Refreshed, recharged and ready to go again, Formula One enters the second half of the season with the prospect of the remaining nine races proving just as enthralling as the first 11. Where better to reignite the fight than the magnificent challenge of Spa, where Lewis Hamilton and will recommence a contest that is likely to go down to the last race?
Vettel has the advantage, leading Hamilton by 14 points, but on race wins the pair are even with four apiece. Vettel deserves his lead. He is always at his strongest when he is confident in the machinery around him and have given him a car he can work to maximum effect. It has proved quick out of the box on Fridays, forgiving and easy to set up, while the German has revelled in how hard he can push it through the corners.
Most important, Vettel has extracted the maximum from his ride and it is a credit to his skill to have done so. Ferrari announced this week that they have re-signed Kimi Raikkonen for 2018, some reward for the Finn after the team have made it clear they are backing Vettel over him for the championship, as was evidenced at Monaco and Budapest.
Nonetheless Vettel has still made the most of it given that the Ferrari do not have the raw pace of Mercedes. He also has four second places and, barring his moment of arrant stupidity , the performances have been everything that would be expected from a four-times world champion.
Hamilton, in contrast, has been riding what he described as a rollercoaster. The Mercedes has proved tricky to set up and the team . But when the British driver has put it in the sweet spot he has been imperious and untouchable, and . He has been let down by being out of touch on circuits that do not suit it – most notably Sochi and Monaco. He and the team have dropped points where Vettel and Ferrari have minimised their losses and thereby secured their slender advantage.
Vettel may not have it for long, however, and for all that he is in second, Hamilton at this stage might be considered the more confident of the two drivers.
What has made this season so fascinating is how the pendulum has swung between the pair. Ferrari had the upper hand at the last round in Hungary but heading into Spa – a circuit at which Mercerdes first won in 1955, through Juan Manuel Fangio – the German team will expect to be back on the front foot. They identified after Monaco the causes behind the difficulties in setting up the car and have made major strides to solve them. Equally the latest iteration of their power unit is a considerable step forward and they are able to run it at the highest output for longer.
This advantage has been proved repeatedly in qualifying, with the team scoring eight of 11 poles. Ferrari have been able to take the top spot only at the tracks where their cars’ cornering negates the power deficit – Russia, Monte Carlo and Hungary. In race pace, speed traps show Mercedes have a clear lead in the second half of straights and this could be crucial.
As they have done for the past three years, Mercedes have built a car to be optimal at the greatest number of circuits, which means favouring a high-speed configuration at the expense of being less competitive on the low-speed, heavy-cornering circuits. The results have borne this out and Ferrari’s dominance in Budapest proved they remain ahead through the twisty stuff.
In Hamilton’s favour, however, is that the majority of races remaining favour Mercedes. Spa, with its sweeping high speeds in the Ardennes this weekend, is one of them, as will be the next round at Monza. Suzuka will favour Mercedes, as likely will the Circuit of the Americas. Indeed of the nine, Ferrari may well only have a real advantage at Singapore. Worse still, Vettel has already used four turbo chargers, the maximum before taking a grid penalty. It is not out of the question that the Scuderia may opt to take a raft of new components at Spa and take the penalty en masse at a track where they can fight back, .
More than mechanical form will play a part in this title fight, however. Ferrari have proved feisty with strategy and are clearly ready to sacrifice Raikkonen for Vettel – a lead driver decision that Mercedes have yet to make. Hamilton ceded three points by returning third place to Valtteri Bottas in Budapest and the team’s executive director, Toto Wolff, has acknowledged that allowing their drivers to continue to race may ultimately prove costly.
Yet it might also prove to be key. Bottas, who has two wins and eight podium places, has proved more than adept at making the most of weekends when Hamilton has been off the boil. The British driver’s sportsmanlike gesture in Hungary will not have gone unnoticed either. Raikkonen, in contrast, has been far less threatening. Should the season reach nip and tuck at its end, Hamilton will be far more confident his team-mate can deny Vettel points than vice versa and if Bottas is required to play the team game .
The title will not be decided at Spa but it will doubtless see the tension ratcheting up in what promises to be a roaring run-in. This rollercoaster ride is far from over.