Monday, July 12, 2010

The Half Time Scores

So we have reached the half-way point in this year's Formula One season with Mark Webber's convincing victory at the British Grand Prix last weekend, and what an intriguing year it has been. The year got off to something of a faltering start with a processional race at the soporific Sakhir circuit in Bahrain which left observers wondering whether Alonso and Ferrari might be about to reprise the Scuderia's classic 2004 season and run away into the distance. As it's turned out, they haven't won since and the title battle appears to be distilling into a fascinating contest between two sets of team mates, Red Bull's Mark Webber and Sebastian Vettel, and Mclaren's Jenson Button and Lewis Hamilton.

There can be no doubting that Red Bull have built the fastest car this year, but a combination of ill fortune and silly errors have resulted in their lying only second in the constructors' championship and third and fourth in the drivers race after ten of this year's nineteen races. Life has not been made any easier by the terse, difficult relationship between their two drivers, Webber and Vettel. Through 2009, they appeared to be getting on fine, and indeed the Red Bull camp appeared a rather more harmonious place than the pit garage of their title rivals Brawn, but the apparent calm has been shattered this year. The reason? Last year, the young Vettel had a small, but definitive advantage over his team mate in terms of outright pace that ensured there was no debate as to who the team's de facto number one driver was. But whether we really saw the best of Webber, who was still struggling with the after-effects of the broken leg he sustained in a cycling accident over the winter, remains open to question. Either way, Webber has come back stronger this year - fast enough to match Vettel but, crucially, not so quick as to emerge as the team's unchallenged number one driver.

The fierce intra-team battle cost points in Turkey, but in reality, it has been mistakes from its drivers and the mechanical frailty of the RB6 which has ensured that at the half-way point, they trail Mclaren and its drivers. Vettel saw a potential win disappear when his engine lapsed onto 7 cylinders in Bahrain, and another victory went astray with a wheel failure in Melbourne two weeks later. Webber lost points in Melbourne when he ploughed into the back of Hamilton as his frustration got the better of him and was plain unlucky at Valencia. Both drivers paid the price for rather sub-optimal tyre strategy in the rain at Shanghai, and without those errors, one or other Red Bull drive would almost certainly be heading the driver's championship, and the team might have won eight or nine races by now, rather than the five they have actually won.

Ironically, before the start of the season, it had been the pairing of Hamilton and Button at Mclaren that many observers had thought the most potentially explosive. Could the Woking team contain the egos of two World Champions, two men who undoubtedly believed themselves worthy of unquestioned number 1 status? The answer, thus far, would appear to be yes. In reality, it might well help that both drivers have a World Title to their name. I can't help but think that much of the tension in the Red Bull camp arises from the fact that Webber, at 34, knows that this year might just represent the only serious shot at winning the driver's championship that he will ever get, while Vettel, in only his third full season in the sport, still feels he has everything to prove. They certainly pose a stark contrast with the relaxed demeanour of Jenson Button this year.

It perhaps helps that, while neither he nor the team would admit it, Button is probably a tenth or two a lap slower than Hamilton. He's quick enough to pick up the pieces when his more high-wire team mate drops the ball, experienced enough to make the right calls in marginal situations such as at Melbourne, when his early switch to dry tyres enabled him to leapfrog the early front runners to take his first victory for Mclaren. He's not going to beat Hamilton to the title on outright pace. Since moving to Mclaren, he's shown that he's a genuine front running driver, whose title success was not solely down to happening to luck in to a very quick car last year, but he's not yet put in any performance quite the equal of, for example, what Hamilton was able to do in a Mclaren that looked out of sorts at Silverstone last weekend. On the other hand, if Lewis' impetuous side gets the better of him too often, it's not impossible he could end up winning the championship through dogged consistency and making fewer mistakes than any of his rivals. Button is not the fastest driver on the grid, but he just might have reasonable claim to be the smartest, the one with the sharpest racing brain.

One can't help think that, all else being equal, it will be Hamilton rather than Button who will lead Mclaren's fight for the title this year, but there have been just enough occasions on which he has got the better of his young team mate that it would be dangerous to write him off entirely. And if both of them are still in with a shot of the championship in the final races, it will be interesting to see whether things remain harmonious in the Mclaren garage.

It would be a brave man who would bet against one of the Red Bull or Mclaren drivers walking away with the title, but Fernando Alonso would beg to differ, telling reporters after the British Grand Prix that "I am more convinced than before this race that we will win the championship." Since Bahrain, the Ferraris have never quite looked to be on the pace and indeed at Istanbul, struggled even to make the top 10 in qualifying. At Silverstone, though, Alonso, at least, looked the quickest man after the Red Bulls, and under the new points system, he's not so far from the lead as to be out of the title race entirely. And unlike his rivals at Mclaren and Red Bull, he appears to have established himself as the team's clear number one. Only at Istanbul, always something of a favourite for Massa, and the place where he won his first Grand Prix, has Alonso been out-raced by his team mate.

The best of the rest are the two remaining manufacturer teams, Renault and Mercedes. Neither has yet won a Grand Prix, though both have picked up podiums. Kubica has been the star of the season for me. He might not have won a race - though he came surprisingly close at Monaco, and drove a measured race in difficult conditions to pick up a second place in Canada. The field is surely too competitive this year to give the Pole any chance of repeating his surprise run at the title in 2008, but if the cards fall his way, and if the team's rate of progress is kept up, a race win is not completely out of the question. Renault's biggest problem has been that it is effectively a one car team. Vitaly Petrov has scored just 6 of Renault's 89 points this year, making it difficult for Renault to challenge Mercedes in the constructor's title race. That said, in being paired up with Kubica, a man I reckon to be as quick as anyone on the grid, he has in many ways the toughest task of all the newcomers. One can't help but think his place in the team next year will depend on his continued ability to funnel money in the direction of the Enstone team.

If Renault's greatest strength has been the performance of its lead driver, Robert Kubica, who has barely put a foot wrong all year and has dragged the R30 far further up the field than it really has any business being, then Mercedes, by contrast, has been let down by the shortcomings of its number 1 driver. Some may be reluctant to say so, but the sad truth is that, at 41, Michael Schumacher just isn't quite the driver he once was. This, after all, is a man who won races in the awful Ferrari F310, who finished on the podium in a Benetton at Barcelona which had spent much of the race stuck in 5th gear. And now, he's being beaten by Nico Rosberg?! It's not that Rosberg has been doing a bad job, but I just can't believe that he ever would have much troubled Schumacher in his full pomp. At first, it was possible to explain this away as simple race-rustiness after 3 years away, but of late that excuse has been wearing rather thin, and a slightly sad air of desperation has crept into his driving - forcing Kubica off the road and then chopping off one-time protege Massa's nose in the closing laps at Montreal. I can't be the only person beginning to wonder whether the only pertinent question left is whether Schumacher will jump or be pushed.

Down in the lower reaches of the midfield, Force India, Williams and Sauber have all had a rather mixed year. In terms of points, Force India leads this group, and when compared with their performance up to the middle of 2009, their leap forward has been incredible - from the very back of the field to being regular points scorers. On the other hand, there has been no repeat of the incredible performances they put in towards the end of last season - nothing to match that pole and second place in the Belgian Grand Prix for Giancarlo Fisichella. To my surprise, Adrian Sutil has maintained his edge over Tonio Liuzzi though he still remains in the awkward position of being fast enough to justify his place in F1, but not so special that he's likely to attract the attention of any of the top teams.

Williams have had an up and down kind of a year. They started the season with a car that belonged in the outer reaches of the top 10 - at least when the experienced and seemingly evergreen Rubens Barrichello is at the wheel, but as the season got into its swing, they began to slip back, with the nadir coming in Spain when Barrichello failed even get out of Q1. It has been difficult to assess to what extent this is down to shortcomings of the car, and how much is down to their use of Cosworth engines not generally reckoned to be a match for Renault's units, let alone those of Mercedes or Ferrari. In the last couple of races, though, there has been something of a revival in their fortunes, with Barrichello running in the company of the Ferraris and Renaults at Silverstone, and even Hulkenberg outpacing Petrov and scrapping with Michael Schumacher for the final points. If they can maintain this momentum, there is at least half a chance they'll beat Force India to finish best of the rest, behind five potentially race-winning teams. Such has been the fall of Williams in recent years, that this would count as a solid year for the Grove squad, all told.

If Williams have occasionally looked to be in trouble, it has been nothing when compared to the disastrous start to the year the Sauber team have had. Left high and dry by BMW at the end of last year, it was far from certain that they would even make the grid this year. When this year's car appeared, though, it looked quick in winter testing, only for the team to fall flat on their faces come the opening race. The 2010 Sauber appears still to be a bit of a 'mare at any track featuring a lot of slow corners, but at Silverstone, they crept into the top 10 on merit, and Kamui Kobayashi (the latest in a line of mercurial racers from Japan?) has begun putting in performances that remind us of his attention-grabbing debut in the Toyota last year. If they can sort out the low-speed cornering problem, they too could launch themselves into the thick of the battle with Force India and Williams, though they lie some way adrift at present.

Of the rest? Toro Rosso continue to occupy a couple of slots on the grid to no particular effect. It's hard to know quite why a team with a machine derived from Adrian Newey's all-conquering RB5/6 is so uncompetitive. Whether this is down to the limitations of the former Minardi team running them, or of two drivers about whom I can summon little enthusiasm (the vagaries of the Red Bull young driver programme will forever remain a mystery to me) I don't know. Lotus have emerged as the most serious and competitive of the new teams, but the established runners are unlikely to be much troubled by them this year. Looking down the road, though, the combination of Fernandes and Gascoygne appear to mean business. I'm not sure the same can be said of Virgin, though the VR01 is perhaps the prettiest car on the grid - proof that wind-tunnels are the enemy of beauty? They can at least console themselves with the thought that they are not HRT. Quite how an established race car manufacturer like Dallara can have got things so wrong is a mystery to me. I'd be surprised if they're still around this time next year - 2010's Super Aguri?

Forced to pick a winner? My hunch is that, reliability and team management problems notwithstanding, it will be Red Bull. Adrian Newey's RB6 is simply too good not to win titles. And if it's going to be Red Bull, then logically, it ought to be the man they want to win the title - Sebastian Vettel, though I can't help but admit that I rather hope I'll be proven wrong and the Aussie battler, so long dubbed the unluckiest man in F1, can pull it off.

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Anonymous Anonymous said...

Kubica is a solid driver, but if you are saying that he is as quick as anyone on the grid then you must also believe that to be true of Heidfeld also; if you look at the relevant statistics you will see that the two were neck and neck in qualifying, race pace, fastest laps and all the other stats to do with pace over the nearly four years they were teammates at BMW.

The only tie-breaker was points, where Nick was more effective, beating Robert three times out of four, because he proved to be a more efficient points gatherer.

I haven't heard of anyone suddenly becoming quicker four years into their F1 career, so clearly what is happening this season is that the Renault is a bit better than expected and Kubica is being flattered by being up against a pay driver who is not quite up to F1 standard.

He has disappointed me in his F1 career so far as when he emerged halfway through the 2006 and was instantly on the pace I assumed he'd be even quicker subsequently, but that hasn't proven to be the case.

Let me put it another way: do you think that Hamilton would not be able to establish a clear lead over Heidfeld in qualifying and race pace stats after nearly four seasons in the same equipment?

I don't. Kubica is good, but there are at least two guys who have stronger pace (Hamilton and Alonso); a couple of others who are maybe around the same pace but probably a little bit faster (Vettel and Webber); and one who is probably around the same pace but probably a little slower (Button). Because he hasn't had benchmark teammates since his rookie season, I don't know where Rosberg fits in for pace just now; he could be in the Button cohort, the one just above which I imagine is occupied by Robert, or the one above occupied by Webber. Regardless, I think he's pretty good; perhaps even as good as Robert.

Heidfeld btw said that the quickest teammate he's had was Webber; and he said it in a way that would suggest that there was not much doubt in his mind about it.

I am not saying that these guys would all beat Kubica over a season - I'm only confident of Hamilton and Alonso doing so; of the others it would be too close to call. But to say he has elite pace is reaching because he has never looked lightning quick as compared to Heidfeld.

Where he *is* absolutely top class is defending and in rarely making errors; but you generally don't become a legend or even win championships just by being a good defender who doesn't make mistakes unless you combine those admirable characteristics with driving at ultra-Heidfeld pace.

2:56 PM  

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