After 20 races the 2017 season looked much like the three before it: Mercedes and Lewis Hamilton were crowned champions with considerable margins.
But the points tallies tell only half the story.
An alternative reading is of 2017 as a year of renewed optimism – a year of the fastest cars for generations, of a psychological battle between the sport’s top two drivers and of hope that new golden era could be dawning.
This year will be remembered for Formula One’s return to its roots, reviving the pre-1998 wider cars evocative of an age of rawer racing.
Loaded up with corner-eating downforce, these machines, amongst the fastest ever built, dared their drivers to dance on the edge of grip. All of them tried. Some of them ended in the barriers.
These rule changes may not have slowed Mercedes, but Ferrari seized its opportunity to mount an unlikely title bid and deliver the sport its long-awaited blockbuster showdown.
Sebastian Vettel and Lewis Hamilton, the best of their generation, would go toe to toe for the title.
The Ferrari SF70H and the Mercedes W08 were closely matched machines. The former was stable, predictable and raceable; the latter was capricious, peaky and, as Mercedes boss Toto Wolff described it, “a bit of a diva”.
Vettel built momentum early, claiming a 25-point lead after Monaco in May, but Mercedes, after instituting 10 days of round-the-clock engineering work, hit back. After 13 rounds just three points separated the contenders.
But claiming motorsport’s greatest prize is as much about psychological strength as it is mechanical nous. Vettel was the first to blink.
Starting from pole in Singapore after Hamilton qualified fifth, Vettel’s overzealous defence of position at turn one became a devastating retirement from the race. Hamilton cruised through the carnage to win, twisting the knife.
It was the season’s defining error, but the body blow became a technical knock-out when in Malaysia Vettel started from last with turbocharger troubles and in Japan his car was retired on lap four with spark plug problems.
Hamilton’s advantage ballooned to 59 points, and by Mexico in October he was crowned champion.
“In the end you can break it down to a lot of details … but overall the package wasn’t good enough,” Vettel summed candidly. “This year Lewis probably made less mistakes, and in the end he was just the better man and he deserved to win.”
Hamilton, exuding a calmness that had so often deserted him in previous championship fights, credited Vettel as a formidable opponent.
“To be fighting a four-time world champion who you respect, you expect nothing but the best from them,” he said. “It’s really down to one of you making the smallest mistake, and none of us did.
“I’m looking forward to many more of those races in the future.”
And to the future Formula One turns its attention, with the 2018 sequel promising to be better than the 2017 original.
Red Bull Racing, the erstwhile four-time constructors champion, developed strongly by 2017’s end to claim victory in Japan and Mexico on merit. Stable regulations next season must enter Daniel Ricciardo and Max Verstappen into the title equation at long last.
The fortunes of McLaren might finally bear weight on the title outcome too, with divorce from its fruitless Honda relationship opening the door to a Renault-powered 2018.
The Woking team has long insisted its chassis ranks amongst the best on the grid. Next year will be the acid test.
Few hope for anything less, because a competitive McLaren would unleash Fernando Alonso, shackled by flawed machinery for much of the last decade, into the ring.
The Spaniard, regarded by many as the best in Formula One and perhaps world motorsport, has gone four season without victory and an astounding 12 years without a championship.
A four-team, eight-driver championship fight is the stuff of Formula One dreams, but in 2018 dreams might yet become reality.
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