Sebastian Vettel’s pole position at the German Grand Prix appeared to underline that his Ferrari is the fastest car in Formula 1, and potentially marked a crucial shift in the balance of performance between the top two teams.
His title rival Lewis Hamilton of Mercedes certainly faces an uphill battle in Sunday’s race, starting from down in 14th place after a hydraulics failure in qualifying.
Hamilton said he would do his best to recover but felt it would not be as easy as it was after being punted to the back of the field by Kimi Raikkonen on the first lap at Silverstone two weeks ago.
Even so, in a normal race Hamilton will surely be able to get back into a strong points-scoring position. But barring misfortune for Vettel, the Briton’s eight-point deficit in the championship is bound to grow, even if team-mate Valtteri Bottas will be doing his best to disrupt Vettel from second on the grid.
Vettel said: “You don’t wish anything bad or something like a technical issue to happen to anyone, so it was a shame to see him go out and I mean it. But you look after yourself and try to do the race, which is the most important part of the weekend.”
Could Hamilton have beaten Vettel to pole had he made it into the top-10 shootout? That will always be unknown, but it appears it would have taken one of those special laps Hamilton can sometimes pull out of nowhere.
Vettel was more than 0.2 seconds quicker than Bottas, and only the latest in a series of errors by the German’s team-mate Raikkonen in final qualifying prevented it being an all-Ferrari front row.
The wider concern for Mercedes, apart from this being the third serious reliability malfunction to hit them in three races – after their double retirement in Austria – is Ferrari’s performance.
The Italian team’s rivals say they have made a major step forward on their engine performance in the past two races – which is perplexing because their upgraded engine was introduced in Canada in early June, has not been changed since, and this step forward was not immediately apparent then.
Mercedes F1 boss Toto Wolff said Ferrari were gaining as much as 0.5secs a lap on their car on the straights.
Insiders say that, behind the scenes, Mercedes are asking questions of governing body the FIA as to how this might be possible – the implications being obvious, especially in the context of an earlier row about Ferrari’s engine this year.
In public, Wolff says: “The mindset you need to have is, ‘What can we do to achieve that power output?’ rather than as a default look over and say it’s not legal. So we are looking at ourselves, how can we achieve it, and if we cannot achieve it, how can someone else achieve it?”
He added: “If we want to win the championship or stay in the hunt for the championship, we have had a severe warning today.”
Ocon set to move as driver market hots up
While Hamilton and Vettel dispute this year’s championship on the track, in the paddock the weekend has been dominated by gossip about the driver market for 2019.
Hamilton and Mercedes kicked this off on Thursday, with their announcement of a new two-year contract to take him to the end of 2020. A day later, Bottas was confirmed as his team-mate, at least until the end of next year.
Beyond that, nothing has been firmed up yet, but it is likely to lead to a quick cascade of changes elsewhere on the grid.
Daniel Ricciardo had been waiting for Mercedes’ decision and is now expected to re-sign at Red Bull alongside Max Verstappen.
At Ferrari, the team are said by sources to have decided last month to promote Charles Leclerc from Sauber in place of Raikkonen. But it remains to be seen whether management changes at the top of Ferrari change that. More on that in a moment.
Outside the top three teams, the hot tip is that a deal to take Esteban Ocon from Force India to Renault alongside Nico Hulkenberg is as good as done.
Ocon is good fit for Renault – he is French, very quick, and there is a strong corporate alliance between them and Mercedes, who own his contract as one of their young drivers. There have been meetings between Renault and Mercedes bosses this weekend, and it seems only a matter of time before his move is confirmed.
Ocon’s switch leaves Carlos Sainz looking for a seat, and the Spaniard could well move to McLaren, with Sauber or Haas as his Plan B.
The McLaren situation is complicated by the team’s uncertainty over whether Fernando Alonso will stay in Formula 1 or go to Indycar next year to pursue his dream of winning the Indy 500.
McLaren will wait for him to make a decision on that but they need a back stop if Alonso leaves, which is where Sainz comes in.
Alonso is close to Sainz and his father, the rally legend of the same name, and is said to be involved in the negotiations. If Alonso stays, McLaren could well have an all-Spanish line-up. If Alonso leaves, it is unclear who would get the second seat.
Stoffel Vandoorne’s future is looking shaky and the team seem to be cooling a little on promoting their promising reserve driver Lando Norris from Formula Two so quickly – he is only 18. McLaren are also looking for a technical director.
Ocon is likely to be replaced at Force India by Lance Stroll, who is looking for a way out of Williams – and the team don’t seem that keen to fight to keep him.
Funding from the Canadian’s billionaire father Lawrence would come in handy for Force India, whose owner Vijay Mallya is in financial and legal difficulties rooted in an attempt by the Indian government to force his extradition from the UK to face charges of defrauding banks.
Mexican Sergio Perez is believed to have a contract to stay at the team that has been his home since 2013.
If Raikkonen leaves Ferrari, Sauber’s team boss Frederic Vasseur has said they are open to him returning to the team that gave him his F1 debut back in 2001. But as a Ferrari B team, Italian Antonio Giovinazzi, Maranello’s third driver, is also a contender.
At Haas, Kevin Magnussen seems set to stay, while Romain Grosjean is on very rocky ground after his error-strewn season, but may yet be saved depending on whether the team have any better options.
At Toro Rosso, Red Bull’s junior team, Brendon Hartley looks likely to be moved out. Pierre Gasly is expected to stay and among potential partners are said to be Norris, if McLaren could be persuaded to do a deal that ensured they kept hold of him, and Red Bull junior Dan Ticktum, if he can earn enough F1 licence points over the remainder of this year.
Ferrari management changes
There have been big changes at the top of Ferrari.
Boss Sergio Marchionne has become ill because of complications following surgery and Ferrari say he is unable to return to work. His twin roles as chairman and chief executive have been split between two of his colleagues.
John Elkann, a scion of the Agnelli family who have controlled Fiat and Ferrari for decades, has become president, while the new chief executive is Louis Carey Camilleri, a Ferrari board member and former boss of their main sponsor, the tobacco giant Philip Morris.
It is unclear at this stage how this will affect the team – or their position in negotiations over the future of F1.
Marchionne has a reputation as a particularly hard-nosed businessman, and tales of his aggressive and strident behaviour inside meetings of F1 senior figures are legion in the paddock.
He has threatened a number of times to pull Ferrari out of F1 after 2020 if new owners Liberty Media change it in a way he does not like, and he has formed a particularly powerful alliance in recent times with Mercedes bosses.
It remains to be seen how the new management move forward in their discussions with F1. At the very least, the absence of the ‘jumpered assassin’, as Marchionne is known, could change their tone.
And what of Ferrari’s driver choice for 2019? This might not be their first priority in the circumstances, but given that the decision to promote Leclerc was made before Marchionne’s illness became clear, it’s not impossible it could be affected.
On Thursday, Vettel dropped a strong hint he would like to see Raikkonen continue.
“I like Kimi,” he said. “I’d be happy to continue like that, but it’s not for me to mention, to decide.
“Charles, one way or the other, will have a great career. He’s a great guy, he’s fast, he’s got everything, so yeah, definitely, he has no rush. He’s young, but if you’re young you’re always in a rush with everything.
“I don’t know when, what and ultimately who but as I said it really doesn’t matter to me. For me it’s clear where I am next but I think both of them would suit into the team.”
It’s not hard to see why Vettel might prefer the status quo – Raikkonen has proved a trouble-free and compliant number two, while Leclerc looks one of the most promising talents to emerge for years.
Will Marchionne’s departure lead to a change of heart over Vettel’s team-mate in 2019?