Monday, September 13, 2010

Summer's End

The seasons have an underlying rhythm to them. After the relaxed carefree weeks of summer turn steadily languid through the heat of August, September marks a return to the reality of work, a sense of knuckling down as the nights draw in and the weather turns more chill. Where once it was going back to school or university, these days for me its the return of Parliament from its summer recess that marks Summer's end. And one event that is inextricably linked with this time of year in my mind is the Italian Grand Prix at Monza.

There can surely be no better place to mark the end of European season than the Autodromo Nazionale Monza. Even as it stands today, emasculated by chicanes, it remains the fastest circuit on the F1 calendar, in its own way every bit as much a unique challenge as Monaco. Watching the onboard footage as drivers top 215mph along its long, narrow straights, its one of the few places where Grand Prix racing still looks, well, dangerous. But more to the point, Monza tends to mark the point in the racing season at which it becomes clear who is really in the battle for the World Championship and whose campaign has fallen off the rails. With the end of summer, the destiny of the World Titles tends to come into focus.

Last year, it was their poor performance at Monza that all but guaranteed that Red Bull would not deny Brawn either world title. Going back a few years to 2003, it marked the point at which what had been a five-way title fight boiled down to the three way battle between Raikkonen, Schumacher and Montoya. And, indeed, Schumacher's victory, after a lacklustre summer, turned out to be a portent of the fact that, after the FIA's meddling with the tyre regulations, he and Ferrari would retain their crowns for a fourth successive year.

A fortnight ago, it seemed for a moment, after Messrs Vettel, Alonso and Button all crashed out of contention at Spa, that what had been another five way fight was narrowing down to a straight face-off between Mark Webber and Lewis Hamilton. But then that all changed last weekend. Hamilton, ever the live-wire, walking a narrow line between genius and foolhardiness, let his impetuousness get the better of him on the opening lap and failed to score, while Webber was, if anything, too cautious, and the combination of a poor opening lap which saw him drop from 5th to 9th, and his Red Bull's lack of straightline grunt ensured he could do no better than 6th.

By contrast, the three men who failed to score at Spa all had a pretty decent weekend at Monza. Fernando Alonso, whose title hopes looked all but doomed when he dropped his Ferrari into the barriers on the way to Rivage two weeks earlier, suddenly looks to be right back in the mix following his Monza win. The fact that neither he nor Ferrari have been further punished for the team orders farce at Hockenheim does them no harm either. Suffice to say that should he eventually win the title by less than the 7 points that he took from Massa that day, his rivals would have good reason to feel aggrieved.

Jenson Button had been looking rather overshadowed by team mate Hamilton in recent races. Having got the ball rolling for Mclaren with victory at Melbourne Park and quickly followed thatr up with another win in China, he has in recent races he has looked more and more like Mclaren's unofficial number 2 rather than a serious title prospect. But at Monza, he had his team mate beat even before Lewis broke a steering arm against the back of Massa's Ferrari at La Roggia. Even Sebastian Vettel played himself back into contention to an extent, clawing points back from the men at the head of the points table with his fourth place finish being probably about the best anyone was going to get out of a Red Bull at Monza.

And so as the season departs Europe for its final globe-trotting fling through Singapore, Korea, Japan, Brazil and finally Abu Dhabi, it looks like we once again have a full five-way title fight on our hand. Sebastian Vettel, in 5th, is just 24 points down on leader Mark Webber. And remember with 25 points for a win, in old money, that's a gap of just under 10 points. But which of the five pretenders stands the best chance of coming away with the crown?

Let's start with the two men who should be the favourites, Red Bull drivers Mark Webber and Sebastian Vettel. There can be little doubting that over the course of the season, the Red Bull has been the quickest car, sometimes, as at Hungary, by an almost embarrassing margin. By rights, Vettel and Webber should have nobody to worry about but each other by now. Except that silly errors from both drivers, mechanical frailty and a fair dose of plain old misfortune has allowed Alonso, Hamilton and Button to gatecrash their party. And now it's no longer so clear that the Red Bull any longer has quite the same advantage it did earlier in the year. It might be too early to conclude that Ferrari and Mclaren have caught them. Monza was perhaps always the weakest track for Red Bull's relatively underpowered but tremendously aerodynamically efficient machine. On the other hand, I'd be surprised if they have quite the advantage they seemed to have on everyone at the Hungaroring.

And it might be crucial that, where the other three are all past or current World Champions, neither Webber nor Vettel yet has a title to their name. And for differing reasons, that will add to the pressure that those two will feel. Vettel is still frightfully young, at only 23, and in only his third full season in F1. While that relative inexperience clearly hasn't slowed him down at all, I can't help thinking that it might help to explain the string of silly errors - the collisions with his team mate at Istanbul and with Button at Spa, the moment of doziness behind the safety car at Hungaroring, which have cost him crucial points. Without those, even allowing for his having had the lion's share of Red Bull's mechanical maladies, he'd be some distance in front in the title race right now.

If Vettel's problem is finding a controlled outlet for the nervous energy of youth, then Webber has the opposite problem. The last-chance urgency of approaching middle age. The sense that, even if Red Bull can produce another title contender in 2011 his young team mate will only get faster and more polished and that 2010 and this represents the best chance he is ever likely to get of becoming Australia's third world champion. He's been remarkably calm in recent races, but I wonder if that very caution might cost him in what is after all a five way fight for the title. He has the points lead, which mean's he's the prey rather than the hunter. Remember how that went to Button's head last year?

Over at Mclaren, Button's role is reversed from last year. Rather than defending a large points lead, he's having to claw back a points deficit to the leading contenders, Hamilton and Webber. Button's problem is that, while he can be as quick as anyone on his day, when he can't get the 2010 Mclaren set up to his liking, he really struggles with it. Remember his failing to make Q3 at Hungary? It seems that when the Mclaren isn't where it should be, it is Hamilton who is much more adept at driving around the problems, and getting the most from it. And the circuits which are coming up, with their great reliance on low speed traction and with little scope for the Mclaren's refined F-Duct to be used to its greatest advantage, are going to play into the hands of a driver who can take a recalcitrant car by the scruff of the neck and wring the most from it. Not something Button has ever been known for. That said, in a five-way battle like this, a big part of winning is about not making mistakes, and of the contenders for the title, nobody has made fewer.

Hamilton has not been quite so error free, but over the year it's hard to ignore the fact that he has been the quicker of the two British World Champions driving for Mclaren this year, and has perhaps got more out of his machinery than anyone else on the grid. If the Mclaren proves quick enough, he would be my tip for the title, but I can't help thinking that Turkey aside, Mclaren have only won races this year when it has poured with rain, or on tracks where out and out straight line speed is more important than downforce. It might rain at Interlagos and Suzuka, but not one of the five remaining tracks on the calendar look like natural Mclaren territory to me. That mistake on the opening lap at Monza might turn out to be very costly indeed.

All this leaves Ferrari and Fernando Alonso. The Spaniard has one big advantage, namely that while all his other rivals have their team mates to worry about, the Scuderia has only one dog left in the fight. Having a number two driver to covertly, and to judge by the German Grand Prix, perhaps overtly, assist Alonso's title challenge might prove decisive. Unlike the other teams, they can afford to use one of their drivers as a guinea pig, and, potentially as a 'hare' or as a 'roadblock', which just might prove to be a crucial advantage. Combine that with the fact that Alonso has more World titles and greater experience of being in title fights than his rivals, while Ferrari are past masters at it, and I wonder if it just might be enough to enable them to overcome the faster but seemingly error-prone Red Bull team.

So, forced to place a bet, I'd say it's going to be between Alonso and Webber, with Hamilton heading the chasing pack. But it really could go any way. And, of course, in terms of individual races, it won't be just these five who will be in contention. While it is still mathematically possible, Nico Rosberg and Robert Kubica stand little chance of walking away with the title, but I wouldn't rule out either for a surprise race win, particularly at Singapore, where both have proven fast before. It's going to be an interesting autumn.

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