Who'll Finish Third in the 2014 Formula 1 World Title Race?
The fight for the 2014 Formula One World Championship can now safely be called a two-horse race. Barring a catastrophic meltdown at Mercedes, either Lewis Hamilton or Nico Rosberg will take the title.
Whichever man wins, the other will come second.
But that's not the only battle going on. Behind the two Mercedes, a close scrap is developing between the Red Bull and Ferrari drivers to claim third place. Force India and Williams could challenge at occasional races, but over the course of the season they'll need a miracle to stay in contention.
So it should come down to Fernando Alonso, Kimi Raikkonen, Sebastian Vettel and Daniel Ricciardo.
A spot at the end-of-season FIA Prize-Giving Gala isn't much of an incentive, but every driver wants to finish as high up the table as he can.
Which of the four is most likely to do it?
The first contender in this particular race is Fernando Alonso.
Though he currently lies third in the championship, he isn't there because his car is the best of the rest after the runaway leaders.
Rather, he holds that position because the team who do have the next-best car—Red Bull—have thrown away a bag of points through poor reliability and ill-advised attempts at challenging the rules.
By contrast, Alonso has finished every race in the points, scoring consistently if unspectacularly.
The Spaniard can be relied upon to wring the maximum out of whatever he is driving, and that consistent scoring will continue for the whole 2014 campaign.
But the question is will the F14 T have enough performance to go toe-to-toe with the Red Bulls all season long?
Kimi Raikkonen hasn't made the best of starts to the season, but throughout his career he has proved he's one of the best drivers of the past 20 years.
In Monaco, the Finn demonstrated what he can do when things fall into place, running in a strong third early on and initially pulling away from the cars behind.
It's a concern that his relative pace dropped off so much toward the end of the stint, with both Ricciardo and Alonso closing fast when the safety car came out.
But that the speed was there at all is a positive and shows that some of the issues he was struggling with appear to have been overcome.
If Ferrari can deliver, Raikkonen will be in the mix.
Daniel Ricciardo has stunned the F1 world by emerging as the leading Red Bull driver after six races.
He lies fourth in the championship, but his team and misfortune have cost him a lot of points.
The fuel-flow limit controversy of Australia cost him 18 points, and he looked nailed-on for 12 more in Malaysia before an unsafe release, front wing failure and puncture dropped him out of contention.
On the flip side, he has himself benefited from the misfortune of others on more than one occasion.
Ricciardo has shown a maturity and consistency many didn't believe he had, and his race performances have been particularly impressive.
But six grands prix isn't enough to judge his future. It's still difficult to say how he'll fare over the course of a long, hard season.
Sebastian Vettel is currently embroiled in a mini-crisis, and how he responds will define his season.
The Red Bulls of recent years produced incredible levels of rear grip, and Vettel adapted his driving style to suit that characteristic.
But under the new technical regulations, 2014 cars have much less stable, wobbly rear-ends. Vettel is feeling the difference more than anyone else on the grid, and he is having to slowly unlearn his old style at the same time he's developing a new one.
When he does this, it's likely he'll be consistently quicker than his team-mate. Some fans have pounced on his poor performances as "proof" he's no more than average in anything other than the best car, but they're ignoring a body of evidence stretching back to 2003 and the start of his single-seater career.
He's one of the elite group of current drivers, with or without fancy exhaust technology.
If Vettel can get the re-adaptation done soon, he has an excellent chance to claim third.
And the Winner (OK, Third Winner) Is...
At this stage, three of the drivers look to have a better chance—Alonso, Ricciardo and Vettel. Raikkonen has all the problems Alonso has (and may continue to have) with the raw pace of the Ferrari.
On top of that, he isn't yet able to drive the car as quickly and comfortably as he'd like, and he may have already lost too much ground.
Of the remaining three, the most likely to drop from contention has to be Ricciardo. As well as he has driven so far, there's no evidence in his record that he is really on the same level as men like Alonso and Vettel. We know they can do it—with Ricciardo, the jury is still out.
That leaves two—one from each team.
History (2010, 2012 and the start of 2013) tells us that over a full season, Alonso can probably make up for a small car performance deficit to Vettel. But beyond a certain point, he'll always be following his German rival home.
As it stands, it looks like the Red Bull's advantage over the Ferrari will exceed that "certain point."
So Vettel should take third, and that highly coveted spot at the FIA Prize-Giving Gala will be his.
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