Lap 30 of yesterday’s German Grand Prix (which we will, in a roundabout sort of way, discuss in this little article) marked the halfway point of this year’s Formula 1 world championship.  It’s never been less than intriguing so far – indeed, for the most part, it’s been simply stunning.

Back in March, just before the most thrilling season in years got underway, nobody had any real idea of what to expect from the new face of Formula 1 racing.  None of us were quite sure exactly how KERS, DRS and Pirelli’s return to the sport would mix up the pecking order or change the way Sunday afternoons panned out.  Some of us were stupid enough to make some predictions anyway.  At least one of us thought asking his mother for some thoughts was a great idea which wouldn’t in any way come back to haunt him.

The aim was to illustrate that when it came to setting predictions for 2011, you were just as well off asking someone with a passing interest if you couldn’t find anyone who’d spent the last 20 years deeply in love with motorsport.  How are we doing so far?  Let’s see…:

Rookie of the year

Adam: Paul di Resta
Sue: Pastor Maldonado

This battle is beginning to tighten up a little as Pastor comes to grips with his Williams, of which more in a moment, but over the 10 races it’s di Resta who must surely get the nod.  The Scotsman has offered more than one genuinely stunning performance this season, with 6th on the grid at Silverstone being a particular high point.  It should also be said that Sergio Perez, despite the odd quiet showing or major gaffe, has been generally very impressive too.

Maldonado started to get a handle on things at Monaco, where he’s always excelled, and is by no means disgracing himself.  When, though, was the last time you saw him and said “Wow”?

Adam 1-0 Sue

Midfield surprise package

Adam: Williams
Sue: Scuderia Toro Rosso

While I have been surprised by Williams, it hasn’t been in quite the manner I’d hoped for.  FW33’s performance thus far has remained consistently in the space between ‘slow’ and ‘catastrophic’, with a pair of 9th places being the highpoint after a pre-season in which the team genuinely looked to be there or thereabouts.  A major reshuffle is currently taking place with various key technical staff, including technical director Sam Michael, taking their leave at season’s end.  You get the feeling that a clear-out is necessary, because while the existing design team appear to know they’ve drawn a bad car, nobody seems to know exactly why.  Last weekend, the team removed KERS from Rubens Barrichello’s car, replacing the unit with moveable ballast in an attempt to improve weight distribution and cure their heavy tyre wear.  This weekend, they’re putting it back on…

STR are somewhere near the position they occupied last season, thus winning this round by default.  Pulling up absolutely no trees in qualifying, the STR6 is built with race days in mind.  Jaime Alguersuari took 3 straight points finishes in Canada, Valencia and Britain, while Sebastien Buemi has scored on 4 occasions.  Only once has the Toro Rosso pairing scored points in the same race, suggesting that what the team really needs is a little more consistency from its driving staff rather than its racing car.

What we should both have said, as it turns out, was Sauber, but none of us could really have expected that, right?

Adam 1-1 Sue

Will Schumi win again?

Adam: Yes
Sue: No

Right, here we go…

Let’s not compare Michael Mk II to the all-conquering first career, the one that saw him become statistically the most successful driver in F1 history.  There’s no sense in us doing that, partly because Nico Rosberg was never going to let Mercedes mould a team around the other guy (Nico’s contract was in place before Michael’s, lest we forget), partly because there’s no prospect of Michael having the searing one-lap pace he used to have now he’s 42 and partly because relative to the competition, these Mercs are the worst cars he’s ever sat in.

For all that Nico has the undoubted qualifying advantage, it’s nothing like as clear cut when it comes to comparing race pace.  For 5 races on the spin now, Michael has been visibly, demonstrably faster on race day.  The problem is that only once, after a sublime showing on the Montreal boating lake, has he come away with a greater points haul than his team mate.  Everywhere else, car problems or silly mistakes have cost him – at Nurburgring, for instance, he had the pace to catch Rosberg, spin on a damp patch and then catch him again, all of which was fun to watch but brought him home one place behind his team mate.  That place was 8th to Nico’s 7th, in cars which haven’t once fulfilled the promise they showed in the final Barcelona winter test.

Viewed in isolation, without the 91 wins that came before, this Schumacher chap is a non-stop whirl of entertainment.  Try to recall the last time you saw Schumi on screen, on a Sunday afternoon, doing something that didn’t involve a passing move or a crash.  He remains the ultimate competitor, he has absolutely no concept of what it means to give up a position (often, it must be said, to his ultimate detriment) and I’m certain that if Mercedes can serve up a decent car, Michael can still win a race with it.

All of which, sadly, is a long-winded justification for why I’ve got this one wrong too.

Adam 12 Sue 

Massa – still a contender?

Adam: No
Sue: No

More than any of the other questions we set, this is the one I wanted to be wrong about.

For 20 seconds at the end of the 2008 season, as he won the Brazilian Grand Prix and Lewis Hamilton languished in 6th when only a top 5 finish would do, Felipe was the world champion.  The dignity, generosity and kindness of spirit he displayed when Lewis crept back into 5th and snatched the crown back was of a type no man could fail to admire.  His brilliance in the early part of 2009 was far more than the hateful Ferrari F60 deserved, his recovery from the near-fatal head injury he sustained in Hungary that year was remarkable and when “Fernando is faster – than – you,” the loss of what would have been a fairytale victory seemed unfair in a way few team orders ever have.

It’s easy to suggest that Massa is not the driver he was before a spring from Rubens Barrichello’s Brawn struck him on the head that July afternoon.  The bad news, though, is that there may well be some truth to it.  Though he led the championship in the early part of 2010, his race in Germany later that year is the only post-comeback example of the raw speed the Brazilian used to serve up as a matter of course.  In Germany this year, he was 40 seconds back down the road from his team mate.

Or should I say team leader?  Ferrari have never been shy of playing politics, nor of openly favouring one driver over another – this, incidentally, is not a practice that started in the Schumacher era, no matter what the revisionists might have you believe.  Alonso was only ever going to be signed as de-facto number one driver, though there can be little doubt that Massa’s injuries smoothed his path to some degree, and it’s worth noting how when discussing potential threats at the front of the field, Fernando never mentions Felipe.  Even given equal billing, though, I’m not sure this most likeable of racing drivers quite has it in him anymore.

Adam 2-3 Sue

Will Pirelli spice up the show?

Adam: Yes
Sue: No

They haven’t done it by themselves, not by any means.  Even in races where the tyres have hung together well, there’s been something to see.  Last weekend, for example, Hamilton, Alonso and Webber were rarely more than a couple of seconds apart and swapped the lead on seven different occasions, despite each man following their planned tyre routine and pit schedule without any major drama.

It’s the 2011 rules package as a whole we should be praising for the marked increase in overtaking and proper racing action.  There have been races – China and Turkey spring readily to mind – where tyres have been the main factor in much of the passing, but they can’t solely account for great racing in Germany, Spain or even Monaco, where everyone who wasn’t born Lewis Carl Hamilton found a way to overtake without incident.  On the whole, though, they’re promoting overtaking and varied strategies, particularly in the midfield, where Sutil and Perez have both scored big points through superb tyre conservation.  There’s speculation that, prompted by mockery from a rival tyre company’s Italian advertising, Pirelli might move towards more durable tyres for marketing reasons.  Let’s hope not.

Adam 3-3 Sue

Will anyone fall foul of the 107% rule?

Adam: No
Sue: Yes

There are – and I realise it’s quite redundant of me to point this out – perfectly good reasons for my getting this one wrong.

Come to think of it, I did say that you might see teams miss the race because they couldn’t make their car run for long enough to set a decent time.  I had HRT in mind and said as much.  In Australia, they did exactly that, failing to keep the right nuts on the relevant bolts for long enough to post a lap within 107% of the quickest Q1 time.  Game over, Adam wins and on we go, right?

Not exactly.  HRT did miss the 107% rule again in Monaco, but this too was down to technical issues and both cars had demonstrated during practice that they were quick enough to meet the required time.  Virgin can’t make the same case for Jerome d’Ambrosio in Canada.  The stewards let him in to the race on the grounds that he was running a new chassis that Saturday, one he’d never driven before.  This, just so we’re clear, shouldn’t make the blindest bit of difference.  It’s said that no two cars are exactly the same, even if they’re built to exactly the same spec, but in this modern era of computer aided design and computational fluid dynamics, it simply isn’t possible for one team to build two cars which differ wildly in performance.

Nobody expected Virgin to be quite as slow as they’ve been, least of all Virgin themselves.  I certainly didn’t, I’m startled that d’Ambrosio missed the cut anywhere, especially on a Canadian circuit which is essentially no more than a big run of chicanes connected by long straights, and I can’t for the life of me find any mitigation.  He was allowed to start the race and I really ought to use that as my get-out clause, but since I don’t believe that was the right decision:

Adam 3-4 Sue

Who’ll win the title?

Adam: Red Bull, Vettel
Sue: Red Bull, Vettel

At about this time of year, it’s tradtional for me to crown someone as champion-in-waiting and for that someone to slump like Devon Loch on tranquilisers, but can we really see it happening this time around?

For a man with one title in the bag and another waiting to be collected, Sebastian Vettel is still surrounded by a fair number of doubts.  His judgement and ability to respond when Mark Webber is faster on a given weekend are both suspect.  His defensive skills appear to be lacking – witness Fernando Alonso’s cruise down the inside into the Nurburgring’s first hairpin on Sunday.  Under pressure, he’s prone to errors, such as the one he made while hanging on to the leading trio last weekend or the slip that gave Jenson Button victory in Canada.  The 45 laps he spent staring at the back of Felipe Massa’s car in Germany suggest that even when his machinery is vastly superior, he can still be found wanting when required to make his way through traffic.

If next year’s RB8 isn’t the class of the field, that’ll give Vettel a problem.  His victories are all of the lights-to-flag variety and it’s hard to recall Seb winning a race that his car didn’t deserve.  Even that brilliant maiden win, for Scuderia Toro Rosso at a wet Monza three years ago, was achieved from pole position and with his team mate Sebastien Bourdais starting at the front with him.  This year, though, it matters not, because the RB7 has been dominant enough for long enough that Vettel hasn’t had to go wheel-to-wheel with his main rivals on equal terms.

Given the best car in the field, the reigning champion has made better use of it than Mark Webber and his advantage, 77 points at the time of writing, is such that he doesn’t have to win again this season.  Steady points are enough.  Given that Sebastian finishes 4th even when he leaves the road twice and spends three quarters of the distance stuck behind a Ferrari, there’s no reason to suggest he won’t get them.

Final score:
Adam 4
-5 Sue

The worst part (at least for me, though not, I suspect, for my Mam) is that only one of us totally understood every question and realised that the answers really were being posted online.  My only hopes of turning around this deficit are for Williams to come on strong, Michael Schumacher to win a race before season’s end or for me to change my mind on that 107% business.

I’m toast. 

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