Half-term report

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Mercedes-Benz might have dominated the opening phase of the 2015 Formula 1 season, but there have been some engaging sub-plots in the Silver Arrows’ slipstream. Sebastian Vettel is back to his imperious best, even if that usually means fighting for third place, and the McLaren-Honda alliance has shown little sign of replicating a glorious past. As the campaign enters its final stretch, our Grand Prix editor answers key questions about all 20 drivers and analyses form to date

Lewis Hamilton
Is this the best he’s been?

Lewis alternates between the yin of his racing life – where his default setting is 100 per cent conviction that he is faster than anyone – and the yang of his showbiz lifestyle, the kid from the council estate who’s made it global and likes to project it. The cars Mercedes has provided have let this other part of his life flower, because he’s winning regardless. Last year was the first time he’d experienced being in unquestionably the best car, but now he’s reached an equilibrium. It’s made him more assured. He’d always known he was the fastest, but previously he could be unsettled on the occasions that didn’t translate. Circumstance can still trigger him to over-strive, like in Hungary, but nothing dents him.

Nico Rosberg
Can’t win bare-knuckle scraps against Hamilton? How does he fix that?

He can’t. Ultimately you can only be who you are in something as intense as F1. Even on a bad day he will usually still be second, so Nico could yet sneak a title win – but only via the vagaries of the scoring system and some misfortune for Lewis. It will not be on performance or through putting moves on Hamilton. Last year he fought against the idea that Hamilton will always prevail wheel-to-wheel and tried at Spa to make a point – which only brought censure from the team. A hard one to come back from. He will always have the odd weekend where his greater technical feel will allow him to retain an advantage all weekend (Spain), but the die is set.

Sebastian Vettel
Star on the rise once again. What’s changed in the past six months?

He’s been freed up from expectation and the pressure that followed from – for the first time – falling short of that expectation. That was a nasty shock and helped him on his way out of Red Bull. At Ferrari, anything better than last year’s woeful season was going to be good, and the fruit was relatively low-lying. As he picked it off they fell in love with him, his work ethic, his speed, his easy way with everyone. The whole team was soon buzzing at his frequency. A virtuous circle of performance has duly unfolded and his confidence is now running where it always used to. So we see the smart calls, the full attack and, when required, the steel beneath the smile.

Kimi Räikkönen
People are starting to discuss his sell-by date, but didn’t he pass it some time ago?

In Kimi’s two Maranello stints, they have only ever seen flashes of the driver who competed so relentlessly against them while at McLaren. Even in his 2007 title year his performances wavered between okay and exceptional. These days there are fewer of the latter. Last year it was hard to assess, so far off was the car, with traits diametrically opposed to his needs. That no longer applies and Vettel has shown that Räikkönen is a couple of vital tenths away from his best. There is still the odd great day in him but, although he’s staying at Ferrari, this once formidable force is destined to see out his F1 days as a quality number two.

Daniel Ricciardo
Seems to have been in the same bubble that burst around Vettel last year. Why?

There were occasions this season (Montréal stands out) when Daniel got to see what it was like for Vettel in 2014. Things just wouldn’t click, the car wasn’t answering his demands like before, his team-mate was coming on inconveniently strong. The smile never left his face, but it hurt. Since Silverstone the RB11 has been on a productive development path and finally has the sort of precision and high-speed aero grip that marked out previous Red Bulls. As this happened, the real Ricciardo was revealed just below the surface. His inspired performance in Hungary was only partly about the emotion of Jules Bianchi. It was also the unpopping of a cork.

Daniil Kvyat
Radio impudence underlines the correct attitude. How good could he be?

Daniil is a deeper, more sensitive individual than the brusque Russian exterior suggests and finds himself in the shade of Ricciardo’s sunny charisma. He understands this, but just puts his head down, forms his own protective barrier – and refuses to accept being shaded in the car. He carries the inner certainty of his performance and is no compliant number two. And he can drive. As his experience has built he has made progress with his former weak point of tyre management. His early-season lack of form was more about car issues than Daniil issues: if he can now join up his peaks as the car comes good, he could be ready to win.

Felipe Massa
Is the car flattering him, or has he rediscovered his mojo?

Felipe is relaxed in his own skin these days and that’s allowing him full access to his natural flair. It has never been a polished flair, his driving having many excesses and inconsistencies, but there’s enough control to ensure the buzzing energy is generally moving him forwards. He’s seen and done it all and, after the horrible pressures of being Alonso’s team-mate at Ferrari, his Williams days are a breeze. He’s a guy that needs to be relaxed to give his best. The Williams environment has made that possible and we are seeing a coda of the driver that almost won the 2008 world title. Out on track he’s pushing like crazy then, debrief done, he’s back to enjoying his life.

Valtteri Bottas
If he’s that good shouldn’t he be absolutely battering Massa?

There could be something in that. Totally unflappable, amazingly consistent, a great feel for the tyres but… The spark of last year – the guy that was putting those aggressive passes on everyone at Stowe as he came through the field – hasn’t been so evident so far in 2015. Was the recent possibility of moving to Ferrari a distraction? Is there something about the FW37 that doesn’t suit him as well as the FW36? He’s not one for revealing. This is all relative; he remains a quality driver and one who is comfortably out-scoring his team-mate in the championship. But the trajectory of his progress has definitely been brought up short this year.

Fernando Alonso
Started at Minardi, might as well be back there. Discuss.

When he looks back on his career, Fernando is going to accept that the first McLaren contract should have been the backbone of his multiple title-winning career. Had he stayed, say, from 2007-12, there’s nothing he couldn’t have achieved. Instead he’s returned with both parties on their uppers, Fernando arguably the best of his era but with no title for nine years, McLaren in danger of becoming a spent force. But all it needs is for the Honda to come good. The chassis is excellent and Alonso remains supreme in how relentlessly he hustles the car, plus his fantastic racecraft. If the engine breakthrough doesn’t happen, though… It doesn’t bear thinking about.

Jenson Button
Is the end of the road finally nigh, given McLaren’s strong reserve pool?

Jenson’s qualities have never been fully appreciated by Ron Dennis, who was ready to drop him for 2015 before politics intervened to give JB a reprieve. Will he get another? Difficult to see how McLaren can continue to carry such a heavyweight (and expensive) driver line-up when the results are not there. Stoffel Vandoorne – ironically a Button protégé – is waiting in the wings as he dominates GP2. Yet Button could still have F1 options even if McLaren doesn’t renew. If Bottas goes to Ferrari, what will Williams do? It could do worse than re-signing Jenson; he’s not as good as Alonso at bullying a 17th place car up to 13th, but is still fully capable of winning.

Nico Hülkenberg
Great track record, so why is he still in a resprayed Jordan?

He’s led a race on merit in a Force India, he’s stuck a 2010 Williams on a decisive pole position, he regularly transcends the level of his cars. Yet still the big teams look elsewhere. This year is a case in point; Ferrari was looking at possibly negotiating with Williams about how much it would need to pay to buy out Bottas’ contract at a time when Nico was a free agent. If he can be criticised, it’s that his aggressive style is not best suited to the Pirelli era of racing. Those races where an extra stop is marginal usually see him having to make it – which in turn means he will tend to be beaten by team-mate Pérez. But only in those very specific circumstances.

Sergio Pérez
Good at looking after tyres, which reaps rewards. Does he have any other uses?

Pérez fights harder in defence than any other driver on the grid. He’s one very tough cookie if you want to find a way past. That combative skill and his shrewd way of nursing the tyres combine to make him a useful asset for a team like Force India, as it guarantees a useful tally of points. But his style is generally unsubtle and he’s not outright quick enough to justify a place in any top team. Occasionally his style leads to trouble, too. His defence against Grosjean in Malaysia was ridiculously OTT. And while Maldonado was the perpetrator in Hungary, Pérez made zero allowance for the guy he was racing. A metre of room was all that was needed.

Romain Grosjean
People link other drivers with top teams, but aren’t there more obvious choices?

Even more puzzling than Hülkenberg, Grosjean is conspicuously missing from the top teams’ shopping lists. This driver who three times in 2013 might have beaten Vettel’s Red Bull to victory with an inferior car was, as of Hungary, 9-1 up in qualifying against a very quick team-mate. The Lotus E23, while better than its predecessor, is still only a mid-grid car, so the spotlight is shining elsewhere for a second season. In the way he aggressively pushes against the limits of feasibility Grosjean is hugely exciting – recall his around-the-outside pass of Massa at Budapest’s Turn Four in ’13 – and could absolutely light up the front of Grands Prix, given the car.

Pastor Maldonado
2012 Spanish GP v most of the rest. How do you explain the Maldonado enigma?

For most of this season Pastor had managed to keep a lid on it. Then came Hungary and a season’s worth of transgressions all in one afternoon. He doesn’t have the explosive qualifying pace of his team-mate (other than at Monaco, where he remains blindingly fast) but has a superb handle on the tyres and this allows him generally excellent race pace. He’s an intelligent, articulate guy out of the car but once in the cockpit he struggles to contain that inner Tasmanian Devil. Red mist remains his enemy and leads him to invent new ways of messing up his weekend, just as he invents a new way around a corner each lap.

Max Verstappen
Hype, mistakes, measured racecraft. Too much too soon, or genuine prodigy?

We’ve seen the audacious overtakes, the way he can come from nowhere and ambush the guy ahead, yet not lock a wheel, totally at ease with scrubbing off the excess speed before the apex. We’ve seen the way he can hold up a great pace on the harder tyre, ready to attack on the softer one later on (his debut in Melbourne was going to be a spectacular example of that, but the car broke), but we’ve not yet seen it all joined up from one race to the next. That’s about nothing more than relatively empty data banks. As is his struggle sometimes to prepare the tyres and brakes properly for the ultimate qualifying lap. It will come. He’s prodigiously gifted.

Carlos Sainz
Very good thus far. How has he coped in the shadow of Verstappen overdrive?

One of the highlights of the season has been watching this guy come in and demand attention. With the spotlight on his record-breaking team-mate, it would have been easy to fall into the role of ‘the other driver’. Instead he’s shown great mental strength and composure – and no small degree of talent. He finds the limits of the car by pushing beyond them and is frequently the most spectacular driver of all in practice sessions, yet rarely goes off. He then slots all the pieces of information together for the crucial qualifying lap. He’s 6-4 up against Verstappen at the halfway point and continues to develop into a potentially top F1 driver.

Felipe Nasr
Rarely convincing in GP2, now showing star potential. Is F1 a little bit too easy?

It probably is. But that’s no reflection upon Nasr, who has genuine star potential. Even if current F1 cars did have more aggressive grip levels, with front ends that responded more instantly, that did not demand a driver always be aware of tyres and required stint lengths, Nasr would still be looking good. His is a beautiful natural flowing style behind the wheel, lots of momentum and silky inputs. It’s all about feel for him – and in this is his biggest obstacle this year: the sensation given through the pedal of brake-by-wire systems that can be inconsistent. Once this is resolved, we should see more consistent demonstrations of his Carlos Reutemann-like qualities.

Marcus Ericsson
Great at Suzuka, less so at paler racetracks. Why?

Marcus has a more aggressive style than his team-mate; later on the brakes, more positive steering input. But the combination of Sauber aerodynamics and Pirelli tyres doesn’t reward this technique. A softening of his inputs might see him go faster. Being beaten by a rookie in your sophomore year isn’t great, but Ericsson is far from outclassed. His points-scoring drive in Hungary was aided by attrition but showed his ability to put a strong error-free race together. An improvement in braking feel at Suzuka last year let him properly access his potential, but sometimes the traits ofthe car are set and it’s the driver that needs to adapt.

Will Stevens
Two FR3.5 wins do not an F1 star make. A symptom of the sport’s current malaise?

How do you even begin to assess the level of the drivers in cars that are 2sec slower even than the next slowest? What we have seen from Will is a willingness to have a go, to push hard throughout a Grand Prix weekend. He may not have lit up the junior racing categories – though he was no slouch – but history has shown that need not be a definitive indication of a driver’s potential. Step forward Niki Lauda. On paper he would appear to have dominated his team-mate, but even that is less than clear as the jockey-like Stevens’s weight gives him a 0.5sec advantage over Merhi in a car that cannot be brought down below the minimum limit.

Roberto Merhi
Smart to dovetail F1 and FR3.5 when he seems to be doing both quite badly?

Roberto should perhaps shave off his ample locks as a publicity stunt to bring attention to the fact that he desperately needs to lose every bit of possible weight. The car is at the legal limit with 63kg Stevens on board and around 12kg over it with the much-slimmed Merhi. Aside from the blunting of acceleration, braking and lateral grip this imposes, it also means Merhi’s car cannot have the ideal weight distribution, especially for the slower courses. As with Stevens, he has a good but not outstanding pedigree in the junior categories, not one that screamed ‘F1’. It’s impossible to judge if he’s transcending that level or not.