March 25: Australian GP
Mercedes came into the season opener as heavy favourites despite giving little away at pre-season testing, and backed that tag up in Melbourne qualifying as Lewis Hamilton blew the competition away, taking pole by 0.6s. A confident Hamilton even told last year’s title rival Sebastian Vettel, who qualified third behind team-mate Kimi Raikkonen, that he hoped to “wipe the smile off your face” with his lap.
But it was Ferrari and Vettel who had the last laugh come race day.
It was all going so well for Hamilton, who had built up a three-second advantage over Raikkonen and Vettel at the time of his Lap 19 pit-stop, before a Virtual Safety Car was deployed thanks to Romain Grosjean’s stranded Haas.
A glitch in Mercedes’ computer software meant Hamilton wasn’t warned that he was vulnerable and, as he had to abide to a set time under the VSC, Vettel came in for what was in effect a free stop, saving him over 10 seconds of lap time and enabling him to re-emerge just ahead of a bewildered world champion.
Vettel then held the Mercedes at bay, admitting he “got a bit lucky” in a Ferrari car he was struggling to control. Red Bull, meanwhile, finished fourth and sixth but showed glimpses of their race-winning potential, with Daniel Ricciardo the fastest man on track.
April 8: Bahrain GP
There was nothing fortunate about this one. Not since 2004 had Ferrari started a Formula 1 season with successive victories, but Vettel was helping the Scuderia lay down an impressive early marker.
Vettel was superb in qualifying in leading a Ferrari one-two, boosted by the fact Hamilton would start eight places back thanks to a fourth-quickest time and a five-place grid penalty for a gearbox change. A day later Vettel held off Valtteri Bottas, in the sister Mercedes, on ailing tyres, defending superbly in the closing laps.
It was a damage limitation act for Hamilton and a good one at that as he finished third, recovering from an early collision with Max Verstappen, who retired from the race along with Red Bull team-mate Ricciardo. Raikkonen also would not finish after dramatically colliding with a Ferrari mechanic in the pit-lane.
Two races in, and Vettel already held a 17-point advantage in the standings.
April 15: Chinese GP
Collisions, changes of the lead and incredible overtakes; the Chinese GP had it all.
There were big questions about Mercedes’ pace, or lack of, after Ferrari secured another front-row lockout, but Bottas had managed to get ahead of pole-sitter Vettel after the first round of pit-stops. Neither of the leading drivers, however, were able to pit for new tyres upon the deployment of the Safety Car – giving their rivals behind them, apart from Hamilton who was left out by Mercedes, a significant advantage on fresh rubber.
But while Verstappen seemed best placed to attack at the restart, the Dutchman went off track while trying to pass Hamilton before shunting into Vettel, who span and dropped back, and it was Ricciardo who made the most of Red Bull’s pace as he sensationally surged from sixth to first in the space of 10 laps.
Hamilton finished fourth and Vettel eighth, but F1 2018 appeared to have two new title contenders in Ricciardo and Bottas.
April 29: Azerbaijan GP
A year on from their Baku antics of 2017, Vettel safely led Hamilton off the line but after both pitted early on for soft tyres, Bottas extended his first stint and was set to take full advantage after a Ricciardo-Verstappen collision triggered a Safety Car and what was essentially a free stop for the race leader.
Upon the restart, a determined Vettel lunged into Turn One in an attempt to retake control, but locked up and lost three places in the process as Hamilton made it a Mercedes one-two behind Bottas. There was more drama to come, however, as with just four laps remaining Bottas ran over debris on the start-finish straight and suffered a race-ending puncture.
Not at his best and not happy with his car, but Hamilton had inherited a win and was in the lead of the championship for the first time this season.
May 13: Spanish GP
Hamilton led from the front and won, while Ferrari suffered. It was the perfect afternoon as far as four-time double world champions Mercedes were concerned.
Vettel jumped Bottas off the line and though he was never truly close to the pole-sitting Hamilton, he was running second as late as lap 41 of 66. But the German dropped to fourth when a second stop for fresh tyres behind a Virtual Safety Car backfired, with Bottas and Verstappen in the Red Bull finishing ahead of him.
Raikkonen retired in the other Ferrari to make it their worst day of an encouraging 2018 season so far, while it was Hamilton who now held a 17-point title advantage.
May 27: Monaco GP
The jewel in F1’s crown was always going to suit Red Bull with its narrow streets and lack of long straights, but the way in which Ricciardo first stormed to pole, and then hung on for victory in a wounded RB14 was still sensational.
After building an early advantage over Vettel, Ricciardo suffered an MGU-K issue and had to nurse his power-shy car for an incredible 60 laps, defending superbly from the Ferrari as he ensured the season’s first six wins were split between three drivers.
Hamilton was happy with third and a steady title lead over Vettel in the end, though Verstappen will have been disappointed not to have made the most of Red Bull’s package after crashing out in Practice Three and not taking part in qualifying.
June 10: Canadian GP
Following a three-race win drought that seemed to point at flaws in their 2018 car, Ferrari were back in business in Montreal.
Vettel edged out Bottas for pole with Hamilton only fourth, and was comfortable but commanding in taking a lights-to-flag victory, even keeping his composure when the chequered flag was waved a lap too early. Hamilton unusually struggled for pace at his much-loved track and suffered an engine scare as he could only manage fifth, losing his championship lead in the process.
“It looks incredibly close,” said Sky F1’s Martin Brundle of the ever-changing title pecking order.
June 24: French GP
Armed with a new engine upgrade, this time it was Mercedes who bounced back – though the returning Paul Ricard race was the first leg of a dramatic triple header for the world champions.
Hamilton led a Merc one-two in qualifying and was three tenths ahead of Vettel, who enjoyed a storming getaway in the race from third. But Vettel crashed into Bottas as he attempted a move up the inside, with both drivers quickly falling to the back of the field. However, though the Mercedes came off worse, Vettel was only handed a five-second penalty and was able to recover to fifth, two places ahead of Bottas, as Hamilton cruised to victory.
Hamilton opened up another healthy lead over his title rival but still wasn’t completely content, believing Vettel deserved a harsher penalty for the first-lap collision.
July 1: Austrian GP
It looked like it was going to be another Mercedes procession in Spielberg with Bottas and Hamilton on the front row, and Vettel demoted to sixth after blocking Carlos Sainz in qualifying. Instead, it was the team’s worst day in F1 in half a century.
It was looking good, especially for Hamilton, early on as he got ahead of Bottas – but his team-mate’s retirement brought out a Virtual Safety Car and Mercedes stuttered, failing to bring in their race leader while both Ferraris and Red Bulls behind him came in for fresh tyres. Hamilton was suddenly vulnerable and dropped to fourth when he pitted himself, with Vettel then executing a fine overtake on the Englishman.
To complete a nightmare day for Mercedes and Hamilton, he was then forced into a DNF with a fuel issue, and finished the day behind Vettel, who finished third, in the standings again. The race victory, meanwhile, was taken by an in-form Verstappen.
July 8: British GP
The Silverstone race was another cracker, and featured another dramatic start as the pole-sitting Hamilton was first passed by Vettel, and then hit by his Ferrari team-mate Raikkonen as he span and dropped to the back of the field.
Hamilton impressively recovered to the top five and though Vettel led for much of the race, a Safety Car meant he slipped into second and a Mercedes sandwich as they opted against bringing Bottas and Hamilton into the pits. What followed was a thrilling finale, with two teams and four drivers – Raikkonen was fourth – in contention.
Vettel, on fresh tyres, attacked Bottas lap after lap and the struggling Finn eventually buckled, giving the Ferrari the lead and a chance to build up a healthy title lead. But a dogged home-favourite Hamilton was also soon ahead of his team-mate, making up 19 places in the race and limiting the damage in the championship battle.
Watch the German GP live only on Sky Sports F1 this weekend with Sebastian Vettel and Lewis Hamilton separated by just eight points in an unpredictable championship race. Sunday’s race begins at 2.10pm. No Sky F1? No problem: Get a NOW TV pass!