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Formula 1 Midseason Retrospective: The Midfield Scrap

James BoltonContributor IIAugust 16, 2011

Sauber: always in the midfield
Sauber: always in the midfieldClive Mason/Getty Images

Yesterday, we looked at the back of grid. There’s plenty going on there, but Force India, Sauber, Renault and Mercedes provide faster cars and more action. Most of these teams are in the midst of transition. Some are getting it right, others, not so much.

Force India

The VJM03 of 2010 was a very good package. Vitantonio Liuzzi and Adrian Sutil frequently scored points, but perhaps that season was still a slight disappointment when you consider the optimism that came from Giancarlo Fisichella’s amazing pole position and second-place finish in Belgium 2009.

But if 2010 was tinged with disappointment, 2011 is certainly a poor year for the team. The VJM04 has seen the team drop back from its immediate competitors. Instead of finishing sixth or eighth, like last year, they are now finishing 10th or 12th.

There have been some great drives, though, particularly from Sutil in Germany and Paul di Resta in Hungary. It’s a shame these performances aren’t produced just a bit more frequently. Despite this, di Resta has driven very well, and he absolutely looks like a natural Formula 1 driver. Of his fellow rookies, Sergio Perez has impressed, and Pastor Maldonado has a challenging Williams car to work with. But di Resta has outshone them both and is the rookie of the year so far.

He’s the first driver since Lewis Hamilton to score points in his first two Grands Prix…but he was then unable to score for the next eight races. The tragedy here is that at Silverstone he was on for a brilliant result after a stunning qualifying performance, but his team made a pit stop error, changing a Sutil puncture instead of servicing di Resta, who was threatening to score big points.

If di Resta had a faster car, I’m sure he would get the results. But where is there an opening? He may have to wait until 2012 before he can get to the front of the grid.

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Sauber

Sauber’s season burst into life in Australia when the team recorded a 7-8 finish. Alas, they were later disqualified due to a rear wing infringement that was not performance-enhancing. But Sergio Perez’s race was amazing. He stopped just once, making the “short life” Pirelli tyres last lap after lap. It was a pleasant surprise for Pirelli and Sauber.

Kamui Kobayashi, his teammate, is highly rated, and Perez beat him his first time out. That’s the sort of thing the important people notice.

The next few races weren’t quite as successful for Perez. The Mexican scored a couple of points in Spain but had a big crash in qualifying at Monaco. It’s an area of the circuit that needs to be reviewed because it is intensely dangerous. Nico Rosberg also had a bad accident at the same point in free practice and was enormously lucky not to hit the barrier head on. Perez sat out the next race, Canada, but he has driven well in the past four Grands Prix, with a fine seventh place at Silverstone.

After Australia, there was a lot of chatter about the chances of Perez taking Felipe Massa’s Ferrari seat for 2012. Perez is a young driver who has proved that he belongs in Formula 1. But he isn’t ready for a top seat just yet, and another year at Sauber will be extremely beneficial for him. He’s gaining valuable experience—on and off the track—and learning the sport and the technology.

Kobayashi has attracted a number of fans in his season and a half of Formula 1. His debut in Brazil ’09 was explosive, and he’s carried on in more or less the same manner. Everyone loves a racer and an overtaker, and Kobayashi surely is that. Does he have the speed to join a top team? That’s yet unproven, but if he carries on as he is, I have little doubt  he’ll end up in a race-winning seat before long. He’s scored points in seven races so far, plus Australia. He’s a driver to watch—let’s hope he isn’t a Jean Alesi.

The team continues to miss a marketing trick by painting their cars in an awful white and grey livery, a far cry from the beautiful 1993-94 jet black cars.

 

Renault

Racing with the iconic black and gold colours, Renault have had a poor year. The car isn’t on the pace of the top three team. Nick Heidfeld has failed to impress, apart from with his cooking skills in Hungary, when a complication with the team’s radical front-facing exhausts set the car on fire.

Heidfeld is a safe pair of hands. This is Formula 1, though, and so why would a team manager ever employ a safe pair of hands? Perhaps the alternative was Bruno Senna and teaming him with Vitaly Petrov could have limited the quality of the technical feedback, due to their inexperience. But Heidfeld has rarely impressed and has never looked like a potential world champion.

Petrov, on the other hand, looks like a driver who could win races, if given the right car. He’s much improved from his 2010 form and the team is surely happy with his performances. Some more in-race consistency could help him, as sometime his lap times tail off. But his podium in Australia will have boosted his confidence.

On reflection, that podium and Heidfeld’s subsequent third place in Malaysia feel like a long time ago. The team is trying hard, but are they losing the development race? This would be most unlike Renault. Remember their dramatic turn around in 2008? Renault have been updating the car regularly. They had three front wings to choose from in Hungary. The front-facing exhaust looks like a dead end now that the diffuser rules have changed for 2012, and you can envisage the team dumping 2011 and putting their considerable energy into next season.

Maybe they should put Senna in the car now to give him some mileage in case they need him for next season. But are they targeting Romain Grosjean, the GP2 front-runner for 2012? Or will Robert Kubica come back?

Mercedes

It’s hard to believe that this is the team, or an incarnation of the team, that dominated the first half of 2009. The W02 is as disappointing as the W01—and it is failing to reach the achievements of its predecessor. By this point in 2010, Nico Rosberg had scored podium finishes in Malaysia, China and Britain. This year, his best result is fifth.

There is little doubt that Rosberg could win races given the right car, and he expected to win races last year. One gets the feeling that Mercedes GP has produced the very best car they can and now have no idea how to close the gap to the top three teams. Rosberg’s talent is probably not in the Alonso/Vettel/Hamilton class, but he is a fantastic driver when it comes to churning out results. In many ways on the circuit he’s the opposite of his exuberant 1982 world champion father.

The best Rosberg can hope for this year is to finish seventh, behind the Red Bull, McLaren and Ferrari racers. So far, that’s exactly where he is, and in the races he’s frequently the first non top three team car home (as at China, Turkey, Europe and Britain). But surely Rosberg craves success—race wins—and would prefer to walk away and do something else rather than plod around collecting the odd P5 or P6. Make no mistake, Rosberg is an ambitious man and is very aware of the world outside motor racing.

It’s very tempting to knock Michael Schumacher. To write that he isn’t the driver he used to be is very easy. But in his “second career,” he was never going to be the driver he was in 1994 or 2004. The circumstances are totally different. A driver needs a motivation, something to make him get out of bed in the morning. In 1994, he wanted a world championship. In 2004, he wanted another world championship. He craved winning in a way that perhaps only Lewis Hamilton does now.

His comeback was all about organising a team, developing a car and pushing that car to its limit. He wanted to experience the thrill of Formula 1 again, and all of this sounds like a solid foundation on which to go motor racing.

But there is something missing.

When he did all of this at Ferrari, there was an underlying passion and hunger. Maybe Schumacher is realising that without the burning ambition, the passion and the desire in the pit of a drivers’ stomach, it is impossible to get that last tenth out of him.

Frequently, Schumacher has driven very well. I wrote after the British Grand Prix about how his lap times in the second half of that race were phenomenally consistent, and that is a very important sign of a good driver. Perhaps we should ignore the fact that it’s Michael Schumacher in the second Mercedes and consider what our opinion of his season would be just by looking at the results.

That concludes part two. Tomorrow we’ll look at Ferrari, McLaren and Red Bull—The Big Guns.

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