Faultless Fernando stays in touch, despite Seb’s Delhi delight

Given his pole position starting slot, it was certainly no surprise to see Red Bull Racing’s Sebastian Vettel take another dominant victory in India – his fourth in a row , continuing a run started at the end of September at the Singapore grand prix. What was perhaps more of a surprise, though, was that Fernando Alonso somehow hauled his Ferrari into second place, despite starting on only the third row of the grid, behind not just both Red Bulls, but also both McLarens.

Before looking at the top two, let’s pause briefly to look at McLaren’s race. Yet again, the team found themselves comprehensively outpaced by Red Bull Racing in Saturday qualifying, with the only surprise being that the eventual deficit to pole was only around a quarter of a second for Lewis Hamilton, who started ahead of his team-mate, Jenson Button, in third place on the grid.

Lewis Hamilton, McLaren MP4-27
Sepang, Malaysia, 23 March 2012
By Morio, via Wikimedia Commons

While the race pace, particularly for Hamilton, was actually pretty good given that the Stevenage born driver finished just under 14 seconds behind race winner Vettel, McLaren, and their drivers, got things wrong at the start of the race. Hamilton and Button were busy squabbling among themselves at the start, as Hamilton’s poor getaway off the line allowed Button to breeze past him. As the two British drivers jockeyed for position they let Alonso take advantage to pass first Hamilton, pushing him down to fifth on the first lap, but a few laps later Button, who seemed to struggle for pace in the first stint in particular. Indeed, Hamilton soon re-passed his team-mate, too, just a lap after Alonso had cruised past using DRS.

Given that Hamilton crossed the line just 0.7 of a second behind third placed Mark Webber, who was struggling in the closing stage of the race with a KERS issue in his Red Bull, this first lap bickering probably cost the Englishman a podium finish, and possibly more with Alonso only a few seconds ahead at the end of the race. Hamilton, though, thought after the race that victory was beyond his reach, saying “”Even if I’d had a better start than I did, the guys in front were still maybe a bit too fast, particularly in the first stint”. As it was, the highlight of the race for McLaren was probably in the pits rather than on the track as they might have hoped. Hamilton pitted not only for fresh tyres, but also a new steering wheel, on lap 33. Hamilton explained the reasons for this after the race, “During that first stint I started having a downshift problem – I was having to change down with my right hand instead of my left, so the team elected to change the steering wheel at the pitstop”. The entire pit stop took just 3.3 seconds, or 3.1 by McLaren’s timing – an amazing achievement by both team and driver.

Sebatian Vettel, Red Bull RB8
Bahrain, 22 April 2012
By Ryan Bayona, via Wikimedia Commons

Sadly for McLaren and Hamilton, their speed in the pits didn’t quite translate into speed on the track, with Vettel in almost complete control from start to finish. Indeed, the German led every lap of the race, having now led 200 consecutive race laps, to take an imperious race win. The only slight worry for Vettel were the sparks coming from the underside of his Red Bull with just seven laps remaining. In the end, though, there was no cause for concern as Vettel who dismissed the incident, saying “I saw some sparks at the end from the car, but we saw a lot of cars throwing sparks this weekend, and we joined them”. His team was similarly unconcerned and the German took his 26th race win putting him seventh on the all time list of Formula 1 race winners one ahead of double world champion Jim Clark, and one behind triple world champion Sir Jackie Stewart.

Vettel, of course, is a double world champion himself, but after the result in India it’s looking increasingly likely that he might not only equal Stewart’s total of victories come the end of the season, but also his number of championships. Not only that, though, but Vettel remains in prime position to take his third consecutive world drivers’ championship – a feat only achieve by Juan Manuel Fangio in the 1950s, and more recently seven time world champion Michael Schumacher. Vettel is certainly a driver who takes great pleasure in such statistical achievements, and given his current form it would certainly be hard to bet against him.

Fernando Alonso, Ferrari F2012
Sepang, Malaysia, 24 March 2012
By Morio, via Wikimedia Commons

One man who will be doing everything possible to upset the odds and take a third world drivers’ championship of his own, though, is Spain’s Fernando Alonso. While Vettel extended his championship lead over Alonso to 13 points with victory in India, my driver of the race award goes to the Spaniard. Starting in fifth position, victory was always going to be an uphill task with a Ferrari F2012 that is clearly not in the same class as the Red Bull RB8, which is really coming into its own toward the end of the season. Nevertheless, Alonso did everything he could to upset the form book and challenge for the win, passing both McLaren’s early on and an ailing Red Bull of Mark Webber with 12 laps to go.

The gap to Vettel was too big to bridge in India, though, with the German following his usual modus operandi and pulling himself clear of his team-mate, and the chasing pack, in the opening few laps of the race. While Alonso was unable to make up the time deficit to Vettel, even by overdriving in the final few laps, it is still quite possible that he may well overcome the points deficit at the end of the season. Certainly, with 75 points still on offer in the final three races of the season, a 13 point lead for Vettel is not enough for him to be comfortable just yet.

Jenson Button, McLaren MP4-27
Sepang, Malaysia, 23rd March 2012
By Morio, via Wikimedia Commons

Vettel can take great comfort, though, that the pack of drivers chasing him for the 2012 world drivers’ championship is now thinning out. With a fifth place finish in India, Jenson Button saw the gap to Vettel in the championship grow to a now insurmountable 99 points. Button’s team-mate, Lewis Hamilton, and Vettel’s team-mate, Mark Webber, are still mathematically in the hunt for the title, but with a points deficit of 75 and 73 points respectively it would take nothing short of a miracle for either of the drivers to take the title. Certainly for Hamilton, three consecutive race wins would be needed, with three no scores for Vettel and a similarly disastrous run of results for Alonso, for him to take the title (on race wins). Webber would need a similarly unlikely run of results for his team-mate and Alonso. That leaves just Kimi Raikkonen, who saw his own deficit to Vettel grow to 67 points after finishing in seventh, behind Felipe Massa, in India. Given that the Finn has yet to win a race this season, it looks more likely that he’ll lose his third place in the championship to Webber or Hamilton than overhaul Alonso and Vettel.

That just leaves the top two. After the result in India, it is clear Ferrari and Alonso need to stop the rot to avoid falling further behind Vettel in the championship. In order to do that, they will certainly need to bring some extra performance to the car in a week’s time in Abu Dhabi, as Alonso acknowledged after the race in India, sayin “I think we need to bring some new parts to Abu Dhabi and hopefully improve a little bit the competitiveness of the car and get closer to Red Bulls on Saturday and hopefully Sunday as well”. The Abu Dhabi track is home to Ferrari World, maybe that’s an omen for Alonso and the Scuderia…

*Ahead of the race in Abu Dhabi, you might like to check out this interesting ‘Race Through Yas Marina Circuit’ created by sponsors Ethiad Airways. Race through Yas Marina Circuit allows you to drive around an animated version of the track, view images from the circuit including the pits, grandstands and previous winners and read about facts about the circuit such as the tech and manpower behind the construction. It also features information about Abu Dhabi’s most popular landmarks, a video of a full lap around the track and stats about key elements that can make the difference between winning and losing at Yas Marina Circuit. Check the preview video below, and explore the full feature at http://www.etihadairways.com/yasmarinacircuit

The Raikkonen rollercoaster

At the end of the 2009 season, 2007 world drivers’ champion Kimi Raikkonen dramatically walked away from Formula 1 at the age of 30, having been forced out by Ferrari, a year before his contract had been due to expire, to make room for Fernando Alonso’s arrival from Renault.

Having decided to pursue a career rallying, and doing so for the next two years, most assumed that Raikkonen had closed off his route back to Formula 1, which made his return to the sport with Lotus at the start of the current campaign such a surprise. Even then, though, there was some doubt that Raikkonen could, after so long away, return to his past glories with a team that had started brightly in 2011, but faded badly as the season progressed. As the season has progressed Raikkonen, and Lotus, have proved the doubters wrong, though.

Before leaving Formula 1 at the end of 2009, Raikkonen was considered one of the sport’s elite drivers. Having driven for both McLaren and Ferrari – the two leading teams at that time, and still part of the top three teams, with Red Bull Racing – the Finn developed a reputation as a fearsome competitor. He won a total of 18 races, but it was not until the 2007 season, his seventh year in the sport, that he was finally rewarded with a world drivers’ championship.

Kimi Raikkonen, McLaren MP4-20
Indianapolis, United States, 18 June 2005
By Dan Smith, via Wikimedia Commons

Prior to 2007, his first year at Ferrari, Raikkonen has twice been the runner-up in the world drivers’ championship, in 2003 and 2005, while driving for McLaren. Raikkonen’s move to Ferrari, to replace the retiring seven time world drivers’ champion Michael Schumacher, brought him the championship that he was looking for, chasing down rookie Lewis Hamilton who seemed to have the championship won with two races to go and a 20 point championship lead (at the time when a win was worth 10 points). Two disastrous results for Hamilton – a retirement in China, when looking set for victory, and seventh place in Brazil – coupled with back to back victories for Raikkonen meant that it was the Finn that took the title in his first year with Ferrari.

Raikkonen, had certainly made the most of his opportunity at Ferrari, and it looked as though things were well set for him to win further championships with the team. This proved not to be the case, though. Having won the 2007 championship, Raikkonen seemingly lost some of his mojo in 2008. Not only was he beaten to the title by Lewis Hamilton, but he was out of the running with two races to go having failed to score a single point for four races (Europe, Belgium, Italy and Singapore).

If this wasn’t bad enough, his Ferrari team-mate, Felipe Massa, was the driver that mounted the strongest championship challenge for the Scuderia. Massa only lost out on the title by a single point after Hamilton passed the Toyota of Timo Glock for fifth place on the last corner of the last lap of the final race of the season at Massa’s home race at Interlagos, after the Brazilian had already won the race.

Kimi Raikkonen, Ferrari F60
Spa, Belgium, 28 August 2009
By Jane Belinda Smith, via Wikimedia Commons

2009 was something of a disaster for Raikkonen and Ferrari. The Finn only took one victory, in Belgium, that year after Ferrari were caught out by a change in regulations that brought Red Bull Racing and Brawn to the fore. Raikkonen finished in sixth place in the championship and, at the end of the season Ferrari announced that, despite being under contract for another season, the Finn would be leaving the team to be replaced by 2005 and 2006 world drivers’ champion, Fernando Alonso.

Despite being forced out of Ferrari, Raikkonen had other options available to him in Formula 1. He had been expected to join McLaren to partner Lewis Hamilton, but negotiations with the Woking based team broke down. Mercedes GP, who had just taken both the drivers’ and the constructors’ world championships as Brawn GP, were another option for Raikkonen, but the team opted to bring Michael Schumacher out of retirement. Even then, though, Raikkonen was offered a drive by Toyota, before they decided to pull out of the sport, but Raikkonen wanted a more competitive car, not to mention a higher salary, than the one that was reportedly on offer from the Cologne based team.

Kimi Raikkonen, Citroën C4 WRC
Rally Bulgaria, 9 July 2010
By Biso, via Wikimedia Commons

It seemed that Raikkonen was destined to leave F1, and so he did entering World Rally Championship with Citroen’s junior team in 2010. Although he had some successes, notably taking victory in the 2010 Rallye Vosgien in France, having won all six stages, Raikkonen failed to set the rallying world alight. We was linked with a return to Formula 1 in 2011 with Renault, with team boss Eric Boullier saying, when asked about the possibility of Raikkonen returning to F1 with his team “I would have to speak personally with him first, look him in the eyes to see if I see enough motivation there for him to return to F1. It doesn’t make sense to hire somebody, even a former world champion, if you cannot be sure that his motivation is still 100%. Why should you invest in somebody who leaves you guessing?”. Raikkonen himself dismissed the link with Renault and accused the team of using his name for “their own marketing purposes”. He went on to compete in rallying again in 2011 with his own team.

Having been so dismissive of Renault in 2011 it was somewhat of a surprise that Raikkonen returned to the sport with the very same team in their new guise as Lotus in 2012. Raikkonen has taken six podium finishes – three seconds and three thirds – in his first season back in Formula 1 and, despite having failed to take a single victory, sits third in the world drivers’ championship, 48 point behind championship leader, Red Bull Racing’s Sebastian Vettel, with four races remaining.

With 100 points still available, a second world drivers’ championship in his first season back at the pinnacle of motorsport remains mathematically possible for Raikkonen, who celebrated his 33rd birthday last week. Realistically, however, the championship now looks to be a four race shootout between Fernando Alonso, until the last race in Korea the long time championship leader, and 2010 and 2011 world drivers’ champion Sebastian Vettel.

Kimi Raikkonen, Lotus E20
Sepang, Malaysia, 23 March 2012
By Morio, via Wikimedia Commons

Raikkonen, though, refuses to concede the title just yet. Despite having failed to get their passive F-duct system working well enough to race, Lotus have now added a coanda effect exhaust to their arsenal and with more updates to come in India, Raikkonen believes that his championship chances are far from over, and he’s using his experience in 2007 as an extra motivator. The Finn acknowledges that the points deficit to Vettel is “quite big now” and that it will be “difficult to catch him”, but went on to cite 2007 as proof that the championship fight isn’t over yet, saying “Of course, in 2007 the championship wasn’t decided until the last race so anything is possible. Let’s see what happens”.

I very much doubt that we’ll see Raikkonen take a second world drivers’ championship in 2012, but perhaps a race victory is within his grasp if the new updates from Lotus can deliver big improvements in performance and regain the position they had in the pecking order earlier in the season. The team probably had the quickest car in Hungary where they took a double podium but failed to overhaul the McLaren of Lewis Hamilton, but have since fallen back. At this stage of the season Lotus now have probably only the fourth fastest car, but with a performance boost, a bit of luck and maybe some help from the weather, Raikkonen might yet win a race this year.

It has certainly been an amazing Formula 1 rebirth for Raikkonen, who has been a model of consistency in 2012. He has finished every single race and only failed to score in one – China. The only missing ingredients in his season are race wins. Had he had a few, we may well be looking at a different championship leader.

McLaren’s Korean calamity

After last week’s Japanese grand prix at Suzuka I speculated as to whether the world drivers’ championship was now a two horse race.  After the result of the Korean grand prix, where Sebastian Vettel took both his third straight victory and the championship lead, there can now be no doubt that it will be a straight fight between the German and Ferrari’s Fernando Alonso, who made a welcome return to the podium with yet another third place finish.

Although Alonso lost the world drivers’ championship lead to Vettel, the result in Korea was not all bad news for Ferrari.  With Alonso’s team-mate, Felipe Massa, now returning to the type of form that made him a championship contender in the past, he now looks certain to retain his seat with the Italian team for next season, something that looked highly unlikely given his awful form in the early part of 2012.  Massa’s upturn in form means that Ferrari are no longer completely reliant on Alonso for constructors’ championship points, too.  Indeed, such has been the improvement in Massa’s form – he has finished in the top five positions in four of the last five races – that Ferrari has now leapfrogged McLaren in the constructor’s championship.

Jenson Button, McLaren MP4-27
Sepang, Malaysia, 23rd March 2012
By Morio, via Wikimedia Commons

The Korean grand prix was somewhat of a disaster for McLaren.  Jenson Button, after qualifying down in 11th position on Saturday, didn’t even last a lap on Sunday.  Button was taken out of the running, along with Mercedes driver Nico Rosberg, at turn three by Sauber’s Kamui Kobayashi, who was branded an “idiot” by the Englishman over the team radio.  Sadly for McLaren, things didn’t go that much better for Button’s team-mate, Lewis Hamilton, who had been hoping to challenge for victory after qualifying in third place.  Hamilton suffered an awful afternoon in Korea.  He did well to score a single world championship point with a 10th place finish after being forced to stop for fresh rubber three times because of extreme tyre wear, and having to drive for the last few laps with artificial grass attached to his car, undoubtedly costing him aerodynamic efficiency.

It was revealed after the race that Hamilton had suffered a rear anti-roll bar failure towards the end of his first stint at around lap 18 of the 55 lap race.  It was this anti-roll bar failure that dramatically increased the 2008 world drivers’ champions’ tyre wear and made his McLaren extremely tough to drive.  Indeed, considering the nature of the problem, and the length of time that Hamilton was forced to drive with it, it was an outstanding performance from the Englishman.

Even McLaren team principal, Martin Whitmarsh, who has been seemingly reluctant to talk too much about Hamilton since, he announced his decision to leave the team for Mercedes at the end of the season, was effusive in his praise of Hamilton’s drive.  Whitmarsh, talking after the race about Hamilton’s anti-roll bar failure, said “The car must have been horrendous to drive, so the fact that he was fighting there with Kimi [Raikkonen] for quite a few laps and then caught the two Toro Rossos at the end, was truly remarkable…He just was tenacious and a fighter, so it was a heroic drive from him…I am immensely proud of him”.

Lewis Hamilton, McLaren MP4-27
Sepang, Malaysia, 23 March 2012
By Morio, via Wikimedia Commons

Whitmarsh’s praise will be of scant consolation to Hamilton, though.  The Stevenage-born driver conceded after the race that his battle for the Formula 1 world drivers’ championship was over, saying “I think in terms of winning [the championship], I think that’s it for us”.  He went on to highlight the fact that in the last three races there have now been three failures on his car that have ended his championship dream.  Before his anti-roll bar failure in Korea, Hamilton retired when leading the Singapore grand prix with a gearbox failure, while in Japan he managed a fifth place finish with a poorly handling car that it was later discovered had suffered a rear damper failure, which had not been picked up by his team despite being present during qualifying the day before.

Sebatian Vettel, Red Bull RB8
Bahrain, 22 April 2012
By Ryan Bayona, via Wikimedia Commons

When you add Hamilton’s technical failures to Button’s, and the numerous operational errors that blighted McLaren’s early season performances, it’s not hard to see why neither of the team’s drivers has a chance of taking a second drivers’ world championship in 2012.  Despite starting the season with the fastest car, and ending the European part of the season with three straight victories, McLaren have shot themselves in the foot time and time again.  Hamilton remains the best placed of the McLaren drivers in the championship standings having amassed 153 points, with Button a further 22 points adrift, but he is now a huge 62 points behind new drivers’ championship leader Sebastian Vettel.  With four races remaining and 100 points available it would take a miracle for Hamilton to overhaul both Vettel and second placed Alonso, who sits just four points behind the German.

Not only have these operational errors and technical failures cost McLaren’s drivers dearly, but they are also costing the team the chance of winning a first constructors’ world championship since 1998.  Despite their early season issues, McLaren went in to the Singapore grand prix second in the constructors’ championship, just 20 points behind Red Bull Racing and in with a real chance of taking their first constructors championship title for 14 years.  However, three races later and the gap to Red Bull is now 83 points.  With 172 points still on offer in the constructors’ championship it might look like McLaren are still in with a chance, but given the relative performance of the two teams that chance must surely be slim, at best.

Felipe Massa, Ferrari F2012,
Malaysia, 24 March 2012
By Morio, via Wikimedia Commons

McLaren have only to look at Ferrari to see where they need to improve.  The Italian team have at no stage of the season looked like they’ve had the fastest car, but their reliability has been bulletproof.  Indeed, the team have not had a single technical retirement in the whole of the 2012 season.  Had Massa’s lack of competitiveness in the early part of the season not hampered the team so badly they would surely have overtaken McLaren in the constructors’ standings long before the Korean grand prix.

As for Red Bull, despite some reliability issues of their own this season they’re now in a dominant position to take a third consecutive constructors’ championship title.  Indeed, after a third race victory in a row for Sebastian Vettel it would be a brave man who would now bet against him achieving a matching run of drivers’ world championship titles, despite his lead over Fernando Alonso being only six points.

It’s looking increasingly like Red Bull Racing and Sebastian Vettel are on a charge.  Can anyone now stop them?  The result of the next race, the Indian grand prix, may well give us the answer.

A two horse race?

The Japanese grand prix certainly wasn’t the most exciting of the 2012 Formula 1 season so far, but we may well look back at the end of the season and pinpoint round 15 as a pivotal one in determining the destination of the world drivers’ championship.  Fernando Alonso’s first corner retirement, coupled with a dominant victory for Sebastian Vettel, has reduced the former’s championship lead from a daunting 29 points over the latter before the Suzuka race, to a mere four points at the chequered flag.  With a further 33 points between Vettel and the driver that’s third in the championship, Lotus’s Kimi Raikkonen, the championship battle is looking like it might be a shootout between the top two.  As with just about everything else in Formula 1, though, things aren’t quite that simple.

Sebatian Vettel, Red Bull RB8
Bahrain, 22 April 2012
By Ryan Bayona, via Wikimedia Commons

What is clear, however, is that the all important championship momentum is with Germany’s Sebastian Vettel.  The Red Bull Racing driver, the defending world drivers’ champion after taking back to back championships in 2010 and 2011, now becomes the first driver to take back to back victories in what has been an unpredictable 2012 season.  Vettel has profited in the last two grand prix as two of his chief competitors for the 2012 title have faltered.  First, McLaren’s Lewis Hamilton was forced to retire from the lead in Singapore with a gearbox problem handing the German what proved to be an easy win, then Alonso retires in Japan after contact with Raikkonen at turn one.  This a huge shift in momentum when compared to the Italian grand prix, where Hamilton took his third victory of the season, Alonso picked up a podium and Vettel retired with an alternator failure.

Even more important in Japan, though, was the manner of Vettel’s victory; something that will surely have the other runners and riders in the hunt for the 2012 world drivers’ championship seriously worried.  It’s fair to say that Red Bull racing have struggled a little for qualifying pace in 2012, especially when compared with 2011 where Vettel took a string of brilliant pole positions.

There was no sign of their 2012 qualifying issue in Suzuka, though.  Red Bull now have their own double DRS device – a variation of the one used by Mercedes – which boosts straight line speed by channelling air through the rear wing to stall the beam wing when the DRS is activated, which it can be with total freedom in qualifying.  It is perhaps no surprise that with this extra boost in speed, Red Bull Racing locked out the front row in Japan.  However, the dominance of their qualifying performance – with McLaren’s Jenson Button the only driver to get close to the Red Bulls, qualifying two tenths of a second behind second placed Mark Webber – perhaps indicates that Red Bull may have made other changes to the RB8 to unlock extra speed.

Their rivals would certainly have hoped for a different story in the race, but sadly for them Vettel produced a performance reminiscent of many of his 2011 victories.  Had Mark Webber not been knocked out of contention by Romain Grosjean – who was involved in yet another, completely avoidable start-line incident, for which he was rightly penalised – a one, two finish would surely have been on the cards for Red Bull Racing in Japan.

Despite the issues for Webber and Alonso at the start of the race, McLaren were simply not in a position to capitalise.  A set-up error for Hamilton in qualifying saw him qualify down in ninth place and a five place grid penalty for Button saw him start just one place ahead of his team-mate in eighth position.  While both cars were able to move forward in the race, they could only manage fourth and fifth place.

Lewis Hamilton, McLaren MP4-27
Malaysia, 23 March 2012
By Morio, via Wikimedia Commons

Although this means, of course, that Hamilton moves closer to Alonso in the championship – and we should bear in mind that the reduction in deficit for Hamilton is exactly the same as it would have been had he won the race and Alonso finished third, as was the case in Italy – McLaren will certainly wonder where their pace has gone.  Hamilton’s set-up error meant that he suffered from understeer in the early part of the race.  However, the problem cured itself mid-way through the race, with Hamilton saying afterwards “I struggled for the first 20 laps, I don’t know if it was before the first stop or after, and through Turn 14 I felt this thud on the rear and all of a sudden the car starting turning fantastically”.

Kamui Kobayashi, Sauber C31
Malaysia, 24 March 2012
By Morio, via Wikiemedia Commons

This might suggest that there was a car problem for Hamilton, which rectified itself, rather than a simple lack of pace for McLaren, but although Button looked more competitive than Hamilton he, too, was unable to mount much of a challenge.  Despite the Frome born driver running third early in the race, Ferrari’s Felipe Massa – who drove brilliantly to take his first podium in nearly two years, finishing second, having started 10th – leapfrogged ahead of Button and eventual podium debutant Kamui Kobayashi.  Button was pushed down to fourth and although he challenged the Japanese driver for the final podium position towards the end of the race, he was never in a position to attempt a pass, eventually finishing just half a second behind the Sauber driver.

Despite Massa’s stunning return to form, which has increased the speculation that he may now hang on to his Ferrari seat for 2013, Ferrari probably have the most to worry about, though.  Recent car upgrades simply haven’t delivered the expected boost in performance due to an issue with the Italian team’s wind tunnel.  If the first corner in Japan is anything to go by, lady luck may have finally deserted Alonso, too.  With rumours of a further car upgrade for Red Bull Racing in Korea, and the sudden mid-race change in car characteristics for Hamilton suggesting that McLaren still have a fundamentally quick car, the Scuderia, and Alonso, are now very much on the back foot.

In terms of the world drivers’ championship it’s now very much two by two.  The top two, Alonso and Vettel are separated by just four points and are clearly the two drivers with the best chance of the title with just five races remaining.  There’s then a gap of 33 points to third placed driver Kimi Raikkonen – still without a win since returning to Formula 1 with Lotus at the start of the season – who is just five points ahead of Lewis Hamilton.  33 points is a big gap, but as we saw with the 29 point gap between Alonso and Vettel before the race in Japan, such a gap can be quickly eroded with a race victory and a retirement for other drivers.  I’d say that it’s far too early to rule out Raikkonen and Hamilton yet, although if the former is to stand a chance I expect that he will need to start winning races.  The next two drivers in the championship are Mark Webber and Jenson Button, who are separated by just three world championship points, with Webber 18 point behind Lewis Hamilton, but a huge 60 points behind leader Alonso.  Neither Webber nor Button has a realistic chance of the championship.

The key word is momentum, though.  Red Bull and Sebastian Vettel clearly have it and unless – as the Milton Keynes based team’s rivals will hope – their performance in Japan was a circuit specific one-off, it’s looking increasingly like Vettel will emulate his countryman, Michael Schumacher, and take a third consecutive title.  There’s still a quarter of the season to go, though, and plenty could happen which might turn the tide yet again.  What’s clear for now, though, is that the Red Bull is in a great position to hunt down the Prancing Horse.

Hamilton’s move and the domino effect

The big news in the world of Formula 1 over the past week was undoubtedly Lewis Hamilton’s decision to leave McLaren at the end of the 2012 season to join Mercedes, with Sergio Perez taking his place with the British team.  Hamilton’s decision to swap Woking for Brackley has divided opinion with many fans questioning the decision and questioning the 2008 world drivers’ champion motivations.  It’s not only Hamilton and Perez’s respective moves that have created a media storm, though.  The knock on effect of those two moves has reignited speculation around the rest of the driver market.

Lewis Hamilton
Bahrain GP, 21 April 2012
By Ryan Bayona via Wikimedia Commons

Let’s start with the obvious and look briefly at Hamilton’s decision to leave the team that he’s been with since the age of 13 in favour of a new challenge at Mercedes.  The move certainly didn’t come out of the blue; speculation about a possible move to Mercedes for Hamilton blew up at Monza, as BBC analyst and former Formula 1 team owner, Eddie Jordan broke news of an “imminent” deal between the two parties.  Three weeks on and Jordan has been proved right, with Hamilton’s three year contract with the German works team being formally announced by Mercedes on Friday.

Even before the deal was signed many were accusing Hamilton of being driven by greed, with rumours of a higher salary on offer from Mercedes, and more freedom to exploit lucrative image rights.  While it is certainly true that Hamilton will have greater latitude to make his own private sponsorship deals with Mercedes – he was restricted to a single personal sponsor at McLaren – it soon emerged that the basic salary on offer from Mercedes was, at best, no more than that on offer from McLaren.

Mercedes team boss Ross Brawn revealed to Sky that “Lewis didn’t come here because we offered more money – because we didn’t”, and went on to say that “I think for Lewis, the attraction was being part of that building structure – the creation of the team. Not walking into a ready formed, successful package; it was being part of the process of building that package.  I think he felt that that was the next stage of his career”.

It’s hard to say that this is not a perfectly reasonable motivation for Hamilton.  We mustn’t forget that we’re dealing with a driver that’s looking to cement a reputation as one of the best in Formula 1.  It’s no secret that he wants to win multiple championships, like his great hero Ayrton Senna.  While the relative competitiveness of McLaren and Mercedes this season would suggest that his best chance of doing that is by staying at the team that currently has the faster car, i.e. McLaren, it is certainly very hard to know what the future will hold next year and beyond.

It’s easy to forget that there is a big regulation change coming in 2014, which will level the playing field and which is bound to mix up the current pecking order.  It’s also easily forgotten that the last time there was a big change in the regulations, in 2009, Brawn GP – the team that is now Mercedes – won both the drivers’ and constructors’ championships.

Of course, we’re now dealing with a substantially different team from the one that arose from the ashes of Honda, but the technical team has now been restructured with key personnel now recruited, in place, and ready to make the most of the forthcoming change in regulations.  Mercedes will also have the advantage of having the earliest possible access to information about the new 1.6 litre V6 turbo engines that the teams will be using in 2014.  While using the same engines, McLaren certainly won’t have quite the same access as they’re now effectively a customer team.

Parallels can certainly be made with Michael Schumacher’s decision to leave Benetton for Ferrari in 1996 after winning two consecutive world drivers’ championships for the former, while the latter was uncompetitive.  While Schumacher moved and the technical team followed, though, Hamilton has the advantage of being the last piece of the puzzle.  He’ll step into a fully formed team under the leadership of the man behind all of Michael Schumacher’s seven world drivers’ championships, Ross Brawn.

Indeed, with all due respect to Michael Schumacher, who is certainly no longer the driver that swept all before him at Benetton and Ferrari, all that Mercedes were missing was a proven race and championship winning driver.  They’ve certainly got that with the signing of Lewis Hamilton, a man who is “the best driver in the world” according to triple world drivers champion Niki Lauda, who is joining Mercedes as a board member.

Sergio Perez, Sauber C31,
Malaysian GP, 23 March 2012
By Morio via Wikimedia Commons

While Mercedes have gained what might be the missing ingredient that’s needed to enable the team to win world championships, McLaren will certainly be disappointed to have lost someone who they’ve nurtured over the last 14 years.  They didn’t dwell too long on the loss, however, moving swiftly to sign Sergio Perez from Sauber and even announcing the move before Hamilton had officially been confirmed as having signed for Mercedes.  Certainly in Perez, McLaren have signed a driver with massive potential who will now be well placed to challenge more often for race wins in the future.  It will certainly be interesting to see how the young Mexican measure up against 2009 world drivers’ champion Jenson Button, who will surely be considered the de-facto team leader at McLaren from 2013.

With seats now locked down at Mercedes and McLaren, and Michael Schumacher undecided about whether he’ll continue driving after the end of his contract with Mercedes, the Hamilton and Perez moves have certainly kicked off a fresh round of speculation about which drivers will be at which teams in 2013.  There’s now a definite vacancy at Sauber, and given the performance of that team in 2012, it may well be one that’s in much greater demand in 2013.  Schumacher has been strongly linked with that seat, with team boss Peter Sauber being quoted in Germany’s Auto Motor und Sport as saying “I would take him immediately”.  I find it hard to believe that Schumacher would make that move, though.

Felipe Massa’s future at Ferrari is also far from certain and there has even been some speculation that Schumacher could take the Brazilian’s place and rejoin the team with which he won five of his seven world drivers’ championships.  I can’t see that happening either, though.  It would certainly be quite a come down for Schumacher to have to play the supporting role at the Scuderia, having been the undisputed lead driver is his pomp.  There are also conflicting reports that Massa will, despite a truly horrendous fist part of the season, retain his drive at Ferrari, or that Nico Hulkenburg has already been signed from Force India to replace him.

If that last rumour is true, then we have a seat available at Force India, and possibly one at Caterham, too, should reports that Vitaly Petrov has run out of money prove to be true.  Add that to the confirmed vacancy at Sauber and there will certainly be some seats available to be filled.  Should Massa leave Ferrari, a return to Sauber looks to be the most likely move for him, but what of the possible Force India and Caterham vacancies?

Adrian Sutil, Force India VMJ04
Malaysian GP, 9 April 2011
By Morio via Wikimedia Commons

When we add to the mix the possible promotion of Williams reserve driver Valtteri Bottas to the seat currently occupied by Bruno Senna, that means that Senna, and his not inconsiderable sponsorship backing, will be available to move.  Might he fill one of the possible vacancies at Force India or Caterham?  We also have the possible returns of Jaime Alguersuari, who is “sure” he will be driving in F1 in 2013, and former Force India driver Adrian Sutil, as well as the possible entry of GP2 champion Davide Valsecchi to consider.

As ever in F1, there’s a shortage of seats, but no shortage of drivers eager to fill them.  It looks like, despite the moves of Hamilton and Perez, there’s still plenty of fuel for the silly season fire.