The Formula One season has again ebbed and flowed around its two main stars.
Lewis Hamilton of Mercedes and Sebastian Vettel of Ferrari continue to jockey for the drivers’ title, with both losing 17-point leads. Going into the British Grand Prix on Sunday, round 10 of the 21-race championship, Vettel has the edge by one point.
It is a lead that could be more significant. Mistakes in Azerbaijan and France were costly to Vettel. He knows this year’s title will be determined by who makes the fewest errors over the season.
“Mistakes are not part of the plan, whatever plan you have,” Vettel said. “There is a long way to go, and it’s normal some things will happen along the way.
“Obviously, you are trying to push the limits. In Baku, I tried to go for a gap. It was there, but I didn’t make it. Sometimes it works out, and when it does, it’s great; and then sometimes it doesn’t.
“At the end of the year, you try to get everything right, not to get everything wrong. That’s natural.”
Vettel finished fourth in Baku, Azerbaijan, after locking up his tires while trying to pass Valtteri Bottas of Mercedes for the lead late in the race. In France, Vettel ran into the back of Bottas at the first corner. An immediate pit stop to replace a damaged front wing dropped Vettel to the rear of the field before he fought his way up to fifth.
By comparison, Hamilton has been error free. His team, in contrast, has made strategic mistakes, including in the opening race in Australia that cost Hamilton the win.
It happened again in the last race in Austria on July 1 when Hamilton was leading, causing James Vowles, the team’s chief strategist, to apologize twice to Hamilton over the team radio. During a virtual safety car period, Vowles opted not to pit Hamilton for fresh tires, while Ferrari and Red Bull pitted both of their drivers. When Hamilton eventually pitted, it cost him his position.
After going into the race with a 14-point cushion, Hamilton has again been edged by Vettel.
Such fluctuations are certain to continue, because Vettel’s Ferrari has been consistent on all the circuits, while Hamilton’s Mercedes has been strong on some tracks, like Spain and France, and weaker on others, like Monaco and Canada.
“We’ve seen in the past oscillations with all of the teams, but ours were pretty obvious and visible,” said Toto Wolff, the Mercedes motorsport boss. “The fast tracks were the ones that suited us more, and then once at Budapest, Singapore, Monaco, these were our weak ones.
“I think we’ve made some progress. We’ve addressed the problem, identified the issues, but obviously, every car has a certain DNA and has evolved over the years, and you don’t want to undo the positives of it just to optimize for slow speed.
“This year’s race in Monaco was a good step in the right direction. We didn’t fall off the cliff like last year. The next proof is going to be Budapest.”
Wolff feels the team is really being pushed.
“That’s because Red Bull, traditionally, was on the other side of the curve, but they have progressed tremendously on the fast tracks and are now a competitor pretty much everywhere, and the same for Ferrari,” he said.
If the erratic performance of Mercedes continues, it may create a problem for Hamilton in his battle with Vettel to become only the third driver in Formula One history to win a fifth drivers’ title.
All the other things, the unknowns, there is nothing we can do about those except prepare for the positives and negatives — it’s not how you fall, it’s how you get back up and bounce back.”
But this is not just a two-horse race. There are four drivers who, despite their points deficit, could threaten Hamilton and Vettel.
Vettel’s teammate, Kimi Raikkonen, is 45 points behind. Although Raikkonen has finished on the podium five times this season, including as runner-up in Azerbaijan and Austria, he has not won a race since 2013.
“If you count how many points are left, I am still in the title race,” he said about his chances this year.
“A couple of races we didn’t finish, so that has put us in a little bit of a trickier position, but apart from that we’ve been pretty O.K. So, we keep going and try to stay out of any issues and to be as solid as we can.”
Daniel Ricciardo of Red Bull has won two races, in China and Monaco, but trails Vettel by 50 points. He has also retired three times, including in Austria because of a broken exhaust.
“We’re a little bit off it from a points perspective, but I feel we’re more in it than we have been compared to the previous four years I have been with the team,” Ricciardo said.
“We are going to circuits where we didn’t think we’d be on the podium, and we’re getting a podium, or having the pace for it, so that’s still giving me a little bit of hope.
“Obviously, the team’s pretty aggressive with updates,” he said, referring to the progress made to the chassis to improve lap time. “All we need are a couple more to give us an extra bit here and there, and we could probably start to creep back into it. It’s still too early to count us out.”
A problem for Ricciardo is that he knows he will soon start to incur penalties. A driver will drop five or 10 places on the grid if he has used one of the six elements within his power unit more than the allotted number of times in a season. Ricciardo has already used his allotment of each element, so he will be penalized for his next use.