Following the Hungarian Grand Prix there’s now a chance for teams to take a well-earned break. After eleven brilliant races in this record breaking season, the five week summer break gives drivers and team personnel alike a chance to take a holiday and have a breather. It also gives us a perfect time to look back on the season so far, ahead of the remaining nine races that conclude in November.
As mentioned, it has been a record breaking start to the season. The last time I wrote a detailed F1 featured was after the fourth race of the season when we’d had four different winners in four different types of car. Writing then, nobody could have really known that we’d get seven winners in the first seven races! Following that early flurry of different winners however, it is fair to say that there season has begun to get calmer – with repeat winners in the form of Fernando Alonso, Mark Webber and Lewis Hamilton.
It has been a remarkable turnaround by Ferrari when you consider that at the first race of the year in Australia, they were over one second away from pole position. Furthermore, neither car made it into the last part of qualifying. At the summer break, Fernando Alonso is the only driver to have won three races and leads the championship by an incredible forty points.
It is an example of Alonso’s tenacity at its best, his early win in Malaysia a masterstroke in handling extremely difficult conditions very well to hold on to an unlikely victory in only the second race of the year. There’s been more evidence of his fighting spirit at other races too – fighting from a lowly eleventh position to win on a track where in the past overtaking has been tricky in Valencia. Sure, in both Malaysia and Valencia, you could say there was a certain amount of good luck surrounding his performance, but that was not the case in Germany where he simply controlled the race from start to finish.
There seems to be something different in Alonso’s driving this year. Nobody doubts the two times champion’s talent – and yet this year it is almost as if the rather recalcitrant Ferrari is simply giving him more drive to win his third title – something that at the moment, you wouldn’t disagree with. But then, there is still a long way in the season to go.
The opposite could be said for Fernando’s team mate, Felipe Massa. After a difficult season last year, where he failed to even finish in the top four all year, it looked like more of the same this year. He struggled to match Alonso’s devastating performances at the start of the season, finishing a minute behind Alonso in Malaysia. Things didn’t really improve for a few races – but strong results at Monaco and Silverstone have shown a glimpse of the Felipe of old.
Even so his future has rightly been called into question, with the hot favourite to replace him in 2013 still being Sauber’s Sergio Perez, more of in the future.
The McLaren duo of Lewis Hamilton and Jenson Button has also endured a difficult start to the season. It all seemed to start so well in Australia, with Button the dominant winner of the first race of the year and Hamilton third. “Welcome to 2009!” Button announced on his slowing down lap. Since then however, it has been nothing like 2009.
Following a podium finish at the Chinese Grand Prix, Button and McLaren’s performance seemed to completely disappear with him often complaining of oversteer or understeer at the following races. Such was the drop in form that he was even dropping out in Q1 and Q2 in qualifying and struggling to make any real progress in the races as he dropped further and further back in the points. Button was able to return to the podium in Germany with an inherited second place after Vettel’s penalty, but after a difficult Hungarian Grand Prix Button lies seventh in the championship, a whopping eighty-eight points of Alonso’s lead. Whilst Button has a chance to return to winning races in the remaining nine races, you feel that any repeat of his 2009 championship success is over.
It has only marginally been better for Hamilton. Following a turbulent 2011 season, Hamilton himself has been much improved in 2012, often being the fastest man at a weekend. However, a series of McLaren errors in either pit stops or strategical mistakes have meant Hamilton has often missed out on a strong result. Take for instance the Spanish Grand Prix where he took pole position by a massive half a second. A fuelling error by McLaren meant that Hamilton had to stop on circuit on his slowing down lap – against FIA regulations, and was sent to the back of the grid. He made progress up the field in the race, but you sensed it was any opportunity missed by McLaren, and one that could determine whether Lewis stays with the team in 2013.
And what about the defending champions, Red Bull? Well, so far 2012 has proved to be much more difficult that their all-conquering 2011 season. The problem started with the 2012 regulations, which banned exhaust blown diffusers – a device Red Bull had pioneered no less. It hasn’t helped the Red Bull car’s legality has been called into question on an almost weekly basis, which came to a head at the German Grand Prix surrounding engine maps the team were using. The Milton Keynes based team were lucky to go unpunished in that particular incident.
The incredibly competitive field has made Red Bull’s life difficult so far for Vettel at least. The German has shown signs of being frustrated at numerous races as you’d expect having only won one race so far, in the highly controversial Bahrain Grand Prix. To give him credit, he should really have two victories to his name – an almost certain win in Valencia disappearing when his alternator failed. To win his third title will need an improvement in form in the second half of the year.
For Webber however, the season has been an encouraging one – but his form has been inconsistent. He brilliantly won the Monaco Grand Prix for the second time, and became the second repeat winner of 2012 when he passed Alonso for the lead at Silverstone with only a few laps to go. Poor qualifying performances at the Spanish, European and Hungarian Grands Prix have limited the number of points he has taken off Alonso, but he still remains the Spaniard’s closest rival in the championship.
Much like 2011 then, the top teams remain close in performance. Yet as with Vettel in his dominant championship year, we are yet to see a definite challenger emerge to take the fight to Alonso in 2012.
In the second part of this feature, I’ll look at some of the midfield team’s performances.