Sunday, 14 August 2011

Mid-season review (racing):

The season so far has been very good. We lost Bahrain (which is about as traumatic and upsetting as a massage with a happy finish) but in the first 11 races we’ve seen only one that was out-and-out boring (Valencia, due to a vile, tedious and woeful track).

By contrast, we’ve had many great races, and an absolute corking classic in Canada (which was also fantastic last year). Excepting the first few races, the challenge for the victory has come from multiple teams, and although Red Bull has dominated qualifying throughout they’ve come under pressure there as well.

Why has the racing been so good (Valencia aside)?

The numerous rules changes are undoubtedly the critical factor. The new DRS, KERS coming back and Pirelli making tyres that degrade more rapidly have all played a role, increasing overtaking and emphasising the importance of strategy. I would axe either DRS or KERS (I think having both is too gimmickity, and would probably take away DRS) but overall the new rules have made the sport even more enjoyable to watch.

The Pirelli tyres have meant that tyre management is highly important. Webber both suffered and benefited from this early on. He needed one more pit stop than Vettel in the early races, costing him points (a problem deepened by reliability issues). However, in China his numerous fresh tyres enable him to charge up the grid and achieve a great 3rd place.

The weather has also, generally, been conducive to great racing. The epic rain delay in Canada served up a fantastic race and a great British victory, and Hungary also saw the race defined by the teams’ tyre choices (both strategically and in relation to the elements).

In some ways, it’s reminiscent of 2009. Like Button then, Vettel has accrued a monstrous advantage, and the fact that the chasing pack (Alonso, Hamilton, Button and Webber) are numerous helps him further, as they take points off of each other and make catching him even harder.

However, I’d put the Red Bull as the third best car now in race terms. The McLaren and Ferrari are both better on the day. But, for Vettel to lose now he would need either Hamilton or Alonso to average a finish 11 points ahead of him at each of the 8 remaining races. That’s a huge ask. It is not, however, impossible.

McLaren and Ferrari tend, in recent seasons, to start more slowly than Red Bull but develop much more throughout the season, and this has happened again. I’d also say that Hamilton and Alonso are approximately on a par with one another and Vettel, and Button is fantastic in changeable conditions. In 2009, Button’s advantage began to be steadily eroded in the latter half of the season, and I think he only clinched it at the penultimate race in Interlagos.

Will the same happen to Vettel?

I’d say it’s unlikely. The gap is enormous and he’s aided by multiple competitors. The Red Bull (KERS excepted) has been as reliable as a Yorkshireman called Bob. To lose it’d need probably a combination of the following to occur:

Multiple DNFs for Vettel

Consistent wins from Hamilton or Alonso

Vettel finishing 4th or lower on a regular basis

I’d be more inclined to have a look at laying Red Bull for the Constructors’. I did consider it (it’s 1.04 right now) but I’d need to see McLaren wiping the floor with Red Bull at a few races before tipping it.

Looking further down the field, there’s actually quite a lot of interesting things to say. Sauber have improved and now regularly challenge for points. Kobayashi is still highly entertaining, and I rate Perez highly (he would’ve scored points in his first race but for a tiny technical transgression with the rear wing).

Force India have improved recently as well, as di Resta has great potential for the future. Renault, by contrast have moved backwards, and I’m sure they’ll be thrilled to get Kubica back next year. I just hope they can give him the car he deserves.

Mercedes have never lived up to the post-Brawn potential. This is probably because budget constraints meant Brawn had to axe a lot of staff, and the team hasn’t really recovered. Schumacher has had occasional flashes of brilliance, the most obvious time being the Canadian Grand Prix where he came within a whisker of a podium, but it’s hard to assess him given the car isn’t good enough. I think he has the raw pace and good feel in wet conditions, but lacks the fine touch needed to stay out of trouble. I hope he can snag a podium this year or next.

I still don’t see the point of the new teams. Six cars between them and not a single point. I got no points watching the 2010 season on TV. I know someone has to be at the back, but middle of the road teams like Sauber, Toro Rosso and Williams manage to have at least a chance of points regularly.

The next race weekend begins in 12 days, at Spa. I’ve heard rumours it might end up alternating with a re-introduced French GP, which would be disappointing but far better than losing the track altogether. Spa’s a proper, exciting, race circuit, like Interlagos or Silverstone, not a dreary lump of tedium like Valencia or Bahrain.

I don’t anticipate huge changes in relative pace despite the 4 week break because for most of that time the teams have been commanded to have time off. Still, we’ll find out in a fortnight what’s what.

Morris Dancr

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