Can Vettel Be Caught? Analysing Title Hopes of Alonso, Raikkonen and Hamilton
It is often said that a year is an eternity in Formula One, and so the 2013 title race is proving.
This time 12 months ago, Fernando Alonso held a 37-point lead over Italian Grand Prix winner Lewis Hamilton, whose victory had elevated him above Lotus’ Kimi Raikkonen and Red Bull’s Sebastian Vettel.
At this stage of the 2012 season, Vettel had one win to his name and while Raikkonen had yet to triumph, Alonso and Hamilton had three times taken the flag first each.
Yet it was Vettel who went on to triumph. And there are lessons to be learned from the 2012 run in, which can be applied to form a murky (at best) picture on what the remainder of 2013 will look like.
Here’s a hint: For Vettel, things look good. But are the title hopes of his rivals all-but-mathematically over?
Sebastian Vettel: Champion-in-Waiting
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Victory in the 2013 Italian Grand Prix puts Vettel in a commanding position with 12 of 19 rounds of the 2013 season completed.
It was his sixth win of the campaign, second on the spin and third in his last four races. You can even extend that to four in his last five finishes.
Ominous? It gets worse, or better, if you’re Vettel. He’s finished off the podium just twice this year (fourth in China and Spain) and non-scored on just one occasion, when a gearbox problem ended his British Grand Prix early.
Compare that to last year, when the German had won once, had a brace of second-place finishes and one more podium to show from the opening 12 races.
This year, crucially, Red Bull hit the ground running.
Vettel has also relentlessly picked up podiums while his rivals have yo-yoed in form, and here’s the real juicy bit for the Milton Keynes squad: They’ve won the two races on the calendar (Spa and Monza) which historically are bad for the team and do not suit an Adrian Newey design’s characteristics.
Now, make of that what you will. Maybe you’ll find solace in the argument that because they excelled at low-downforce circuits, maybe their aerodynamic advantage isn’t what it once was and therefore the team’s dominance of the 2012 run-in (four wins on the bounce in Singapore, Japan, Korea and India) will not be repeated.
Read that list again. Four circuits, four very different layouts. The Red Bull wasn’t just suited to high-downforce dependent tracks last year, it suited everything in the second half of the season. This year, he's outscored Alonso at every race he's finished since the Spanish Grand Prix.
Such form suggests that Vettel will continue to be difficult to beat just when his rivals need to rein him in most.
What about teammate Mark Webber? He's just four points behind Raikkonen, who appears in this list. It's sad, but simple: The Aussie's not been at the races in 2013, is yet to win and is a shadow of the driver who almost won the title back in 2010.
Fernando Alonso the Aggrieved Runner-Up
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If you asked a sample set of 100 Formula One personnel who was the best driver in 2012, 80 per cent (at least) would have said Fernando Alonso.
The Spaniard was not unaware of how well he'd driven. But, rather than feel sorry for himself, he was galvanised by his defeat.
Seeing Vettel celebrate with his Red Bull team after the Brazilian Grand Prix would have ignited a fire within Alonso; he was not going to be made to feel this way in 12 months time.
Sadly for the Ferrari driver, it's looking more and more likely he will not get the chance to make good the promise he likely made himself that Sunday evening at Interlagos.
Can he still win the title? Of course. This is F1's most persistent, dogged character. Will he? Er, that's a less certain answer.
Probably not, is the most convincing response. The thinking was that if victory eluded him this weekend, it would effectively be game over, because he would have lost ground to Vettel at every race over the summer.
Alonso minimised the damage by finishing second, but he still lags 53 points behind Vettel. More significantly, he admitted that without victory in Italy or the next Grand Prix in Singapore, Ferrari would be better served switching its focus to 2014, as reported by Autosport.
That would certainly spell the end of his title bid, even with seven races to go post-Monza. However, he could equally see Vettel's lead as only a fraction more than a third of the points on offer in the remaining seven races.
Taking that view will be the only approach Alonso can take if he's to snatch the crown that Vettel already has one hand on.
Hamilton's Outside Shot
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Lewis Hamilton has performed a spectacular U-turn on how he’s assessing his title hopes after a disastrous Italian Grand Prix.
As Autosport reported, despite salvaging two points, he ruled himself out of the title battle in the immediate aftermath of a race in which he lost radio communication, battled a slow puncture (which in turn compromised his strategy and negated his use of the hard tyre in the early stages).
However, almost as swiftly came the correction, reported on the same website, that he decided all was not lost. It’s game on, as far as Lewis is concerned.
It’s not as easy as that, even if a driver scorned can be a potent weapon and a Hamilton with something to fight for is (metaphorically) deadly.
Hamilton rules himself out of the title fight. You'd also think Kimi is out now. Alonso a long shot. When, not if, for Vettel #f1— F1Zone.net (@f1zone) September 8, 2013
The Mercedes is the trickiest of the trio of makes (amazingly) still hassling Vettel for the title to discover any likely form in the final stage of the season.
Ross Brawn has made no secret of his desire not to compromise 2014 and beyond, as reported by Sky Sports. With Hamilton so far behind, will those attentions shift now?
And even if they don’t, can Hamilton overturn Vettel’s 81-point advantage? Last season, bad luck saw him rack up a paltry 48 points despite ending the season in the fastest car.
The Mercedes is probably not going to boast that title, though should challenge for victory in Singapore, even if it is almost unrecognisable in competitiveness to the one Nico Rosberg and Michael Schumacher battled with in the latter stages of 2012.
Just for a frame of reference, between those two Mercedes scored just seven points post-Monza last year. Seven. That was courtesy of a 10th for Rosberg in Singapore (he didn’t score again in 2012) and sixth for Schumacher at the season-ending Interlagos.
Rosberg has managed 27 points more after 12 rounds this year than he had at the same stage last year. Beyond the figures, we know the Merc is a race winner now. Hamilton is also mega in Abu Dhabi and was at Austin’s inaugural event.
But is that all irrelevant? Probably, barring a disaster for Vettel. Put it this way: If the German replicates his inconsistent 2012 form from the opening seven races (one win, two podiums and a DNF in a bit of a mixed bag) he’ll still wrap up the title.
Hamilton may not have conceded defeat, but the prospect will cast a huge shadow over the Briton now.
The Iceman Kimi Raikkonen Slips Back
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It is hard to imagine how Raikkonen could ever have envisaged such an eventful Italian Grand Prix weekend, one which has all-but-ended his slim title hopes.
Even before his Lotus Formula One team shelved the long-wheelbase E21 (as reported by GPToday), the Finn had to contend with the idea of working with a revised chassis concept on a weekend in which his championship challenge hung in the balance.
But once he returned to the wheel of the conventional Lotus, he struggled in qualifying and while he beat teammate Romain Grosjean, he toiled down in 11th.
First-corner contact with the back of Sergio Perez’s McLaren damaged his front wing, necessitating a first-lap pitstop and change of wing, dropping him to the back.
He then stormed up the field as everyone else stopped, often the only driver to match Vettel’s race pace out in front, only to end the race point less as he dropped back when his tyres (fitted on the first lap) cried enough and forced another stop.
Eventful? Very. Title-bid damaging? Hugely. Title-bid ending? Almost certainly.
In the corresponding set of final races last year, Vettel racked up more than double the number of points Raikkonen did.
The Finn won dramatically in Abu Dhabi, but only after Lewis Hamilton retired. The mean of the E20 was sixth courtesy of unspectacular qualifying and race pace. His season fizzled out with 10th in Brazil.
Yes, he’s not out until the numbers say so. Yes, the Lotus has been a regular contender for race wins this year.
But the bottom line is he hasn’t won since Australia, and even if he does so again before the season finishes, he’ll need something spectacular to overhaul an 88-point deficit.
Title Is Sebastian Vettel's to Lose
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How can this be wrapped up and not sound like a death knell for the title hopes of Alonso, Raikkonen and Hamilton?
I don't think it can.
We've got a significant sample set of tracks, races and circumstances from 2013 to establish that Red Bull and Vettel are performing near to the combination's 2011 peak.
That means it's more than ominous for their rivals heading into 2013's climax.
In Alonso's hands, the Ferrari will be a threat on most circuits. Hamilton will also be disappointed if his Mercedes isn't fighting for victory in Singapore in particular, but also replicating its speed at Silverstone and Budapest at the likes of Suzuka and Buddh.
But sporadic victories will not suffice. Recapping some statistics thrown in throughout this article, here's why optimism from the Ferrari, Lotus and Mercedes camps might be poorly placed.
Vettel amassed 141 points in the final part of last year, Alonso 99, Raikkonen 65 and Hamilton just 48. Can we read too much into that? Yes, in part, because Ferrari and Lotus have upped their game and Hamilton has switched teams.
But Red Bull seems to have found another gear, and Vettel's not a quadruple world champion-in-waiting because he lets those sort of advantages pass him by.