In 2006, Lewis Hamilton became GP2’s second rookie champion and 11 years later Charles Leclerc, with the series renamed Formula 2, became the fourth. Linking those two achievements is Guillaume Capietto – technical director at ART Grand Prix in 2006, who now holds that role at Prema Racing, where Leclerc racked up seven wins and eight poles in 2017.
“He was impressive, especially in the races,” Capietto says of Hamilton, who he also worked with during the Briton’s title-winning Formula 3 Euro Series season in 2005.
Having seen the pair race, and succeed, at the final step on the single-seater ladder before Formula 1, Capietto reckons they are directly comparable in their ability to thrive in changeable conditions, which he feels is what separates the great from the good drivers.
“Where it’s changing, you see where the top guys [are quicker],” he says.
Leclerc’s dominant 2017 season – all the more remarkable after he lost his father, former F3 racer Herve, on the eve of the Baku round – would have had even more shine had he not lost a pole (in Hungary) and a win (at Spa) due to technical infringements. He also lost an on-the-road victory in Azerbaijan as it was deemed he had failed to slow sufficiently for yellow flags. His response to those issues – particularly his drive from last to fourth at the Hungaroring – reminded Capietto of Hamilton’s GP2 charge at Istanbul in 2006.
“They know what they want and they have the talent and the character to achieve [it],” he says.
Leclerc on his sign-off F2 win
Charles Leclerc ended his Formula 2 season in swashbuckling style with a charge from seventh on the grid to seal a final category win in dramatic circumstances on the last lap of the season finale after contact with ART Grand Prix’s Alexander Albon at Abu Dhabi’s Turn 7 hairpin.
How did it feel to sign off the season in style?
Last year we didn’t have the chance to end the championship on a win [in GP3, where Leclerc crashed out after contact, also in Abu Dhabi], so to end this one with a win was great. The way we did it was also very great – I think it’s probably one of the best races I’ve had this season.
We managed the tyres very well – we had to wait a little bit at the beginning because the pace of the top four was a bit too quick – pushed at the end, and in the end our strategy worked. I’m very happy with this and also with the very exciting last lap – it couldn’t have ended in a better way.
Was it one of your best-judged races in terms of tyre management?
Yeah, definitely. It was actually quite a hard race because there was quite a lot of degradation on the soft tyres in Abu Dhabi. I was very happy to finish the season on a point that I wanted to improve a lot – [managing] the degradation of the tyres and to show we were on top of it for the last race.
What happened on the last lap?
To be honest, I lunged on the inside in Turn 7 just so he saw me and [would] leave space, lose time, and for me to be able to overtake him after that. But I was very far back so he probably didn’t see me and we touched a little bit – but that helped me to then get better traction than him and I got alongside.
Was it your most satisfying F2 win?
Yeah, probably, because we had a difficult weekend overall [and] I think this has helped this feeling be even greater. We had a difficult qualifying when I struggled quite a bit and sent the team in the wrong direction with the set-up.
Then we had quite a good first race – we came back to third before the last corner [where Leclerc obeyed a team order to give the place to team-mate Antonio Fuoco] and at the end finished second because of the disqualifications [of Fuoco and Oliver Rowland]. And then in race two starting seventh [and getting] to first.
I think it was a really great weekend of coming back to the pace when we were struggling and trying. To win [like that] after a great season like that feels amazing. All in all, I think it was an amazing weekend.
Despite winning more than 50% of his World Endurance Championship and Formula E races, Buemi ended his main 2017 programmes title-less. What’s worse is his year will probably be remembered for his infamous outburst after the penultimate round of the FE season in Montreal.
“His natural tendency is to be quite aggressive, and he’s worked hard to control his temper,” says four-time IndyCar champion and three-time Indianapolis 500 winner Dario Franchitti, who has watched Buemi through his entire FE career. “I think it was just frustration finally boiling over.”
Buemi moved onto a different level in FE last season, eradicating the majority of the qualifying errors that almost derailed his title-winning campaign the year before.
“I think he got a bit frustrated with people saying he’s got the best car,” says Franchitti. “Last year he put his stamp on it. He’s the real deal, and every race that goes by he becomes a more complete racing driver.”
Buemi on his 2017 season
How do you rate your year?
I won more than 50% of my races in the WEC and in Formula E – and in the end I still didn’t get any championships! Somehow. I’m disappointed with that. But I’m really happy with the performance because if you count Hong Kong and Marrakech last year, if you win 11 races out of 19 entered you have to be happy. That’s not going to happen all the time.
Losing Le Mans again and then the FE title in a month must have been hard to recover from?
I’m the kind of guy who thinks when it’s done, it’s done. What can I do? I focused on my WEC duties because I didn’t have any Formula E, and I won three of the races since Le Mans. I’ve refocused properly. It’s the same in FE – I finished Montreal, and I came to Hong Kong ready to push. Nothing special really, we did a lot of work – not just me, the team as well. What did we do well? What did we do that was not good? How can we improve that?
How significant is the Renault e.dams part in your success?
We won the teams’ championship for the third year – they’ve done an amazing job. That’s quite remarkable, for a team that’s won four championships out of six, to sit down and say we have to do ‘this, this and this’ – Jean-Paul [Driot] and Alain [Prost] were part of that and I’m impressed. Normally a team when they win like that it’s difficult to say ‘we don’t do things well enough’. It’s not because we won six races last year that we’ll keep winning.
Martin Truex Jr’s first NASCAR Cup title has at times been overlooked by the dominance enjoyed by the free-spending Toyota being the only manufacturer to introduce a new car in 2017.
Ford’s Brad Keselowski was compelled to call Toyota’s season as dominance akin to Formula 1, but that understates Truex’s sensational season.
Considering that before 2017 he had a total of seven wins, Truex added eight in a single campaign in which he nailed the new stage format and went unchallenged at the top from mid-season onwards, winning more races and stages than anyone else.
His run to the final four was a stroll in the park, easily amassing the wins and points to sail through each round.
And that final four showdown at Homestead showed his coming of age; he could easily have blown it - as he did in 2015 - against three previous Cup champions. Instead, it was a straight fight between the two technically aligned Toyotas of Joe Gibbs Racing’s Kyle Busch and Truex.
Truex then beat him despite having the slower car on the day and won his first crown under immense pressure in the final 20 laps.
It may have been expected considering how he walked the regular season title, but it could have fallen apart if not for the Furniture Row team around him that helped him cope with the heightened pressure.
“I couldn't even talk [after the final race],” said Truex. “I was a wreck thinking about all the tough days.
“They [Furniture Row] are unbelievable, and they resurrected my career and made me a champion.”
Truex Jr: Master of the stages
NASCAR has always been a series that traditionally rewards drivers who stay in touching distance throughout the year and hit their stride with a late playoff push.
Eight of the 14 champions decided in playoffs did not 'win' the regular season and took titles by virtue of the shootout, while consistency across a season has only yielded seven victors.
The stages worked by splitting the race into sections. At two points during the race, a caution period is thrown to mark a stage end with points allocated by position before racing resumes. The points earned are then added to the total to form the final race classification to determine the overall points haul.
Drivers at stage one and two are allocated points on a sliding scale, with the leader at the end of the stage winning 10 points, with 10th earning one point.
Final race finishing positions were also changed for 2017, with drivers scoring on a 40-35-34-33-32-31-etc basis for the top 35.
There have been occasions where a driver has earned more points than the winner. Kyle Larson earned 53 points at Phoenix for finishing second, while race winner Ryan Newman totalled 42 as he only picked up two stage points.
Martin Truex Jr became one of those seven by virtue of winning the regular season title at Darlington Raceway with a 107 point cushion over Kyle Busch.
That gave him a crucial 15 playoff points to take into the post-season races, and that cushion wasn’t even secured by winning at Darlington.
Instead, it done by was winning the two opening stages before damage lost him a likely race win.
One-time champion Kevin Harvick had described points as more important than wins and Truex’s season proves that, as he won 19 stages to nearest rival Busch’s 14.
Truex points to stages as a reward for consistent pace, and that the two most prolific stage winners ended up the top two in the series suggests it will become the foundation for future champions.
Based purely on his peak results, 2017 was Daniel Ricciardo’s best season yet in Formula 1, but he will probably be the first to admit 2017 has not been his finest year. Yes, he won a race and fell just five points shy of beating Kimi Raikkonen to fourth in the world championship, but this is the first season Ricciardo has been comfortably out-performed by a Red Bull team-mate.
That will hurt. Ricciardo is a conqueror of Sebastian Vettel, and has fostered a deserved reputation for being one of F1’s best qualifiers, and classiest racers. But Ricciardo struggled to consistently hit the RB13’s sweet-spot in qualifying this year, and occasionally over-reached trying to make up for that.
He is not as comfortable as Max Verstappen with a loose car, cannot switch the current generation of Pirelli tyres on as easily, and has been guilty of overreacting in the face of his team-mate’s relentlessly strong form. Qualifying crashes in Melbourne and Baku were very uncharacteristic for a driver usually so sublime on Saturdays.
But Ricciardo remains a class act. When everything came together he produced some superb qualifying laps – particularly at Austin and in Abu Dhabi, where he squeezed ahead of Raikkonen’s Ferrari.
And that expert judgement in battle was again on show, whether it was battling hard with Bottas at Austin before the car broke, or lunging past Raikkonen in a burn from the stern at Monza.
Ricciardo’s standing is now threatened by Verstappen’s own inexorable rise. The big question facing Ricciardo is how to turn the tide?
Josef Newgarden’s hunt for a first IndyCar championship looked set to follow the Penske ‘curse’ that Simon Pagenaud endured in his opening year – struggling in his first year before winning the title in 2016.
A dreadful Month of May for Newgarden finished with him 19th at the Indianapolis 500 and falling to 59 points behind Helio Castroneves as well as eighth in the standings. “May was our lowest point of the year,” agreed Newgarden.
But that became the catalyst for a remarkable charge. He took a podium in the second race at Detroit, which became the first of seven podiums in the last 10 races that won him the title.
That charge came as Newgarden grew familiar with a Penske-run Chevrolet-Dallara that didn’t suit him and required fine-tuning – aided by the experienced crew left behind by Newgarden’s predecessor Juan-Pablo Montoya.
There was a brief wobble in the championship charge at Watkins Glen as his title lead fell from 31 points to three ahead of Scott Dixon after a self-inflicted mistake in the pitlane. It would be the only sign of inexperience in a title race.
It was poorly timed, leaving him with a three-point lead in a six-way battle for the crown at the season finale. Pressure could have told, but Newgarden seized pole and if not for Pagenaud’s superior race strategy he could have won the race and the title.
Second proved enough, though, and was worthy of a driver that has gone from IndyCar’s best driver outside of the ‘big three’ to a worthy champion.
Newgarden on how he won the IndyCar championship
You were in the title race throughout, but there was that difficult spell where you had a ninth place at Phoenix and difficulties in both Indianapolis races. Was that a big blow in mid-season?
Yeah, it was huge. If you look back at May and if the Indy 500 had been different for us, I think the points would have been totally different, it would have been a lot easier on us actually, so May was our lowest point of the year. It started with the GP, where we probably had a second place in us if we didn’t have the pit-limiter glitch and we struggled quite a bit at the 500 that year. I struggled with the car, we struggled a little bit as a team. We didn’t quite have the speed we wanted.
What were the issues with unlocking the pace at the Indianapolis 500?
It is a combination of a couple of things. You’ve got the aerokit, engine element to it, where Honda and Chevy have been going back and forth on configurations throughout the years. You know the combination between the aerokits and that engine deficit and trying to find our speed and getting the most out of this set-up and optimising the speed, that was lacking too during the month. We weren’t able to really get those two things right and we found a good fix for that throughout the whole of the rest of the year.
What was the change or breakthrough that meant you could regroup after the Indy 500 and just go on a run?
I have always been a big believer in ‘It doesn’t matter what happened last week, you just got to do next week’ and I try to never let that affect me. So, once we got through a couple of those bad races, and figured out what we needed, we were able to hit the ground running again and be better and that is what our mantra kind of was.
Did you change as a driver or did you change the car quite radically after the Indy 500?
If you go back to the beginning of the year, I wanted to change the car dramatically. I didn’t like the feeling of the Penske car initially, I was not comfortable with it at all. It had a very different feel to what I was used to building in the set-up than what I was used to at Ed Carpenter Racing and I had built a certain feel into the car that I liked and it just wasn’t there. It lacked completely the feeling that I liked. The positive thing is that it always had good grip, the race-car always seemed to produce lap time, even if it didn’t feel very comfortable. I could still go out and rag a lap together, it was pretty quick, you know you’re in the top five, top 10 all the time. It was more a matter of being comfortable with what the Penske car did and learning from their environment and what worked and what didn’t. That is where I found more success, just looking at their historical data and saying, ‘This is what has worked for them’ and then just trying to apply that for myself and just trying to get used to that. I really just did get comfortable with their stuff, that is what ended up being most successful for me.
You went into a position that you had not been in before at Sonoma with a title decider. How did you cope?
I always knew the championship was going to come down to Sonoma and that’s why Watkins Glen didn’t bother me so much, looking back we would have enjoyed a bigger points cushion at Sonoma and it would have been nicer but the way my brain was wired at this point was: ’the winner of Sonoma is going to the championship’ and that is how I always viewed it. We just had to make sure that we had a winning race-car at Sonoma and we are going to win the championship. So, I went in the race weekend with that attitude and what won us the championship was qualifying day. Qualifying on pole meant being able to dictate what we were going to do as a team at Penske.
From the moment Sebastien Ogier stepped out of M-Sport’s test Ford Fiesta WRC in Walters Arena on Friday November 25th last year, team boss Malcolm Wilson knew what he wanted.
“He liked the car,” Wilson said, “which was great, but that was when the hard work started; that’s when the negotiations started. I’d come close to signing him in 2011, just like I’d come close to signing Sebastien Loeb in 2005, and this time I was determined I didn’t want to let him go.”
Was he worth the money?
“Absolutely,” is the emphatic reply. “He and [co-driver] Julien Ingrassia walked into Dovenby [Hall, M-Sport HQ] and everything went up a level. The whole team could really see what it meant to work with world champions and that was the key to making us world champions this year. Seb has so much experience of winning, how to win and when to take the points. That made the difference. The car wasn’t bad, mind…”
Victory on Ogier’s M-Sport debut on the Monte Carlo Rally was followed up with a run of strong results, including a second victory in Portugal, allowing Ogier to clinch his fifth WRC crown with an event to spare. Only in Finland, where he crashed on the first day, did Ogier fail to finish in the top five in what was a very different kind of championship campaign to those of his Volkswagen days.
Apart from triggering two high-profile and costly collisions – three if you follow Lewis Hamilton’s logic and count Mexico as well – this was a very fine year for Sebastian Vettel. He won five races in F1’s second fastest car. More impressively, he qualified that car on the front row of the grid 14 times in 19 attempts.
It is that consistently excellent qualifying form that stands out. Handed a car capable of challenging for the championship – for the first time since 2013 – Vettel raised his game this year. Perhaps the biggest complement of all to Vettel is that he also forced Hamilton to raise his own game in response.
Vettel is clearly on a Michael Schumacher-esque mission to make Ferrari great again. If Vettel can emulate his hero and win multiple world championships for the Scuderia, it will define his legacy as a true grand prix great. Vettel seems to feel Ferrari is on the cusp, and is steeling himself for the fight.
Ferrari is not the same team it was in Schumacher’s time. The balance of power has shifted and the drivers must dance to Maranello’s tune. This played a part in Fernando Alonso’s downfall at the team, and it almost undid Vettel in 2016 too.
But Vettel is humble enough to accept his place in the new world order. This year his work was outstanding for the most part. The nagging doubt remains that capacity to let emotions cloud his judgement in moments of peak stress. This proved Vettel’s undoing in 2017. He says he is now wiser for the experience. He will need to prove it in 2018.
McLaren racing director Eric Boullier explains why Alonso remained one of the best on the Formula 1 grid in 2017, despite yet another season of chronic underachievement at McLaren-Honda.
On Alonso apparently raising his game in 2017:
"I would say it looks like he’s getting better because he likes the new regulations. He was always praising more downforce, more grip, and faster cornering speeds. Now that he has it, he really enjoys it. Because the car is better the driver is happy."
On why Alonso is so important to McLaren:
"He’s capable of extracting 100% from his car. First lap. He’s a complete driver. Maybe Lewis can be a tenth faster on one lap in qualifying, but he is not as complete as Alonso. Fernando’s technical feedback, the way he’s motivating and pushing people to do better, the fact you can rely on him, no mistakes, for us it’s invaluable, because every time he goes out we know where we are."
On dealing with McLaren-Honda’s frustrating form:
"You just shift the reference. I’m always asked by people ‘what do you predict this weekend’ and that makes me sad. I just have to reset this - shift our mind to something else to make ourselves better, and it’s the same for Fernando: how fast you can go on this track; how close we can get here? He is still pushing like if he was going for pole. You can see if Stoffel does something better, straight away he absorbs this."
On why Alonso became frustrated in some races:
"This car is a bit complicated. In qualifying you can charge the batteries and you have one lap more or less OK. In the races, we have to put the engine down - we don’t have enough recovery compared with last year. We can’t deploy all the lap in the race, anywhere. Some of the teams can deploy everywhere 100%. Imagine you’re on the straight and then you lose 160bhp. We stop deploying and then the other car passes us. That’s why the fans don’t understand why we’re so slow sometimes. During that period, you lose so much time and the speed difference is huge. At Spa, there were cars passing us with ease..."
On gunning for a different kind of glory:
"He knew he could do the fastest lap in Hungary because he knew the car was good. End of the race, you could see he changes switches, recharges for one lap, puts qualifying mode for one lap that he can deploy everywhere, or nearly everywhere, and he got the fastest lap. Where he did it, he was so happy. He said: “I got my name near Ayrton Senna in the McLaren-Honda”. People will remember the last driver to have a fastest lap in a McLaren-Honda as Alonso. Legacy."
Takuma Sato on Alonso's Indianapolis debut
Takuma Sato couldn’t have chosen a better time to win the Indianapolis 500. The eyes of the world were on the Brickyard back in May, due to Fernando Alonso’s decision to contest the race instead of the Monaco Grand Prix. Alonso starred, but it was his Andretti Autosport team-mate Sato who triumphed.
“There was no doubt he would learn very quickly, and indeed he did,” says Sato. “He went to the simulator each morning, and then the afternoon was actual track testing. The Indy 500 is actually the best race for a rookie because, unlike the other races where you have just two 45-minute sessions and then you go straight into qualifying, at the 500 you have a week of practice from noon to 5 or 6pm, so plenty of time to learn. Fernando was smiling every single day – he looked to be enjoying it and he was enjoying it. We talked a lot – debriefs and privately – and he had great fun and showed tremendous speed immediately.”
Could Alonso have won without his engine failure? Sato isn’t sure: “The first and last quarter of the race are completely different animals, and the way we drive is completely different. Fernando said he wanted to lead the race, he didn’t want to be sitting in traffic, but when you’re leading you use so much fuel – but I understand where he was coming from.
“He went probably one of the lightest on downforce in the field, so that’s why you could see him pick up speed to lead. Alexander Rossi [in one of the other Andretti cars] had very similar downforce to Fernando and he was leading at the beginning too. But in the last 10 laps, when you’re in a competitive race with light downforce, following people is difficult. So I don’t know. The only thing I can tell is he was a potential winner and it was great to see his determination.”
It seems there may be no stopping Max Verstappen, apart from any persistent lack of performance and reliability from Red Bull’s Renault engines in the short-term.
A distant sixth in the world championship, 32 points behind Red Bull team-mate Daniel Ricciardo, doesn’t come close to doing Verstappen’s 2017 performances justice. The final six races, where Verstappen scored two wins and equalled world champion Lewis Hamilton’s haul, are a better reflection of Verstappen’s driving.
“I’d say it was a nine out of 10 to be honest with you,” says Red Bull boss Christian Horner, when asked to rate Verstappen’s season. “The way he’s driven and raised his game this year, and handled certain situations, I think has been very good.
“The way he’s driven and qualified and raced this year has been outstanding. I think he’s worked out what he needs from the car. He’s put a lot of work in, done a lot of hours on the simulator, been very, very committed. Sebastian [Vettel] set the standard in that and Max has got that similar kind of ethic.
“Daniel is absolutely one of the best out there. Definitely, this year, Max has stepped it up a gear, and Daniel’s had to go some to go with him.”
The most impressive aspect of Verstappen’s season is that Ricciardo has usually been unable to “go with him”. Ricciardo has been F1’s outstanding driver for two of the past three seasons, one Fernando Alonso rated as the absolute best on the grid in 2016.
"I think he’s raced incredibly well this year, and his patience has been tested to an extreme with the amount of engine failures he’s had."Christian Horner
That’s an incredibly high benchmark, and it’s one Verstappen has surpassed, which is why Red Bull was so keen to tie what Horner calls “probably the most exciting talent to hit Formula 1 since Lewis Hamilton” down to a new contract until the end of 2020.
Perhaps the only lingering doubt concerns Verstappen’s ultra-high-risk approach to battle. He had several collisions this year – with Kimi Raikkonen and Valtteri Bottas at Turn 1 in Spain; with Vettel in Canada and Mexico; with Ricciardo at Turn 2 in Hungary; with Felipe Massa in Italy.
Red Bull motorsport boss Helmut Marko has said in the past Verstappen could learn to be more patient. He will need to be when involved in a title fight. There is no evidence yet he can temper that fierce racing instinct in the heat of the moment.
“I think when it comes off you’re a hero and when it doesn’t you get criticism,” argues Horner. “I think he’s raced incredibly well this year, and his patience has been tested to an extreme with the amount of engine failures – while in great positions – that he’s had.
“He’ll take the risks – he’s committed, and I think the drivers around him know he won’t give any quarter. He’s not going to just settle [for less]. He’s built himself a reputation.
“He’s got this never give up attitude, which is what I think excites so many fans. Austin was an incredible charge; his first lap in China – look at that on YouTube, that’s pretty remarkable.
“You haven’t got to be a rocket scientist to see the trajectory that he’s on.”
A collision course with the world championship most likely, if he gets his hands on a car good enough.
Max Verstappen assesses his season
How would you rate your season if you had to give it a mark out of 10?
I think too many things have happened to give it a mark, really, so I would rather not do this.
What have been the highlights for you?
Malaysia, Mexico, Austin. Just in terms of speed we were up there at those tracks.
Do you feel you made any mistakes yourself this year?
The only thing that happened was Hungary - that thing with Daniel. But for the rest, no. I also think that every weekend the speed has always been good. So, nothing really to complain about in that area. For what was possible for us, we always achieved reasonably good results.
I never expected to be in this position now, and to have won three races by now.
This was your best season in F1 so far – where did you improve as a driver?
I think it’s just more experience. I think that’s the only thing, actually. But that definitely helps. I think in terms of speed that I haven’t really improved a lot. It's just about getting more experience, getting older and doing more races. That just helps with everything.
Any specific lessons you’ve learned since joining Red Bull?
No. At a top team it actually becomes a bit easier than when you’re at a team in the midfield, because everything is better arranged, you have a better car.
Are you now where you expected to be when you started your F1 career three years ago?
No, I’m way more ahead. I never expected to be in this position now, and to have won three races by now. I think everything has gone a bit more rapid.
Your team-mate Daniel Ricciardo was last year’s best driver, according to Autosport. This year you were stronger than him...
I was never really worried about that. So far, I have always been able to beat my team-mate. It may not show in the points standings, but in general I’ve always been ahead. In qualifying we’ve obviously done very well this year. Who the media think is the best driver, I don’t really care about that. Maybe one year that will be me, but also then I wouldn’t care, because it’s about winning the championship, even if you’re not considered to be the best driver.
United States Grand Prix
By his own admission, Verstappen did not produce a great performance in qualifying for October’s race at Austin, and a grid penalty for an engine change made life even harder by sending him back to 16th on the grid. But Verstappen never knows when he’s beaten.
The Red Bull ace got up to 13th on lap one, was into the top 10 by the end of three and climbed back to his original sixth position after just 10. He eventually assumed the lead by running a long first stint, before getting repassed by race winner Lewis Hamilton, then pitting on lap 24 of 56.
Verstappen completed his out-lap 21.754 seconds behind the leader, with a 10s deficit to Kimi Raikkonen’s Ferrari. Over the remaining distance, Verstappen hunted the leading group down. He overtook Valtteri Bottas’s struggling Mercedes for fourth, then chased after Raikkonen over the final four laps, before lunging inside the Ferrari on the final lap to claim a sensational podium.
But the stewards ruled Verstappen cut the inside of the track in making the move, so docked him five seconds and handed third back to Raikkonen. Verstappen was furious but, penalty or no penalty, it was still a brilliant, stirring performance from F1’s most exciting young talent.