The Formula One season is over. Or is it? With four races left, the Championship has been sown up by Sebastian Vettel again after winning the Constructors Title this weekend for Red Bull. While many will no doubt choose not to watch the F1 circus travel to South Korea, India, Abu Dhabi and Brazil, for the teams, these races represent a mini season by themselves. Welcome to the 2011season, part two.
With bans making testing so limited these days, the remaining four races will not only give the drivers a pre-emptive start to 2012, but will also help engineers figure out what will or won’t work for next season.
Vettel happily admitted earlier in the week that the last four races can be used as perfect preparation for the 2012 season. These are strong words for a driver who has nothing else to prove after a devastatingly impressive season in which he and his RB7 tore the field apart. These four races will benefit other cars, whose hopes of a championship were left in the haze of those distant bulls, McLaren and Ferrari.
Korea should see McLaren's 700th Grand Prix in Formula One and, with Jenson Button's recent purple patch, few would bet against this team making it two wins in two weekends. Button has been the only driver anywhere near Vettel for the past few races, and if the Briton continues his good form for the rest of the season, who's to say he won't be able to carry it into the next. His multi-year contract has given him long-term stability, and added to his already assured driving. A strong finish to the season will see Button as Vettel’s main challenger for next season.
For Lewis Hamilton, the next four races serve as a needed reminder that the once dominant and confident driver can re-emerge from his uninspired, accident prone version that has appeared consistently since winning the title in 2008. Hamilton badly needs a win or two so as to get back those facets of his driving skill. At this stage, staying clear of any more accidents with Felipe Massa may prove a success in itself. For Hamilton, more so than any of the other champions currently on the grid, the 2011 season was a massive wake up call. Long gone are any thoughts of dominating. These days he seems to be emulating Jacques Villeneuve more than Ayrton Senna.
While McClaren have at least gained some ground on Red Bull, Ferrari have been stagnating in a season that has seen just one victory for the Italian team. Fernando Alonso has been as steady and reliable as ever, his current third place in the championship a huge success seeing as he driving perhaps the fifth fastest car.
Massa, on the other hand, has had another torrid season, fully looking like Alonso's secondhand man. Massa has not won since coming within a corner of clinching the world title in Brazil in 2008. It's hard to tell which has had more impact on his career, that soul-destroying 30 seconds or his near fatal accident in Hungary in 2009. The end of this is season is a chance, much like his sidekick Hamilton, to show that he can still beat the best. He may not have another chance to do so.
Another man in the shadow of his teammate is Mark Webber. The Australian narrowly missed out on the title last season, and has shown little of the form that got him to that position. He has failed to win a race in a car that will be ranked among the very best in the history of the sport. This final spurt in the season can get Webber his confidence back and improve his form going into a season that more likely will be his last with Red Bull, and his last chance at a championship.
In any case, with nothing to lose or gain, drivers can now go for the jugular, which is all the better for us fans. Let's just hope they think so, too.