12 months have passed since Sebastian Vettel last stood on the top step of the Formula 1 podium.

The Ferrari driver scored his most recent grand prix victory in Belgium last year, having slipstreamed past polesitter Lewis Hamilton in the early stages and controlled the rest of the race in commanding fashion.

At that stage of the 2018 season, it looked as though Vettel and Hamilton would go toe-to-toe for the title, but Vettel’s challenge faded following a multitude of driver and team mistakes.

Those errors continued into this season, and remarkably, neither Vettel nor Ferrari has been able to win a race during the opening 12 rounds of the campaign.

Vettel came closest in Canada - where he crossed the line in first place after dominating the race - only to lose the win in controversial circumstances having been handed a time penalty that dropped him behind Hamilton after the chequered flag had fallen.

A stunning recovery drive from the back of the grid in Hockenheim - the scene of a nightmare crash for Vettel in 2018 - has kickstarted the German’s 2019 season, which has been riddled with frustration.

The Spa-Francorchamps circuit should, in theory at least, play to the strengths of Ferrari’s latest challenger and provide the Italian squad with its best chance yet of claiming a win to end its barren streak, despite team boss Mattia Binotto’s cautious approach heading into the weekend.

Ferrari’s biggest weakness so far this season has been due to its SF90 having less maximum downforce compared to the W10 challenger of its chief rival Mercedes, which has gone on to take 10 of the 12 race victories on offer so far.

The power-hungry nature of the Spa circuit is expected to play into Ferrari’s hands, given the Scuderia appears to have the most powerful and efficient power unit this year. Teams traditionally run low-downforce aero configurations at Spa, which should further help Ferrari by reducing some of the deficit it currently has.

Hamilton’s enviable form

There looks to be no-stopping Lewis Hamilton as he charges towards becoming a six-time world champion.

Hamilton holds a huge 62-point advantage over Mercedes teammate Valtteri Bottas in the drivers’ standings with nine rounds remaining and 234 points still to play for. Hamilton has been in supreme form of late and has made his best-ever start to an F1 season.

However, the Briton is not completely satisfied with his form and has asked Mercedes to provide feedback on where he can improve to pull off an “even stronger” second half of the season.

Such a statement will come as an ominous warning to his rivals, with Hamilton often turning in his best performances of the year in the second half of campaigns.

Hamilton’s record over the last two years has been stellar and it was key to setting up his run to the title in both 2017 and 2018. On both occasions, Hamilton won four of the first five races directly after the summer break.

If he can pull off a similar feat this year, he will be within touching distance of yet more championship silverware to add to his ever-growing collection.

But Mercedes boss Toto Wolff is keen to remain grounded about his team’s lofty position at the top of F1’s pecking order heading into the final part of the season.

“We're leading in both championships, but it doesn't feel that way,” he said. “In the last few years, we saw teams perform very strongly after summer shutdown, so we now we need to keep pushing.

“In that respect, we're approaching the start to the second half of 2019 more like the start to a completely new season - once again we need to make sure that we leave no room for error and keep raising the bar.”

Albon gets his big break

Just 12 races into his fledging F1 career and Alexander Albon finds himself landing one of the hottest seats on the grid, having been flung into the Red Bull pen alongside Max Verstappen, replacing the underperforming Pierre Gasly - who in turn has dropped back to Toro Rosso alongside Daniil Kvyat (the driver he originally replaced at the team back in 2017).

The British-Thai driver, who finished third in the 2018 Formula 2 standings, has enjoyed a remarkable rise to F1 in the last 18 months, now finds himself with nine races to prove he is a worthy candidate for a full-time seat alongside Verstappen at Red Bull in 2020.

Not only is Albon going up against arguably the standout driver of the season so far and one of the biggest talents on the current F1 grid in the shape of his new teammate, but he has been thrown into the deep end of an environment that has little patience for drivers who fail to get up to speed quickly, as is the ruthless nature of the Red Bull driver programme and the cut-throat approach taken by its ringmaster Helmut Marko.

Red Bull has four drivers under contract (Verstappen, Albon, Gasly and Kvyat), meaning Albon’s performance within the team, as well as his direct comparison against Gasly in the same race-winning machinery, will go a long way in influencing how the Milton Keynes squad shapes its line-up for next season.

Many drivers' futures will be in question heading to Spa, with reports in Germany suggesting Valtteri Bottas is set to retain his place at Mercedes alongside Hamilton, with Esteban Ocon returning to the F1 grid at Renault, replacing Nico Hulkenberg in the process.



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