10 things we've learned from the 2018 Formula 1 season so far

Ahead of this weekend's fourth round of the Formula 1 season, the Azerbaijan Grand Prix, we take a look at the big talking points from the year so far

10 things we've learned from the 2018 Formula 1 season so far

Mad Max

While Max Verstappen is no stranger to attracting excitement, the Dutchman has rattled cages with incidents in all three races.

A spin in Australia angered himself but contact with Hamilton in Bahrain (having also crashed in qualifying) and then Vettel in China ruffled the feathers of the world champions, with Hamilton's 'd***head' verdict in Bahrain making the headlines.

36 points adrift, more patience is now needed for Verstappen. Hastiness cost him in China when botched passes on Hamilton and Vettel could have been avoided, and his pain was made even greater by team-mate Daniel Ricciardo's win proving what could have been.

Red Bull's pace has certainly improved, so now is the time for Verstappen to prove his critics wrong if he is to shake the 'mad Max' tag and become a title contender.

McLaren's problems, not Honda's?

The plight of the once dominant McLaren team is well-documented.

Its last victory came back in the 2012 Brazilian GP, while a fairytale return to Honda power quickly translated into a three-year nightmare where they became perennial backmarkers.

A change to Renault engines gave hope for a return to the sharp end in 2018 after last year's chassis impressed in Fernando Alonso's hands, but fifth place in Australia remains McLaren's best performance.

Three more points would beat its entire '18 tally, although both cars failing to make Q3 twice already point to a team still playing catch-up in development of F1's latest aero package. We've been told to watch out for a big update package to arrive at next month's Spanish Grand Prix.

A real championship fight

"If it continues the way it is, it's going to be very tough to win," were the ominous words of reigning world champion Lewis Hamilton after failing to win any of the opening three races of '18.

So with team-mate Valtteri Bottas performing well, what's going wrong for the world champion? Hamilton made it clear in Bahrain what he thought, asking Mercedes for better communication on strategy.

Unfortunate timing of the virtual safety car derailed a dominant performance in Australia, but since then Vettel and Ferrari have found the edge they lost towards the back end of last year.

Former title rival Nico Rosberg has witnessed these slumps before, and sent out a few words of advice to Hamilton's opposition.

"The weakness Lewis has is a bit of inconsistency. If you are able to pounce in those periods and really make the most of it, you can keep him down for a while longer."

Ferrari protege's slip-ups

Three races into his F1 career, rookie Charles Leclerc has endured a baptism of fire.

Arguably, the Frenchman's emphatic success in F2 has so far proved his biggest downfall. Those expecting instant results must realise what it is possible to achieve in a Sauber package still buried down the field, the 20-year-old matching experienced team-mate Marcus Ericsson otherwise.

The latter's top-10 result in Bahrain made life difficult for Leclerc, but Ericsson's experience in F1 matches Leclerc's time in race cars altogether, so conclusions on the Ferrari Academy driver should remain on hold.

"I don't think these are stupid errors", he adds. "I think these are proper, rookie errors."

The incredible Hulk

Once again, Nico Hulkenberg finds himself outperforming the package he has been given.

The German is extending his unwanted record of most races without a podium finish to his name, but he has impressed with three finishes inside the top seven in a still-improving Renault.

Add to that the fact he has had the upper hand against team-mate Carlos Sainz Jr, and Hulkenberg's 22-point haul looks ever the more enviable.

Consistency allowed him to topple several quicker rivals in China, but his qualifying showings have been a trump card and left Sainz looking to discover his 'little tricks'.

Moving ahead of Fernando Alonso in the championship would be a deserved scalp for Hulkenberg, who has drawn level on points with the Spaniard after two sixth place finishes in a row.

The Honda mystery

Having picked up the dreaded Honda engines when the music stopped late last year, Toro Rosso's cars ran reliably in testing though not especially quickly, and Melbourne's season-opener confirmed the impression.

Yet come round two in Bahrain it leapt to be clear leader of the midfield pack with Pierre Gasly taking a sensational fourth place. Many spoke of a long-awaited Honda breakthrough.

But in China the Toro Rossos were back among the Saubers and Williamses at the rear before Gasly and Brendon Hartley collided in the race. Life with Honda has started out as a rollercoaster ride.

Strategy to the fore

Race strategy has been more important than ever at the sharp end in 2018. The fight between Mercedes, Ferrari and Red Bull is close - and therefore easily tilted by the right or wrong call - while Pirelli's more distinct compounds offer greater strategic variation.

The identity of all three race winners so far have been altered by strategy, and to Mercedes' detriment: with sharper calls its three defeats could have been three victories.

In Australia the team overestimated the 'safe' deficit to Sebastian Vettel in the event of a virtual safety car, in Bahrain it was slow to spot that Vettel was aiming for a one-stopper, and in China Lewis Hamilton may have won had Mercedes aped Red Bull's strategic masterstroke of pitting when the safety car was called.

Mercedes has admitted its errors and explained the reasoning behind some of those calls, but it's clear the silver arrows need sharpening.

Haas is the real deal

Haas caught the attention of its rivals during pre-season testing, and it has confirmed those suspicions with a consistent presence at the head of the midfield while Kevin Magnussen is showing signs of at last making good on his highly promising junior resume.

Without botched pitstops in Australia and poor luck in China the team's points haul would be far higher, though there has been the minor concern of aero parts flying off on occasion.

Complaints from rivals about the car being a "Ferrari replica" - Force India and McLaren have called for an investigation into Haas-Ferrari collaboration - are arguably a compliment to the team for how it is performing.

The Mercedes is still a diva

Although Mercedes claimed both 2017 titles it still had conspicuous room to improve - correcting the car's 'diva' tendencies where it struggled to work on occasion.

Almost no one left Barcelona testing or the Melbourne season-opener thinking Mercedes wasn't comfortable out front. But in Bahrain and China old doubts returned. Race pace isn't a problem but finding pace for a qualifying lap in certain conditions is - Bahrain was too hot and China too cold.

Chief strategist James Vowles says it's in the nature of this year's Pirellis and that other teams, including Ferrari, have had variation too. But boss Toto Wolff admitted that the '18 car, if not a diva, may be a "capricious woman".

The Mercedes customers are in trouble

The Mercedes engine losing its clear advantage of recent years, particularly in qualifying, doesn't help customers Force India and Williams who have scored one point between them. But both have their own problems.

Force India suffered from teams around it improving, and technical director Andrew Green noted a "fundamental underlying issue" impeding aero development. It did show signs of progress in China though.

And that struggle is nothing compared to Williams, the only team without a point. Being the last two over the line in Bahrain, 20 seconds after the nearest car, was its lowest ebb.

Pointing fingers at the inexperienced drivers likely misses the point, though doubts over how much of the underperformance is down to them also don't help. The car impresses in its detail but is yet to work and technical director Paddy Lowe has admitted to confusion on why.

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