Things we could be discussing: Manor Marussia miraculously making it through the winter; Max Verstappen becoming F1’s first and, under next year’s licence rules at least, only 17 year old driver; Nico vs Lewis – This Time It’s Exactly As Personal As Last Time; Vettel and Ferrari seeking success together having both separately misplaced it.

Things we’re discussing instead: Sauber employing 3 men to drive 2 cars.

What the sport needs to learn from this is that if a team cannot make it through a winter without signing a driver whose sponsors will pay up front, all the while hoping that the driver they already signed to drive the same car either won’t mind or else somehow won’t notice, there’s a need to consider whether the existing costs of competing are sustainable. Much of Sauber’s conduct this week has been unfortunate, some of it disreputable, but much like the Lotus development driver we discussed last week, at the heart of it is a desperate grab for survival cash.

We’ll find out how the whole sorry business ends in due course, but first, crystal ball time. We’ve tried the broad, wide-ranging preview piece. We’ve tried 5 themes to watch. We’ve tried having an enthusiast lose a prediction contest against his own mother despite a) 25 years of avid fandom and b) his mother not really understanding what any of the questions meant. How next to thoroughly louse up an F1 season preview?

The answer, it turned out, was to write half the piece – some 1300 words – before unwittingly deleting them all via a keyboard shortcut I didn’t know existed, which is the kind of thing that can lead to someone snapping. Lacking the time, energy or strength to start from scratch leaves us with this, a cut-down version of the original plan: pick this year’s top 10 in the world championship, explain why and then, in a piece of immediate and immaculate back-tracking, highlight why I’m probably wrong.

10: Fernando Alonso

Relentlessly quick, combative, the ultimate competitor. New McLaren Honda doesn’t yet appear ready, so no real penalty for missing Australia after very, very curious testing accident and subsequent lay-off. Chassis appears strong and Alonso will outpace Button once everything inside the engine works at the same time, but that might not be until we’re well into the meat of the European season. Forget all of this if the engine remains incapable of more than 8 laps at a time past the summer break, or if the chassis only seems good because the Honda is detuned in ways that would suit an Austin Maestro.

9: Nico Hulkenberg

A superstar who’d prove it to the watching world more readily if only someone would give him the right tool. New Force India isn’t it – late, undeveloped, underfunded – but ran as many laps in 2 days of testing as McLaren did in 12. Reliability already there, pace will come from Monaco updates onwards, The Hulk wont miss an opportunity to score. Main risks to this prediction are that the post-Monaco step might not come and that the team might not survive the year.

8: Daniil Kvyat

Quick, intelligent, committed. Kvyat will go far but his promotion to Red Bull is, by the team’s own admission, a year too soon. Kvyat will impress this season but his performances will contain too many troughs to progress further up the standings, though the contrasting peaks will be high indeed. Won’t be any lower than this, could conceivably be higher if he’s more ready than we think.

7: Felipe Massa

Supremely likeable man whose move to Williams seemed to liberate him. Freed from the shadow of ex-teammate Alonso, Massa rediscovered old form but brought with him recent inconsistency, along with his unshakeable gift for being in the wrong place at the wrong time (Australia, Canada, Britain, Germany…). New Williams is firmly in the best-of-the-rest fight and podiums are likely, but surely not often enough to rank higher. Surely. Surely?

6: Sebastian Vettel

Man with a point to prove. Winning for Ferrari will dispel notions that 4 world titles were down to Adrian Newey’s cars and not Vettel’s driving. Winning for anyone at all might leas folk to forget about a 2014 spent in the shadow of Daniel Ricciardo at Red Bull. New Ferrari appears a big step from last year’s maligned F14 T but new teammate Raikkonen has looked quicker in pre-season. Then again, Vettel has never had a problem waiting until the prizes are being given out before showing his hand…

5: Kimi Raikkonen

Unintelligibuhl’s finest has a car he can feel the limits of again. Notoriously sensitive to front-end behaviour and steering feel, the Iceman’s 2014 car gave him none of what he needed. Ferrari SF15T is already a marked improvement, designed with Kimi’s needs in mind. Has experience of Ferrari’s internal politics, continuity within the team and no reason to fear Vettel given his own natural speed. May, however, have extended periods of relative anonymity if faced with setup or tyres he dislikes.

4: Daniel Ricciardo

When reviewing the Kvyat entry above, bear in mind that a year ago nobody thought Danny Ric was a Vettel-beating regular race winner. Red Bull appear to be in amongst the Williams/Ferrari fight but keep their powder dry during pre-season where possible – the car will be thereabouts and the driver has only Hamilton for company at the top of the wheel-to-wheel combat tree. Probably can’t go higher without a Mercedes engine, can only go lower if Ferrari has a clear performance advantage.

3: Valtteri Bottas

The Real Deal. BO77AS teams speed with metronomic consistency, has a Merc engine behind him and sits in a sensible evolution of Williams design philosophy. Can’t win the title this year because he isn’t a Mercedes works driver, could undoubtedly do so in a car that allowed it. Wins are a realistic target but may need to come early – predicted P3 in championship might be unsustainable if Ferrari/Red Bull outspend and outdo Williams in the development war, though they didn’t in 2014…

2: Nico Rosberg

New Mercedes W06 has greater margin over rest of field than dominant W05 last year. Expect a Mercedes 1-2 in the final rankings. Nico is the second fastest of these drivers, hence this placing. Outqualified Hamilton last season but no match in races, losing 6 of last 7 and being outpaced by Lewis in the 7th. Requires Lewis to have a mental lapse to go higher but would need to go to extraordinary lengths to finish lower.

1: Lewis Hamilton

World’s fastest driver + world’s fastest car = world champion. The speed has always been there but last year came the patience and intelligence to use it wisely too. Recent changes in personal life could destabilise a driver of unusual emotional sensitivity, though car advantage is such that finishing below 2nd would involve a special effort. There for the taking as long as Hamilton doesn’t make too much of a hash of things.

Remember, though, that my track record in these matters is quite terrifically bad. We’ll check back in through the season to see how well (or otherwise) this is going…

One day, not all that far into the future, you’re likely to see a follow-up post apologising for that headline.

The usual drill applies when it comes to analysing pre-season testing. (The first person to say, “What, you’re going to ignore it and then go 2 years without writing anything?” earns themselves a round of terrifically slow applause, alright?) There are real, genuine limits to what you can learn without knowing what fuel load everyone’s carrying, whether the track was 3 degrees warmer today than yesterday, whether Williams have turned their engine up and Ferrari haven’t, whether Driver X is really pushing and so on. This blogger is, however, going to go out on a limb here and suggest that Mercedes might be quite quick. You get nowhere in this business without making the occasional shocking, left-field prediction.

Williams may or may not have turned their engine up when Susie Wolff drove the new FW37 in Barcelona last week. The general response to news of female participation in a male-dominated sport is often to assume that the driver is where she is because of her looks, her marketability or who she knows. Susie, she of the Vogue photoshoot, the articulate media-friendly nature and the well-connected husband (Mercedes F1 chief Toto), is no exception, but to assume that her Williams role owes everything to those attributes is to ignore a career spent scoring points in DTM and podium finishes in Formula Renault, beating Aston Martin factory driver Stuart Hall and Audi sportscar specialist Oliver Jarvis along the way.

Susie is, in other words, more than fast enough for a team like Williams to learn something when she drives their cars and spends time in their simulator. For Williams, a once-mighty organisation heaving itself back to the top of the pile after too long languishing in the middle of nowhere, it has to be this way. A test and development driver needs to be quick enough to fully assess a car’s performance, then concentrated and intelligent enough to give their engineer concise, accurate feedback on how it behaves.

The situation is much the same at Lotus, who followed two race-winning years with a 2014 season good for nothing, beyond reminding the team that hey, at least 2015 can’t be any worse. Armed with that knowledge, meet their new development driver, Carmen Jorda.

The initial Lotus press release described their new signing as having enjoyed “a distinguished racing career.” Last season, Carmen competed in GP3, a feeder series two rungs below F1, and finished the season 29th in the championship standings. In practice for the season’s first event in Barcelona, Jorda placed 27th out of 27, one second slower than the driver in 26th. The season’s other female competitor, Beitske Visser, finished ahead of Jorda in the championship despite only competing in the first two races. It’d be easy, of course, to blame the car, but then again a) GP3 is a one-make series, so everyone has the same equipment and b) she was replaced in the Korainen team for the final 4 races by Dean Stoneman, who took Jorda’s car to 2 front row starts and 2 race wins.

Considering these facts has forced this writer to remind himself of how the dictionary defines the word “distinguished”, having briefly considered that he must also be in the middle of a distinguished racing career and had simply failed to realise. Considering them further led him to realise that if the racing career required him to take part in this many photo shoots wearing short dresses, shorter shorts or no obvious shorts at all, perhaps his being too tall and heavy for it was for the best after all.

Reaction to the announcement, including GP2 racer Mitch Evans advising that it isn’t April 1st yet, Jorda’s former team mate Rob Cregan suggesting that she “couldn’t develop a roll of film, let alone an F1 car” and GP3 race winner Richie Stanaway cutting straight to the heart of the matter with a simple “LOL”, hasn’t quite been universally positive. The reaction emphasises the points we covered a paragraph ago, of course, but Lotus will have seen it coming. They must have done, because they’d already appointed 2014 GP2 champion Jolyon Palmer as their official test and reserve driver weeks ago.

That being so, what exactly is Carmen’s signing meant to achieve? Recent years have seen Danica Patrick win in the IndyCar Series, while Sarah Fisher scored podium finishes as a driver and a race win as a team owner. Simona de Silvestro followed up wins in Formula Atlantic with an IndyCar podium too, before her F1 aspirations were put on hold by a contract dispute with Sauber after a year occupying her own development role with the Swiss outfit. While neither Danica nor Sarah have shown any serious desire to build a career in Formula 1, Simona gave it a go on the back of a very respectable career to date and made it no further than driving a 2 year old car on a private test day.

The message sent out by a sport that turns away de Silvestro while welcoming Jorda, then, must surely be that yes, women are welcome, but only if their legs are long enough and their pout seductive enough to satisfy the sexists. Perhaps you’ve arrived here after browsing one of the many articles on the same subject, reading through the comments threads and – go on, since you’re there – adding your own tuppen’orth while you’re at it, with a mind that’s already made up and an opinion formed of the very clearest crystal. Perhaps the man writing this blog entry thought the same thing when he first heard the news. Perhaps, though…

What follows is only a thought, something to mull over, to consider. It’s widely thought that Carmen Jorda brings with her a not-inconsiderable amount of sponsorship money, which will be particularly useful to the perennially cash-strapped Lotus outfit. Money talks in a language we all understand, a language in which the bearer’s gender makes no difference. We’ve briefly spoken of Jolyon Palmer, whose career is backed by Comma, an automotive oil company. Pastor Maldonado comes to Lotus bearing gifts of his own, these ones from PDVSA, the Venezuelan government-backed oil and gas company.

Simona de Silvestro had no money to bring to a Sauber team fighting to stay afloat. Adrian Sutil had a 2015 race deal in his pocket with the same team but was cast unceremoniously aside when Felipe Nasr produced USD $15 million of Banco do Brasil cash. Marcus Ericsson took the second Sauber seat with sponsorship deals thought to be of a similar value. While Kamui Kobayashi returns to Japan to race domestically, having failed to nail down an F1 drive despite being blessed with speed and the belief that every corner in the world represents an overtaking opportunity if you’re rude enough, Manor Marussia are preparing to feel the benefit of Will Stevens’ personal backers, as Caterham did during their farewell appearance in Abu Dhabi last year.

Formula 1 is increasingly the preserve of those with the manufacturer backing or the personal funding to support its ever-increasing costs. Those costs, those increasingly unsustainable costs of competing in a sport too racked with individual self-interests to ever consider its collective future health (another rant, for another time), apply to all, whether male, female, black, white, yellow. Carmen Jorda’s arrival in F1 is igniting a debate, as it should, but in a sport where drivers of both genders are increasingly being assessed on the same wallet-heavy criteria, the debate being had is the wrong one. Increasingly, it seems that male and female competitors are equal in the way that matters most to the teams in the lower reaches of F1, those outfits who act as an entry point for emerging talent. No matter who you are or how you look, if your bank balance ain’t large enough, you ain’t getting in.

Oh! It’s you! Let’s ease ourselves back in gently, shall we?

Though a Vettel by any other name would drive as quickly, it cannot hurt the modern racing driver to make himself stand out as far as possible in the minds of fans, potential employees and prospective sponsors. Some have the advantage of looks – put a call in to Central Casting asking for a racing driver and they’ll probably send you the spitting image of Carlos Reutemann. Others – Hunt, Raikkonen, Depailler – became favourites through devil may care spirit, embracing the idea that you only live once and enjoying that one shot to its fullest.

It has often struck me, though, that it can only be a good thing to be the owner of a memorable name. Take, for instance, 1985 British F3 National Class winner Carlton Tingling, then see if you can forget that handle in a hurry. Hungry? Have a Bertrand Baguette with some Thornton Mustard, another British F3 name from times past.

There are the urologically sound (Dick Passwater), the born-to-do-it (Lake Speed won at the highest level, Scott Speed whined there), the translator’s dream ticket (Libero Pesce, translated literally from Italian, is “free fish”) and the oddly relevant questions (Willy Vroomen? His team boss hopes he will). Famous landmarks (Ricardo Londono-Bridge) vie for attention against modes of transport (Ric Shaw), those with time to fill and a means of filling it (Fred Wacker) and those still more practiced in the same art (Kye Wankum, Dick Creamer, and it goes on – a rich seam would appear to have been struck here).

Some press officers are never more than one false key press from disaster (Buck Fulp, Vanina Ickx) while others dare not let their drivers have control of the barbecue (Bernd Burger), the length of their leash (Kiki Wolfkill) or anything else at all (Ken Klutz). Certain drivers have a career on the dirt tracks mapped out from birth (Dusty Rhoades) while others know broadly what to do but can’t commit to a specialism (Bernard de Dryver) and still others had a change of heart once they’d thought about it (Dick Salesman).

Perhaps some aren’t stand outs by themselves – Will Power may argue that he is, but when teamed with Andrew Ranger in ChampCar, he’s one half of an unbeatable duo. In this sub-category, file those who didn’t drive together but ought to have done, such as the ultimate missed opportunity, a Patrick Watts/Cristiano Da Matta endurance partnership (imagine Murray Walker at full tilt and consider their surnames – you’ll be in agreement soon enough), and those a bored reporter slipped past their editor (the Kamiya Iwanalaya/Onri Wenyapaimi sportscar pairing, as brilliant as it is fictitious).

Before we get back to the relatively serious stuff, let me know if I’ve missed out one of your favourites by leaving a comment. If you happen to be any of the above-named, I am genuinely interested to know if your name brought you any advantages (or disadvantages, come to that) when pitching for sponsors and so on, so please do drop me a line.

Alonso: I would support Massa if needed.

In other news this evening, Petrolhead Blogger: I would become trapped in a lift with Beyonce if needed.

I mean, what is this all about? is the link, the man in the YouTube video linked to from that site looks an awful lot like the Kimster, the whole shebang looks legitimate and I’m assuming the folk responsible are using viral marketing to generate interest in some sort of product endorsement deal…

Keep your eyes on it, though.  Just in case.

Since we last spoke, deals have been done, contracts have been signed and one L. Hamilton of Stevenage has found himself being given the keys to a shiny new Mercedes. Those who’ve recently uttered words like, “So, we’re doing half-yearly season reviews now, are we?” will be pleased to hear that we’re going to revisit this topic and the motivation behind the move soon (clue: it’s not all about money. The money is probably quite important, I’ll allow, but Lewis is a bit more complex than that). Before we do, though, let’s have a quick squint at what it means for the rest of the grid.

Firstly, it means I finally get an answer to that hardy perennial, “Exactly how good is Nico Rosberg?” There’s a strong argument that he’s not doing as good as job as Michael Schumacher this year – “outdriven at Monaco” (look beyond the grid penalty – Schumi was faster in qualifying and race), “outdriven at Spa” and “outdriven at Suzuka” are three things you really don’t want to be saying about circuits that reward men over machines – and that win in China is looking more and more like a fortunate bounce with every race that passes. Hamilton is a proven quantity, a world champion with 20 wins under his belt and the nagging sense that the 2007 and 2010 titles were ones that got away. Lewis believes he’s the fastest driver in the world, a thought shared by a great many people outside of the Hamilton family, so for Nico, there can be no hiding place in 2013.

By extension, we’ll also find out roughly how good Schumacher Mk 2 was. With his second retirement now confirmed, this one more of his own volition than 2006’s effort but still with the unfortunate feeling that he was pushed before he ever made it as far as jumping, there’ll be no 8th world title for the Red Baron. If Rosberg keeps up with Hamilton, that’ll throw the old stager’s recent efforts into focus. If he doesn’t, we’ll know that Michael’s second coming was that of a good Grand Prix driver, not a great one being stymied by his equipment.

Sergio Perez is on his way to McLaren. Regulars will know that the Petrolhead Blogger doesn’t consider Sergio to be one of F1’s elite. His good results have been spectacular – think of that 2nd place that should probably have been 1st in Malaysia, of 3rd in Montreal and 2nd again at Monza – but none of them have been achieved through pure pace. Perez has been the man on the favourable strategy each time he’s appeared on the podium, popping up at the sharp end through good use of tyres rather than blistering speed. Qualifying averages tell the same story – have a look at his average starting position against Kamui Kobayashi this season and you’ll find that Sergio is losing. Each Sauber driver has 7 points finishes to their name this season and with Kamui losing great grid slots to oil on the track (China) and a clutch problem leading to a first corner shunt (Spa), the balance could just as easily have tipped in the Japanese driver’s favour. Curiously, nobody is talking about Kobayashi as a future McLaren driver…

This may end up being wildly inaccurate (“Shock! Horror!” – every single one of you, right now) but it’s hard to see Perez qualifying next year’s McLaren anywhere near where it should be or having the pace to come through strongly unless tyre conservation comes to the fore. It’s also hard to see his current team mate in a car next season. Kobayashi’s maiden podium on home soil at Suzuka was rich reward for a superb drive but the overriding feeling is that Sauber are a little frustrated not to have done better this season given the undoubted qualities of their car. Peter Sauber rates Kobayashi as a little slower than Perez and says Perez is on the pace of Sauber-era Felipe Massa, which hardly implies that either man is a potential world-beater. Everyone in the paddock without a seat for 2013 would like Kamui’s drive, which could mean one or more of the following names driving something Swiss next year:

  • Esteban Gutierrez, Sauber’s current reserve driver and a means of keeping the team’s existing Mexican sponsorship
  • Heikki Kovalainen, once of McLaren, currently with Caterham, always rapid
  • Felipe Massa, twice a Sauber driver previously, has strong connections to engine supplier Ferrari but his recent upturn in form might yet keep him at Maranello for one more year
  • Jaime Alguersuari, former STR driver and current Pirelli tester, worthy of a race seat and with intimate knowledge of current tyre technology
  • Adrian Sutil, ex-Force India man who could maybe have done without a trial and subsequent conviction for GBH after sticking the stem of a champagne glass into a Lotus managing director’s neck
  • Nico Hulkenberg, linked strongly to Ferrari should they jettison Massa but with Sauber as an increasingly plausible back-up plan

Were Hulkenberg to move, this would leave a vacancy at Force India, where Paul Di Resta has a contract for 2013 but remains an outside shot for the Ferrari gig. Anyone taking the Ferrari drive would effectively be staking their career on having one impressive season, since it’s widely considered that Sebastian Vettel already has a 2014 contract with a prancing horse printed on it and it’s a bit of a stretch to imagine Ferrari telling Fernando Alonso to “hop it, mate – we’ve got that Hulkenberg bloke on a long-term deal.” All the same, few young drivers could resist the lure of Maranello money (particularly if they hadn’t been paid at all this year, which – it is alleged, Your Honour – Di Resta and Hulkenberg haven’t). If either Force India driver was to bolt, have a look at the Sauber shortlist for your main contenders while also factoring in Jules Bianchi, currently going great guns in Formula Renault 3.5 and impressing for both Force India and Ferrari in the recent Young Driver Test.

The standard trick Dr Helmut Marko employs with the Red Bull driver development programme is to put his drivers into F1 slightly too early, give them a couple of seasons at Scuderia Toro Rosso and then offload them. See Scott Speed, Vitantonio Liuzzi, Jaime Alguersuari, Sebastian Buemi (who, it should be said, bucked the trend somewhat by managing three seasons and then landing the Red Bull reserve drive when STR got bored of him). Both Jean-Eric Vergne and Daniel Ricciardo have only had one year at STR, so expect them to get another one. Then the sack.

Tangentially, back in 2001, the same Dr Marko withdrew Red Bull’s sponsorship from Sauber in protest when they refused to accept his driver Enrique Bernoldi (eventual F1 career record: 29 races, 0 points, best finish 8th), preferring instead to take a chance on signing Finnish newcomer Kimi Raikkonen (F1 career record to date: 171 starts, 18 wins, 16 pole positions, 37 fastest laps, 736 points, 1 world championship). His level of sway within Red Bull seems, to these eyes, inversely proportional to his talent-spotting ability. Save my thoughts on Sergio Perez, come back in a year and see if I’m doing any better. Those in glass houses and all that.

Lotus are probably settled, since for all Romain Grosjean’s ongoing wildness at the start of races (Mark Webber referred to him this weekend as “that first lap nutcase”), his management group also own the Lotus team. Kimi Raikkonen has shown no inclination to up sticks and leave either.

Or has he?

There are, it’s completely redundant of me to tell you, very good reasons why this place has lain fallow for so long.  Most of them relate to me being a busy boy with lots of things to get on with at the minute, all of which have more immediate, tangible benefits than blogging.  Sorry.

What I intended to do a couple of weeks ago was write a little review of the drivers based on the 11 pre-break races.  That couple of weeks passed by awfully quickly, leaving us with this, a little review of the drivers based on the 11 pre-break races and 1 post-break race.

In coming to write this, I realised that I could say pretty much the same thing about 90% of this year’s grid.  Very few drivers have spent the entire season making me wonder why we shouldn’t just swap jobs but equally, I can only point to two men who’ve consistently got everything from the car they’ve been given.

It’s a point that hardly needs to be made any more, but goodness me, Fernando Alonso is as complete a racing driver as you could ever wish to see.  Fernando once said he doesn’t view himself as the fastest driver in the world but ranks himself among the most consistent.  There must surely now be evidence that he’s both, leading the championship handsomely in what is assuredly nothing more than this year’s 4th quickest piece of kit.  Ferrari’s F2012 is no longer the barge with which the Spaniard somehow contrived to win in Malaysia, but nor is it anything like as quick as a McLaren, a Red Bull or even a Lotus.  The circumstances of the season have played a part – no team has got the best from Pirelli’s rubber at every race and a series of wet events have gone some way to masking the F2012’s inherent deficiencies – but of the drivers, only Alonso has got the absolute maximum from the equipment at his disposal at each event.  As a demonstration of what sheer brilliance can do, this man’s season will take some beating.

In trying to think of the second man to earn top marks, you’ve probably gone nowhere near the name of Pedro de la Rosa.  You might wonder what a 41 year old ex-McLaren driver is doing making a comeback in the grid’s slowest car but clearly Pedro loves his motor sport.  Equally clearly, the old dog has some life in him.  The season is littered with examples of this but his qualifying performance at Monaco is the pick, 1.3 seconds up on his team mate and only 2.678 seconds off Nico Hulkenberg’s fastest Q1 time.  As an indication of how competitive Formula 1 is these days, it’s not that long ago – 1995, in fact – that the same gap would have put PDLR 9th on the grid, between Martin Brundle and Eddie Irvine.  The HRT is slow relative to the opposition, yes, but it’s absolutely not slow full stop.  Watching Pedro throw it around Casino Square, it was hard to escape the conclusion that the driver isn’t sluggish either.

We’ve already mentioned that the bulk of this year’s grid is essentially interchangeable, and so it is at Red Bull, where both Sebastian Vettel and Mark Webber have teamed impressive highs with periods of crushing mediocrity.  Of the pair, Vettel’s highs have arguably been slightly higher, controlling the race in Bahrain and contesting a race all of his own until the alternator failed in Valencia.  Webbo was peerless at Silverstone and has generally been slightly more consistent than Seb but in a season crying out for someone to step forward and take the fight to Alonso, neither man has seized the inter-team initiative.

By and large, the fast and mature Lewis Hamilton has turned up this season and left the surly, distant Lewis at home, Belgian meltdown notwithstanding (and folks, if you’re going to temporarily lose contact with planet Earth, try not to reveal all kinds of sensitive data as you do so, especially if that data might be of genuine use to your rivals.  I mean, that’s just common sense).  Hamilton’s resurgence coincides with a McLaren that keeps its drivers guessing, veering drunkenly from world beater to also-ran and back again with a frequency that its drivers must now be finding tedious.  When it works, it’s the fastest car in the field, and when it’s the fastest car in the field, Jenson Button delivers.  When it’s not, though, Jenson goes from the untouchable winner in Australia and Belgium to the confused 16th place finisher in Canada, a lap behind the winner, one L. Hamilton.  Renowned as a man with great feel and solid technical feedback, JB’s attempts to understand this year’s tyres led him down a blind alley on car set-up that he’s needed half a season to reverse out of.  Barring a calamitous run for Alonso and a series of wins for Jense, it’s too late for a title tilt, with nothing but self-inflicted wounds to blame.

Oh, Felipe.  Oh, Felipe Massa.  You’re a lovely, lovely man and everyone desperately wants to see you win again – how could we not, after the grace you showed at the end of 2008 and the recovery from that life-threatening head injury in 2009 – but the fact is that next year, someone else is going to be driving your Ferrari, because you’re not making it go anything like quickly enough.  After a brief mid-season rally, Phil’s back in his standard position of 6 tenths away from Alonso, a gap that sees Fernando leading the championship on 164 points while Felipe languishes in 10th on 35 points.  The car might not be as good as his team mate makes it look but it simply cannot be anything like as bad as it appears when Massa is at the wheel.  See also Narain Karthikeyan, who, in fairness to him, doesn’t race too badly.  His aversion to qualifying sessions borders on allergy, though, and while de la Rosa might be driving the wheels off the HRT every time he sits in it, there can be no excuse for being quite so much slower than your team mate quite so often.

Kimi Raikkonen has returned from his holiday home in the Norwegian village of Unintelligibuhl, showing that he hasn’t suffered any great ill effects from those two years spent crashing a Citroen through various forests and snowdrifts.  In saying that, it’s worth highlighting that potential victories in Barcelona, Bahrain and Valencia have gone begging as a result of poor Saturday afternoons.  The Iceman’s race pace has been excellent all year but when everyone else is finding time in the final part of qualifying, his Lotus is standing still, as if a switch flicks in his head partway through qualifying and tells him there’s just no way he can possibly go faster.  Kimi remains firmly in the hunt for a second world title to go with his 2007 crown but to mount a serious challenge, wins must follow soon.  Similarly afflicted but a little further down the field, Bruno Senna has been strong in races this year, particularly in the early part of the season, but continues to leave himself far too much to do with ordinary qualifying performances.  The 17-place grid gap between Senna and the other Williams in Barcelona illustrates how far away from the Saturday pace Bruno has been at times, a situation he desperately needs to fix if he’s to prevent Valtteri Bottas from pinching his 2013 race seat.

Then again, perhaps it’s his team mate that’s at greater risk.  Pastor Maldonado won in Spain, a most unexpected and hugely popular first win for Sir Frank’s boys since Juan Pablo Montoya took the flag in Brazil at the end of 2004.  He’s fundamentally quick, he brings enormous amounts of Venezuelan sponsorship money and so it follows that his 2013 drive is assured, doesn’t it?  In the 7 races since then, Pastor has scored precisely no points at all while accruing 6 separate penalties, 3 of those picked up during the same Belgian weekend, 2 of those in a race which saw him complete only a single lap at racing speed.  Maldonado is rapidly establishing a reputation as the sport’s most dangerous, vacant, utterly rock-headed racer: coming from off the track to nerf Hamilton into the Valencia wall, deliberately crashing into Perez during Monaco practice, bouncing into the same driver at Silverstone, shoving Di Resta off the road at Hungaroring and a thoroughly dreadful jump start in Belgium when “the clutch slipped from my hands”, this after a penalty for impeding Hulkenberg in qualifying.  The question must be asked: does Maldonado cost Williams more in damages, repairs and sheer, straightforward goodwill than he brings in South American pennies?

The same is not true of Romain Grosjean, Kimi’s partner at Lotus.  Romain is quick too but differs from Maldonado in that, for the most part, he shows signs of basic neural activity.  What Romain needs to appreciate – one assumes his upcoming period of enforced rest, discussed below, will assist him here – is that a Formula 1 race has bits, quite important bits, that take place after the first corner.  Fernando Alonso muddles involvement and responsibility when he says Grosjean has been involved in 7 separate accidents at the start of races this year – you can be involved in evacuations without being responsible for starting the fire – but more often than not, an incident on the first lap this year has seemed to contain a Frenchman in what used to be a Lotus.  When he keeps out of trouble, he’s a contender for outright victory and had his car not responded to Vettel’s alternator failure in Valencia by copying it exactly, he’d have already claimed one.  The rough edges are many but they’re worth smoothing off.

I have no idea how good Nico Rosberg is.  This is a line I’ve been peddling since I started writing about racing cars, yes, but it’s as true today as it ever was.  His win in China was magnificent, dominating on a day when Mercedes understood what their tyres needed and everybody else missed the mark.  Judge him on that and he’s a world-beater.  Judge him on his recent efforts at Silverstone, Hockenheim and Spa, where his weekend’s work was frankly atrocious, and he couldn’t beat an egg.  Nico’s an enigma, a riddle I can’t seem to solve, and the absence of Rosberg’s name when talk turned to vacant drives at Ferrari, McLaren and Red Bull for next year would suggest I’m not alone in that.

If the only accurate barometer is the fella in the other car, he’s not as good as Michael Schumacher, whose 2012 campaign would have offered rather more had everything inside his Mercedes worked at the same time.  There’s still been the odd rick, such as crashing into Senna in Spain and the casual surrealism of his Hungarian horror story, where he crashed in practice, qualified 17th, parked in the wrong place on the grid, switched his engine off as the rest of the field started a warm-up lap, started last and picked up a first lap puncture.  It would have made sense during the last two years but this time around, it’s seemed incongruous when viewed in the context of his season; juxtapose it with his glorious pole position lap at Monaco, a weekend where the old stager was the fastest man in town in qualifying and race before the inevitable car failure, to see what I mean.  The Valencia podium was a fluke but it should have come elsewhere and much earlier.

I’d like Michael to stay on for at least one more year but if he doesn’t, Paul Di Resta has long been the hot tip to take a Mercedes works drive.  Closely linked to the Three Pointed Star through his Formula 3 and DTM adventures, it’s been assumed that Paul is a natural fit with the F1 operation and a shoe-in for the role.  For that assumption to hold true, we must now ignore the bloke in the other Force India, for Nico Hulkenberg has strung together a mightily impressive series of performances after a steady start to his racing return.  It’s a fine problem for Mercedes to have and assuming Force India hang on to one when the other leaves, they’ll still have a worthy team leader on their books.  Di Resta’s side of the garage seems more inclined to roll the dice tactically, make fewer pit stops than their rivals and nurse the car to the end, which leaves him popping up at the front during pit sequences more often than Hulkenberg but tailing off in the later stages with equal frequency.  Hulkenberg’s crew take a more conventional approach and display more obvious pace on Sunday afternoons.  Take them over a single lap and there’s nothing to choose.

Last year, I called Sergio Perez the perfect endurance sportscar racer from years gone by but said I wasn’t sold on him as a Formula 1 driver.  You’d think, with two podiums to his name this season and what should have been a win in Malaysia only disappearing through a late slip on a greasy kerb, I’d have changed my mind.  For a moment earlier this year, I thought I might, until it dawned on me that both of his podium finishes came as a result of tyre conservation, through looking after your equipment and not taking too much out of it, just like the World Sportscar Championship used to be.  Outside of those results, he’s only featured in the top 10 finishers twice.  He’s not bad by any means and may yet go on to be great, but he’s wrong to believe he’s already done so.  In the other Sauber, Kamui Kobayashi still suffers from the loss of his unique selling point.  Before DRS, he was the only driver who appreciated that if the following driver was rude enough, one Formula 1 car could overtake another.  Now they’re all at it, the impact of Kamui’s aggression is less keenly felt.  His consistency is coming along – 5 points finishes is more than Perez has so far this season – and only Sergio’s big day in Malaysia keeps him ahead in the championship table.  Kamui might have been deprived of his when the Grosjean-Hamilton-Alonso schemozzle at Spa chose his right front suspension as a landing pad, but the raw pace is there.

Even now, 12 races into the season, I cannot tell you the difference between Daniel Ricciardo and Jean-Eric Vergne, any more than I can tell you what either of them brings to Scuderia Toro Rosso that Sebastien Buemi and Jaime Alguersuari before them didn’t.  Both men have had their moments – Ricciardo qualified magnificently in Bahrain, with a 6th place on the grid that would surely have landed a much bigger blow had he not fluffed the start and arrived at the first corner in 19th, while Vergne sailed majestically up the order in the early stages of a Malaysian monsoon on an afternoon when STR briefly joined the Marina Militare.  Outside of that, Vergne has struggled in qualifying but the pair have finished line astern 8 times in 12 races, which would seem to indicate that the problem in Faenza isn’t the drivers they’re employing but the car they’re being given.

All of which leaves me with Marussia and Caterham.  A third season tugging around at the back of the field seems to have finally got to Timo Glock, who appears to have realised that no amount of his considerable talent can elevate his team beyond the ranks of the also-rans.  Being impressive every so often, as Timo has undeniably been this season, will catch the eye of absolutely nobody after two seasons of being impressive at all times.  He looked a race winner in his Toyota days, did Timo, but now it’s hard to see not only where that driver is, but who else he could possibly drive for if not his current team.  In criticising Glock’s performance, it’s only fair to give due credit to Charles Pic, who has been much, much closer to his highly-regarded team leader than any 22 year old well-financed rookie with a solid but unspectacular record at junior level has any right to be.  The danger at the blunt end of the grid is that your team might need drivers with a budget, someone else might come along with a larger budget than yours and your talent isn’t viewed as great enough to get a drive further up the field.  Pic’s performances this year have been those of a man who deserves more than that.

Down Caterham way, Heikki Kovalainen‘s patience appears to have snapped somewhat.  If he’d driven a McLaren anything like as quickly as he routinely drives a Caterham in qualifying, he’d have been a world champion by now rather than having a single inherited race victory to his name.  Heikki’s problem has been an inability to reconcile himself with the idea that, pre-season promises notwithstanding, the team still haven’t bridged the gap between the new-for-2010 outfits and the established midfield, nor have they left Marussia behind by anything like the expected margin.  The desperation creeping into the Finn’s driving leads him to do astonishing things with his machinery in an attempt to make up the difference.  In qualifying, starting ahead of Mark Webber’s Red Bull in Valencia and bridging the gap to Toro Rosso with the utterly unhinged Monaco masterwork we’ve become used to seeing from Heikki, this has worked wonderfully.  In races, this has worked him into becoming an accident looking for a scene.

As a consequence, Vitaly Petrov has tended to see the chequered flag before his team mate, by virtue of being rather slower in general but driving within the limits of the car at his disposal.  In the lower reaches of the field, where nobody is likely to score points and your position in the constructors championship is determined by each team’s best finish, there’s a lot to be said for being there at the end just in case everyone else isn’t.  Vitaly does this very well.  I’d still hire Heikki.

Want me to pick a world champion?  At the start of the season, eventually and under some duress, I gave you the name Lewis Hamilton.  Now, he has 8 races to make up a 47 point deficit, which is more than achievable if he goes on a winning run.  The question is whether there’s any sign of that winning run coming together and whether, left to his own devices and free from assault by flying Frenchmen, Alonso will drop enough points to leave himself open to anyone.  There’s no dignity in changing horses mid-stream, so I won’t, but I will tell you this: ignore what I said in March.