F1 returns for three-month title fight

Nine rapid-fire rounds spanning Europe, Asia, the Americas and the Middle East will decide the closely fought 2017 Formula One world championship.

Emerging from the sport’s enforced three-week midseason shutdown, Ferrari’s Sebastian Vettel leads Mercedes’s Lewis Hamilton and Valtteri Bottas in the drivers title standings by 14 and 33 points respectively.

But Vettel’s championship lead tells only part of the story. Ferrari, historically more interested in the prestige of the drivers championship, is backing the German over teammate Kimi Räikkönen, who is a distant fifth on the table after a lukewarm half season.

Vettel’s title advantage is partly down to this given the Ferrari, though it started the year as a marginally faster car, is almost certainly no longer superior to the Mercedes, and the constructors standings prove it: the Silver Arrows leads the Scuderia by 39 points at the halfway mark.

Victory in Hungary for the red cars by no means halted Mercedes’s recovery from a difficult early season, and with only two of the remaining nine circuits likely to suit Ferrari as well as Budapest did, it’s not hard to mount an argument that the Italians will resume the season on the back foot.

Unfortunately for Ferrari the upcoming Belgian Grand Prix on 27 August, an undoubted Mercedes-friendly circuit, will only compound matters.

The seven-kilometre Circuit de Spa-Francorchamps comprises mostly high-speed corners and long straights in a similar configuration to the British Grand Prix’s Silverstone Circuit, which was dominated by Mercedes and Hamilton.

The Mercedes W08’s long wheelbase paired with its still class-leading power unit made the reigning constructors champion untouchable in England, as is likely to be the case in Belgium.

But the hitherto private battle between Mercedes and Ferrari for the title is unlikely to define the second half of the season. Red Bull Racing, rapidly improving after a poor start to the season, is likely to play a decisive part in the distribution of championship points despite the team being out of contention for both titles.

Between the Canadian Grand Prix, which was the beginning of Mercedes’s recovery, and the British Grand Prix, Ferrari outscored Red Bull Racing by just two points, and intriguing is that the RB13 could have defeated the Ferraris at the next race in Hungary were it not for a first-lap clash between drivers Max Verstappen and Daniel Ricciardo.

Nonetheless, the team’s improved pace is giving Red Bull Racing principal Christian Horner the confidence to target Ferrari in the next nine rounds.

“I think the [championship] gap between us and Ferrari and Mercedes is too big to claw back,” he said. “[But] I would like to at least outscore Ferrari in the second half of the year.

“I think if we can get into a situation to challenge for podiums and the higher places on the podium in the races at the end of the year, that is a realistic and an aggressive target for us.”

A resurgent and ruthless Red Bull Racing poses the biggest threat to Ferrari and Sebastian Vettel’s slender drivers championship lead than Mercedes alone. While its all-for-one strategy to benefit Vettel could prove strong enough to outfox a faster Mercedes, also overcoming a quicker pair of Red Bull Racing cars would likely prove a bridge too far in slower machinery.

The pressure has never been greater at Ferrari’s Maranello headquarters, where the team’s first drivers championship since Kimi Räikkönen’s 2017 success is within touching distance. Victory is the only acceptable outcome for the world’s most famous racing team, but against Mercedes and Red Bull Racing, the decade’s two most successful teams, the 2017 title will not come easy.