be surprised if they didn’t choose Ocon. Maybe he wouldn’t be immediately as consistent as Daniel, but he’s good enough to be given a chance.

        I’m not sure I really see Ricciardo leaving. Maybe Ferrari on a one-year contract is possible, but it seems to me that RBR is still his best shot in the next two years.

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