The first half of the 2017 F1 season may be over. But from what we've seen so far, the second half promises to be a classic...
'It's a challenge we will relish.'
This year certainly started with a bang. Well... a bombshell, to be precise! 27-year-old, Finnish-born, Valtteri Bottas was presented as the successor to Lewis Hamilton's team-mate, Nico Rosberg, just forty-five days after the retirement of the reigning World Champion and following weeks of detailed evaluation, deliberation and negotiation.
A month or so after the announcement, the all-new F1 W08 EQ Power+, designed around radically different regulations for the 2017 season, was introduced to the world during a filming day at Silverstone. And finally, after eight days of testing at the Circuit de Barcelona-Catalunya, the team set off to face the first challenge of the year in Australia. Sound like a whirlwind? It sure felt like it!
At the beautiful Melbourne Grand Prix Circuit, first impressions from winter testing were confirmed, as Ferrari showed themselves to be a formidable force. While Lewis and Valtteri opened the season with a double podium for the team, the win went to Sebastian Vettel and the prancing horse. Lewis was quick to recognise and rise to the challenge: "This shows that we've got a real race on our hands this season, but it's a challenge we will relish."
The Silver Arrows hit back in the very next race in China with their first win of the season. It was Lewis's fifth success at the Shanghai International Circuit and third Grand Slam of his F1 career (pole position, victory, fastest race, lead from start to finish). In the aftermath, Toto Wolff summed up the state of play: "Overall, it's now 1:1 for us against Ferrari and the development race is on. This is just the beginning..."
Back and forth between red and silver
That prophecy proved accurate, as the pendulum continued to swing back and forth between the two top teams. In Bahrain, it was once again the turn of Vettel to triumph - winning the third race of the season from Lewis and Valtteri, who gave the team their second double podium of the year. The Silver Arrows again managed to find a reply a fortnight later, when the team notched up their second win of the season at the Russian Grand Prix.
This time around, it was Valtteri standing atop the podium - his first taste of winner's champagne on his 81st start in motorsport's top category. "Normally, I'm not that emotional. But hearing the Finnish national anthem was very special for me," said the latest to join the distinguished list of Grand Prix winners. Valtteri overtook both Ferraris at the start, beating World Championship leader Vettel in an exciting scrap that lasted throughout the race.
The ping pong between Mercedes and Ferrari continued across the next three race weekends in Spain, Monaco and Canada. Lewis battled his way to his second and third wins of the season in Barcelona and Montreal - but the team had a tough weekend in Monaco, where Valtteri finished as the best-placed Silver Arrow in P4. Toto explained the nature of the team's problems with our 'little diva', the W08: "The reality is that we were in and out of the working window of the tyres this weekend, and that made our performance too inconsistent overall."
Drama on the streets of Baku
As the teams lined up for just the second Grand Prix to take place on the new Baku City Circuit, no one could ever have dreamt that one of the most dramatic F1 races in recent memory was about to take place. Lewis was dominating the Grand Prix, during which the Safety Car emerged several times, when he had to make an extra pit stop due to a loose headrest, subsequently losing his lead.
There had already been plenty of controversy earlier in the race, when Vettel made contact with the No. 44 car not once but twice during a Safety Car period. "All the young kids in other series look up to us as Champions to set an example - and that is not the behaviour you expect to see from a multiple Champion," said Lewis, who finished a disappointing sixth after his various trials and tribulations.
Valtteri, meanwhile, produced the most impressive recovery of the race. Dead last with a one-lap deficit after the first lap, the Finn fought his way back to P3 over the remaining 50 laps before winning through in a photo finish finale against Williams rookie Lance Stroll to clinch P2 on the line. Daniel Ricciardo took the flag for Red Bull - his win remaining the only Grand Prix victory that did not go to a Ferrari or Mercedes driver in the period before the summer break.
Jet-propelled start by Valtteri
A home Grand prix for Toto Wolff and Niki Lauda in Austria developed into a continuation of the scrap between Valtteri and Vettel that had begun in Sochi. The Finn secured his second Formula One pole position on Saturday and got an amazing, jet-propelled start on Sunday - his reaction time only 0.201s compared to Vettel's 0.364s in second place.
Valtteri had a smile from ear to ear after his win, saying: "The start was absolutely perfect - definitely my best start ever." As at Sochi, racing was extremely close between the two, as the fast Finn crossed the line only 0.6 seconds up on the German after 71 exciting laps. "It's been my best weekend yet with the pole and the win and I hope we can continue from here," he concluded.
For Lewis, the race weekend in Austria got off to an inauspicious start when the team discovered damage to his gearbox and opted to change it as a precaution. The subsequent five-place grid penalty dropped him down to eighth. In the race, he fought his way up into P4, finishing just 1.4 seconds behind Daniel Ricciardo in P3.
Fantastic home win for Lewis
Lewis got the chance to turn things around and, in seizing that chance, put on an unforgettable show for his fans just one week later. It turned into an almost perfect race weekend for the Brit, during which he secured both his 67th F1 pole and his 57th Grand Prix victory. At the historic Silverstone Circuit, he drew level on British Grand Prix poles and victories with the legendary Jim Clark and further consolidated his position in the annals of the sport.
In the process, Lewis also clinched the fifth Grand Slam of his career - his third of the season after Shanghai and Montreal. "I'm so happy... this has got to be one of my sweetest wins here," said Lewis at the end of a crazy day at Silverstone. "Every time I came around Turn 7, I could see the fans cheering every single lap."
Off on their summer break
After ten hard-fought race-weekends, the first half of the season came to a close in Budapest with the Hungarian Grand Prix - which has already gone down in Formula One history as one of the absolute classics in recent seasons. For the Silver Arrows, the eleventh race of the season at the Hungaroring did not go quite as smoothly as the one-two in front of a home crowd two weeks earlier at Silverstone. Lewis and Valtteri finished the last race before the summer break in third and fourth respectively.
As has often been the case in the past, the Hungaroring lived up to its reputation of being a track on which overtaking is nigh-on impossible. Neither Valtteri nor Lewis could find a way past the two Ferraris in the race - despite the fact that race leader Vettel was unable to post the lap times expected of him due to a steering problem and had to be given cover by team-mate, Kimi Räikkönen.
Even a strategic change of position between Valtteri and Lewis to enable the latter to attack the prancing horses did not help the situation. What it did prove, however, was the level of respect between the two Silver Arrows stars: "I was promised that Lewis would let me back if it didn't work out," said Valtteri after the race. "I don't think every team-mate would do that in a Championship fight, so I think that was really nice of him and shows that he's a real team player."
Bring it on...
And so, F1 signed off for a well-earned break after one of the most exciting opening halves of a season in many years - but not before two days of testing on the Tuesday and Wednesday following the race weekend, during which Mercedes-Benz Junior George Russell got his first taste of the W08: "It was incredible," said the young Brit. "I have been looking forward to this for so long. It's every young driver's dream to drive a Formula One car. 48 hours ago I was driving a GP3 car around the same track, but today was totally different."
With two weeks to ponder what is shaping up to be a monumental title fight, the Boss signed off with some stirring words for his troops: "There's still everything to play for, and both World Championships are wide open. We now have time to take a step back, recharge the batteries and come back with renewed vigour in the second part of the season."
Bring it on...