Tuesday, June 09, 2009

Who's Up? Who's Down?

If ever there was any doubt that you need the right machinery to be in with a shout of victory in Formula 1, this season has rammed the point home. Does anyone honestly believe that after 10 years of racing, Jenson Button has suddenly made a quantum leap forward? Or that Lewis Hamilton has simply forgotten how to drive since he won the title last year?

No, the truth is that Button was always a quick driver, he's just rarely had the car to show it, while Hamilton is doing as much as he can with one of the worst cars ever to come out of Woking. It's a reminder that in F1, all you can ever be sure of is how a driver compares to his team mate - the only man on the grid going into battle with exactly the same equipment. The fact that the pecking order among the teams has shifted so radically this season, with Brawn and Red Bull seemingly having produced the quickest cars, only serves to make this more apparent.

With that in mind, though, what is it possible to say of the drivers' form book this year? Who has been doing a really good job and who has been below par. Put another way, if Rubens Barrichello opts to hang up his helmet at the end of the season, who would be top of Ross Brawn's wish-list when it comes to finding a replacement this year?

Perhaps its not a question at the forefront of his mind right now. After all, there can be no doubt that his de facto number one, Jenson Button has been doing a fantastic job with what he has this year. A man who has always seemed best, relative to his team mates, when in a good car, he's won six out of the first seven races and Rubens Barrichello has never really looked like getting on terms with him in terms of pace. Combine the incredible ability to bang in quick lap after quick lap in race conditions (which did for Barrichello in Barcelona) and there can be a little doubt that this is a man who is making up for lost time, seizing an unexpected opportunity which has fallen into his lap at a time when it seemed his career was all but over. The same, sadly, cannot be said for Rubens Barrichello. He's not been much slower than Button, and he's had the lion's share of any problems going Brawn's way, but it can't be denied that he simply hasn't looked as quick as his team mate. In the Autumn of his career, he's finally got hold of a title-winning car without having Michael Schumacher as a team mate, but it still doesn't look like it's enough for him to become world champion.

In fact, if anyone is going to challenge Button for the title, it is more likely to be Red Bull drivers Sebastian Vettel and Mark Webber than his team mate. Received opinion would have it that Vettel has been the quicker of the two this year, and he has outqualified Webber 7-0, but I'm not sure it's as simple as that. Vettel has almost always been fueled lighter than his team mate, and their fuel-corrected pace has actually been pretty close. Furthermore, while Button's season has been error-free, Vettel has thrown away points at Monaco, at Melbourne (where he was at least 50% responsible for his collision with Robert Kubica) and, perhaps, with his small slip on the opening lap at Istanbul Park last weekend. I doubt he'd have beaten Button either way, but I wonder whether he might have finished ahead of his team mate. That's not to do Vettel down, he's young, inexperienced, and it's perhaps no surprise that he's still making mistakes under pressure. And let's not forgeet either that he did a fantastic job in very difficult conditions in China. More than that, he's been pretty much the first driver to go up against Mark Webber and not come off second-best. Webber, after all, pretty much finished off the F1 careers of Antonio Pizzonia, Justin Wilson, Christian Klien, and, in a way, David Coulthard. He might not have done enough to establish himself as the next Michael Schumacher, but he has proven those who wondered whether he was really a front-running race driver wrong.

What, though, of those without potentially race winning cars? How, for example, are the three world champions in the field acquitting themselves? Of the three, Kimi Raikkonen has probably got his hands on the most competitive car, but to be honest, he's been the least convincing. In contrast with last year, he's been a shade quicker than team mate Felipe Massa in qualifying, but too often, he's looked rather lacklustre in the race itself. Maybe he's overperforming in qualifying, but in China and in Turkey in particular, he just didn't look interested. Even at Monaco, where he scored Ferrari's only podium finish of the year, I'm not convinced he was as quick as Massa.

Fernando Alonso is an interesting contrast. The 2009 Renault looks pretty hopeless - Piquet has struggled to get the car out of Q1 - and yet Alonso has consistently managed to drag the car into the final top-10 run-off. Of course, one could retort that he has the weakest team mate of the three champions, but perhaps it is only Alonso's pace which makes Piquet appear so out of his depth.... That he has had the least by the way of real results of the three is more a reflection on Enstone than on Alonso.

The reigning champion, Lewis Hamilton, slots somewhere in between the two. There have been occasions when he has really transcended the limitations of the Mclaren - at Bahrain, for example and, until his self-inflicted disqualification, in Australia. The pressures of trying to perform in an uncompetitive car while under fire in the press for his behaviour in the stewards' room at Australia does seem to have got to him from time to time though. He put in a very error-strewn race in the wet in China, and threw away perhaps his best shot at a top-3 finish all year when he went off the road in qualifying at Monaco. There's no doubting, though, that he's still quicker than Heikki Kovalainen.

What of the rest? Jarno Trulli has impressed me this year. He's always had a reputation as a good qualifier, but this year, his race pace has been impressive too, when the Toyota has been on the pace. He might have won in Bahrain had the team called their tyre strategy right, his drive from the pack to score a podium in Melbourne was impressive, and, come to that, he did a solid job on his way to being 'best of the rest' in Turkey. By contrast, I've been a little disappointed by Timo Glock. I'd expected that, in his second full season, he'd carry on his upward momentum and begin to beat Trulli on a regular basis. It hasn't happened though, and only at Monaco, where both Toyotas were hopelessly off the pace anyway, that he appeared the quicker of the two.

He's not been as much of a disappointment as Sebastien Bourdais though. I'd argued for his retention at Toro Rosso here at Motorsports Ramblings earlier this year, but I can't help but think I've called it wrong. Certainly, I didn't expect him to be outpaced by the inexperienced Sebastien Buemi, a man whose junior record didn't exactly suggest he was a future star. Perhaps Buemi is better than his GP2 record had led me to think, but I can't help but feel that Bourdais ought to be beating the new boy on a more regular basis than he is.

Over at BMW, Robert Kubica has done a good job of keeping a lid on his frustration at the uncompetitiveness of this year's BMW. Had he been a touch more patient, he might have taken a lucky win on strategy in Australia, but since then he has largely had to be content with beating team mate Heidfeld more often than not. One can't help but wonder whether he's on the phone to Ross Brawn right now, asking if there might be a seat at his team next year.

Perhaps the hardest drivers to assess are Kazuki Nakajima and Nico Rosberg. That Rosberg is quicker than Nakajima is fairly straightforward to ascertain - but whether Rosberg is transcending a very average Williams, or whether Frank's team is being held back by an average number-one driver and a number two who has no real business being there is very hard to tell. Rosberg demolished Alex Wurz in terms of pace when they were teamed up together a couple of years back, but by that time, Wurz was perhaps so race rusty that it's hard to know how much that really meant. After all, there were rumours circulating that Rosberg was offered a seat alongside Hamilton at Mclaren at the end of 2007, but turned it down on his father's counsel because he didn't believe that Rosberg Jr. could match the Briton. What Williams need to do, of course, is find someone else to place alongside Rosberg, but that will be difficult for as long as they are reliant on Toyota to provide cheap engines...

Of course, I'm hoping that someone, maybe Red Bull, maybe Ferrari, maybe Toyota, develop a car over the course of the season which is capable of giving the Brawn of Button pause for thought, but if they don't, there are still plenty intra-team rivalries to keep an eye on.

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