Mid-season report card: Must do better

After a thrilling opening eight races, we’re now rapidly closing in on the mid-way point of the 2012 Formula 1 season.  With seven winners from those eight races, no one driver has dominated so far, and there are a number of drivers and teams that will be fairly satisfied with their championship positions and progress so far.  There will be others, though, that won’t be so satisfied; teams and drivers that haven’t performed as they, or their fans, might have expected, or would have wanted.  So, who are those teams and drivers?  I’ve picked out two drivers and one team for particular attention.  Those that I think will want to pick up their performances the most in the second part of the season.

By Morio (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

It might be surprising to some that I’m going to start  with a driver who is one of our seven races winners.  So, which of our 2012 race winners am I starting with?  Many of you might be able to guess that it’s Williams-Renault driver Pastor Maldonado, the winner of the Spanish GP at Barcelona in May.  It’s without question that Maldonado had an outstanding weekend in Barcelona taking pole position on the Saturday, albeit an inherited pole position after Lewis Hamilton’s exclusion, and driving an excellent race to beat the stand out driver of the season so far, Ferrari’s Fernando Alonso, in a straight fight in normal weather conditions.  However, one race does not a season make.  Yes, Maldonado has looked good at other races, for example qualifying third last time out in Valencia, but the bottom line is that, his win aside, he has only scored points in one other race this season; four points for eighth place in China.  Although, he has often looked quicker than his team-mate, Bruno Senna, Maldonado has, despite his win, only scored 13 world championship points more than the Brazilian who has scored points in half of the races so far and has looked far more stable and consistent.

The truth of the matter is, though, that it would be harsh to include Maldonado on the mid-season roll of dishonour on the basis of the points that he’s scored so far.  Points scored does not tell the whole story in the case of the Venezuelan, however.  I’ve written previously about Maldonado and his erratic driving and tendency towards hot headedness.  The Williams driver threw away points, and what would have been his best career finish at that stage of the season, for sixth place in the very first race of the season in Australia.  Maldonado crashed heavily in the final lap of the race, while pushing to catch and overhaul Alonso for fifth place.  Maldonado demonstrated that he failed to learn from this incident with his crash on the penultimate lap a week ago at the European grand prix at Valencia.  At Valencia, though, it wasn’t just his own race that Maldonado ruined, but Lewis Hamilton’s as well.  While attempting to pass the McLaren driver, whose tyres were rapidly degrading, Maldonado was squeezed off track by the 2008 world drivers’ champion.  Instead of rejoining behind Hamilton and trying again, Maldonado came straight back on to the track, spearing into the side of the McLaren, pushing Hamilton into the wall and damaging his own car badly enough that he could only limp over the line in 10th position, which the Venezuelan lost after a 20 second post race penalty from the stewards.

The Valencia incident was not Maldonado’s only run in with the stewards this season.  It’s hard to forget the events of the Monaco grand prix.  Maldonado was penalised for a clash with Sauber’s Sergio Perez in FP3 where he appeared to deliberately drive in to the Mexican and followed that clash up with a crash on the following lap at Casino Square, where he was again over aggressive, taking too much kerb and careering into the barriers.  In the race, Maldonado didn’t even last a lap after starting in the penultimate grid position when his penalty for hitting Perez and a further penalty for changing his gearbox had been applied.  All in all Monaco was an awful weekend for Maldonado in a 2012 season where he has shown win this win in Barcelona that he has some real speed.  Sadly that speed has not shone through elsewhere and instead of being praised for his unexpected victory, Maldonado is derided by many fans for his erratic driving.  I’m sure his Williams team, who have produced a genuinely quick car, despite their troubles in 2011, will be expecting more consistency from the Venezuelan driver in the second part of the season.

By Morio (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

Let’s move on from Maldonado to another South American driver.  A driver who has challenged for the world drivers’ championship in the past, but who has not won a race since: Felipe Massa.  The Brazilian is in the final year of his contract at Ferrari and his performances thus far in 2012 have done nothing to suggest that he has a chance of retaining his seat with the Italian marque beyond the end of the current campaign.  Ferrari started the season with some heavy press and media criticism for producing a car that was both ugly and slow.  Despite having a slow car, Massa’s team-mate, Fernando Alonso, won the second race of the season in Malaysia in changeable conditions and has scored points in every race of the season so far, becoming the first driver to win two races this season when he won, in a much more competitive Ferrari, in Valencia.  While Alonso has been hugely impressive, Massa has been far less so.  He has really struggled to come anywhere close to the performances of his team-mate.  While Alonso has only failed to make it into the final part of qualifying on two occasions this season, at the first race in Australia and at the last race in Valencia, Massa has only made it into the final part of qualifying twice, in Monaco and Canada in rounds six and seven.

As we’re often reminded, no points are awarded for qualifying, so Massa’s poor qualifying performances could be excused if he was delivering strong race results.  The simple fact of the matter is, though, that he’s not.  Far from it, in fact, Massa has scored points in only three races this season and, with a best result of sixth in Monaco, he has amassed a total of 11 world championship points.  Again, Massa suffers badly when compared with his team-mate who has scored exactly 100 points more than him in the opening eight races of the season and leads the world drivers’ championship while Massa languishes in 16th place, ahead of only the drivers from Torro Rosso, Caterham, Marussia and HRT.  Ferrari will be expecting  far better from Massa, whose poor performances are costing the team badly in the constructors’ championship race; while Alonso heads the drivers’ championship, Ferrari sit only fourth in the constructors’ championship.

Having singled out two drivers who I think could do much better in future races, I’m now going to turn my attention to the teams.  I’m only going to single out one team here.  It’s not going to be any of the ‘new’ teams – although HRT get a special mention for being particularly unimpressive – but instead one of the front-runners.  Had I been writing this article at the start of the season that team would almost certainly have been Ferrari, but, eight races in, Ferrari deserve a huge amount of praise for developing their car so dramatically.  So which team am I singling out, then?  Well, it’s the very same team that received a great deal of praise at the start of the season for producing the best looking and, apparently, the fastest car: McLaren.  It might look a little odd to place the Woking based team in the ‘must do better’ part of my mid-season report card when they are one of only three teams to have won two races in 2012 and they sit second, behind only Red Bull Racing, in the world constructors’ championship.  However, but for a number of pit stop and strategy errors things could have been so much better for McLaren and their drivers.  I’ve written previously about McLaren’s issues here, so I won’t cover too much of the same ground again, but Lewis Hamilton has, in particular, suffered badly from a number of atrocious pit stops this season.  Bahrain was particularly bad, with two slow pit stops for Hamilton, but Button also suffered in the previous race in China.  The most disappointing thing for McLaren will be that they continue to suffer from pit stop issues, despite introducing new procedures and equipment to try to eliminate them.  In the last race in Valencia, Hamilton was again on the receiving end of a poor pit stop which, arguably, cost him a shot at victory, as one of McLaren’s new, Ferrari style, pivoting front jacks embarrassingly failed mid-stop.

Perhaps even more damaging from Jenson Button’s perspective, is that the introduction of the new higher nose on the McLaren has coincided with a dramatic downturn in form for the 2009 world champion.  It would appear that the upgrade doesn’t suit Button, who has struggled to set up his car well enough to qualify or race well.  McLaren have been unable to get to the bottom of the issue for Button who has, as a result, slipped to eighth place in the world drivers’ championship.  McLaren have worked themselves in to a position where one of their drivers, Lewis Hamilton, seems to be on the receiving end of some truly poor pit stops and team errors (e.g. Barcelona, where the team under fuelled his car in qualifying, costing him pole position), while their other driver, while not suffering to the same extent with pit stop issues, finds himself in a position where, after the Canadian race, he declared himself “confused and very lost”, simply unable to get the pace out of the revised McLaren that his team-mate can.  McLaren should and could be doing much better.  Their fans will certainly hope for a big upgrade package for the next race, the team’s home race, at Silverstone.  What is vital for McLaren, though, is that the upgrades work for both of their drivers and that, along with performance upgrades on the car come performance upgrades in the pits.

The upside for the team and drivers mentioned here is that, despite there being massive room improvement, all have proved in the past that they are more than capable of delivering great performances.  Indeed, we’re not quite at the half way point in the 2012 season.  There are still 12 races still to run, and in such an unpredictable season it’s not out of the question that Maldonado or Massa will blossom again.  More likely, though, is that McLaren finally sort out their numerous issues and are able to sustain a challenge for both world championships.  We’ll have to see how the season unfolds…

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