Monday, July 16, 2007

A Delicate Balance

When were there last so many drivers still in with a shot at the title by the half-way mark? Last year was all about Alonso and Schumacher, the year before it, Alonso and Raikkonen. In 2004, by the time the season reached its mid-point, there was no way, realistically, that anyone other than Michael Schumacher was going to be world champion. I reckon you have to go back to 2003, when Juan Montoya, Michael Schumacher, Ralf Schumacher, Kimi Raikkonen and, at a stretch, Rubens Barrichello, were all still very much in the running.

What makes this season's title fight such an intriguing affair is that it is both an inter-team fight between Mclaren and Ferrari, and a two-way intra-team battle. Lewis Hamilton and Kimi Raikkonen may lead their team mates in the standings, but it seems to me unlikely that either will be able to rely on any support from their team mate in chasing the world championship. At McLaren, they have the near impossibility of asking their double world champion £30m signing, himself second in the points standings, to play second fiddle to his rookie team mate. At Ferrari, the problem is subtly different. Felipe Massa might have been content to play a supporting role to Michael Schumacher, but the gap to his team mate is too small, at just a single point, and Raikkonen's performances this year too uneven, to justify the Scuderia putting all its eggs in one basket just yet.

Both teams, in any case, would face an additional obstacle in attempting any such strategy anyway. Chances are, events would end up conspiring against them, even if they try. There may have been races where one team has had enough of a performance advantage that they could dictate the finishing order if they chose (Mclaren at Monaco and perhaps Indianapolis and Ferrari at Magny Cours and, had Massa not hit trouble in qualifying, at Australia). They have been many other races though, where the gaps between the teams has been too marginal to indulge in such games. Bahrain strikes me as a particularly good example, but Barcelona and, perhaps, Silverstone, fall into the same category.

Take Mclaren as an example. At Bahrain, the maths dictated that the team would prefer Alonso to finish ahead of Hamilton. That, though, could not be arranged, as it would have meant giving points away to Heidfeld and Raikkonen, who were sandwiched between the pair on the road. Likewise, by the time they reached Silverstone, the numbers would point towards favouring Hamilton. There was little doubt, on the day though, that it was Alonso who was quicker, and who offered the only serious hope (forlorn as it ultimately was) of depriving Raikkonen of the win.

Which of the four, then, is my bet for the title? On the numbers, you might to conclude that it was Lewis Hamilton's to lose. Certainly, with the difference between 1st and 2nd just 2 points, and with four drivers in with a serious shot at victory at every race, a 12 point lead could look very useful indeed. On the other hand, though, while it might take Hamilton's nearest challenger, Alonso, 6 races to overhaul a 12 point lead if Lewis just keeps finishing second, a single engine failure or accident, could see that lead cut to 2 points at a stroke. What this serves to highlight is that a championship this tight is perhaps as likely to be decided by who is luckiest as by who is quickest.

It is I suspect no mere coincidence that Hamilton is the only driver not to have lost points to mechanical problems all season, and that he now leads the driver's standings. Massa lost points at Australia and at Silverstone when he had to start from the back. Raikkonen retired with gearbox problems at Barcelona, and Alonso's challenge was severely blunted by gearbox problems in qualifying at Magny Cours.

If it doesn't come down to sheer luck, then it could be little driver errors which decide the title. Last year, Alonso won the title not because either he or the Renault was quicker than Schumacher's Ferrari but because Schumacher lost points to driver errors - most notably at Monaco and Hungary. Once again, it is Hamilton who has so far avoided costly errors. This year, to my surprise, it is Alonso who comes out worst on this score - with silly first corner antics costing him points in Spain and Canada, and an unusual race error under pressure costing him another point at Bahrain. Felipe Massa has two significant mistakes to his name. The first, a botched pass on Hamilton at Malaysia, was understandable, but just might have cost him a win, and certainly a second place. The second error - ignoring the red light at the end of the pit lane in Montreal, was more fundamental (and it must be said, the team have to shoulder their share of the blame for failing to remind him of it).

Kimi Raikkonen hasn't really made any mistakes per se but unlike the other three, there have been occasions when he has just plain underperformed - failed to get enough out of the car. Hamilton, by contrast, has made mistakes (during the race in Melbourne, and in the pits at Silverstone) but the mistakes have been small, and he has been lucky enough not to have paid a points penalty for any of them.

Lets assume, though, that over the remainder of the season, mechanical reliability and driver errors somehow balance out. There's no reason to assume they will, and indeed, if I were a betting man, I'd suggest that one of the Mclaren boys will walk away champion for the simple reason that the 2007 Ferrari seems that bit more fragile. But let's just assume for a minute. Who, then, looks the likely winner? The honest answer, and perhaps what has made this season such a fascinating contest, is that I really don't know.

Contrary to what some would have you believe, I really don't think that there has been anything between Hamilton and Alonso in terms of sheer pace this year. Sometimes, as at Malaysia and Silverstone, Alonso has been clearly quicker. On other occasions, such as Bahrain and Canada, Hamilton was. On still other occasions, most notably Monaco and Indianapolis, the finishing order reflected minute differences in their qualifying performances, and the fact that one car has to finish in front of the other, more than anything else. Over the whole season, you might expect Alonso's greater experience to come to the fore, but to be honest, if it hasn't done so by now, it probably won't.

Over at Ferrari, things are a little more complex. Its fair to say, I think, that during the opening part of the season, Massa was demonstrably, though not vastly, quicker than his more celebrated team mate Raikkonen. At the last four races, though, things have seemed more finely balanced. In Canada, Raikkonen qualified ahead on a heavier fuel load, but damaged his car early on in the race and was never at 100% thereafter. A week later at Indianapolis, Massa finished ahead, thanks to track position, but its hard to ignore the fact that Raikkonen simply looked quicker for much of the race. Indeed has he not been compromised by being on the wrong tyre early on, he might have been able to give the Mclaren drivers something to think about. In France, there was again little to separate the two, but it was Raikkonen who held the whip hand in terms of strategy, and so finished ahead. As for Silverstone, we never really got to see what way a Massa/Raikkonen battle might have gone.

So, delicately balanced indeed. We may have had few really classic races this season, but it may nonetheless be a very memorable year.

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Anonymous Clive said...

Barring political intervention, I think Alonso will win it. He just knows how it's done...

4:52 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Alonso won in 2006 because the Ferrari failed in Suzuka and Interlargos.

12:44 PM  
Blogger joe said...

I agree that Alonso has been faster most of the year, but I think his lack of consistency should be considered carefully. Malaysia showed how important it was in the early races to exit Turn 1 in the lead, even in a slower car. I think it was this situation that framed Turn 1 at Barcelona. Additionally, given that it was a home race to a sellout crowd, between being spectated on a conservative, damage-control pace vs. a high risk manuever at Turn 1, he made the more respectable choice in my view.

So I'm saying the cost/benefit decision there was probably more rational than it seemed. This isn't to say that Alonso has been perfect. His quali consistency hasn't helped, and he has perhaps taken too much risk at times. But that he is taking risks at all this early in the season in aero-dominated cars says something about his racing.

9:19 AM  
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