The final part of the Midseason Retrospective looks at the top three teams—the current Big Guns of Formula 1.
Fernando Alonso is more than ready for a third World Championship, but in this sport you need to be in the right car. It doesn’t help when a car moves up and down the grid throughout the year, as Ferrari did in 2010 and again in 2011. Ferrari is, however, working very hard with plenty of developments appearing on the car as the season has progressed. The rear of the car, in particular, has been developed at each race since Valencia, with new bodywork, exhausts, diffuser and wings being adopted.
All Alonso can do is make the most of what he is given and he is certainly pushing hard. He suggested that the first five races of the year saw his best five qualifying laps in Formula 1. It’s hard to argue otherwise, and teammate Felipe Massa only out-qualified him for the first time this season in Hungary.
Fernando took a historical win at Silverstone, 60 years after Ferrari’s first Grand Prix win at the same track. He could have won Monaco and was part of the thrilling three-way lead battle in the closing laps, until someone else’s accident took his opportunity away. Such is life. But in Spain Alonso led 17 of the first 18 laps, but still finished a lap down and in fifth place. That must have been a tough result to swallow.
Massa has been off the pace of his teammate all season, but, like Webber, he appears to be closing the gap. It is entirely possible that some drivers are taking a lot longer to come to terms with the new Pirelli tyres. It isn’t a case of bolting the tyres and wheels on and driving. The tyre is a chemical compound that has to be nurtured. It will have a "one best way" to use it, and some drivers find this faster than others (Vettel, Alonso?).
Massa looks to have a deal for Ferrari for 2012 and so he can relax and continue along this learning curve, but he must show us something to avoid his being written off before 2012 has even begun. After his accident in Hungary in 2009, he came back and finished second in the 2010 Bahrain Grand Prix. The accident isn’t an issue, he’s the same driver. It’s working with the tyres and getting the best out of Ferrari, and hence the race weekend, that is hurting him at the moment.
Whenever McLaren fails to fight for race wins and the championship, it is a disappointment to them and their fans. Now that they have two British drivers, it is also a disappointment to the media, and as a result he team have had their collar felt by the British tabloids this season.
Formula 1 has never been more competitive. If the McLaren MP4-26 is just one tenth of a second per lap slower than the Red Bull RB7, then they will be beaten race in and race out. The only thing McLaren, and any other team, can do to take the fight to the dark blue cars, is develop, develop, develop.
Fortunately, this appears to be working for McLaren. Their big step immediately prior to the Australian Grand Prix appeared to surprise even their own drivers and engineers. The car is clearly strong in the wet and its race pace is a strong point too. It isn’t actually too bad in qualifying either. A McLaren made the front row in Australia, Malaysia, China, Monaco, Germany and Hungary.
It has been a character building year for Lewis Hamilton. He’s very young and inevitably, as our sporting superstars reach their competitive pinnacle at such a young age, some of his growing up is being done in public. Surely this should be entirely forgivable and even to be expected. It will leave Lewis in better stead for 2012 and beyond. It doesn’t help his cause in that his teammate is a man with a decade of Formula 1 experience and is a total professional.
On track, Lewis has driven some storming races. His move to take the lead from Vettel in China was calm and calculated, perfect. It’s always easy to say that a particular win was a drivers’ best ever, but his win in Germany really was something special. The pressure was considerable and he was absolutely thrilled to be on the top step of the podium. Winning really is Lewis’s life.
If, in any given season, the McLaren is capable of winning the World Championship, then surely it would be Lewis who would win it. Jenson Button is a brilliant driver, perhaps even somewhat underestimated, but he’s not quite at the same level of Lewis. He doesn’t beat Lewis very often.
But beat Lewis is exactly what Jenson did in Canada and Hungary. Both of these drives were exceptional, Canada especially so. The comparisons between Button and Prost are very clear. The smoothness of the steering and throttle, the intelligence behind the wheel, the ability to think things through at 200mph. The perfect Grand Prix for Jenson is a wet-dry surface and changing conditions. Simply put him in a race in that scenario and he will deliver.
Can he win, and beat Vettel, Alonso and Hamilton, when the track is dry? I’m not so sure. But he is a massive asset for McLaren and if Lewis is the one who is likely to bring another Championship to the legendary team, then Jenson is the perfect guy to have in the other car.
After Mansell won the World Championship in August 1992, he went on to win just two more Formula 1 races. After Damon won in 1996, he only won one more race. Jenson has now won four and has proved that he is a man who can get everything and more out of a complicated race scenario and if Belgium provides changeable conditions, if Korea provides changeable conditions, maybe Jenson can get that second place in the driver’s championship.
“Thank you guys. Thanks for working so hard. The car was a dream to drive today.” These are the words of Sebastian Vettel, spoken through his radio as he crossed the line to comfortably win the 2009 Chinese Grand Prix. It was Red Bull Racing’s first Grand Prix victory, and it came 24 hours after Vettel had bagged the team’s first pole position.
45 races have passed since that moment of triumph, and Red Bull has won 21 of them. The winning habit has taken hold and when Red Bull goes racing now, they expect to win. It’s always a joy to see a team and a driver working in perfect harmony.
Yes, there is always the off-track politics that try their best to destabilize the success of the partnership. But like Jackie Stewart and Tyrrell, Fernando Alonso and Renault and Schumacher and Benetton, Vettel and Red Bull have grown up together and are now simply better than all the others.
The Championship is in Vettel’s pocket. The RB7 dominated the first half of the season, but the results have tailed off ever so slightly since. Alonso has scored 76 points to Vettel’s 73 over the past four races.
Even if Ferrari and McLaren have race pace to match Red Bull over the remainder of the season, Vettel, Alonso and Hamilton will merely take points off each other. Vettel will enjoy his summer holiday, he’s home and dry. 2012, however, is something he needs to take seriously.
Mark Webber has been comprehensively beaten throughout the first half of the season. He has suggested the tyres are a reason for this, but nobody appears to be particularly concerned. There’s a feeling in Formula 1 that the ideal set-up for a team is to have contractually equal drivers, but to have one driver who is generally a step ahead of the other.
This is clearly visible at each of the top three teams and the conclusion has to be that it works. The classic example to cite is 1986, where Nelson Piquet and Nigel Mansell fought each other so hard in the Williams-Hondas that Alain Prost jogged past the pair of them and "stole" the crown for McLaren.
There’s no chance of that happening at Red Bull in 2011, but Mark can reflect on the past four races, where he and Vettel have taken a brace of pole positions each. And Mark will also enjoy, in this summer break, re-watching his scintillating Chinese Grand Prix drive, where he started 18th and finished on the podium. His focus is on getting second position in the driver’s championship, and he will relish the fight he has on his hands to secure it.