F1 2017: the best and worst from Hamilton versus Vettel to McLaren | Giles Richards

The Briton had to be at his best to shake off his Ferrari rival and seal fourth title; Force India and Max Verstappen showed mettle; changes needed in 2018

Best driver

Lewis Hamilton produced an exceptional performance to secure his fourth – and what he admitted was his most challenging and most rewarding – title. With competition from Sebastian Vettel in a Ferrari that was at least on a par with the Mercedes and at certain circuits the better car, the British driver had to be at his best and successfully bring together every facet of his craft. Hamilton had to cope with a demanding car, struggling to find set-up and with the pressure of being behind until the 13th round. Major errors were notable only for their absence and when dominant he was ruthless – as at Silverstone. His qualifying was as good as he has ever produced, especially at Canada, Silverstone, Spa – where track position proved crucial – and of course Monza in the wet. He accepted setbacks and made the best he could out of them, as shown with a controlled but aggressive drive in Austria to take fourth from eighth on the grid, then exploited any chances offered by his rival, all but ending the fight through Singapore, Malaysia and Japan. Finally, there was maturity and skilful on-track judgment to ensure he closed it out, rather than taking risks. A consummate season from a now formidably complete driver.

Best race

So often the venue for a straightforward procession, Barcelona, where the teams test, reducing unknown variables, hosted a tense and thrilling encounter. Other races had more incident and more action in the midfield but at the front Vettel and Hamilton both drove to the limit to turn in a gripping encounter at the Circuit de Catalunya. Vettel opened with intent, jumping Hamilton off the line and taking the lead into turn one, and after his stop he displayed more resolve when he pulled off a magnificent pass on Valtteri Bottas to retake the lead. Mercedes on an alternate strategy, kept Hamilton out with the intent on him finishing on fresher, softer tyres. He emerged side by side with Vettel and the pair went wheel to wheel through turn one. Vettel squeezed Hamilton wide – hard, fair and unmissable. They would battle on for several more laps but Hamilton, with his tyre advantage, finally made it stick. Vettel described it as a “great race” and Hamilton as “how racing should be”. They finished 75 seconds ahead of their nearest competitor – clear notice that the two drivers would decide the title.

Greatest moment

Vettel’s loss of self‑control when he chose to barge Hamilton in Baku was the most incendiary incident between the pair in a season in which there was a friendly mutual respect. Vettel believed Hamilton had brake-tested him before a safety car restart and in doing so damaged his front wing – incensed he pulled alongside and sideswiped Hamilton’s car. But ultimately the incident did not descend into the ill-feeling and needle that was expected. Hamilton revealed last week he subsequently warned Vettel not to “disrespect” him on the track again. So, with relations normalised, perhaps the more telling moment was at Spa. Having been nip and tuck, with nothing to choose between them throughout, Vettel charged at Hamilton after a safety car restart but the British driver displayed the racecraft of a champion to hold him off. He came slightly off the throttle on the run to Eau Rouge to keep Vettel tucked up behind his rear wing, leaving the German able only to pull alongside on the Kemmel straight, then concluded with outstanding braking into Les Combes on cold rubber to hold the lead. It epitomised the skill and competitive will both drivers brought to the season.

Best overtake

Once unfairly accused of being unable to overtake, Vettel has shown his chops before, not least when putting two wheels on the grass to pass Fernando Alonso on the outside of Curva Grande at Monza in 2011. It was a bravura move and this year he showed similar commitment and skill that was at times breathtaking. In China he had dived up the inside of his team-mate Kimi Raikkonen at turn six with some brilliant late braking. He followed it up with an even better move, going round the outside of the turn five hairpin to pass Daniel Ricciardo. But the pass that really caught the eye was on Bottas in Spain. Needing to clear the Finn as quickly as possible, he had him lined up on the long start-finish straight and was in no mood to be denied. Vettel dummied first to the inside, then went to the outside before finally switching again to the inside and squeezing ahead into turn one. His reaction and racecraft in split-second decision-making was formidable and once again he had to put two wheels on the grass to do so.

Strength through adversity award: joint winner

Force India’s Esteban Ocon steers his car during the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix.
Force India’s Esteban Ocon steers his car during the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix. Photograph: Hassan Ammar/AP

Force India securing fourth place for a second season in succession and after a major regulation change is an achievement that deserves acknowledgment. Their budget is dwarfed by the bigger teams but the team and their drivers, Sergio Pérez and Esteban Ocon, once again turned in a display to make garagistes proud. In the points at every race bar one, they finished 105 points ahead of Williams – a country mile and testament to how they have punched well above their weight yet again. But they have been strong throughout. For character in adversity Max Verstappen showed resilience beyond his years. He had entered the season with ambitions to challenge for the title, almost immediately quashed with Red Bull off the pace. Five DNFs in seven races, mainly mechanical failures, followed; further disappointing and frustrating the 20-year-old. He came through it admirably. The car improved and the Dutch driver put it to use – wins in Malaysia and Mexico followed but he was equally outstanding in Japan and in the US – where he came back from 16th to take fourth. He has been unafraid to battle with Hamilton and Vettel and proved that, given the chance to do so, he can take the fight to them.

Most eye-catching innovation

Two new features for 2017, ugly shark fins and wobbling T-wings attracted ire at the opening and both are set to be outlawed for next season but one innovation reflected an ethos that was admirable. Force India’s introduction of their “stegosaurus” upgrade – more than 30 mini fins along the top of the engine cover – to improve downforce at Singapore was indicative of why the team have come out on top of the midfield. On a budget that cannot compete with the big boys a willingness to try new directions, ideas and strongly developing the car as best they could has to be admired and is an object lesson to their closest competitors.

Worst slow-motion crash

Fernando Alonso
McLaren’s Fernando Alonso was vocal about the poor performance of the Honda engine. Photograph: Fernando Bizerra Jr/EPA

Off the track rather than on it. Divorce is rarely pretty and the final chapter of the McLaren-Honda partnership was a torturous and unedifying spectacle. In the third season of their renewed partnership expectations were high but the wheels came off from the opening session in testing and an already strained relationship soon became increasingly untenable. Way down on horses and woefully unreliable, Alonso was vocal in his displeasure and the team duly parted ways with Honda. For McLaren and their Renault engines next season there will be nowhere to hide. They claim the chassis is strong and proving it is the first task for the post-Ron management.

What needs fixing in 2018?

The new regulations did lead to better-looking cars and everyone loves the fat tyres. Drivers enjoyed the physical challenge of wrestling their rides around circuits and the promised increase in lap times and cornering speed. But the aero-centric formula was at the cost of making passing difficult at a lot of tracks. Hamilton was among many drivers who noted that following other cars was so difficult that the speed differential required to pass was simply too great to be achieved and it was not hard to observe. Finding the right balance for the future is now in the hands of F1’s managing director of Motorsports, Ross Brawn – a considerable task.


Giles Richards

The GuardianTramp

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