Mystery after sudden Ricciardo collapse
THE dust has settled on another dramatic F1 season. Here's what we learnt.
LEWIS HAMILTON IS F1'S CHAMPION OF CHAMPIONS
The best just got better in 2018. A fifth world championship confirmed this age of F1 as the Lewis Hamilton era. But 2018 was more than that for the Mercedes driver. Hamilton reserved the peak of his career and his best season yet for what is, historically speaking, his most important championship.
Of the 800-odd drivers to have participated in Formula 1, just 33 have won a world championship. And of that 33, only 16 have become multiple world champions. The air is even more rarefied above the two and three-time world champions, whittling the list down to just five. And now Hamilton has climbed higher still, joining the elite of the elite, a group previously only containing Michael Schumacher and Juan Manuel Fangio. This is elevated, gilt status.
Fittingly, Hamilton's fifth championship - the title to instantly confer the status of greatness - was no ordinary success. In the "fight for five" between the two four-time title winners, Hamilton was the champion of champions, almost perfect against a rival whose year was pockmarked by mistakes, achieving a career high by performing a career best.
"You have to say that this year Lewis has made the difference for us," Mercedes technical chief James Allison said. In the final reckoning, that said it all.
GERMANY WAS THE TURNING POINT
Ferrari's misstep on development with upgrades that were actually downgrades at Singapore, Russia and Japan was the final turn in this year's championship battle.
But amid all the twists, turns and U-turns of the 2018 fight, the year's defining moment remained Sebastian Vettel's self-served DNF in Germany when he crashed out from the lead, his most glaring error in a year littered mistakes ranging from the perplexing to the downright costly.
2018 hasn't been kind to his reputation. Potentially caught between chasing down Hamilton and chasing off new teammate Charles Leclerc, 2019 will be an even tougher test.
DANIEL RICCIARDO HAS TAKEN A BIG, BIG GAMBLE
For shock of the year, Daniel Ricciardo's decision to leave Red Bull for Renault was the undisputed champion. Will it prove another Hamilton-to-Mercedes masterstroke? Or an Alonso-to-McLaren misstep? Only time, and a lot of it, will tell.
The Australian had an odd season. When he won in Monaco, Ricciardo looked a title contender. And then his campaign suddenly collapsed, a year characterised as Monte Carlo and bust as his season dissolved into a multitude of retirements and anguished frustration, bereft of another podium.
Vindication, of a kind, for his decision to jump? Or a portent of more problems ahead?
THE PRE-SEASON FUSS ABOUT THE HALO DIDN'T LAST LONG
Well, this one was predicted. How many of us stopped noticing the Halo by mid-season?
And, more pertinently, how many of the critics were muted after Spa and a crash which could have had dire consequences for Charles Leclerc but for its presence?
MERCEDES ARE F1'S NUMBER ONE - BUT FOR HOW LONG?
While 2018 ended with the familiarity of a fifth successive championship double for Mercedes, 2018 rarely, and particularly in the first half of the year, felt familiar. Ferrari frequently boasted the fastest package before the summer break and superior straightline speed. And by the year's end, Red Bull were usually there or thereabouts.
It would be silly and reckless to suggest Mercedes are anything but favourites for 2019. All of the last 10 F1 world championships currently reside at the Silver Arrows' Brackley HQ. But the gap is tightening, the challenges are mounting, and the impression they are under genuine threat next year looks well founded.
THE FUTURE IS BRIGHT …
And, in 2019 especially, young.
There's the 19-year-old Lando Norris at McLaren alongside 24-year-old Carlos Sainz. Red Bull will have an even younger line-up with even the inexperienced 23-year-old Pierre Gasly two years older than Max Verstappen. Ferrari's will be older but with Charles Leclerc, 21, hired to replace Kimi Raikkonen, the Scuderia have finally thrown off the shackles to embrace youth.
Elsewhere, George Russell will debut at Williams a month after turning 21, while another rookie, 24-year-old Antonio Giovinazzi, will team up with Raikkonen at Sauber, and Alex Albon will be 22 when he debuts for Toro Rosso in Australia.
F1's age of youth has arrived.
F1 IS STILL FULL OF INHERENT DANGER
A Friday practice session. Mid-season. A car at the back of the field, a driver on his way out of the sport.
This ought to have been an ordinary day. But in F1, no day on track is ever ordinary. Not really. Not when every moment has danger lurking deep within. Incredibly, Marcus Ericsson's 355km/h crash in Practice Two reserved all of its damage to the car and left none for a driver who competed in qualifying a day later.
But the paradoxical double reminder was there all the same: of how far F1's safety levels have climbed and, simultaneously, the risk and jeopardy that awaits within.
MCLAREN'S ROAD TO RECOVERY IS LONGER THAN PREVIOUSLY THOUGHT
It shouldn't have got any worse for McLaren in 2018, but it did. Exposed as much as armed with the same Renault engines, McLaren were emphatically beaten by Red Bull all-season long and solidly defeated by Renault, ridiculing the notion that McLaren's 2016 car was a field-leader, only held back by inadequate Honda engines.
They thought they had a long way back. In 2018, McLaren's eyes were opened to just how far back they really are.
IT CAN ONLY BE UP FOR WILLIAMS NEXT YEAR
In a year of relentless and unremitting misery only one glimmer of hope shone brightly: it can't get any worse in 2019 for a team which, even in the bad times of recent year, has never lost its pride or popularity. In George Russell and Robert Kubica, Williams already have their strongest and most interesting line-up for many a year. That, at least, means 2018 ends with a final flicker of hope.
This article originally appeared on Sky Sports and was reproduced with permission