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View from the Pit Lane: Season Review

Karun braves all weathers to bring us the pit lane news in 2017
By Karun Chandhok
C4F1’s technical analyst 

The Abu Dhabi Grand Prix wasn’t the most exciting race in the world to end the 2017 season so I’m devoting my final column of the year to looking back at the season as a whole.

The Yas Marina circuit looks great on TV and is a tremendous venue for the people watching but the track layout itself just doesn’t create good racing and is something that perhaps they need to look at in the future.

It was great to see Valtteri Bottas bounce back after quite a tough second half of the year and that really shows great strength in character. It can’t be easy to be alongside one of the best drivers of your generation in a team where he has been the number one driver for so long, and at a time when he’s at his peak, but I was really pleased for Bottas.

For Sebastian Vettel’s Ferrari to be 20 seconds behind the winner in third and Max Verstappen’s fifth-placed Red Bull to be 45 seconds behind is something that they’ve really got to think about going into the winter break! 

Fantastic battle at the top

After three seasons of Mercedes dominance, the 2017 Formula One World Championship has seen a fantastic battle between two of F1’s grandees as well as occasional cameos at the top from a third party.

We started the year with all new technical rules and cars that have proven to be the fastest machines ever to race on the planet. 

There were high expectations for Red Bull Racing to arrive into this season using the change in aerodynamic regulations to their advantage but in the end, it was Vettel and Ferrari that took the fight to Lewis Hamilton. 

Right from pre-season testing, the Prancing Horses showed that they had a strong package but really it was on Sunday at the first Grand Prix in Australia when we got the confirmation that it was game on. 

For lap after lap, Vettel stalked Hamilton and used some very strong pace around the pit stops to get into the lead while the Briton was stuck in traffic. That win at the opening Grand Prix gave everyone at Ferrari, and indeed the world of Formula 1, a real sense of optimism that we were in for a great season.

Aero vs Engine

The Ferrari seemed to have a very good aerodynamic package while the Mercedes power unit took another step forward mid-season, particularly when it came to using the higher power modes in qualifying. This extra power would often allow Hamilton to qualify at the front and, as long as he made a good start, that allowed him to dictate the race. 

The higher downforce package on the Ferrari meant that at tracks like Monaco and Budapest they were in a league of their own. Ironically, up until Ferrari’s home race at the Italian Grand Prix they looked like they were in real contention, but then it all went wrong. 

Number crunching: Vettel vs Hamilton 

If we look back across the season, the big question that really needs to be asked is "Did Lewis Hamilton win this year's championship or did Sebastian Vettel lose it?"  Both Mercedes and Ferrari have had ups and downs this season but ultimately the red camp gave away far too many opportunities to beat their rivals. Let's try and put some numbers to it.

In Canada, Vettel tangled with Verstappen at Turn 1 and his damaged front wing meant he dropped down and ultimately finished fourth instead of potentially second (six points lost) while in Baku, the German's moment of road rage earned him a penalty which meant that he went from a potential victory down to fourth (13 points lost). Not making use of a gap to make a safe pit stop in Silverstone resulted in a puncture and dropped Vettel from fourth to seventh (six points lost).

The Asian adventure was where the wind was truly knocked out of Vettel's campaign.

Ferrari showed tremendous pace in Singapore but it all went wrong at the start when Vettel chose to close down Verstappen more aggressively than he really should have done. Not only were both Ferraris out, but Hamilton won on a weekend when the Mercedes looked to be struggling and he would have probably ended up fourth. (Points lost for Vettel 25, gained for Hamilton 13 = net loss 38)

Penalties for changes to the power unit meant that Vettel started at the back of the grid in Malaysia, again on a track where the Ferrari looked very fast. He showed on Sunday that he probably had the pace to win and combined with Kimi Raikkonen’s car failing on the grid, Hamilton pulled further ahead in the Championship (points lost 13 + Hamilton gained three = net loss 16).

Throw in the non-finish from the front row in Japan and that's another 18 points gone. 

When you add up the points lost by Vettel in the races that we've just looked at, that's 97 points that they've arguably thrown away and when you consider that he ended up 46 points down it’s a case of what could have been for them. Even saving half of those would have been enough! Yes, Hamilton had a grid penalty in Austria and the headrest issue in Baku but overall, the Ferrari–Vettel combination lost out more than the Mercedes-Hamilton camp.

Hamilton hits new heights

The 2017 season has arguably been Hamilton's best performance out of his four championship-winning years. He had a couple of sub-par weekends in Russia and Monaco but apart from the crash in qualifying in Brazil, he's been error free and this has been a big difference. Vettel’s mistakes in Baku and Singapore were only part of the story that cost him the title - but they were a big part. 

Hamilton’s qualifying performances this year - particularly in Silverstone, Japan and Malaysia - have been mighty and it was fitting that he beat the all-time record for the highest number of pole positions this year.

Development delays Red Bull 

Red Bull Racing had a tough start to the season where they were sent down some wrong alleys by strange wind tunnel numbers. This meant that they started the season with a car that was under-developed and it really took until mid-season for the team to come on strong. They had a lot of reliability issues from the Renault power unit which caused a great deal of frustration, particularly for Verstappen who once again showed this year that he is going to be a real force in F1 for many years to come. 

Once the team started to unlock the full potential of their car, Verstappen stormed to two victories in Malaysia and Mexico beating the Mercedes and Ferraris in a straight fight. The fact that he out-performed a top quality driver like Daniel Ricciardo 13 – 7 in qualifying battles is a very strong statement from a 20-year-old. 

If the Renault power unit can deliver a bit more performance in qualifying and improve reliability for 2018, there’s no reason why we can’t have all three teams fighting it out next season. 
With McLaren also going to Renault power for 2018, we could have eight drivers all in contention every weekend. In my opinion, this is really the biggest story going into next season and all eyes in pre-season testing are going to be on what the team in Viry-Chatillon can deliver.

Best of the Rest

Beyond the top three teams, Force India had a great season with two very good drivers – Esteban Ocon is my rookie of the year - and a car that worked well on pretty much every type of circuit. 

Renault showed good progress in terms of speed although much like the customer Red Bull team, the reliability hurt the factory team as well. 

McLaren and Honda had a disappointing season which ultimately ended in divorce after three frustrating seasons delivering not even a podium, despite having one of the best drivers in the world in Fernando Alonso. Stoffel Vandoorne did a very good job in the second half of the season to cement his place in F1 while at the other end of the career spectrum, Felipe Massa said goodbye as he left Williams and the sport for good. 

All in all, it was a season that had plenty of drama and battling but ultimately fizzled out a little bit when we got to the Asian leg in terms of the championship battle although we still had some great racing on track! 

Shall we do it all again next season?  See you in Australia!