Well, it was an incredible first eleven races but excitingly, the important part of the 2012 Formula One season is still to come. At times, the start of the year was breathtakingly unpredictable (seven winners in seven races, anyone?) – so much so it is difficult now to remember quite everything that has happened to each team and just exactly how things stand with nine races to go in this, the sport’s longest season ever.
Let us start with the facts. Ferrari’s Fernando Alonso leads the standings by 40 points – that’s a win and a third place clear of the rest of the field. The first thing to note is what an astounding position this is for the Spaniard to be in given that Ferrari began the season one and a half seconds off the pace. The second thing to note is that Ferrari still do not have the quickest car as shown in Budapest at the Hungarian Grand Prix last month. Alonso was recently quoted as saying that McLaren, Red Bull and Lotus have all been faster throughout the entire 2012 season so far. He is probably right, too. Team mate Felipe Massa has been nowhere near as quick as the Spaniard; Alonso’s race-craft has seen him put together one of the most remarkable first halves of a season ever seen.
There are several contributing factors to this brilliant campaign from Alonso. The gaps between the teams have narrowed considerably this year, making Formula One super competitive. Midfield teams such as Williams, Sauber and Force India have all mixed it with the big boys whilst different cars have been stronger at different tracks. The FIA have banned any tool which enables richer teams to pour money into one area of development. 2009’s double diffusers, 2010’s F-ducts and 2011’s exhaust blown diffusers have all been outlawed and it has brought the field closer together.
Also, despite the unpredictability of F1 this year, several fundamentals still apply. On a dry day, pole position allows a driver to control a race from the front and counts for a lot. Alonso demonstrated this perfectly at Hockenheim in July’s German Grand Prix. Thirdly, there has been a lot of unreliability from Alonso’s chief title rivals. Logic dictates that this situation where a different person is closest to Alonso each week cannot continue. Perhaps Alonso can keep his championship lead for nine more races without the fastest car, but Ferrari need to focus on increasing the car’s overall pace and the gap to their rivals in order to give their driver the best possible shot at the title. The team do deserve credit for their work so far during races as well as overall car development. Consistently good pit stops and solid strategy have helped Alonso’s cause a lot – although they have arguably let 27 points slip away through a lack of flexibility in Spain, Monaco and Canada.
Ferrari do however, have perhaps the fastest car in the wet, as shown in Malaysia in March when Alonso brilliantly held off a flying Sergio Perez in the Sauber to take his first victory of the season. The main reason for Alonso’s success so far though, is Alonso himself. The European Grand Prix at Valencia in June was perhaps his finest victory ever and demonstrate his never-give-up attitude which allows him to capitalise on any opportunity that presents itself. Alonso has finished in the points for the last 23 consecutive races, which is only one shy of the all-time record, set by Michael Schumacher and Ferrari from 2001-3.
Red Bull’s two drivers are the current closest challengers to Ferrari in the championship. The car is surely quick enough for reigning double world champion Sebastien Vettel and team mate Mark Webber to catch and pass Alonso in the next nine races. But the season just hasn’t unfolded in the dominant fashion that it did in 2011 for Vettel and Red Bull. Too many errors and frustrations have occurred for either driver to put together a decent run of results to kick start a championship challenge. Halfway through the European Grand Prix, most of the paddock seemed to have accepted that Red Bull were now devastatingly quicker than their rivals and it would probably stay this way for the rest of the year. But Vettel’s certain victory was lost when his alternator failed and such dominance has not been seen again since. The German also lost a possible podium by crashing in Malaysia with HRT’s Narain Karthekeyan. He dropped from second to fifth in Germany when he illegally overtook Jenson Button’s McLaren at the exit of the hairpin by running wide past the white line denoting the track limits to complete the move.
Mark Webber, meanwhile, has had his own issues. Had the team sent him out for a second run in qualifying for the Spanish Grand Prix at Barcelona in May, he could have started higher than 12th and possibly won a race that was instead won by 2012’s one-hit wonder, Williams’ Pastor Maldonado, who has since fallen from grace due to his often controversial driving style. And a strategy error cost him fifth place – and a finish ahead of Alonso – in Hungary. The team have also earned themselves a bit of a reputation for pushing the rules too far and being pulled in front of the FIA several times this year. The drivers need to not take points off each other in order to mount a successful championship challenge, and they have history after the infamous 2010 season.
At McLaren, Lewis Hamilton has been driving far better than in 2011 and it is his team who have cost him points. They have sorted out their pit stop issues but need to run a generally smoother operation to match Ferrari. The car is probably still the fastest all-round car most of the time, as it was at the start of the year, but it struggles a lot in the wet. Jenson Button has been a disappointment for reasons known to none, least of all Button himself, since his victory in the season-opening Australian Grand Prix in Melbourne and is all but out of the title hunt.
Lotus has yet to win a race yet many are tipping Kimi Raikkonen for the championship, remarkably. Romain Grosjean was the better driver for the first few races but the Iceman was spectacular in Hungary last time out. The team need to improve their qualifying performance but if they can, Kimi could be a real threat. He is only one point further back than Hamilton and the next race is at the mighty Spa Francorchamps circuit for the Belgian Grand Prix through the Ardennes forest. Raikkonen has only ever won or not finished there. It is make or break time for him and all the other title contenders…