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.
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”.
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.
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.
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.