Formula One returns: Can anyone catch Lewis Hamilton?
Much like a Red Bull pit stop, it feels as though this year’s Formula One summer break has been and gone in the blink of an eye.
Lewis Hamilton ended the first half of the season on a high in Hungary — atoning for the disappointment of a ninth-place finish in Germany — by putting in a stunning drive to eliminate Max Verstappen’s 20-second lead and surge ahead with just three laps remaining.
For Ferrari and Sebastian Vettel, however, the mood will be very different.
Sunday’s Belgian Grand Prix at Spa marks an entire year since the beleaguered Ferrari driver last won a race and a host of high-profile errors have seen him fall to fourth in the driver standings, 94 points behind Hamilton.
“It’s a complicated situation for them,” Jean-Eric Vergne, former Ferrari test driver and current Formula E world champion, told CNN. “It’s a massive, massive boat to steer and whatever the decision a team like this takes, it takes months or years to see the effect.
“I think Ferrari is the greatest Formula One team in history and I’m very sure that with the people they have on board now, with Charles Leclerc also coming in and doing a fantastic job, it’s just a question of time — not if — but a question of time when they’re going to get back to winning races and championships.”
The break perhaps came at the worst time possible for the sport as a whole, following four thrilling grands prix that recaptured the imagination of the public.
Criticism leveled at Formula One for becoming a Lewis Hamilton and Mercedes procession is not unfounded, though the races in Hungary, Germany, Britain and Austria were anything but.
“Everybody saw the start of the F1 season, [it was] kind of boring,” Vergne says. “Even now everybody knows, unless something massive happens, that Lewis is going to win, but at least you can see some fight coming for the for the second part of the season, which is great.”
Could time away from the track be what Ferrari needed? The Italian manufacturer’s return will provide a boost to its fans all around the world, as Vettel and teammate Charles Leclerc left the field in their wake in Friday’s first practice session.
Max Verstappen in the Red Bull was their nearest challenger but still almost an entire second slower than Leclerc.
And it has been Verstappen’s Red Bull that has provided Hamilton with his sternest test in recent weeks, winning two of the previous four grands prix, including a stunning drive in the rain in Germany.
It has provided viewers with a thrilling battle between arguably the two most talented drivers on the grid.
Spa has been something of a home grand for Verstappen — who was born in Belgium but races under the Dutch flag — as tens of thousands of Dutch fans clad in orange make their way to the race every year.
Vergne believes that while Ferrari is Mercedes’ biggest threat, Verstappen is the individual on the grid Hamilton should fear most.
“I think if you put Max in a Ferrari, he will probably do the same kind of job as in the Red Bull, probably even better,” Vergne says.
“Verstappen is completely outperforming what he should [be doing] with this car and I think many people would love to see Hamilton and Verstappen in the same car to see what happens.
“But if Ferrari or Red Bull have those two drivers, I think it’s the end for the other teams. You’ve got the two best drivers fighting and it’s great to see.”