By Alan Baldwin
LONDON (Reuters) – Lewis Hamilton and Mercedes won their fifth Formula One championships in 2018 but, even if nothing actually changed at the top, the season at least added an exciting twist to the same old story.
Yes, the top three — the ‘Silver Arrows’ along with Ferrari and Red Bull — again won all the races, just as they have for the past five years.
And yes, their drivers also filled all but one of the 63 podium places in what was more than ever a two-tier championship.
At the front, however, the fight for supremacy was far closer, with the outcome far from clear and Mercedes having to wait until the fourth race to open their win account.
Ferrari won six, their best effort since 2008 but still some way short of what might have been, and were hit hard by the death mid-season of combative chairman Sergio Marchionne and their own mistakes.
Red Bull ended their Renault partnership with four victories, their biggest haul since 2013 when they were last champions, to set new engine suppliers Honda a high benchmark for 2019.
Hamilton moved onto another level, however.
His success, with 11 wins from 21 races and 11 poles, was all the more impressive given that Ferrari’s Sebastian Vettel could claim to have the faster car for at least the first half of the season.
Unlike Vettel and Ferrari, Hamilton barely put a wheel wrong as he equalled the late Argentine Juan Manuel Fangio’s five titles, with only Michael Schumacher ahead on seven.
The highlights included storming from 14th on the grid to victory in Germany, while Vettel skidded off as he led in the wet, and an astonishing pole position lap in Singapore.
The 33-year-old Briton staged an epic recovery from last to second at Silverstone, and ended the year on 73 wins with Schumacher’s all-time record of 91 coming into range.
“I’ve grown, I’ve understood myself more,” Hamilton said when asked what he had learned from a year that left Finnish team mate Valtteri Bottas winless, mentally battered and bruised.
“I’ve just been able to be a better me all year long and that’s never going to stop.”
Hamilton’s continuing reign was echoed elsewhere in motorsport, with Spaniard Marc Marquez collecting his fifth MotoGP crown while Frenchman Sebastien Ogier went one better to end a closely-fought rally championship as a six-times champion.
Formula One’s youth revolution continued, with fresh faces lined up for 2019 as teams gave the driver merry-go-round a hefty push.
Only Mercedes and fifth-placed Haas will be carrying unchanged line-ups into 2019, also a crucial year off the track with commercial rights holders Liberty Media facing tough discussions over the sport’s future direction.
Another, very real, shove landed Red Bull’s Max Verstappen, who turned 21 and delighted Dutch fans with two race wins in 2018, in hot water after an altercation with Force India’s Esteban Ocon.
Sauber’s Charles Leclerc was rookie of the year and the exciting young Monegasque will begin a new chapter at Ferrari next year, trading places with 2007 champion Kimi Raikkonen — who won in Texas for his first victory in 113 races.
Double world champion Fernando Alonso called it a day, leaving as one of the greats but with McLaren still agonisingly slow and ushering out racing director Eric Boullier among others.
Alonso will now chase the Indianapolis 500, and Triple Crown glory, after winning the Le Mans 24 Hours with Toyota at the first attempt in 2018.
The return of the French Grand Prix after a 10-year absence was a popular comeback, the traffic jams around Le Castellet much less so as fans fumed in tailbacks for hours.
New faces coming in for 2019 will include Britain’s Formula Two champion George Russell, at Williams, and teenage compatriot Lando Norris at McLaren.
Australian Daniel Ricciardo will also have a new team after leaving Red Bull for Renault — now the sport’s fourth-ranked team.
Force India who had previously been best-of-the-rest, went into administration and emerged under the new ownership of a Canadian consortium led by Lance Stroll’s billionaire father Lawrence.
In the year’s least surprising move, Stroll junior moved from Williams — the former champions now 10th and last — to his father’s team for 2019.
(Reporting by Alan Baldwin, editing by Toby Davis)