Photo: Mercedes AMG F1 Team

F1 Roundtable: The Odyssey of 2017 with Four Rounds to Go

The 2017 Formula One season has been one of the more intense as fans have enjoyed a battle between Lewis Hamilton and Sebastian Vettel, two well established titans of the past decade. However, with Ferrari’s recent struggles, all looks lost for Vettel to wage a proper battle. The group weighs in on that, plus several other topics as this weekend’s United States Grand Prix at Circuit of the Americas draws ever closer.

The obvious question first, with Lewis Hamilton’s lead of 59 points over Sebastian Vettel and a collapsing Ferrari team, is this championship fight over even with four rounds to go?

Aaron Bearden, Contributing Writer: As much of a shame as it is to admit, yes. This championship battle’s over. Given that Hamilton’s gone more than a full season without finishing outside of the points at this stage, one could argue that he’s due for a dose of bad luck in one of the four remaining grand prix. But the odds of he and Mercedes squandering an advantage of more than two races to a Ferrari group that can’t seem to get out of their own way are low at best.

Adam Tate, Associate Editor: The championship fight isn’t over, not yet. First, never underestimate an inspired Sebastian Vettel. He has come back from seemingly impossible odds before. With all of Ferrari collapsing around him, he has become the true leader of the entire organization. Second, Lewis Hamilton’s incredible lucky streak will run out. He and Esteban Ocon are the only drivers who have finished every race this season, but every F1 champion has suffered at least one DNF in their championship winning season. Whether the unpredictable W08 fails him or he crashes out, Hamilton will have at least one DNF in the remaining races.

If Vettel can win while Hamilton retires he will be back in the race, but if Vettel has even one more retirement it’s over.

Joey Barnes, Editor-in-Chief: Four rounds to go while holding a 59-point lead with 100 total points on the table. It would take something of historic proportions to blow a favorable mark such as this one. Even though we all witnessed Hamilton fall despite winning 10 races last season – the only driver to score 10 victories and not hoist the championship – I have little doubt this will be wrapped up before the final race in Abu Dhabi. Ferrari showed they have strength and speed to muscle their way to the front, but not reliability to sustain it over the long stretch.

Maybe that changes next year, but it looks like the long break was the worst thing to hit the Italian squad. It also doesn’t help that the next race is at Circuit of the Americas, a track that Hamilton has scored four victories at in five races since it’s induction to Formula One in 2012.

Max Verstappen scored his second career Formula One victory at Malaysia and looked poised to nearly capture his third in Japan, is this 20-something version already better and wiser than the teen sensation?

AB: It’s been a good few weeks for Verstappen, but let’s not forget about the year that came before it when evaluating his growth. The Red Bull Racing ace will have to manage a podium in each of the final four grand prix to match his total of seven from last season. His average start continues to hover around sixth, but his 10.7 average finish this season is nearly four positions worst than last year, and only half of position better than his rookie season with Scuderia Torro Rosso. There have been a lot of circumstances that have worked against Verstappen this year, but you can’t chock that much of a decline up to bad luck alone.

Let’s see if Verstappen can finish the year out strong before we declare his problems fixed.

AT: I don’t think 20-something Max Verstappen is better and wiser than the teenage sensation he started out as. Most of Red Bull’s recent success has been due to Ferrari’s misfortune and Mercedes’ lack of pace. Max is a future great, but he still gets in situations he shouldn’t due to his youthful enthusiasm.

JB: There has been a noticeable difference in how he has carried himself over the last few races. However, good results fix an aching spirit. That said, I believe the last half of this season is laying the foundation for what we may be in store for in 2018 and beyond – adaptive, aware and methodical. He has to dig himself out of a hole if he wants to salvage this season, and in some way it looks like that has forced him to take it race by race while still keeping the mindset of the entire championship picture. If that is the case, this should be very interesting to watch him rival Red Bull Racing teammate Daniel Ricciardo moving forward – not to mention Hamilton and Vettel.

Continuing the theme of Japan, it appeared lapped traffic played a role in the battle for the win after the restart following a Virtual Safety Car, which was reminiscent of Russia, does something different need to be done to ensure that fans get a proper fight to the finish?

AB: As long as the lapped traffic races all of the leaders equally, I’m indifferent on this. However, one could argue Hamilton got better treatment of the two leaders in Suzuka, which is disappointing. One would hope any driver finding themselves a lap down would cut the leaders some slack so they can expect the same when their battles up front come. It’s admittedly never fun to see lapped traffic deprive fans from a strong finish. However, in times like these it’s also important to remember that a few moments with a lapped car aren’t the only thing that keeps any driver from Victory Lane. Had Red Bull brought the same pace in qualifying, they might not have been in such a desperate position in the late stages.

AT: Not at all. Red Bull made a mountain out of a molehill with the complaint about Felipe Massa. The Suzuka esses are not a place a driver can easily let the leaders by, even if Massa’s car disappeared Verstappen wouldn’t have passed Hamilton for the lead. Drivers need to heed blue flags, but where the leaders catch lapped traffic will always come into play.

JB: Personally, I don’t believe Formula One will become NASCAR and throw a caution at every incident on track, but I do believe there is merit to not be so withdrawn in calling for a Safety Car because of how little they happen in the sport. Fact is, Hamilton gained time under the VSC period on two separate occasions that took place in Suzuka. There are other safety issues I have with what went on under the VCS in Japan, but that’s for a different argument. For this matter though, there should be no ignoring the value it can add to a fan’s appreciation of an intense finish.

Also, for those clamoring Hamilton’s built advantage, it was under two seconds before the final VSC and over four seconds when the race resumed. From there, Verstappen brought it back down to under a second briefly before lapped traffic became a factor. It was escaped wind from the sails of what had all the makings of a fight to the line. I believe that if a leader has the better car, then what is the harm in cuing a real Safety Car and bunching everyone up?

It would have given the top two a fair fight, as well Felipe Massa and Fernando Alonso, who were both fighting for the final spot in the points before having to navigate blue flags and attempted courtesy to the leaders.

Mercedes handed Valtteri Bottas a new one-year deal last month that keeps him on for next season, but ever since then the Finn has not been in top form, should they have instead decided to bring in their development driver Esteban Ocon, who has scored points in all but one race this season?

AB: This depends entirely on Mercedes’ motive. If they intend to field one of their development drivers in the second car long-term, then it makes sense to move a driver like Ocon into the spot. However, if they have their eyes on going after another top talent – oh, say, Verstappen – next season, then keeping Bottas might be the smarter play.

AT: No. Esteban has been amazing, but a couple off form races for Bottas does not mean he should be sacked. He has two wins and 10 podiums this season, the same as Vettel. He has more than proven himself worthy of a one-year extension and has been a perfect number two driver for Mercedes.

JB: Valtteri Bottas certainly showcased the talent everyone talked about with wins at Russia and Austria this season, and the pace was there to even challenge Hamilton for a title race much like his predecessor, Nico Rosberg. However, maybe this is a weird and unexplainable thing to understand, but I feel he is bound for goodness and not greatness. Realistically, the talent of Ocon is something special and in the realm of how we all rave over Verstappen’s potential – it is in that element.

So, I think to allow him to manage and grow another year outside of their top car, unlike what Red Bull did with Verstappen, gives them a chance to continue to progress on his potential. Plus, if his talent meets that potential, it’s going to be hard to not play favoritism for Toto Wolff and Niki Lauda if Hamilton is still around and that is something we witnessed demoralize a former Hamilton team in 2007, McLaren.

With four rounds to go, what has stood out the most to you this season thus far?

AB: How invigorated the series felt with a legitimate battle between teams at the top of the championship table. Ferrari’s issues down the stretch have taken some of the intrigue away, but having two greats in Hamilton and Vettel trading championship blows for different teams through the first half of the season added excitement the paddock hadn’t seen in a few years. Throw in Red Bull’s recent surge and the occasional spirited drive from Force India, and this season has proven to be a memorable one compared to the years that preceded it. Hopefully, it’s a sign of things to come.

AT: Maurizio Arrivabene’s managerial collapse at Ferrari. Rule by fear and paranoia has destroyed the team’s best chances for a championship in a decade. Ferrari enjoyed the best start to a season they have had in years, but as failures have mounted, fear has risen. The team has walled itself off from the media. Tensions are high, tempers are flaring. Vettel is doing his best to keep it together, but everyone around him is letting the team down when they need to come together more than ever.

JB: There’s a lot of interesting things going on at Renault, McLaren and Red Bull. Oddly enough, my point here involves all three and adds Honda. Before the season, Red Bull made a lot of noise about being unified with Toro Rosso as the junior squad switch from Ferrari to Renault power. Not even a year later and now Toro Rosso switches to Honda, who just split after a few woeful years at McLaren, who now switch to Renault power for next year.

It’s like a love triangle that knows no bounds, but the striking thing is that after all that noise, Red Bull is merely using Toro Rosso as the test subject in this process, instead of joining to stay unified. It’s understandable. If Red Bull were to collapse and run similar to what McLaren has under Honda, there would be no way to keep Ricciardo or Verstappen.

So, I’m beyond curious to see how this turns out because from my view, the Renault F1 team are the one to have made all the right moves and look to be primed for a breakout in 2018.

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