Title protagonists Sebastian Vettel and Lewis Hamilton say the closely fought nature of the 2018 season will inevitably mean the championship will be decided by who makes the fewest mistakes.
Hamilton leads Vettel in the drivers championship by 14 points, reversing Vettel’s slender pre-French Grand Prix one-point margin with victory in Le Castellet while Vettel could finish only fifth.
It was the third championship lead change in eight rounds, with the first coming at the Azerbaijan Grand Prix, where Hamilton inherited the win after Vettel locked up in an assault of Valtteri Bottas’s race lead and Bottas retired from the race with a puncture.
Vettel snatched back the lead at the Canadian Grand Prix, a race in which Hamilton has historically performed strongly. This season, however, he struggled, qualifying fourth and finishing fifth as the slowest Mercedes of the weekend.
But the Briton took back the lead just one round later, last week in France, with an effortless victory after Vettel, having executed a strong launch from third, locked up at the first turn and pitched himself into second-placed Bottas, dropping both to the back of the field and earning himself a penalty.
“Mistakes are not part of the plan,” Vettel said in Austria. “Whatever plan you have, they’re never part of the plan for anybody.”
Though the German has accepted responsibility for his mistakes, he has also defended them, saying they were simply part of racing.
“Obviously you are trying to push the limits,” he said. “I tried to go for the gap, I went for it, it was there and I didn’t make it. It didn’t work.
“Sometimes it works out, and it’s great; sometimes it doesn’t. At the end of the year you try to get everything right, and not to get everything wrong. That’s natural.
“It’s also part of the excitement, so we’ll see where we end up.”
Hamilton, who has had a greater share of ups and downs in terms of form so far this season, said focussing on maximising his performances would be the key to defending his 2017 title.
“It’s Formula One, it’s motorsport, there are so many things that can decide the championship,” he said. “But the things that are in my power and our power as a team is how we conduct ourselves, how we work and how we execute a normal weekend. That’s what we just try to focus on.
“All the other things and the unknowns — there is nothing we can do about those except prepare for the positives and negatives.
“It’s not how you fall, it’s how you get back up and bounce back.”
Vettel and Hamilton’s respective teams will also have their roles to play, with unreliability on the part of Ferrari playing a role in the scuppering of Sebastian’s title chances.
This season there has been little to choose between the Ferrari and Mercedes packages, however, with the advantage swinging seemingly arbitrarily from race to race.
“We’ve got a strong package, at some races very strong, some a little bit less strong, but every race can make a difference,” Vettel said. “With Mercedes it’s sometimes difficult to understand why they are up, why they are down.
“In the end you don’t know what’s going on. We’ve had our races where we’ve been very strong and others where we weren’t very strong for some reasons, and then we were able to improve in those areas.
“Apart from lap one, if you take France as a weekend then it was very positive, especially if you compare it to Barcelona — similar asphalt, same tyres and so on. We were in a much better place.
“Why Mercedes are so competitive, and other times not, I don’t know.”
It’s anyone’s guess, then, who will finish ahead in Austria this weekend.