Mid-season review: Fighting for the title

By on Thursday, July 28, 2011

As in 2010, three teams have been the class act of the field. Yet out of those three, one has been a cut above the rest. Can you guess which one..?

Ferrari (3rd, 192 points)

Fernando Alonso (4th, 130 points, 1 win); Felipe Massa (6th, 62 points)

Alonso finally won in Britain

Once again, it’s been a mixed season for the Scuderia. Having made a poor start in 2010, they didn’t want to suffer a repeat but that’s exactly what’s happened. The car was lacking in aerodynamic efficiency, as seen by their woeful performance in Spain, where Alonso was lapped and Massa was all at sea. However, since then there’s been something of a turnaround. Irrespective of Vettel’s pit problem at Silverstone, Alonso had the pace that weekend and won on merit. To take the fight to Red Bull on a track such as Silverstone shows progress, but they’re probably too far behind to have any championship aspirations. The team is a long way behind Red Bull in the Constructors Championship and a considerable distance behind McLaren as well. It looks as if this will be the third straight season without a title and Stefano Domenicalli must be concerned about the axe. Having won one race so far this season, the target will be for more wins (another win at Monza will be huge, whilst Alonso is electric around Singapore) to set a strong foundation for 2012.

As ever, Fernando Alonso is fast, consistent and canny. All of that was seen on a crucial weekend back at home in May. Alonso’s lap in qualifying for the Spanish Grand Prix put him only 4th, but it was a perfect lap, the stuff of legends. Then he took the lead brilliantly at the start, only to slip back when the car just could not live with the pace of the Red Bulls and the McLarens. With 4th unachievable and 6th a long way back, Alonso simply backed off – at 3 seconds a lap – to show the team how bad the car was. They duly responded. He could have won at Monaco and took the fight to Webber, and beat him, at Valencia. With 4 podiums in the last 5 races, he’s on form and won’t give up the title until it’s mathematically impossible. Surely a 2010 style fight back can’t happen again, can it?

Massa crashed out in Monaco

Felipe Massa has not quite had the season he would have hoped for. He claimed pre-season that the Pirelli tyres would solve his problems, but they haven’t. He has been outqualified by Alonso in all of the races this season and although he beat him in Malaysia and China, that form hasn’t continued. Alonso has 130 points to Massa’s 62. The team have let him down on occasion – losing him 4th in Germany – but the lack of performance has to be largely pinpointed to the driver himself. You get the feeling that time is running out and although he has a contract for 2012, you wouldn’t bet money on him being in the seat. 5th place has been his best result so far – on four occasions – but to be a team player he needs to be higher up, playing the proper number two for Alonso and taking points away from Vettel.

McLaren (2nd, 243 points)

Lewis Hamilton (3rd, 134 points, 2 wins); Jenson Button (5th, 109 points, 1 win)

They fought in China and collided in Canada

Pre-season, the team was in utter turmoil. Their exhaust design significantly backfired and they reverted to a simpler car design in Australia. The result? From the 8th or 9th best team to finishing on the podium. If they hadn’t spent so much time getting a complex system to work, you wonder whether the MP4-26 would have been able to challenge the RB7 from the outset. The performance of the car seems to vary wildly from circuit to circuit, although in wet or cold conditions, it seems to work best. Cause for concern will be with regards to retaining Hamilton, for he is probably the team’s most valuable asset. More wins will be the target for the rest of the season.

Hamilton took a brilliant win in Germany

For Lewis Hamilton, this season has been filled as ever with controversy and captivating drives. His wins in China and Germany were spectacular, but his aggression in Canada and Monaco were unrewarded. His comments to the BBC after the race in Monaco were meant to be a joke, but a worldwide audience would not understand the concept of such a joke. They were unnecessary comments and took the shine away from what had been a great race. His infamous trip to see Christian Horner in Montreal was ill-advised and can’t have helped his relationship with McLaren. He’s talked about not wanting just the one title and if he wants more, he needs greater composure during the races. In Malaysia he was complaining about the tyres and that was the same situation in Valencia, where he seemingly ignored the team’s advice to manage them properly. For a strategist, Lewis’ style must be very frustrating. His mood seems to swing several times in the same sentence, writing off his chances before saying he has a great chance. More races like Germany and we have a title fight on our hands.

Button went from last to first in Canada

Before the season we wrote about how improving on 5th place would be difficult for Jenson Button, yet after his superb victory in the Canadian Grand Prix, he was in prime position to take the fight to Vettel. Yet two non-scores later and all hopes of a second world title seem to have disappeared, first in the form of a loose wheel and then when his hydraulics failed at the Nurburgring. He lacks the outright pace of Hamilton, yet he can be relied on to pick up the points – having not scored in a race through his own errors just once since the start of 2009. Stopping one less time in Spain brought him a podium, but too many stops in Monaco cost him a shot at victory. His win in Canada though was the ultimate lesson in managing a race and not being too aggressive early on (a lesson to his team mate, perhaps). Jenson makes very few mistakes (apart from the embarrassing pit error in China) and in changeable conditions, you should never discount him.

Red Bull (1st, 355 points, 6 wins, 10 poles)

Sebastian Vettel (1st, 216 points, 6 wins, 7 poles); Mark Webber (2nd, 139 points, 3 poles)

6 wins, 9 podiums, 7 poles and a 77 point lead. Not bad!

The class of the field, yet again. When the RB7 took to the track in February, you could tell that the car was on rails and was going to be very difficult to beat. And so it has proved. They have swept up in qualifying, taking all ten pole positions this season, emerging victorious on Sunday six times as well. A huge bonus is that the reliability has, so far, seen them finish all of the races. What’s more astonishing is that they’ve had both cars in the top four at every race except Australia, where Webber was fifth. They have a huge lead of 112 points in the Constructors Championship with 9 races still to run, whilst the issues with KERS that plagued the early races seem to have been solved. The big question is whether their relative lack of race pace in Germany was just a blip, or whether they’ve been caught.

Red Bull: Two top five finishes every race, but only a single 1-2

Vettel’s results since his engine failure (whilst leading) in Korea last year reads as follows: first, first, first, first, second, first, first, first, second, first, second, fourth. That is an astonishing run, which includes eight pole positions as well. He has been the class act this season, dominating several races and opening up a huge lead in the championship. However, the questions about his racecraft still linger, for despite passing cars in his first three wins, when his opponents didn’t have older tyres, he struggled. In Germany, he could not pass Massa. He has made just two mistakes all season – sliding wide in Canada and spinning at home – and he thoroughly deserves another crown. Yet some people still question whether it is him or the car. His lead over Webber goes some way to demonstrating his talent, but there are those that won’t be convinced until he doesn’t have a car as good as the RB6 and RB7 have been.

Webber has yet to win this year. Is Hamilton eyeing his seat?

Mark Webber has had an indifferent season. His season started poorly as his typical Albert Park form returned, although he still managed to salvage 5th. Since then, he has been extremely consistent, managing to stand on the bottom step of the podium in half of the events. He finally led a lap in Germany and with the Pirelli tyres now lasting longer, this is playing back into his hands. It’s been a whole year now since his most recent win and Vettel’s form since then (9 wins) means that the pressure is mounting. Germany was a turning point, now he has to maintain that progress. A contract extension looks likely, for his pace this season is good, but not good enough to beat Vettel. That means that for the team, it is a perfect combination: Vettel wins the drivers title; Red Bull wins the constructors title. Ignoring team orders in Britain shows his determination never to be put down and he’s proving to be a worthy contender this season. However, compared to 2010, there does appear to be that final tenth missing and that could be the difference between a win and a podium. He also needs to sort his starts out

Pictures courtesy of Sutton Images

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