Formula 1 and IndyCar 2018 seasons get underway
With both the 2018 Formula 1 (F1) and IndyCar championships three races in, it is shaping up to be an enticing, drama filled year for the two motorsports series. In F1, the highest level of world-wide open-wheel racing, Mercedes’ long-held dominance appears to finally be over, with Mercedes languishing behind the quick race pace of the Ferraris. In IndyCar, an America-only open wheel series, 2016 Indy 500 winner Alexander Rossi has extended his strong second half of 2017 into the new year with two podiums and a race win so far, while reigning champion Josef Newgarden, with one 2018 win to his name, is not far behind.
In 2014, F1 cars switched from screaming V8 engines to turbocharged V6 hybrid units, and the “hybrid era” has since been controlled by Mercedes. The team handily won in 2014, with their driver Lewis Hamilton beating his teammate Nico Rosberg to the Drivers’ title. 2015 was much of the same, although Rosberg put up a stronger fight. In 2016, the teammates clashed both on and off the track, with several collisions causing their relationship to deteriorate as they fiercely battled for the championship; Rosberg won and subsequently retired, with Mercedes yet again easily taking the Constructors’ trophy. 2017 saw Ferrari begin to catch up: while Hamilton and Mercedes still triumphed, Ferrari driver and four-time world champion Sebastian Vettel won five races and even led during the first half of the season.
With the dust settled from the first three races of 2018, it is evident that Mercedes no longer has the clear upper hand. The season’s first grand prix in Australia saw Vettel win due to excellent strategy from Ferrari, pitting with the lead when a stopped car brought a Virtual Safety Car (VSC) period, allowing him to retain the lead since Hamilton had to slow down to obey the VSC speed limit. The other Ferrari of Kimi Raikkonen was also fast, placing third, while the other Mercedes of Valtteri Bottas finished a distant eighth due to a crash in qualifying dropping his starting position to 15th.
In an action-packed Bahrain Grand Prix, Vettel barely coaxed his worn tires to a second victory, ahead of the chasing Bottas, who finished a mere 0.699 seconds behind. Hamilton desperately searched for pace, finishing six seconds down in third, while a mistimed pit stop sent a Ferrari mechanic to the hospital with a fractured leg and a disgruntled Raikkonen back to the garage with no points.
In China, Ferrari seemed to retain their advantage over Mercedes, with Vettel quickly crafting a sizable lead over Bottas while Hamilton struggled to keep up. However, the safety car appeared when the two Toro Rosso cars collided on lap 31, letting Red Bull drivers Max Verstappen and Daniel Ricciardo pit for new tires, giving them more pace when the race restarted. The two Red Bulls blew past Raikkonen and Hamilton, but Verstappen tried an ambitious late-braking move against Vettel on the 43rd lap, causing both drivers to spin out. Verstappen was promptly handed a ten second time penalty, putting him down in fifth behind Hamilton, while Vettel slid down the field, coming home a measly eighth. Meanwhile, Ricciardo set after Bottas, eventually grabbing the lead on lap 45 with a ballsy move down the inside of the Mercedes into the tight right-hander of turn four. While Hamilton finished ahead of Vettel and inched closer in the standings, the Mercedes duo had trouble matching the speed of the Ferraris all weekend, and the quick Vettel was an unfortunate victim of Verstappen’s overzealous passing attempt.
Vettel currently leads the championship with 54 points. Hamilton is nine points back, with Bottas a further five behind that. Ricciardo is nipping at the Mercedes’ heels after his race win with 37 points, while Raikkonen sits fifth with 30. Verstappen’s difficult start leaves him in eighth, getting him tangled up in the intense mid-field battle between the McLaren’s Fernando Alonso, Renault’s Nico Hulkenberg, and Haas’s Kevin Magnussen. In the Constructors’ Championship, Mercedes leads Ferrari by a single point, while Red Bull lurks 29 points behind.
Over in the United States, the IndyCar season is providing lots of exciting racing as Rossi looks to build an early championship lead. The opening street race in St. Petersburg, FL saw four-time champion Sebastian Bourdais snatch his 74th win, after Rossi made contact with rookie Robert Wickens on lap 108 of 110 while battling for the lead. Rossi fought back to finish third. The reigning champion Newgarden had a tricky race down in seventh, while Graham Rahal finished second.
Newgarden had better luck at the oval circuit of Phoenix, where he used a late pit stop to don fresh tires and make up four places in seven laps to win ahead of Wickens and Rossi.
Rossi stormed to an assertive win at the Long Beach street circuit, where he led all but 14 of 85 laps. Former champion Will Power finished second, while Ed Jones rounded out the podium. Newgarden yet again finished seventh, while Bourdais finished down in 13th despite some masterful passing moves. The win elevated Rossi to first in the championship with 126 points, while Newgarden sits second with 104. Rahal and Bourdais are third and fourth with 93 and 88 points, respectively.
IndyCar moves to the race circuit of Barber Motorsports Park for the Grand Prix of Alabama on April 22, while F1 travels to the capital of Baku for the Azerbaijan Grand Prix on April 29.