Surreal—A term used to describe abnormal, or unbelievable situations, and probably the best way to describe the current Formula 1 season. Turn back the calendar to last December. When the dust settled on silly season, what were your expectations for 2010? Was it a two-way title fight between Fernando Alonso and Michael Schumacher? Did you expect Lewis Hamilton to spank the number one off new teammate Jenson Button’s McLaren?
Alonso vs Schumacher? A rematch of 2005 and 2006? Schumacher was making his return to Formula 1 after a three-season courtship with retirement, and was reunited with Ross Brawn—the master strategist behind his seven World Championships. Not only was he back with Brawn, but he was also part of the new factory Mercedes Grand Prix (MGP) team, which had blossomed out of reigning Constructor Champions, Brawn GP. A recipe for success, most of us thought.
On the other side of the garage stood Schumacher’s most likely adversary—Fernando Alonso. Alonso left Renault after a dismal 2009 to (finally!) join Ferrari. I say ‘finally’ because speculation over Alonso’s move to Ferrari has been rumoured since his Minardi days!
But here we are four races in, and what many of us expected hasn't come close to fruition. Sure, Alonso took victory in the Bahrain season opener, but it was Red Bull's Sebastian Vettel who took pole, and owned the field before reliability claimed the young German’s race. I have never doubted Vettel’s ability, but I did question Renault's (Red Bull's engine supplier) enthusiasm and motivation towards Formula 1 after last year's ‘crash-gate’. The factory team, for example, sold off a majority stake to an investment firm, which left many of us to believe that their departure was imminent.
There were also rumors that Red Bull were trying to break their Renault contract in favor of a Mercedes engine deal. Did they know something? Perhaps, but it's irrelevant as Red Bull has swept all four pole positions this year—three for Vettel, and one for teammate Mark Webber. Had it not been for reliability issues, Vettel surely would have taken both Grand Prix in Bahrain and Australia, as well.
Four races in and our championship leader is…Jenson Button? No crystal ball could have predicted this. Not since Damon Hill moved to Arrows after his 1996 championship season has so little been expected of a reigning World Champion. Button’s last win of 2009 was the Turkish Grand Prix in June, and he was only able to follow that up with two podiums in the final 10 races!
Despite being crowned World Champion, Button's performances post-Turkey had left many to question his abilities. Brawn were in no hurray to re-sign him for 2010, and it looked like he was going to have to settle for a mid-pack seat (like Damon Hill). But McLaren scooped him up, putting him in their second car vacated by the disappointing Heikki Kovalainen. The media were quick to write off Button, with the expectation that teammate Lewis Hamilton would drive circles around him. When winter testing commenced, it looked as though they were right. While the new McLaren wasn't always the fastest car, Hamilton consistently outpaced Button.
Boy, were we mistaken!
Four Grand Prix in, and Button is leading the points. Not only that, but he is currently the only multiple winner in 2010. Hamilton, despite spectacular drives in both Australia and China, is yet to score a win. Vettel, the class of the field has only managed one.
One thing I'm not surprised about is Schumacher's performance. I'm from the school of thought that he should have stayed retired. Nico Rosberg, Schumacher's teammate at MGP, is young, fast, technical and was able to show many flashes of brilliance in the mid-pack Williams prior to this season. I'm not the least bit surprised that Rosberg sits second in points.
It will be interesting to see how long it will take before MGP begin to acknowledge that he is their number one driver, and not Schumacher. MGP has already stated that Schumacher will get an 'updated' chassis for Spain. None of the reports mention when, or if, Rosberg will get these upgrades. This begs the question—if the upgraded chassis has the potential to move Schumacher up the grid, then why not use it to move Rosberg up the podium? (Rosberg has two third place finishes).
The Spanish Grand Prix is sure to provide more surprises. I think we'll see a very hungry Hamilton in Spain. He's faster than Button. I know it. You know it, and so does everyone else. He has to be frustrated with losing to Button's wet-weather strategy, and unwavering luck. Red Bull will hopefully have a better grip on their reliability issues. I don't predict a win for Rosberg, but I do believe that he will once again finish ahead of Schumacher.
The battle I'm looking forward to the most is between Felipe Massa vs Alonso. Alonso has Ferrari's only win of the season, but it was Massa who was leading the points coming out of Malaysia. One can only wonder if this was sitting at the forefront of the Spaniard's mind as he ran his teammate off the pit entrance road in China.
This season is off to a fantastic start. With some teams receiving updates to their cars this weekend, things are sure to take a further twist in Spain.