For Formula One, So Far, So Interesting

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The fortunes of Formula One’s leading drivers have fluctuated wildly over the opening weeks of the season.

Ahead of the sixth race in Monaco on Sunday, the battle between Lewis Hamilton of Mercedes and Sebastian Vettel of Ferrari to become only the third driver to win five world titles has already taken several twists. Hamilton is on top, but he has made it clear that he is not happy with his car.

You can’t say that about Fernando Alonso and the McLaren team. McLaren had another wretched year last season, finishing ninth in the constructors’ championship because of a litany of failures of its Honda-supplied power unit.

McLaren ended its contract with Honda and is now powered by Renault. With the change, Alonso may not be challenging Mercedes and Ferrari, but he has won points by finishing in the top 10 in all five grands prix this season.

He also enjoyed winning a race for the first time in five years, but it was not in Formula One. On his debut in the World Endurance Championship with Toyota on May 5, Alonso won the 6 Hours of Spa-Francorchamps with his teammates Sébastian Buemi and Kazuki Nakajima.

Alonso said it was “a very good moment after not being on the podium for a long time.” He added that he was “warming up for the big one of Le Mans,” the 24-hour event on June 16 and 17.

Last year, Toto Wolff, the Mercedes motorsport boss, described the car as “a bit of a diva” after Hamilton struggled during qualifying in Monaco. In particular, the team failed to get the best out of its tires.

“It has been a challenge for us to come back and tame the diva,” Wolff said. “It’s not a diva this year. She’s behaving better.”

Hamilton, however, still has issues.

After emerging from preseason testing with the fastest car, Hamilton should have won the opening race in Australia. But a tactical miscalculation because of a software problem allowed Vettel to jump ahead of Hamilton during a virtual safety car period and win.

For the next races in Bahrain, China and Azerbaijan, Mercedes lacked the pace of Ferrari, and especially Vettel, who claimed pole position in all three races. Only in Bahrain, though, did Vettel turn one of those poles into victory.

In China, he finished only eighth because of Ferrari’s tactics and a collision with the Red Bull driver Max Verstappen. In Azerbaijan, he dropped from challenging for the lead to finishing fourth after making a mistake.

In Baku, Azerbaijan, an out-of-sorts Hamilton, who had said he lacked synergy with his car, steered clear of the mayhem during the race to claim an unlikely win. His teammate, Valtteri Bottas, retired three laps from the finish with a puncture.

Red Bull has faltered this season. Neither of its drivers, Daniel Ricciardo and Verstappen, finished the Bahrain race. They then crashed into each other in Azerbaijan, forcing them both from the race. Ricciardo did win in China, while Verstappen was third in Spain.

“We’ve shown real promise as we’ve won a grand prix,” Christian Horner, the team principal, said in an interview, “but we’ve also had two double retirements, which is hugely frustrating as we have a car which, on race day, is very quick.”

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