It’s safe to say that Lewis Hamilton and Mercedes-AMG PETRONAS Motorsport are on top of the world. The Briton won his fifth Formula 1 world championship this year, putting him on level footing with the late, great Juan Manuel Fangio and just behind seven-time champion Michael Schumacher. He also extended his record of most pole positions held, qualifying first in 11 races – as many as the races he’s won in 2018.
Meanwhile, the team secured its fifth straight constructors’ title in Brazil, making it only the second team to win five consecutive drivers’ and constructors’ titles, after Ferrari. It also became only the fifth team to reach 100 pole positions. These feats further cemented Mercedes as the dominating team in the sport’s turbo hybrid era, and highlighted the world-beating synergy between Mercedes-AMG and PETRONAS.
Amazingly, the team accomplished all this in what has become the most exciting, closest-fought season in recent memory, with plenty of tense moments in the title fight. Without further ado, let’s count down the 10 best moments in an exhilarating year.
10. Hamilton comes out top in crash-crazy Baku
We start this list with a bang – literally – with the Azerbaijan Grand Prix on the streets of Baku. Where do we start? Crashes on the opening lap saw Force India’s Esteban Ocon and Williams’ Sergey Sirotkin out of the race, the latter also causing two punctures on Fernando Alonso’s McLaren. A few laps later, Renault’s Nico Hulkenberg crashed out from fifth place after what was looking to be a strong weekend for the French team.
But the biggest chaos of the weekend was to befall Red Bull. Daniel Ricciardo, who had been squabbling with teammate Max Verstappen for the fifth place the Dutchman inherited from Hulkenberg, slammed into the back of the sister car and taking them both out of the race. This brought out the safety car, and it was during this phase that Romain Grosjean inexplicably spun his Haas and stuffed it into the wall.
With racing resuming just two laps before the chequered flag, Ferrari’s Sebastian Vettel made a last-ditch lunge from third into the first corner. However, he locked up, ran wide and gave up places to both his teammate Kimi Räikkönen and Force India’s Sergio Pérez – the latter went on to score a heroic podium finish. Mercedes’ Valterri Bottas looked set for victory but as he came up to the main straight to start the final lap, he ran over leftover crash debris and picked up a puncture, causing him to retire from the race.
It was a bitter end for the Finn – who has still yet to win a race this year – but Hamilton’s victory, his first for the season, was at least some consolation for the Brackley-based team. And to top it off, the Briton took the lead in the championship over Vettel for the first time in 2018. It wouldn’t be the last time this lead switches hands between the two rivals…
9. Honda rebuilds itself with Toro Rosso after McLaren departure
To say that Honda endured a disastrous three years since making a return to the sport in 2015 would’ve been an understatement. The Japanese carmaker stoked memories of world domination in the late ’80s by rekindling an illustrious partnership with McLaren, but the duo languished near the back of the grid for three straight seasons – much to the ire of superstar driver Alonso.
After years of claiming it had the best chassis in Formula 1 saddled to the worst engine, the British team had enough and switched to Renault power for 2018, while Honda saddled up with Toro Rosso. Although Red Bull’s satellite team performed strongly in testing as McLaren struggled with reliability issues, the situation was reversed in Australia as Toro Rosso suffered a double retirement in the early stages of the race. By comparison, Alonso took a strong fifth place, duly radioing back to the team, “Now, we can fight.”
However, Toro Rosso was the one that fought back in the following race in Bahrain, with Pierre Gasly securing an astonishing fourth place; in a cheeky manoeuvre, he promptly uttered that same phrase to his team. While McLaren now sits two places ahead of Toro Rosso in the championship – largely due to Alonso’s performances – it should be noted that Gasly’s points haul is more than double that of the Spaniard’s teammate Stoffel Vandoorne, showing Honda’s remarkable improvement in performance and reliability.
While lingering doubts still remain, the team’s results mid-season were good enough for Red Bull itself to sign up for Honda engines for the 2019 season, ending a successful championship-winning partnership with Renault. And with rising star Gasly packing up and moving to replace a departing Ricciardo (more on that later), expectations are running sky high for next year.
8. Racing Point Force India rises from the ashes
While the main championship fight raged on throughout the season, there was an intriguing midfield scrap for fourth place in the constructors’ standings and the informal “best of the rest” honour behind the top three. For a long time, one of the frontrunners for that spot was Force India, but behind the scenes the team was embroiled in turmoil as its backers ran into financial trouble.
Eventually the business collapsed, and ahead of the Hungarian Grand Prix the team was put under administration to enable it to continue racing whilst a new buyer was sought. Although a consortium led by Lawrence Stroll – father of Williams driver Lance Stroll – agreed to purchase the team, it could not get the approval from the team’s creditors, so instead it simply bought the assets.
Although the new entity, now called Racing Point Force India, was still basically the same as before, it couldn’t race under its old licence, so the FIA excluded the previous Force India entry from the championship. Thus, it had to start afresh with zero points, but that did not stop Pérez and Ocon from immediately opening the books with fifth and sixth places respectively at the following Belgian Grand Prix.
More importantly, a string of solid results since then has enabled Racing Point Force India to climb to seventh in the championship; had the team kept its old entry and all its previous points, it would’ve now been fifth, just behind Renault. So what’s next? Well, Lance will be joining Pérez for 2019, which unfortunately leaves the talented Ocon without a drive.
7. Shock victory for Verstappen in Austria
Mercedes looked to have it in the bag at the Red Bull Ring in Austria, a track that it had traditionally been impervious at – it had won every single race there since the Grand Prix returned to the calendar in 2014. The team backed this up by locking up the front row, Bottas this time picking up pole. But the unexpected searing heat on Sunday was about to throw a spanner in the works.
At the start, Bottas made a poor start and lost places to Hamilton, Räikkönen and Verstappen, though he immediately clawed his way back past the Ferrari and Red Bull, slotting in behind his teammate. It was looking like business as usual when disaster struck as Bottas pulled over with a gearbox failure. This triggered a Virtual Safety Car and while Hamilton stayed out, the other frontrunners pitted for new soft tyres.
When Hamilton eventually made his stop, he emerged in fourth ahead of Vettel, but despite being on fresher tyres he suffered from blistering and the German made his way past. Hamilton pitted again and emerged in fifth, behind the also-struggling Ricciardo. The Australian ceded his place with a gearbox issue, but it was the Briton’s turn a few laps later as the world champion lost fuel pressure.
This marked Mercedes’ first double retirement since the 2016 Spanish Grand Prix, its only black mark in an otherwise perfect reliability record for the team this year. It also ended Hamilton’s 33-race points streak, having finished no lower than ninth since the 2016 Japanese Grand Prix. Verstappen, who made a decisive pass on Räikkönen on the opening lap, went on to win the race, followed by the Finn and Vettel – who took the lead in the championship by a single point. Mercedes, however, would come fighting back…
6. Ricciardo makes surprise signing for Renault
There’s no denying that Daniel Riccardo is one of the great talents in Formula 1 at the moment, and the Australian enjoyed a strong first half of the season with hard-fought victories in China and Monaco. The 29-year-old, however, had yet to sign a deal for a race seat for 2019, and speculation was rife about his future – would he stay at Red Bull, or would he search for greener pastures?
During the Hungarian Grand Prix, reports suggested that Ricciardo had made up his mind to stay in the Austrian team, and was only a few days away from signing a new deal. Just a few days later, however, he announced that he was to move to Renault instead, much to the shock of everyone within the paddock – and reportedly those within Red Bull as well.
It’s a big risk for Ricciardo, especially as Renault is still a step behind Red Bull in terms of performance; perhaps he wasn’t convinced with the latter being able to mount a title challenge with Honda power. Either way, he has since suffered four retirements in eight races – with three of them being due to mechanical issues – so he likely can’t wait to bid goodbye to the Bulls.
5. Epic title battle as Vettel and Hamilton trade blows
While dramas were occurring up and down the field, all focus was on the title battle between Hamilton and Vettel. Like any high-profile boxing bout, the stakes were high, as both of them were vying for their fifth world championship. The Fight for Five, as they said.
Vettel started strongly with back-to-back wins in Australia and Bahrain, but Hamilton pulled ahead with convincing victories in Azerbaijan and Spain. The lead swung back to the German’s favour after he won the Canadian Grand Prix, but the very next race in France saw Hamilton victorious and he snatched it back.
The following weekend, as Mercedes faltered with a double retirement in Austria, Vettel’s strong third place allowed him to zoom past his rival, and he extended his lead with victory on Hamilton’s home soil at the British Grand Prix. After four changes in the championship lead, Vettel had the momentum and looked unstoppable, but Hamilton would exert revenge at the following race…
4. Pivotal Germany win swings title into Hamilton’s favour
Heading into his home race in Germany, Vettel had an eight-point lead in the standings, and while Hamilton suffered a hydraulic issue in qualifying and started 14th, his rival duly took pole and appeared ready for an easy Sunday victory. Vettel remained in the lead in the opening laps, only letting Räikkönen past when he pulled into the pits for fresh tyres. Behind the scenes, Hamilton fought back to take fourth.
With Räikkönen instructed to let the championship leader through, Vettel appeared set to cruise to his first home win and a commanding lead in the standings. But light rain then started to appear and in the challenging conditions he understeered into the wall, much to the heartbreak of himself and the fans.
The safety car was called, and while Bottas and Räikkönen – who had swapped places earlier in the race – were called into the pits, Hamilton stayed out and romped home to an unlikely victory. That slim deficit he had over Vettel turned into a 17-point advantage, and while the German would win again in Belgium, the Briton never looked back.
3. Vettel’s spins transform title race
Up until the summer break after the Hungarian Grand Prix, the title battle had been tense, with the lead in the drivers’ standing having changed hands five times up until then. Hamilton had the upper hand by securing another victory at the Hungaroring to extend his advantage over Vettel to 24 points, but at the next race in Belgium a dominant win allowed the German to reclaim the points he lost.
Coming up to the Italian Grand Prix, Ferrari was looking strong, and it claimed the top two grid slots at its home race, with Räikkönen leading Vettel. But at the start Hamilton pushed his way past Vettel, and as the latter tried to fight back he clattered into his rival and spun, putting him at the back of the field. Vettel recovered to finish fourth, but Hamilton went on to take victory and with that a 30-point lead in the standings.
Vettel had been in similar spins before this year, in China and in France, but being so late in the year this incident proved crucial to the outcome of the title race and sparked an unfortunate trend for the German. Vettel was involved in two more spins in Japan and the US, and coupled with relatively lacklustre performances by Ferrari in Singapore and Russia, it put an end to what was a dramatic bout.
2. Räikkönen ends race win drought in Austin
Although the 2018 season got off to a patchy start with a few dour races here and there, it really came to form in the second half, which brought us some of the best racing the sport has ever exhibited. The crowning glory was arguably the United States Grand Prix at the Circuit of the Americas in Austin, with high stakes and high drama as the drivers’ title was within Hamilton’s reach.
He began proceedings in his usual top form by clinching yet another pole position, but while Vettel got a three-place penalty (he failed to slow down under red flags in practice), started fifth and promptly got into yet another first-lap spin, the popular, nonchalant Räikkönen inherited his front row position and capitalised on a brilliant start to take the lead by the first corner.
Ricciardo survived his clash with Vettel but disappointingly retired just a few laps later, resulting in a Virtual Safety Car that changed the course of the race. While Hamilton pitted for fresher tyres, Räikkönen was able to make a one-stop strategy work, and with Verstappen charging from the back of the grid and Hamilton needing to stop again it turned into a titanic three-way scrap for victory.
In the end it was Räikkönen that came out on top, as Verstappen held off a desperate last-minute attack from Hamilton. The Finn ended a five-year race win drought to take his first victory since rejoining Ferrari in 2014, in his final year before handing over the reins to Sauber’s Charles Leclerc. Elsewhere, Vettel fought back and overtook Bottas in the closing stages to finish fourth, so Hamilton’s title would have to wait just a bit longer…
1. Hamilton and Mercedes-AMG PETRONAS Motorsport clinch fifth titles
As you can gather by now, the second half of the season was a dream come true for Hamilton, as Vettel’s implosion saw his title hopes all but fade away. But while the championship was again within sight for Hamilton, Mexico didn’t make it easy as his team struggled throughout the weekend.
This came to a head during the race – as Verstappen beat polesitter Ricciardo on the opening lap to secure a second straight victory at the Autodromo Hermanos Rodriguez, Hamilton was again stung by excessive tyre wear. But despite Vettel putting in a strong performance by passing his rival en route to second, Hamilton managed to limit the damage, cruising to a distant fourth. And just like that, the crown was his.
The fight for the constructors’ title rolled on to the following race in Brazil, and Hamilton repeated his fine qualifying performance to score Mercedes’ 100th pole. But amidst the tricky conditions, Ferrari’s well-timed gamble to qualify in Q2 (and therefore start the race) with the more durable soft tyres, rather than the supersofts employed by the others, meant that the Italians weren’t giving up without a fight.
However, Ferrari failed to capitalise come Sunday and Räikkönen and Vettel languished in third and sixth respectively. At the front, Verstappen clawed his way up from fifth before passing Hamilton on lap 40. He looked set to take his first back-to-back win, but backmarker Ocon – who wanted to unlap himself – punted into Verstappen, pitching both of them into a spin. The controversy raged on, but Hamilton sailed to victory – and with Bottas finishing fifth, it was enough to seal the title for Mercedes-AMG PETRONAS Motorsport.
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