Bottas supreme in season opener

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Valtteri Bottas claimed a surprise victory in Australia, with Mercedes showing unexpected post-testing pace, while Max Verstappen edged out the Ferraris to round out the podium.

Despite claiming pole position, Lewis Hamilton made a poor start and fell to P2, before sustaining some damage to his floor that affected his overall pace. After an early pitstop from Ferrari, Hamilton was brought in to cover off a potential under-cut, but with a long second stint ahead of him the potential to challenge for the win quickly faded.

Ferrari seemed to be caught off-guard by Mercedes’ pace, mostly scrapping with each other more than those around them. At the first turn, Leclerc found himself on the outside of Vettel and ran wide, before recovering in the middle phase of the race to be on his teammate’s tail. After asking the team whether he should attack or hold position, he was instructed to fall back. This brings into question Ferrari’s claim that the two are “free to race”, considering team orders were imposed without the championship, or even a race victory, at stake.

Red Bull rounded out the podium with a strong showing from Max Verstappen, delivering Honda’s first F1 podium in 11 years. Pierre Gasly however disappointed during qualifying, being eliminated in Q1, and struggled to make his way through the midfield. Following a pitstop for Toro Rosso driver Daniil Kvyat, it looked like Gasly might jump into the points after emerging ahead of the junior team driver. But a determined Kvyat reclaimed P10 and held off Gasly to claim the final points paying position, justify his reinstatement but causing headaches for Gasly.

Haas showed that their performance during testing was genuine, easily out-pacing their nearest rival Renault. Despite a retirement for Romain Grosjean, Kevin Magnussen delivered a strong haul of points.

Daniel Ricciardo in particular suffered from the home-race curse on debut for Renault. After being forced onto the grass at the start and bouncing over uneven ground, he emerged without a front wing. Pitting for a new nose left him at the rear of the field with almost no hope of points.

Despite the indignation upon it’s introduction, the battle for the Fastest Lap bonus point proved noteworthy. Max Verstappen claimed the Fastest Lap in the late phase of the race as he closed the gap to Hamilton ahead of him, but Bottas snatched the accolade with a blistering lap that denied all challengers any chance.

Red Bull Team Principal Christian Horner admitted that they were considering pitting Gasly as a sacrifice in the attempt to deny the Mercedes drivers the bonus point. By claiming the Fastest Lap, Gasly would not have been eligible for the point as he didn’t finish within the top 10, but it would have robbed the front-runners. Ferrari also had a chance to pit Leclerc (and if they wanted to also Vettel) to try to claim the extra point, but decided against it, a decision they are reviewing post-race.

In what Bottas called his “best race ever”, he leaves with the odd stat of having the greatest points lead in F1 history over the next driver after round 1. Interestingly, 26 points isn’t the greatest number awarded in a race, that honour going to Lewis Hamilton who claimed all 50 points on offer when double points were available in Abu Dhabi for the final round of the 2014 season.

Bonus point will now be awarded for Fastest Lap

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Effective immediately, drivers that set the fastest lap of the race will be awarded a bonus point if they finish in the top 10.

Although Formula 1 has previously had a bonus point for fastest lap, few in the paddock were even alive when it was last awarded more than sixty years ago.

Here’s what you need to know:

  • Drivers outside the top 10 are ineligible for the bonus point, and if they set the fastest time then no point(s) will be awarded.

  • Fastest driver and their constructor will both be awarded a point.

If the fastest lap points had been in play in 2007 and 2008 respectively, Hamilton would have claimed the title in ‘07, but would have lost to Massa in ‘08.

Seemingly a response to more innovative series like Formula E, rumours of the bonus point were met with mixed reaction amongst fans. Most notably, the concern that a bonus point adds little in terms of value, yet could end up deciding a championship in a close season.

Concerns that back-markers could pit late it the race, or even start the race light with the intention of chasing the point have been floated as a justification for eliminating the back-half of the grid.

Ross Brawn expands on the decision further on F1.com:

"Together with the FIA we have been committed to evaluating ideas and solutions that can improve the show whilst maintaining the integrity of our sport,” he said.

“We felt that the reintroduction, after sixty years, of a point for the driver of the fastest lap in the race goes in this direction. We have been considering this solution - which represents a response to detailed research carried out with thousands of our fans around the world – for a number of months.

“How many times have we heard the drivers on the radio ask the team about who holds the fastest lap? Now it will no longer be only a matter of record and prestige, but there will be a concrete motivation that will make the final part of the race even more interesting. Sometimes it is useful to remind ourselves of the heritage of our sport to move forward."

Strangely, discussion about bonus points has excluded awarding one for pole position, which features in the drivers’ unofficial “grand slam” (pole, win and fastest lap), and would avoid any peripheral issues that could disrupt the race.

In 2018 Valtteri Bottas claimed the DHL Fastest Lap trophy after speeding to 7 fastest laps from a possible twenty-one.

Mattia Binotto replaces Arrivabene as Ferrari team principal

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Tensions within Ferrari, particularly their failure to translate a performance advantage into championships, has cost Maurizio Arrivabene his job as team principal.

From Autosport:

“After four years of untiring commitment and dedication, Maurizio Arrivabene is leaving the team," read Ferrari's statement.

Ferrari would like to thank Maurizio for his valuable contribution to the team's increasing competitiveness over the past few years, and wish him the best for his future endeavours.”

Ferrari stalwart Binotto has been technical chief since 2016, when he stepped up to the role following the team's split with James Allison.

Binotto first joined Ferrari in 1995, originally as a test engine engineer, and then performed a similar role for the race team from 1997 to 2003.

It’s fair to say that Ferrari’s gains in recent years have come from their technical team, which will (at least for now) continue to be led by Binotto.

If they’ve been lacking in any area it’s been clarity of operations, strategy and driver management. All areas for which a team principal are directly accountable.

A blood letting at the very top of the chain will go at least some of the way toward relieving rumoured tensions between the team management and the technical chiefs. Our first glimpse into how this affects performance on track will come at winter testing in just a few weeks.

Abu Dhabi power rankings

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With Formula 1 season 2018 in the bag we take one last look up and down the grid to cherry pick those who impressed and those who fell short. Here’s our power rankings from the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix.

Moving on up

Carlos Sainz left behind him the disappointment on his Q2 exit from qualifying on Saturday to launch his Renault into the P6 and deep into the points positions. He’s leaving Renault on the high, and with a question mark over the performance of McLaren now and into the future, it might be a while before we seeing him troubling the scorers again.

Lewis Hamilton rounded out the year in a way that he never has before: winning races after claiming the championship. Not just that, his points haul for the season blasted through the 400 point barrier, making him the first driver ever to do so. It’s just a shame that he doesn’t show the same enthusiasm performing his official duties as he does with his mates behind the scenes.

Charles Leclerc has cemented his reputation as “best of the rest” many times this season, despite only finishing in P7 four times. Another solid performance from the man who soon after had his first spin in a Ferrari during testing as a prelude to the big show.

Backsliding

Romain Grosjean made quite an impact in Abu Dhabi, right into the side of Nico Hulkenberg. Although it generated one of the main talking points from the race, it’s just another example of Grosjean lacking what it takes to be a consistent performer at the highest level, even if the German admitted he played a small part in the contact.

Valtteri Bottas qualified on the front row only to tumble backwards to finish in P5. By his own admission he couldn’t wait for the season to end, and it’s no wonder. Despite being in the fastest (i.e. championship winning) team, to finish fifth in the drivers’ championship behind his teammate, both Ferraris and one of the Red Bull drivers is poor. With Ocon being kept on the leash for next year, the heat is on the Finn throughout next season.

Kimi Raikkonen finished his tenure at Ferrari not with a bang but a whimper, with the prospect of testing for Sauber only days after the race on his mind, even he must have felt that the F1 gods were trying to send the Iceman a message.

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Brazil GP power rankings

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Brazil often turns up a few surprises, and from Vettel destroying a weighbridge in qualifying to the argy-bargy between Verstappen and Ocon post race, there was just as much action on track as there was adjacent to it.

Here’s our power rankings from a dynamic Brazilian GP:

Moving on up

Daniel Ricciardo came through the pack from the midfield, and not only made up the numbers among the top six, but asserted himself in the race narrative to finish a few tenths away from the podium positions.

Charles Leclerc predictably won the “best of the rest” finishing P7 yet again, and continues to put a gap on the rest of the field. How he measures up against Vettel next year at Ferrari will be fascinating, but we also feel for poor Marcus “Sony” Ericsson who is in similar machinery but got knocked around in the race leaving his teammate to claim the spoils.

Mercedes capped off a tremendous season and snagged their fifth double championship, matching Ferrari’s dominance of the early 2000s.

Backsliding

Max Verstappen drove a remarkable race, overtaking all before him from his P5 starting position to lead the race. His chop in front of Ocon, who was at that time a lap down, smacked of entitlement and an expectation that a car that was alongside him during one corner should simply disappear at the next. Stewards’ decision aside, Verstappen’s premeditated altercation with Ocon post race was juvenile and showed that the version of Max that joked about head-butting journalists earlier in the year is not yet buried.

Esteban Ocon makes his way on to the naughty list, but mostly for balance than any genuine wrong-doing. As much as Verstappen played a hand in his own demise, it’s hard to shake the villain tag when you’re a back marker making contact with the race leaders.

Pierre Gasly not only finished a forgettable P13, but made his team look foolish by repeatedly ignoring team orders when Hartley was much faster on fresher tyres. Despite Gasly’s claim there weren’t any stakes, Hartley ultimately finished just outside of the points, with the Toro Rosso driver engaging “controlled aggression against teammate mode” slightly prematurely.

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Tell us your Driver of the Day from the Brazil GP