Lewis Hamilton may have started the season as the overwhelming favourite to clinch a fifth world title, but the Mercedes star now finds himself trailing by nine points in the championship after three races and yet to taste victory in 2018.
Sebastian Vettel’s victories in Australia and Bahrain proved the Ferrari has pace this year and can be a serious threat to Mercedes dominance in the constructors’ championship.
For all of Hamilton’s class behind the wheel, he was lucky to clinch a podium in Bahrain after starting from ninth and surviving a collision with Max Verstappen on the first lap.
Vettel’s victory in that race was up there with his very best – a masterclass under deteriorating soft tyres for 39 laps to hold off Valtteri Bottas on the final frenetic laps to seal a 49th victory of his career.
And for those of us who believed that the title race would be one-sided in terms of the dominance from Hamilton, we have seen enough over the first three races to know this year is set up to be a thriller
Winless since the US Grand Prix last October, the 33-year-old now finds himself behind Vettel in the drivers’ championship and struggling for pace and confidence.
But as early in the season as it may be, Hamilton and his Mercedes team will be ruing missed opportunities, with three chances slipped in as many races.
In Australia, Mercedes got their figures wrong and miscalculated the gap between Hamilton and Vettel during the virtual safety car – and the German took the lead after a slow Mercedes pitstop with 38 laps remaining to win.
A hydraulic leakage in his gearbox in Melbourne, forced a change and a five-place grid penalty in Bahrain.
Hoping to get back to winning ways in the Gulf, Mercedes lacked pace throughout practice and qualifying – and Hamilton appeared to struggle and ended up qualifying fourth, behind Bottas in third.
Starting from ninth after the grid penalty, he survived a clash with Verstappen after making up three places, passing Fernando Alonso, Esteban Ocon and Nico Hulkenberg in mesmerising fashion.
This set him up for a run to fourth, but with Kimi Raikkonen retiring midway through the race, he went on to secure third in a less than smooth performance.
In China, Hamilton dominated the practice sessions but was then out-qualified by Bottas for a second successive weekend and admitted after the race in Shanghai that he would need to do a bit of soul-searching to figure out what is wrong.
Another strategy error during the virtual safety car cost Hamilton a place on the podium, with both Mercedes and Ferrari opting not to pit after Pierre Gasly’s crash with 25 laps to go.
Red Bull capitalised on the opportunity and sent both drivers into the pits and they emerged on a new rubber with pace, hunting down the leading pack and Daniel Ricciardo went on to take victory.
Hamilton sealed fourth, with Bottas in second.
It is too early to be reading into this lack of quality form, especially with another 18 races left in the season, but Hamilton appears to be lacking in belief, pace and that winners touch that we are normally so used to seeing.
But, there is no doubt he will come storming back.
The Stevenage native is not a four-time world champion for nothing, and of course, like any job or sport, there is bound to be bad days along the journey.
It is impossible for anyone to perform at a consistently high level across the entire season, and with the Ferraris gaining solid ground, this season is set up to be a cliffhanger as Hamilton and Vettel go in search of that illustrious fifth world title.
Advantage may be in the German’s favour at this point, but expect Hamilton to fight back to his best form in Baku.
Verstappen’s coming together with Vettel afforded Lewis Hamilton the chance to move to within nine points of the Ferrari driver despite an off-colour weekend for the sport’s reigning champion.
Hamilton finished only fifth but was promoted one place higher after Verstappen was penalised 10 seconds for running into Vettel in the closing stages of a frantic race won by Daniel Ricciardo.
Ferrari’s Vettel crossed the line down in eighth despite being second at the time of his collision with Verstappen.
“It was completely Max’s fault,” said Niki Lauda, Mercedes’ non-executive chairman and three-time world champion.
“When you compete in more races you should get more clever – especially when you want to win or challenge for the championship – but he is going the other way. He needs to sort himself out. Nobody can help him.”
Verstappen may be only 20, but he has started 63 grands prix and is a three-time winner. This is his fourth season.
“He is not young,” Lauda added. “He is old in Formula One now so he is like everybody else. It is not necessary because it hurts him as well.”
Verstappen held his hands up for the incident and apologised to Vettel in the aftermath of the race.
But Vettel echoed Lauda’s call for the Red Bull driver to tame his ways. He warned: “In that situation he has to change his style otherwise it will happen again.
“I said to him afterwards ‘look, the race is long and you threw your podium away’.
“It is not a question of age because he has done so many races now. I gave him room, I wasn’t planning on resisting, but he had a big lock-up and that is when we crashed. We are not happy because we had the car to win.”
Hamilton and his Mercedes team will now depart the Far East scratching their heads as to how their early-season advantage has been wiped out.
Indeed, the 33-year-old Briton believes Mercedes are now behind both Ferrari and Red Bull and only third in F1’s pecking order.
He said: “Who knows what this season holds? But if it continues this way it is going to be very tough to win the championship.
“We underperformed in qualifying and the race was a disaster on my side of the garage. I need to try and rectify that and get myself back into a normal performance.
“It has not changed my thinking about the season, and my goals are obviously still the same, but it is clear from this weekend that we are not the quickest.
“We are the second or third fastest team at the moment so we have got some improving to do, but that is not impossible.”
As Daniel Ricciardo surged down the home stretch to clinch his first win of the season in Shanghai, you couldn’t help but wonder what might have been if Max Verstappen had kept a cool head.
The Red Bull cars charged past the field with fresh tyres, thanks to an opportunistic pit stop under the late Safety Car on lap 31, and they oozed pace and power.
Verstappen had already run wide on Lewis Hamilton as he chased third place, and after passing him three laps later, he closed in on Sebastian Vettel – championship leader and winner of the opening two races.
The Dutchman dove late and hit Vettel, resulting in a ten second penalty – and the Ferrari man subsequently dropped from third place to seventh.
The ‘over-optimistic’ driving robbed Red Bull of the chance for a sensational one-two finish, with Ricciardo’s sublime victory showing just how much pace the team had over its rivals in the closing stages.
Verstappen, who had come into the race answering questions about a clash with Lewis Hamilton in Bahrain, was pulled into the spotlight for the second week in a row.
His hit on Vettel raised questions about his maturity on the track and perhaps what he could learn from his older and more experienced teammate.
Although the 20-year-old has had more success – marginally – than Ricciardo in his three seasons in F1, he is yet to really show a run of consistency in the championship.
It is clear Verstappen is the most talented youngster on the grid, but in a 21-race season, to show flashes of class is not enough to win a world championship.
Car reliability may have curtailed his prospects in seven of the races in 2017, but in a more competitive Red Bull car, he has no excuse for inexperience, especially after completing 63 F1 races to date.
If he can’t improve and mature now, when will he?
Verstappen is his own man and time and practice will help his steady improvement as a driver and person.
It can be argued that he is third youngest of the 20 drivers, but the reality is he needs to relax and pick his opportunities at the right time instead of going hell for leather when he eyes a break.
In Shanghai, Red Bull’s brave decision to pit during the safety car was an outstanding and decisive decision – and if Verstappen hadn’t hit Vettel – both drivers could have been on the podium.
The Dutchman had a better track position after the safety car, but Ricciardo made the moves at the right time – each overtake looking better than the next.
The Australian is more successful at clean passes, while Max attempts more and fails to make it stick.
You rarely see Ricciardo make a driving error, which is down to his experience behind the wheel – and his four extra years in the sport.
Both Ricciardo and Verstappen are great drivers, but look at the difference in how they moved through the field in those closing 20 laps.
Ricciardo looked efficient, Verstappen utterly chaotic.
He could have gotten more out of the race if he had kept composed when attacking Vettel in that pivotal moment.
In contrast, Ricciardo’s move on the inside of Bottas to take the lead with 11 laps remaining was utterly sublime – and proved that the Australian has the tools to challenge at the top.
With Valtteri Bottas and Kimi Raikkonen now in the final year of their respective deals, the Perth native is a front runner to secure one of the Mercedes or Ferrari seats.
He’s a likeable character, drives to perfection and looks primed to be a world champion in the right car.
Eight years his junior, Max has the potential to be a future world champion himself, but needs to minimise silly mistakes that are costing him his reputation among the drivers and his team vital points in the constructors’ championship.
When he leaves China for his base in Monaco this evening, it will cross his mind about what he needs to do to prevent this from recurring for the rest of this season.
He may be young, fearless and talented, but for now, he could and should learn a few lessons from Ricciardo.