By Luis Torres, Staff Writer
Seven rounds have been completed, and all the pre-season predictions has either been spot on or have completely missed the mark. Some teams are either producing expected results like Ferrari and Mercedes while others are struggling to find sheer consistency, notably Force India’s bid of retaining the “Best of the Rest” title known as fourth in the Constructor’s Championship.
In this first installment of “Heptagon Viewpoints,” I’ll highlight seven takeaways as the Formula One season has reached the one-third mark.
The Emergence of Charles Leclerc Gives Sauber Positive Buzz
If there’s one Formula One team that nobody gave a chance to exceed expectations, it’s the rebranded Alfa Romeo Sauber F1 Team, who finished tenth in three out of the last four seasons. They’re currently ninth with 12 points, 10 of those coming from two-time Formula 2 champion Charles Leclerc.
The young rising star from Monaco has progressively grown as a noble, but clean racer, battling for points on a regular basis after scoring a breakthrough sixth-place at Baku. From there, he’s competed with the likes of two-time Formula One World Champion Fernando Alonso at Montreal and shown quicker pace than the team’s senior driver Marcus Ericsson.
Leclerc is one guy to keep an eye on the rest of the season, and without a doubt can score more points for Sauber. He’s been one driver that’s impressed me in each round of the World Championship and certainly, a can’t miss talent for Ferrari once Kimi Raikkonen calls it a day.
Points Finishes Won’t Keep Alonso
When McLaren ditched the Honda’s power of doom, and went with Renault, everyone expected flourishing results. That all changed when both Alonso and Stoffel Vandoorne brought double points in the first two rounds. Everything seemed alright and may keep Alonso in the sport for a couple more years, but it has been the complete opposite.
Aside from Alonso’s cut-throat opinion regarding F1’s quality of competition and failing to finish in the last three rounds, the fifth-place Constructor’s improvements isn’t enough for the Spaniard.
All signs are leaning towards Alonso heading West for the Verizon IndyCar Series in 2019. It’s apparent that Alonso’s time in Europe has become a ticking bomb waiting to ignite.
Already having wins at the 6-hour Spa and 24 Hours of Le Mans, and rumors about McLaren organizing an IndyCar program, don’t be surprise if this is Alonso’s final season.
Versatility and satisfaction is keeping his illustrious racing career alive, whereas F1 is no longer appealing to the former champion and he doesn’t mind it one bit if it means he can achieve the Motorsports Triple Crown.
Haas F1’s (More Like Grosjean) Series of Unfortunate Events
What in the maddening world has happened to Haas F1?
It seems that every Grand Prix, notably Romain Grosjean, can’t catch a break since their double-whammy at Melbourne.
Before both entries had costly pit stop miscues and wheel failures, it appeared the American team will score double-points, with a terrific chance of both Grosjean and Kevin Magnussen finishing inside the top-five. Then on Laps 22 and 24, heartbreak city ensued and personally felt they’ve haven’t quite recovered from their mistakes.
After the fourth round at Baku wrapped up, all ten F1 teams have scored points among 18 drivers. Both Grosjean and Williams rookie driver Sergey Sirotkin haven’t and still yet to score a single point. The Frenchman should’ve scored a point, but engine woes and poor performances has kept him out of the contention.
Magnussen has scored points in three rounds, with a fifth at Bahrain being his best, making Grosjean the weakest link with two 13th place results being his best all season. As a matter of fact, the 9-year veteran has yet to out perform Magnussen in a race and twice have failed to post a qualifying time.
Going forward, Grosjean must step up, or they’ll have to make team changes because poor runs have weighed Haas down far too many times. But also, the Ferrari powered engine needs better reliability because it has been a frustrating season thus far.
Debate on Red Bull Racing’s True Future Star
No question, Max Verstappen has potential of becoming the next transcending superstar. However, this season has exposed his driving skills.
Prior to Montreal, it seems the 20-year-old can’t pull off a string of trouble-free weekends. His antics at Shanghai that collected Sebastian Vettel, not only put them out of contention for a race win, it was also an unacceptable maneuver for a guy who’s competed in F1 since 2015.
At this point of his career, age shouldn’t be an excuse because Verstappen has been inconsistent. Montreal was an example that sometimes, being flashy on the track isn’t always the end-all-be-all in grand prix racing.
Everyone knows he’s an exciting driver to watch, but he needs to harness that excitement without harming himself, his car and competitors. Otherwise, the question of whether he was rushed to Red Bull will pop up and wonder if he should’ve stayed at Toro Rosso for another season.
Going back to Shanghai, that very grand prix also saw a legendary performance by Verstappen’s teammate Daniel Ricciardo, who in my eye, is the true dark horse contender for the World Championship. I’ve heard that Mercedes driver Valtteri Bottas has a stronger chance to compete with Vettel and teammate Lewis Hamilton, but I wouldn’t count the Aussie out just yet.
He’s two points behind Bottas for third, and 37 behind points leader Vettel. Which brings the question of had it not been for an engine failure at Bahrain and plowing into Versappen during the closing stages at Baku, Ricciardo would’ve been right up there with Vettel and Hamilton.
This second leg will determine who truly is the top driver from the Red Bull camp, and my choice is Ricciardo.
He has the complete package to become a future World Champion. Charismatic, critical thinker and knows how to handle his car when reliability is on his side. Verstappen has it, but hasn’t quite polished his patience just yet and it has shown after a third of the campaign completed.
Let’s not forget, Carlos Sainz, Jr. is on a loan with Renault and has scored points in all but one round, good enough to sit ninth in the World Championship. He’s one guy that is expected to join Red Bull and perhaps snatch the ride from Verstappen if he doesn’t deliver to Christian Horner’s expectations.
Force India’s Underwhelming Performances
If you’re looking for a model of consistency among the ten constructors, look no further than Force India. They’ve been the best of the rest or as I like to see, the top second-tier group in F1, finishing fourth the past two seasons. Without question, they were destined to retain fourth, expanding their expectations such as more podiums and steal wins from the top-tier teams (Mercedes, Ferrari and Red Bull).
Unfortunately, it has been underwhelming all season. Force India are undergoing managerial changes and have been outperformed by Renault, a team hardly anyone talked about last season, and McLaren all season.
Now they’re struggling to get both drivers in the points as senior driver Sergio Perez has also been exposed as a guy that may never get a true opportunity of being Mexico’s greatest driver since Pedro Rodriguez.
Let’s also be honest, Perez lucked is way onto a podium at Baku and quite frankly the team’s only highlight after seven rounds. It’s gotten to the point that all eyes have shifted towards Esteban Ocon, who’s six markers behind Perez for 12th in the drivers’ standings.
While points have been a struggle, Ocon has proven to be the superior competitor, and often rumored to be the next guy at Mercedes, demoralizing Perez’s future and if this continues, he’ll just become the 2010s Nick Heidfeld, solid driver but obsolete over time.
Future of Unknown for Hamilton
A fifth-place finish at Montreal for the four-time World Champion is unfamiliar territory. As a matter of fact, he was a complete afterthought and lost the championship lead to race winner Vettel. Hamilton is still the man in F1, but it took him until the fourth round to ignite that fire that was missing early on.
The pressure is high for Hamilton as his ride isn’t exactly secured after 2018. With Bottas gradually impressing Mercedes to keep his job and outperformed by Vettel, it’s not looking great. A fifth championship by Hamilton and a fifth straight Constructor’s Championship may not be enough to keep him and Bottas.
Guys like Ocon and Ricciardo are the only names frequently mentioned as potential replacements and brings some concern of where Hamilton will go if he doesn’t stay in the Silver Arrow.
It’s certain that Mercedes has had strong runs from both drivers, but not the dominance they’ve had all season.
New Guy to Beat for the World Championship
Three wins and four poles has brought new life to Vettel, who regained the championship lead at Montreal. He’s been the class of the field all season and carrying the torch for Ferrari because Raikkonen has struggled to match his speed. Going forward, it’s up to Vettel if he can smash home runs and single-handedly dethrone Mercedes. This isn’t a stretch, it can be done because Vettel has just been superb.
Are we seeing the old Vettel when he was untouchable in the first half of the 2010s?
Not quite, but he’s rivaled Hamilton in terms of who’s the man in F1. The way the first third of the season has been, I’m giving the upper hand to the German. He’s the man to beat during the next 14 rounds and if he stays out of trouble, Hamilton will have a hard time outrunning his rival.
The second leg of the Formula One campaign starts with the returning French Grand Prix at the Circuit Paul Ricard in Le Castellet this weekend. These next seven rounds represent the true race for the both championships and dictate the future of the sport unlike previous seasons. For some, it may be their last chance to prove themselves they’re elite competitors who can deliver under pressure.