Formula 1: Assessing the Chances of the 2013 Title Contenders
The Hungarian Grand Prix was the 10th of the 19 races which make up the 2013 Formula One season.
A title race which looked close to death just a week ago is showing a few green shoots of recovery, with Lewis Hamilton seemingly re-emerging as a contender after victory in Hungary.
Kimi Raikkonen kept the pressure up on championship leader Sebastian Vettel with a fine second place, but the challenge of Fernando Alonso appears to be faltering.
The bookmakers say Vettel is a nailed-on cert for his fourth title, and they're usually right.
But they also put quite long odds on Alonso winning the Spanish Grand Prix, when he actually looked the favourite to a lot of fans.
And Hamilton was 7-1 to win in Hungary—even after qualifying on pole.
Let's look at the four contenders, their odds with popular bookmaker William Hill and what chance I think they really have
Background and Current Standings
The four men in contention are all world champions. Kimi Raikkonen and Lewis Hamilton have one each, Fernando Alonso two and Sebastian Vettel three.
They're also (probably, unless there's a genius somewhere else that no one has noticed yet) the best four drivers in F1 today.
The difference between them is small, even in F1 terms, and they all have what it takes to win the title. So the main factor will be the equipment they've been given to drive. The current championship table looks like this:
|01||Sebastian Vettel||Red Bull||172|
It has long been the case that having the best car will almost certainly result in a championship title.
The only recent exception was 2007, when Hamilton, Alonso, McLaren and a hefty dose of politics—internal and external—conspired to make a royal hash of things and hand the title to Raikkonen.
And the Ferrari of that year wasn't always second best.
So mostly we're looking at the prospects for car development. Whether it can go in the right direction for the three challengers and in the wrong direction for the leader.
Fernando Alonso is seen by the bookies as the man most likely to mount a serious challenge to Sebastian Vettel, with odds of 9-1.
Considered by many to be the best overall driver on the grid, Alonso is again being let down by his car. The Ferrari started the season as a relatively strong piece of kit but with a downside.
That was qualifying, as it has been for some time now. A prolific pole-sitter for most of his career, Alonso has only qualified on the front row twice on dry-weather Pirellis (start of 2011-present), both times in second place.
His average starting position in 2013 has been 5.4, compared to 2.7 for Vettel, and that's been a problem.
Of course, at the start of the season the car had excellent race pace. Starting behind your rivals will always be a disadvantage, but Alonso has superb race craft, and the car was good enough to make significant gains.
But lately, the Ferrari hasn't been particularly good at anything.
It's now clearly established as either the third- or fourth-best car, and there are no signs it's going to suddenly make a huge leap forward. The team continues to struggle with making upgrades that look good in the factory and work well on the track.
And even on the track there are question marks. Ferrari didn't use the recent Young Driver Test to try out young drivers. It used Davide Rigon, a reliable test driver who doesn't appear even close to being an F1 prospect, to look at improvements to the car.
That approach seems to have failed as well.
There's a new chassis technical director, James Allison, coming on board at the start of September. But while his ability is without question, he's not Harry Potter. There's no magic wand he can flick to magically make the car quick again.
And will he even have time to make much of an impact? Probably not.
I'd push Alonso down to fourth favourite at the moment. He can work the odd miracle on the track, but it's going to take half a dozen sainthoods worth to get him back into contention.
The car just isn't good enough, so 14-1 looks more accurate.
Kimi Raikkonen at 14-1 is considered by William Hill the outsider (or rather, biggest outsider) in the title race. The Finn drives for Lotus, the lowest funded of the four teams involved in the battle.
His car is easy on the tyres, which has allowed the team to punch significantly above their weight for the last season and a half.
But there is a major and well-known issue with the car.
It's not in the same league as the Mercedes or Red Bull when it comes to qualifying. Sometimes it's not in the same league as the Ferrari. On a few occasions, even Force India, McLaren or Toro Rosso have beaten it.
There's no question mark over the driver here. Raikkonen was a fantastic qualifier when he raced for McLaren, and he's started ahead of his teammate Romain Grosjean eight times from 10 races.
Qualifying aside, the race pace of the Lotus is generally great. Raikkonen has finished in an equal or better position than he started in every race except Monaco, where he collided with Sergio Perez and lost fifth.
And Raikkonen has machine-like consistency. He's finished in the points for the last 27 races, a feat unmatched in the history of F1.
The Finn is absolutely capable of producing the pace and consistency to challenge Sebastian Vettel.
But he starts from too far back.
Being stuck behind a rival costs time, overtaking costs time, compromising pit strategy to leapfrog an opponent costs time.
If he could bump his Lotus an average of two grid slots closer to the front, Raikkonen would probably be the main contender to Vettel. He might even be ahead of him now in the standings.
But at any given race, both Red Bulls and both Mercedes will almost certainly start ahead of him. Probably a Ferrari too. And maybe a Force India, a Toro Rosso or a McLaren.
That's just too much to overcome. Either qualifying has to improve dramatically or Vettel has to drop the ball badly. Neither is likely, but I'd push him into third favourite on 10-1.
Despite winning in Hungary, Lewis Hamilton is also viewed as a big outsider at 11-1. Hamilton drives for Mercedes and is a distant 48 points off the championship leader.
He is the great unknown in this particular discussion. Mercedes definitely has a very fast car, and Hamilton is capable of extracting everything out of it.
But like much in F1 these days, the temperamental Pirelli tyres will be the deciding factor.
At Silverstone the Mercedes' tyre wear was quite good. Hamilton would probably have won the race had his tyre not failed, and his teammate Nico Rosberg did win.
At the Nurburgring, the car destroyed the tyres. Hamilton spent most of the race on the radio to his team making sure they were aware of the fact.
Then in Hungary, a blisteringly hot race in which the car's tyre problems should have surfaced (though due to the low speeds, perhaps not too obviously), they didn't. Mercedes had only marginally worse wear than Red Bull.
It could be that the new construction tyre, introduced in Hungary, is far more suited to the Mercedes. It has better heat-dissipating properties than the old one, which should do them no harm.
Or it could be yet another false dawn, and the problems will return in Belgium (the tyres take more of a beating at Spa) at the end of the summer break.
And absolutely no one knows which. The team doesn't, Pirelli doesn't, its rivals don't and the bookies don't.
If Mercedes is now on top of the tyres, Hamilton is without question Vettel's biggest rival because it has a better overall car than Ferrari and Lotus.
Mercedes having improved tyre management is marginally more likely than Lotus making a significant improvement in qualifying. And it's significantly more likely than Ferrari sorting out the car.
So I'd consider Hamilton second favourite behind Vettel—though still at long odds. Here, 7-1 seems about right.
Sebastian Vettel sits 38 points clear of his closest rival at the head of the standings. He drives for Red Bull and has title odds of 2-9.
The Red Bull is the best car at the moment. It can qualify superbly, and while its rivals seem to have good and bad tracks, the RB9 is good everywhere.
But there are weaknesses. The one which we all noticed in Hungary is that the team tends to set it up for an optimal qualifying lap, then hopes Vettel doesn't have to overtake anyone in the race.
This leaves it with relatively poor top-end speed. While Lewis Hamilton was able to get past Jenson Button immediately in his Mercedes, Vettel got stuck behind the McLaren for 12 laps. That cost him the race, and in the end it also cost him second place.
Of course, the Hungaroring wasn't typical of the rest of the season. More effective DRS zones elsewhere mean this weakness isn't usually as costly.
The other apparent issue is that the car isn't so good on "front-limited" circuits—those which put more emphasis on the front tyres than the rears. Typically, that means circuits with more fast corners and fewer slow ones.
But it's difficult to say whether this still exists.
In China, Red Bull struggled and Vettel came home fourth. Team boss Christian Horner admitted to the problem.
At the Spanish Grand Prix they also struggled with wear on the fronts. The team went on the offensive against Pirelli, which suggests it really thought it had a problem.
But in Silverstone, a circuit which should also have caused problems, Red Bull appeared to have no tyre issues. They were also significantly quicker than anyone apart from Mercedes.
So has that "problem" vanished? It would appear so, and the new construction tyres are unlikely to bring it back.
The truth is that the Vettel and Red Bull combo are a long way ahead of anyone else, and with the technical team they have, the car isn't going to suddenly lose ground.
We know that at any given race Vettel will be parked somewhere between first and third on the grid with a car capable of winning.
By contrast, two of his rivals will be lucky to start higher than fifth, and the other will be facing another day of uncertainty over his tyres.
If Mercedes has cured those tyre issues or Raikkonen can consistently qualify higher, Vettel may have a problem.
But the only other way any of the challengers will get close is if Vettel is hit by a string of retirements or very poor finishes. At least three in the remaining nine races.
And as he has finished sixth or higher in 44 of the past 49 races, can anyone really see that happening?
Odds of 2-9 are pretty much the same as I'd give.
Hamilton appears to be the most realistic challenger, unless Mercedes still have the tyre issues from time to time, in which case he'll be too inconsistent. But he's a massive 48 points behind.
Raikkonen needs a big improvement in qualifying. That doesn't seem too likely, as it's been a problem for a season and a half now—and the team won't risk the long-run tyre management to try to achieve it.
Alonso needs Ferrari to produce a string of updates which actually work, to the tune of around half a second per lap. Possibly more, because Red Bull won't sit still.
So really, Vettel should walk it.
But Manchester City should have won the FA Cup Final this year, and look what happened to them.
It's not over yet.