It’s been far too long since I last posted here at all, let alone on the subject of F1. I’ve been waiting for the season to get underway properly, and settle down. As we’ve seen, the new rule changes have produced some exciting racing but ultimately dull results. When our grandchildren look back on the 2011 season they will see a tale of domination that belies the true excitement this season has given us.
As we hit the season mid-point the championship is as good as over, which is a far cry from the five way challenge that we were presented with in 2010, but does that give us reason to be forlorn for the remaining ten races?
I don’t think so, primarily because most of the races we have seen this year have had a large amount of overtaking and excitement, even if it was not necessarily at the sharp end. The combination of KERS and DRS has done its bit, but the true excitement has come from the Pirelli tyres, and their variable characteristics meaning that cars can be on very different performance levels at various points of the race, promoting overtaking and racing even amongst cars that may have tyres that are only a few laps apart on wear. DRS has been a thorny issue for me, it appeared in both Istanbul and Montreal to be making things a little too easy for drivers to pass on the longer straights, at the same time it provided very little assistance to overtaking in Barcelona and Melbourne. The FIA have repeatedly pointed out that the system is experimental and requires fine tuning, which is fair enough. On the whole it has worked well, but you have to think that we were a little robbed of a good battle in places, such as Webber’s pass on Alonso for second place in Istanbul.
KERS has had less effect, primarily because everyone at the front has it, so everyone uses it at just about the same point and it rarely creates much excitement. I suspect that KERS is more an homage to the rise of this technology appearing in road cars than anything else, it allows F1’s green credentials to be enhanced a little and adds some complex technology to the sport in light of restrictions on engine development. After all, F1 was always supposed to be a technology showcase, and too much of the technology these days is behind closed doors and innaccessible to the fans.
When it comes to the competitive order throughout the first half of the season one thing has been abundantly clear, that Red Bull are out front, by some way. This has allowed World Champion Sebastien Vettel to steamroller a series of race wins, six from nine races, with three second places being his worst results so far. We’ve seen a new level of maturity from Vettel this season that cements his position as world champion and personally I would say that some of his performances this year, such as wins under extreme pressure in Barcelona and Monaco, have impressed me far more than many of his runs to victory in 2010. It is easy to forget how young Vettel is, and it is very probable that his talent will be more fine honed with experience and maturity, meaning more and more winning from what has swiftly become Germany’s top driver. I don’t relish the idea of another period of Schumacher-like dominance, and maintain hope that there is greater depth of talent in the current field than there was throughout most of Schumacher’s championship winning years. You have to assume that if Vettel keeps himself close to Adrian Newey, however, that the wins will keep coming in.
There remains some black spots against Vettel’s skill set namely overtaking and pressure. We still have not seen him win a race from anywhere but the front row, and while this partially reflects his phenomenal single lap qualifying pace, it still puts the jury out on the “all time great” scales. Also, his mistake under pressure on the final lap in Montreal, as well as putting the car in the wall on Friday at both Istanbul and Montreal stand out as big errors in an otherwise flawless season. Regardless, if I were to be writing my end of season driver top ten right now, Vettel would have to be in the top three for 2011, and definitely one of the three best drivers in the field right now.
Not quite the same can be said for Mark Webber this season, who has once again had a poor opening to the year, only just starting to gain the momentum to challenge his team mate (Albeit to seemingly be told he is not allowed to). Two poles have not been converted to wins and while his team-mate routinely leads every race it is relatively rare to see the other Red Bull up front. This partially gives us an indication that the RedBull RB7 is not as dominant as it looks, but rather Vettel is. Webber is now running second in the championship after a run of third places in the last three races, to add to an impressive podium in China after starting eighteenth on the grid, and a second place in Red Bull’s only 1-2 of the year in Istanbul, this still leaves him eighty points down on Vettel, with no wins. All too often, when the competitive order behind Red Bull has swung between McLaren and Ferrari, Webber has found himself behind Hamilton, Button or Alonso, and given the RB7’s pace, we can be fairly sure that the car is not the weak link.
Webber has struggled to get a handle on the Pirelli tyres so far, and routinely has higher tyre wear than his team mate, though Silverstone seemed to be the exception (China aside), where he was catching Vettel rapidly in the closing laps. As it stands Webber has looked more competitive in recent races, and as such could challenge for wins in the second half of the season. For the sake of his future career he needs to.
Fernando Alonso lines up third in the championship following a resurgence of pace from Ferrari and a superb win at Silverstone. Alonso’s driving in the second half of 2010 was sublime and it seems he has taken that into 2011, being the only driver to have outqualified his team mate in every event this year, he has also more than doubled the beleagered Massa’s point tally so far, only finishing behind the Brazilian in China. Ever since his first podium in Turkey Alonso has looked very much “on it”, and it has been rare that he has got to the end of a race and you could say that he had not got the maximum out of the car he was given. Runs to second place in Monaco and Valencia were superb displays of race driving, and his starts, especially in Barcelona, have been amazing.
Ferrari have quietly got closer and closer to Red Bull as the season has gone along, and whilst it is difficult to see Alonso fighting for the title at this stage, we can but hope that he can fight for victory on a few more occasions this year. If only to stop Vettel from winning them all.
The McLaren team drivers line up fourth and fifth in the standings, equal on points, via two very different routes. Lewis Hamilton has, on the most part, looked on fire as he has driven the wheels off his silver machine, but all too often the machine in question has not been quick enough to make the difference. With three podiums following the Barcelona event, including a magnificent win in China, it looked a lot like Lewis would be the lead challenger to Red Bull’s dominance this year, but in recent races McLaren seem to have stepped backwards on pace, and this has been to Hamilton’s chagrin. It’s almost like he feels the limelight is slipping away from him and some performances have been strewn with errors, particularly at Monaco and Montreal, where his keenness to overtake on the back of poor grid positions outweighed the need to go for gaps that were big enough for a car. Frustration has clearly seemed to be getting the better of him, and the way he has talked about the team outside of the car has hinted that all is not well in the Lewis camp. Enough has been written on the subject, but a low key drive in Valencia and a great attacking drive in Silverstone both maximised the car’s potential to take fourth, arguably the best anyone could have done in a McLaren on the day, and a reminder that Lewis may well be the fastest driver in the field right now. Alas, the most frustration can be born from knowing how quick you are and not having a winning car under you to prove it. One has to wonder if he follow the mantra of his hero, Senna, and seek out the fastest car to increase his winning tally.
McLaren’s race pace has generally been faster than its qualifying pace this year, which has meant both of their drivers have had their work cut out in races to make up places. Jenson Button has been ahead of his highly esteemed team mate on the grid three times this year and stepped onto the podium four times, including a stunning victory in Montreal, and where his team-mate has looked frustrated he has looked very much like a team leader. Button’s performances have not always convinced this season, and you once again get the feeling that his performances suffer more than his team-mate when the car is not quite to his liking. However, his smooth driving style and tendency to stay out of trouble has seen him finish in the points in the first eight races of the year, and along with Hamilton this has contributed to putting McLaren well above Ferrari in the constructors standings. If McLaren can turn around their current slump it seems clear that both of their drivers have the ability to win races, but you have to wonder how much money they will want to pump into a championship that, to all intents and purposes, is already over. At the same time, both of their drivers want a car that can win races, neither of them joined McLaren to finish fourth.
Next up is Felipe Massa, following up on last year’s low key season with another range of okay, but not great performances. Again, you could argue that his placing reflects the true performance of the Ferrari, whilst Alonso’s talent flatters it, but ultimately Ferrari have to look to the constructors championship and wonder if they could be in a better position with two drivers scoring podium finishes. We all know Felipe has the pace, and has almost matched Alonso in qualifying recently, but on race pace he is found wanting, and if he is to end up as anything but a number two at Ferrari, he has to step up. Something tells me he won’t.
Mercedes testing promise has not come to fruit, though they have a reasonably quick car, albeit one that eats Pirelli tyres far too fast. Rosberg has been his usual, steady, fast self though it seems as the season draws on the edge he has over Schumacher is declining. Montreal and, to some extent, Silverstone (cack-handed front wing smashing aside) showed some of the artistry of Old Mike in mixed conditions. There are still question marks in the press over whether Schumacher will stay on for 2012, but if the current upward slant keeps up we could see some more of the old magic in the second half of the season. Though at the moment podiums seem unlikely for Mercedes in a normal race.
Being sandwiched by the Mercedes drivers are the Renault pairing, neither of whom have set the world alight. The early promise of the Renault R31 brought two podiums in the first two races of the year, leaving us to wonder what could be done with this machine were it piloted by Robert Kubica. Following that Renault seems to have dropped back in the development race, with slowly declining performances for lower point scoring positions. Culminating with Silverstone, where the “Who is getting blown the most” argument seemed to hit the Renault squad the hardest. Whilst Petrov has improved on his debut season with solid runs and a whole lot less cars in the hedge, he hasn’t really done anything to make you think he should be on Red Bull’s shopping list. Nick Heidfeld, given a last minute reprieve from retirement, has, as ever, been reliable and dependable and brought the car home in one piece, but you have to wonder what Romain Grosjean might have done in the same seat. For the second half of the season Renault need to focus on getting back up the order, having fallen behind Mercedes and being very much in the sights of Sauber and Williams.
Whether Sauber would have those sights so fiercely trained without the superb performances of Kamui Kobayashi is difficult to say. The Japanese has put in a series of excellent performances, finishing in the points in every race he has finished bar Valencia. The cream on the cake has to be an excellent fifth place at Monaco, and in a very wet Montreal he was running second to Vettel for some time. When you watch Kobayashi on track it sometimes looks as if he is constantly on the verge of an accident, but the reality is that he is a very reliable performer and has not crashed out of a race this year. If he were snapped up by a top team it would be fascinating to see what he could do with race winning machinery. Sergio Perez, also, has taken to F1 well, and in these times of low testing mileage it is important for us all to understand the time it should take a new driver to get up to speed. Perez has impressed with his pace, consistency, and curious ability to look after tyres, often doing one less pit stop than anyone. Definitely worth keeping an eye on.
I’m concious as to how long this piece has become so will move a little quicker as we move through the final three teams I plan to talk about (I’ll cover the “new teams” in a different post).
The two Toro Rosso drivers, one feels, are fighting for their position this season, as neither have put in the kind of performance Vettel did for the team and one has to wonder how much time they get before another Red Bull Academy driver is put in their seat. Alguersuari has responded to this recent wake-up call well, in the points in the last three races, almost as if he can see the image of his P45 in the back of his mind as he races. He needs to keep this up. As does the largely unremarkable Sebastien Buemi, who has also scored three points finishes this year, not that anyone noticed. Buemi is a steady performer, who has brought the car home in every race this year with the exception of Silverstone. But is this enough? He may be on course to be the next Heidfeld, but unless he or his team-mate can turn in some remarkable performances in the latter half of the season, you have to wonder how long they will hold onto their seats.
Williams, you feel, are in a transitional phase. The promise of this year’s car has not come through, but a deal signed with Renault for next year gives them hope that next season things could turn around for the team that has had so much success in the past. Barrichello continues to perform reliably, though is clearly frustrated at the results this year. Pastor Maldonado seems to be getting his act together recently, and has been much closer, if not ahead of, Rubens in qualifying. Again, lack of testing shows, and personally I think I can give him the benefit of the doubt after a few dubious incidents early in the season.
Force India’s performance has declined somewhat since the heady heights of Fisichella’s near victory in at Spa in 2009. The development race has taken it’s toll and seemingly hit Adrian Sutil quite hard as he is far too often running behind his rookie team-mate Paul Di Resta. Di Resta has been impressive, putting the Force India sixth on the Silverstone grid was no mean feat, and of the rookie crop this year he seems to have taken to F1 like a duck to water. You have to feel that certain other Mercedes powered teams might have an eye on these performances.
So as we move to on to Nurburgring and the German the Grand Prix the question on everyone’s lips is whether anyone can stop Vettel from winning his home race. Those of us that like to see a champion fight for his titles will be hoping that Ferrari and McLaren can take the fight to them and give us something to tell our grandchildren about.