The dynamics of a driver’s relationship with his team-mate really hit the spotlight as you go higher up the grid. Establishing dominance in your camp can be the difference between being granted a championship challenge and a having to bow down as a loyal number two driver.
Given some predictions about which team holds the pace advantage after pre-season testing, some may be surprised that Mercedes, Ferrari and Red Bull all have two wins each. What may be more surprising is that the six wins are shared between only three drivers; Lewis Hamilton, Sebastian Vettel and Daniel Ricciardo.
In turn, this means that those three drivers now occupy the top three positions in the drivers’ championship. Would it be too early for any of the top three teams to back just one horse on the off-chance of claiming a title?
What about the sleeping giants Renault and McLaren? Whilst both teams remain in a transitional period, their drivers will still seek to finish ahead of their respective team-mates in order to keep their seats if the team can make the final leaps forward in performance.
With Stoffel Vandoorne having a full season of Formula One under his belt, many would’ve expected the Belgian to press on and take the fight to team-mate Fernando Alonso a little bit more this season. Instead, the 2015 GP2 champion has been out-qualified in every race – the worst qualifying record vs a team-mate so far this season – and beaten in every race in which they’ve both finished.
For a driver who almost won the GP2 Series in his first season, before emphatically taking the title (by almost double the points of the second-placed driver) the following season, the outcome has been slightly perplexing.
There’s no denying Alonso’s still one of the quickest drivers in the sport, but that won’t be helping Vandoorne’s case. As long as there’s a sizeable deficit to his team-mate, then it always opens the door to being replaced, especially with McLaren’s junior hot-shot Lando Norris leading the Formula Two championship in his first season.
Like he did to a certain degree in the back-end of 2017, Vandoorne will be keen to provide more examples of him being the ‘real deal’ as this season progresses.
Both drivers have started the season with something to prove at Renault.
With every passing podium-less season Nico Hulkenberg’s stock is falling, and being able to beat his highly-coveted team-mate would only serve to validate Renault’s decision to bring him on board as a potential team leader.
For Carlos Sainz, he was perhaps a bit unlucky to be overlooked for the second Red Bull seat alongside Daniel Ricciardo back in 2016, considering many believed him to be roughly on par with Max Verstappen, who got the nod from Red Bull. Beating an established driver in Hulkenberg would be a timely reminder for the top teams, who could well be on the market for a new driver at the end of the year.
Hulkenberg has definitely had the stronger start to the season; he leads the qualifying battle by four races to two, and is ahead in their battle in the drivers’ standings.
However, Hulkenberg’s form when presented with an outside chance of a podium remains patchy. He crashed out of the Azerbaijan Grand Prix, which eventually saw a podium go to midfield rival Sergio Perez. Carlos Sainz picked up Renault’s best result of the season so far with a fifth place in that very race.
There’s certainly evidence that Sainz is stopping the rot and competing stronger against his team-mate as the start of the season has progressed. He’s taken qualifying honours for the last two races (albeit with a problematic Spanish Grand Prix qualifying session for Hulkenberg), and was only denied a solid Monaco result by an ineffective tyre strategy. Another intriguing team-mate contest on the cards here.
If a footballing analogy was to be used to summarise the Max Verstappen vs Daniel Ricciardo battle at Red Bull, you could say that Verstappen is scoring a couple of own goals right now. The early own goals don’t necessarily define the entire match (or, in this case, the whole season), but they certainly give your opponent the early advantage in the game. To Ricciardo’s credit, in order for the ‘own goal’ mistakes to have happened, you need to have been putting your opponent under pressure in the first place.
Interestingly, the qualifying battle is three races apiece, with two of the Ricciardo’s qualifying wins coming as a result of Verstappen’s errors.
Of the three races where Verstappen has qualified ahead of Ricciardo (Australia, China and Spain), he’s thrown two of these races away. He made a mistake early on in Australia whilst a couple of places ahead of Ricciardo (who was recovering from a grid penalty), and he took out Sebastian Vettel when he was leading Red Bull’s charge through the field in China.
Whilst the Baku collision caused a lot of debate amongst fans, at the worst case, this can be Ricciardo’s only real mistake of the season, significantly less than the errors accumulated by Verstappen.
Nobody is denying the high level of Verstappen’s ability, but the Dutchman will be desperately seeking a clean weekend in Montreal.
There are two sides to Kimi Raikkonen’s start to the season; On the one hand, he’s probably had the worse luck compared to team-mate Sebastian Vettel. Conversely, he hasn’t been able to maximise the opportunities that have come his way when luck has been around.
First, the bad luck. He was ahead of Vettel in Australia when the virtual safety car altered the race, demoting him from second to third. In Bahrain, he was on course for a third place prior to the Ferrari pit stop error, and in Spain he lost out on a haul of points with power unit issues.
Whilst he can’t control the misfortunes, a couple of chances have gone begging. He was narrowly out-qualified by Vettel in Bahrain and China, which ensured that he played second fiddle to Vettel in those race scenarios, and he threw away another pole position chance in Baku at the final corner, which exposed him to being on the fringes of the hectic midfield mix.
Vettel has enjoyed the lion’s share of the qualifying results, winning that particular battle by five races to one, which has given him the priority in the strategies in the race, and therefore allowed him to execute the maximum results.
In his first season in the Mercedes team, Valtteri Bottas performed ably. Three wins and four pole positions showed that he can, sometimes, take the fight to world champion team-mate Lewis Hamilton. It earned him a one-year extension to his contract, but he’s well aware that his performances will need to step up if he’s to force another contract from team boss Toto Wolff.
A crash in qualifying for the Australian Grand Prix set him up for a poor start to the season, but he responded in Bahrain by challenging for the lead of the race, but ultimately falling short.
Another candidate for having the most bad luck in the first half of the season, Bottas probably would’ve won in China without the introduction of the safety car, and he looked set to profit from another safety car by winning in Baku, before a cruel puncture eliminated him from the race.
Since then, Hamilton appears to have re-established the dominance in the team by comfortably out-performing Bottas in Spain (where he won) and Monaco. Can Bottas prove that his quicker races were genuine examples of top-driver pace, or will they be noted down as ‘races where Hamilton was off-form’?
By: Luke Murphy
All images: Motorsport Images
Which drivers in the top teams do you think are winning their respective team-mate battles? Leave your comments below.