Feature: Motorsport Week reflects on 2018

It’s been an eventful season in the world of two- and four-wheeled action and in this festive piece the Motorsport Week team reflects on their highlights from the 2018 season.

The panel: Phillip Horton (Grand Prix Editor), Ryan Wood (Editor), Lewis Duncan (MotoGP Editor), Steve Camp (Reporter), Chris Soulsby (Formula E editor), Graham Keilloh (Features Contributor)

Best race

Hamilton battles past Raikkonen at Monza

PH: There were so many from which to choose. Azerbaijan was bonkers. Germany was thrillingly unexpected. Austin was a tense showdown as three different strategies converged. But for a sheer old-school flat-out battle my favourite was Italy, with Ferrari versus Mercedes at the historic Monza circuit, Lewis Hamilton and Kimi Raikkonen battling for supremacy. It was brilliant.  

RW: 2018 was a memorable season with several standout events, but if I had to pick just one, it would be Azerbaijan. The ludicrous circuit has gifted us some brilliant action during its short history. Once again we had a battle for the lead, a victory that could quite frankly have gone to anyone who started inside the top ten and dramatic crashes aplenty – looking at you Red Bull and Grosjean.

LD: It was another banner season in MotoGP, and there were a number of stunning races: Qatar, Argentina – the madness of Marc Marquez overshadowed a brilliant fight for the win – Brno, Austria, Thailand, Australia, Valencia all stand out. But the Dutch TT clinches it for me. A seven-rider scrap for the win for the majority of the 26 laps of the majestic Assen, well over 100 overtakes throughout the field, a ridiculous save from eventual race-winner Marquez, and the closest top 15 in history. It had it all. The efforts Dorna has made in recent years to make MotoGP ultra-competitive were all on display that Sunday. Glorious.

SC: This is always a tricky question. In Formula 1 there was the always eventful Azerbaijan Grand Prix, a three-way tussle in the USA and a flat-out battle in Monza between Kimi Raikkonen and Lewis Hamilton. There was also the fast and furious Dutch GP in MotoGP. But I'm going to put my final choice on the IndyCar Grand Prix of Portland. A first lap pile-up caught out title leader Scott Dixon but he avoided damage and kept his engine running. He was able to take on fresh tyres and fuel under the caution period, subsequently forced to serve a drive through for pit lane speeding, then gambled on pit strategy and came home fifth and having extended his points advantage. Tension throughout!

CS: Across many racing platforms we saw wheel-to-wheel racing from lights to flag. From the drama of Baku to the shunt-filled, overtaken-ridden onslaught at Silverstone that temporarily saw Ferrari ‘bring back the flag’ to Maranello, only to lose it once more at Monza. For me, however, I will be casting my vote elsewhere, with the Zurich E-Prix not only marking one of the best races on the 2017/18 Formula E season but also allowing closed circuit racing to return to Switzerland for the first time in 54 years. Featuring Jaguar Racing’s first pole position, a much-needed victory for Lucas di Grassi and a surprise podium for Jerome d’Ambrosio, the weekend had it all, and that’s failing to mention the electrifying feeling in the paddock that had everyone buzzed.

GK: We did quite well for entertaining races in 2018. Perhaps no single outstanding one but there was a host of very good ones. Bahrain, China, Austria, Britain, Germany, the USA and Brazil fell into that category. Baku was wacky as always. But I’ll in more than one sense go old school and give this accolade to the Italian round – a high-quality tete-a-tete.

Best driver (or rider)

Little Champ-pain but lots of champagne for Hamilton

PH: Lewis Hamilton. There were only a handful of minor dips in a season in which he largely performed at an extraordinarily high level, in all kinds of situations. This year was far from plain sailing for either team or driver and yet he pulled off stunning displays with such regularity that you had to remind yourself of just how brilliant those events were. The skill is in making those achievements look a breeze. Honourable mentions to Max Verstappen for the latter two-thirds of the campaign, and to Charles Leclerc for his growth with Sauber.

RW: It can really only go to one driver and whilst it might seem an obvious and somewhat boring choice, given he won the title (again), there’s no arguing that Lewis Hamilton performed above and beyond his rivals this year. Some will say having the best car helps – and it probably does – but Hamilton drove faultlessly all year, didn’t succumb to the pressure of the title fight as Sebastian Vettel did, and ultimately did what he needed to win.

LD: It may be fairly obvious, but Marc Marquez is not simply my pick for rider of the year just because he won his fifth world title in six years with nine wins, with a 76-point margin over nearest rival Andrea Dovizioso, and with three races remaining. The Honda rider defied an ever-worsening shoulder injury to do so, and he was still unstoppable in a massively competitive year. His Argentina brain fade will have unfortunately permanently marked him amongst his detractors. But those who can look past petty rivalries are able to see just how truly special a talent he is.

SC: It's hard to look past Mercedes' Lewis Hamilton, who was able to claim 11 victories en route to a fifth world title in an imperious manner, against such stiff opposition in the form of Ferrari's Sebastian Vettel. It will be a difficult task for the others to prevent the British driver from getting a sixth championship.

CS: Driver of the year for me is a somewhat controversial pick. We saw Fernando Alonso have his (alleged) final hurrah in Formula 1, Lewis Hamilton storm to a fifth Drivers’ Championship and a star be born in the shape of Charles Leclerc. Jean-Eric Vergne, however, was thoroughly impressive. In Formula E, he won his first title since his 2010 British Formula 3 success. In the European Le Mans Series, he took three wins with G-Drive racing to power his way to the runner-up spot. In 2018, Vergne arguably blended tradition with the contemporary by racing in multiple championships and may be on his way to redefining racing. The Frenchman gets my vote on this one.

GK: This one’s a no brainer. Lewis Hamilton has always had his high peaks – dazzling speed particularly on a qualifying lap; immaculate aggression in battle; astonishing wet weather skill. But likely he’s never strung those peaks together as he did in 2018. This year was a personal tour de force.

Biggest surprise

Sauber and Haas impressed in 2018

PH: Sauber was meandering pre-season and during the early events but its development rate was eye-catching and it had a far better campaign than everyone expected. That Charles Leclerc capped the season with a trio of seventh-placed finishes highlighted the steadily upward curve made by the team, facilitated by the progress of its star driver.

RW: It has to be the Charles Leclerc and Sauber combination. A double whammy of impressiveness. Sauber bucked up their ideas and gave Leclerc a car he could impress in. A brilliant rookie season and a well-deserved promotion to Ferrari for 2019!

LD: Hafizh Syahrin's appointment as the ill Jonas Folger's full-time replacement at Tech3. Admittedly, Tech3 was low on options, but it was a real leap of faith from Herve Poncheral to opt for the Malaysian. This faith was repaid in kind, however, and Syharin – save for a mid-season dip – was impressive on the Yamaha, frequently scoring points,

SC: Robert Wickens. He departed Mercedes’ DTM programme for IndyCar and lit up the series with a stunning rookie campaign. Wickens scored pole position on his debut in St. Petersburg and only an accidental tap by Alexander Rossi with just three laps to go denied him a famous win. He was regularly in contention for more race victories throughout the year before his hideous accident at Pocono in August.

CS: Audi Sport Abt Schaeffler. While Audi is and always has been a reliable and renowned constructor, the German marque’s struggles at the start of the 2017/18 Formula E season placed the team in a difficult position. Disqualification for Daniel Abt at the second race of the season and poor luck for Lucas di Grassi across the first four rounds left the team with a meagre haul of 11 points. To turn the season around, however, was truly remarkable: Two 1-2 finishes, four victories and a total of eight consecutive podium finishes in as many races, followed by one juicy Teams’ Championship title. When faced with its problems, it was not a surprise that Audi would soon attain its ascension - it was the fashion in which it did it - straight to the top.

GK: It’s easy to forget now that prior to pre-season testing no-one was talking about Haas. But in that running it became clear that, somehow, it had produced a jewel. It leapt from eighth to fifth in the Constructors’ table, and without wheels falling off in Australia and late-season disqualifications it would have been officially best of the rest.

Biggest disappointment

McLaren had a difficult campaign

PH: Many F1 races were great but there were also disappointments in the championship this year – that we didn’t get a year-long title fight; that the gap between the lead trio and the rest was such a chasm; that great teams McLaren and Williams had dire, drifting seasons; that the return of the French GP was mired in traffic disaster and largely incompetent organisation.

RW: Vettel’s title implosion. A season of promise in the first half, but a season of silly mistakes in the second saw Vettel’s title ambitions wash away in the rain, quite literally. We ran a fantasy feature of what could have been for Vettel and a 50-point lead in the standings over Hamilton wasn’t unrealistic had he not made so many errors. Several spins, crashes and silly outbursts such as his Brazilian weigh bridge incident. It was disappointing.

LD: Yamaha. It was still paying for mistakes it made with the 2017 bike, and not even the immense talents of Maverick Vinales and Valentino Rossi could stop it from entering its longest losing streak in its premier class history. A team of Yamaha's stature should not be winning just one race a year. At least the 2019 prototype looks like it will take Yamaha back to where it should be.

SC: Williams. After years being in the mix of the midfield, a major design flaw in the FW41 sealed the fate of the Grove-based outfit in 2018. Falling from fifth to 10th in the Constructors' Championship and a long way behind the rest of the field, it was a year to forget.

CS: To pinpoint the biggest disappointment of 2018 is no easy task. In Formula E, there were several. The prime candidates were Renault e.dams and Mahindra Racing, paired with Felix Rosenqvist. For the French e.dams squad, its final year of racing in partnership with Renault saw limited success and while Sebastien Buemi was able to salvage four podium finishes for the team, Nico Prost, on the other hand, was dire, taking only eight points compared to his team-mate’s 125. For the Mahindra-Rosenqvist situation, on the contrary, it was a strong start, with the Swede taking two back-to-back wins to lead the championship… And then that was his season. The pace that the partnership did have vanished and reliability disappeared, with Techeetah and Audi edging in front.

GK: To quote Warren Buffet, “only when the tide goes out do you discover who has been swimming naked”. McLaren, suddenly without the Honda engine to blame for all its woes, discovered that all along it had desperate technical shortcomings of its own. You’d imagine in the long term that this sharp realisation will be no bad thing. But this year was a humiliation.

Hopes for 2019

Can Ferrari fight back, and with new boy Leclerc?

PH: Ferrari rebounds to give Mercedes a year-long title fight, with the Honda-powered Red Bull team joining the fray, while their advantage over the rest of the teams is not quite so large, ensuring there are battles and not merely 'after you Sir' style walkovers. In terms of drivers, hopefully Charles Leclerc and Pierre Gasly can thrive in the big time at Ferrari and Red Bull respectively while Valtteri Bottas shows his 2018 luck was an aberration. I'd also like to see the young guns thrive, and hopefully Robert Kubica and Williams can deliver a heart-warming story of recovery and rejuvenation. And, overall, a healthy situation both on- and off-track would be welcome, with a clearer view of the post-2021 landscape.  

RW: My biggest hope is that the 2019 rule changes deliver what they’re promising…the ability to follow more closely and therefore create better racing and more overtaking. Opinions are divided so we’ll only know come Australia.

LD: As clichéd as it may sound, just more of the same stunning racing we have been enjoying in this halcyon period of MotoGP. Marquez vs Jorge Lorenzo at Honda; Andrea Dovizioso on Ducati's best bike yet; a (hopeful) return to form for Yamaha; Johann Zarco at KTM; a golden group of rookies. There is a lot to get excited about in MotoGP in 2019.

SC: I would love to see Charles Leclerc come into the Ferrari team and give it everything in first year with the Scuderia. A boost for McLaren and Williams would also be very welcome to see. Also a continued strong recovery for Wickens as he battles to walk and drive once again.

CS: For Formula E, more of the same. I want to see the championship continue with its unpredictability and excitement at every corner, paired with its closely grouped and matched field. As for a few specific things though: A maiden win in the series for Andre Lotterer; continuing growth in confidence for Jaguar Racing; the battle between Jerome d’Ambrosio and Pascal Wehrlein at Mahindra and who will come out on top; another closely fought title battle; the potential of rookies Stoffel Vandoorne and Felipe Massa; the continuation of the use of Attack Mode and how Formula E’s new generation and format will unfold. Regardless of what we see, however, the all-electric single seater series will provide some exciting and spicy racing in 2019. In terms of Formula 1, hopefully we'll see the resurgence of McLaren and Williams (albeit unlikely and perhaps delusional).

GK: Given the category is ‘hopes’ rather than ‘expectations’, I hope we’ll at last see tangible achievement from Liberty to go alongside its laudable (if still vague) aims. Namely a simplified formula, effective cost control, better financial distribution, a calendar that works for the fans and a decisive move back to free-to-air TV coverage.