Posts Tagged ‘Lewis Hamilton’

When last we met, there was talk of how best to thoroughly louse up a season preview. For those of you who find yourselves too bone-idle to scroll down and read the last entry, a reminder: I, combining my extensive knowledge with my God-given knack for making predictions which diametrically oppose what subsequently goes on to happen, selected a top 10 for this year’s F1 world championship, taking the time not only to justify those picks but, in a new and exciting twist, explain why I might turn out to be wrong.

As the teams head off for their summer shutdown, some 34 laps into the second half of the season, let’s take a few moments to review whether I’ve been successful this year or whether I’ve instead managed to maintain my usual standards of foresight. Spoiler alert: it’s probably the latter.

This time we’ll be summarising the fortunes not only of those I selected in pre-season but of those who had the temerity to arrive unbidden. I’ll italicise those drivers who are so far performing in line with my predictions, partly so they’re easier to spot and partly in lieu of the lap of honour I’d normally embark upon in cases of unexpected success.

10: Pre-season pick – Fernando Alonso (McLaren Honda, currently 15th)
      Real-world interloper – Romain Grosjean (Lotus Mercedes)

If your powerplant is capable only of going nowhere fast or going nowhere at all, not even the best driver in the sport can help you.

Honda’s ongoing struggles are a waste of two talented drivers and a McLaren that appears to be a reasonable weapon when presented with a series of corners, possessing point-scoring pace at Hungaroring (the slowest permanent track on the calendar) and Monte Carlo (the slowest street circuit). Alonso’s Q1 run at Silverstone was both his and McLaren’s season in microcosm: 6 tenths down on a Ferrari along the straights of sector 1, a further 6 tenths down in sector 3, home of the Hangar Straight, but only 2 tenths away through the middle sector of the lap – through Luffield, where mechanical grip and traction are tested; then through Copse; through Maggotts; through Becketts, the kind of almost-but-not-quite-flat-out high-speed blasts that highlight the differences between a great racing driver and a Fernando Alonso.

The Honda may go on to be a potent weapon – it can’t be any less potent than the engine that earned both Alonso and Jenson Button a 25-place grid penalty in Austria – but the Spaniard is presently hamstrung by a power unit that, it seems, went racing a year too early. Give the man the tools and Alonso remains without peer.

Down Enstone way, Romain Grosjean’s chief handicap is a team lacking the funds to properly develop a reasonable car. While it’s not difficult to look calm and measured in comparison with Pastor Maldonado, the patron saint of drive-through penalties, the Grosjean of 2015 is a much more rounded, mature racing driver than the “turn one nutcase” Mark Webber so pointedly shot down not 3 years ago. The fundamental speed has never been in doubt and remains present, allied now to enhanced racecraft and the ability to better understand which causes should be fought on-track and which should be conceded.

Aside from his collision with the lapped Will Stevens in Montreal, when he seemed simply to forget that the Manor Marussia was still there, Grosjean has kept his nose clean, taken what this year’s improved chassis and aero package are willing to give him and converted that performance into solid points at every opportunity.

9. Pre-season pick – Nico Hulkenberg (Force India Mercedes)

Force India’s post-Monaco step turned out, for reasons financial, to be a post-Spielberg step, one which coincided with Hulkenberg’s victorious return from Le Mans. Nico, Earl Bamber and Nick Tandy’s win for Porsche at La Sarthe gave a clear shot in the arm to a driver whose abundant gifts had briefly threatened to wilt under the weight of another year in mid-table.

After a relatively tardy opening to the campaign, The Hulk came alive in Austria, qualifying 5th and finishing 6th in what was still a bare-bones evolution of last year’s Force India, a result which he followed up with further points at Silverstone when the new VJM08B made its debut. That Austrian qualifying effort has been exception rather than rule, with it being hard to escape the feeling that Nico leaves himself a little more to do than he ought to come Sunday afternoon, but what’s been particularly evident of late has been his haste in making up for that, running 5th in the early going having started 9th at Silverstone and 5th from 11th at Hungaroring.

The team think a podium was on at the latter event had an errant front wing not forced a spectacular retirement and while it’s difficult to agree with them, I have no problem seeing why paddock rumour links their driver with a return to Williams for 2016.

8. Pre-season pick – Daniil Kvyat (Red Bull Renault)

While it’s difficult to argue that Daniil’s 2015 to date has been anything other than a little underwhelming, the reasons for that have less to do with the young Russian than with the situation in which he finds himself.

Promoted prematurely into a team whose disharmonious relationship with its engine supplier has threatened to derail the entire year, Kvyat’s year has been spent chasing after a car/engine package that can’t give him as much grip as he desires without leaving him a sitting duck in a straight line. Red Bull’s RB11 is a more highly-strung piece of equipment than its immediate predecessor but where Red Bull have been able to set up their car for optimum performance (Monte Carlo, Hungaroring), Kvyat has scored handsomely, keeping his nose just about clean enough for long enough to take his maiden podium in Hungary even if he lacked a little pace relative to Daniel Ricciardo. Where the set-up has been compromised to compensate for the obvious deficiencies of the Renault V6 (absolutely everywhere else), the other Red Bull has tended to be a little way ahead, its driver coping that bit better with a car being purposefully moved away from a sweet spot that the team haven’t always been able to find to start with.

All exactly as you’d expect, in other words, from someone whose details sit in the file marked “Quick But Inexperienced” – remember, Kvyat only recently turned 21.

7. Pre-season pick – Felipe Massa (Williams Mercedes, currently 6th)
    Real-world case of overoptimism – Daniel Ricciardo (Red Bull Renault, pre-season prediction 4th)

Felipe, you remarkable man, I am yet again quite wrong about you.

Back in March, writing my pre-season piece, I believed that Williams were best of the rest behind Mercedes and that Massa, better in 2014 than at any time since his near-fatal 2009 accident but still not quite the driver he’d once been, lacked the consistency to do the car full justice. In what is assuredly the season’s 3rd-best package, Felipe has not only been metronomic on Sundays but fast enough on Saturdays to hold a 6-4 qualifying lead over the supremely rapid Valtteri Bottas. Away from the Ferrari pressure cooker and now entirely settled at Williams, Massa’s peaks are on the same level as the best of his 2008 championship near-miss and being delivered more regularly than at any time since then, free of the sense that his concentration might fail at any moment that so blighted his final years with the Scuderia.

If that’s unexpected, not just by the viewing public but by Felipe’s self-confessedly startled employers, it’s also very welcome. From spent force at Maranello to a force to be reckoned with at Grove, this most personable of drivers is making the most of an unexpected Indian summer.

Down the road in Milton Keynes, Daniel Ricciardo is making the best of an unexpected French shower. This year’s Renault power unit started life with no more power than last year’s but with a far greater fondness for ritually barbecuing itself. Just like Kvyat, Ricciardo’s only hope of competing on the straights has been to trim the car out and deprive himself of the downforce Adrian Newey’s design team are so famously adept at providing. If chasing after the scraps at the lower end of the top 10 is demoralising the habitually cheerful Daniel, you’d hardly know it. Indeed, only once has Danny Ric’s natural frustration been expressed in public, during a Canadian weekend in which he professed himself lost with a car that wouldn’t handle and an engine that wouldn’t power.

Above all else, Ricciardo remains a racer. His talent as an overtaker remains undimmed, boosted as ever by a remarkable feel for the limits of adhesion in the braking zone, and he remains like a dog with a bone when presented with the faintest sniff of victory. In the end, his bid for honours in Hungary was stymied by – whoever would have thought it? – a lack of top speed on the straights, forcing him into bridging ever more outlandish gaps under braking, but if the final desperate lunge on Rosberg was doomed to failure from the start, it’s impossible to do anything but love the man for giving it a go in the first place.

6. Pre-season pick – Sebastian Vettel (Ferrari, currently 3rd)
Real-world occupant – Felipe Massa (Williams Mercedes, see above)

Yeah, I know…

The case for the defence is that a few months ago, it really wasn’t clear whether Sebastian Vettel’s 2014 struggles were with his Red Bull specifically or with adapting to the absence of blown diffusers generally. The team won 3 races but each time it was the car on the other side of the garage taking the honours, Vettel enduring the first winless full season of his F1 career. Not only was Daniel Ricciardo generally quicker, he also did a better job of tyre management, traditionally one of Seb’s strongest suits. Vettel began this year with his reputation dented, driving for a team whose last genuinely quick car was produced 5 years previous and, perhaps most importantly, no longer driving for those who offered him such backing and protection in years gone by, irrespective of whether or not that protection was actually warranted.

2 races into his Ferrari career, Vettel won, not through luck or inclement weather but through great pace and – wouldn’t you just know it – terrific tyre management, letting him sneak through a door left only a little ajar by Mercedes. His entire season has been spent illustrating that while he claimed 4 world titles driving terrific cars, the bloke behind the wheel was none too shabby either. The Malaysia win was opportunistic, his recent win in Hungary absolutely dominant and that other hardy perennial, “Yeah, but he’s no good in traffic, is he?” was laid to rest once and for all by a magnificent drive through the field after technical problems ruined his qualifying in Montreal. Within 50 points of the championship lead going into the break, clearly enjoying his work and in prime position to pounce should Mercedes falter, Vettel’s reputation is as high now as at any time during his championship-winning streak.

5. Pre-season pick – Kimi Raikkonen (Ferrari)

In a race-winning car ran by a team becoming ever more aligned to Sebastian Vettel, Kimi Raikkonen has only a single podium to his name.

It’s hard to shake the nagging feeling that what we’re watching is Kimi’s farewell to Ferrari and, in all likelihood, to motorsport at the highest level. Once a man whose qualifying runs could put the entire paddock on notice, Kimi returned to F1 seemingly shorn of that electric pace and is no closer to rediscovering it. The 6 tenths he’s consistently missing in comparison to team mate Vettel on a low-fuel flyer appear to be gone for good and if the reasons are a complete mystery to those watching, so they seem to be equally perplexing to Raikkonen. At times unlucky come race day, as when leaving the Melbourne pits with only 75% of his tyres safely attached and when losing a certain Hungaroring podium to mechanical trouble, Kimi is too often either the architect of his own downfall or, more concerningly, simply too slow.

He has argued that his race pace has been strong all season and that he’s suffered from being caught in traffic on Sunday afternoons, to which the obvious remedy is to start in front of the slower cars – Raikkonen has somehow contrived to miss Q3 twice already this season. At his best, Raikkonen remains a driver from the very top drawer but his best is increasingly hard to come by…

4. Pre-season pick – Daniel Ricciardo (Red Bull Renault, currently 7th – see above)
    Real-world Flying Finn – Valtteri Bottas (Williams Mercedes)

…which isn’t something you’d say of Valtteri Bottas, 10 years Raikkonen’s junior and poised to save Ferrari’s mechanics from the trouble of having to take those Finnish flags down from the garage awnings next year.

The original prediction, of course, was for Valtteri to be a place higher, with the qualifier that he’d struggle to attain 3rd place if Ferrari or Red Bull outspent and out-developed Williams. Ferrari were faster from the outset, as it turned out, but believe they’d be faster still with Bottas at the wheel. A quick glance at the championship table doesn’t necessarily reveal why – Bottas, Raikkonen and Massa are covered by just 3 points after 10 races – but, for all that I love a good statistic, glances at the championship table don’t allow you to see a substantially quicker car getting caught behind a Williams in Bahrain and being completely unable to find a way past its steely, millimetrically-precise occupant. Nor, come to that, do they show you how Bottas claimed a podium position in Montreal by virtue of a strong start and a race spent repelling the theoretically faster man behind for as long as it took that man to lose patience and spin himself out of contention.

On both occasions, the car behind was red. They were paying attention in Maranello.

3. Pre-season pick – Valtteri Bottas (Williams Mercedes)
    Real-world humble pie baker – Sebastian Vettel (Ferrari)

2. Pre-season pick – Nico Rosberg (Mercedes)

The enigmatic Rosberg has days when he simply can’t be defeated – Spain and Austria for starters – and would progress from potential threat to genuine contender if he could only have them more often.

The relationship with Lewis Hamilton that threatened to turn into open warfare during 2014 seems far better on the surface this year, to Rosberg’s ultimate disadvantage. The combination of Nico’s Spanish dominance and that remarkable Monaco win, inherited when Hamilton’s 20 second lead turned to dust in one needless pit stop behind a late-race safety car, would last year have been seen as the ideal platform from which to ramp up the mental pressure on his team mate.  This year’s model, perhaps still feeling the after-effects of the booing that stung him post-Spa 2014, has too often seemed to genuinely believe that Hamilton has his number and misjudged his one attempt to destabilise the reigning champion, complaining that Lewis had thought only of himself and not the team in China. Rosberg’s key complaint that day was that Hamilton was driving excessively slowly to preserve his tyres, thus allowing Vettel the opportunity to stay close. The watching fans, either missing the subtle nuances of Nico’s argument or else blowing a gigantic hole through it, depending upon your viewpoint, suggested that if the man ahead was going so slowly, it might have been worth trying to pass him.

Rosberg remains the second fastest Mercedes driver but without the edge, the faint air of menace he brought to last year’s title fight. To stand any chance of usurping Hamilton over the remaining 9 races, Nico needs to rediscover that air, quickly.

1. Pre-season pick – Lewis Hamilton (Mercedes)

The fastest Mercedes driver, 2014 qualifying weakness fully addressed, driving better than at any stage of his career.

From the word go, Hamilton proclaimed himself happier with the W06 than with the title-winning W05, that happiness leading to the return of that Schumacher-esque searing speed over one lap, the speed we’d grown so used to in Hamilton’s McLaren days. Car 44 has sat on pole position 9 times in 10 races, going on to win 5 times, and only in Austria has he been soundly beaten for pace. Several wins, most notably those in Melbourne and Shanghai, came with pace to spare had it been needed, while his domination of the Monaco weekend was as crushing as his ultimate disappointment. His reaction to that weekend and his immediate return to winning ways in Canada were marks of the man’s increasing maturity, as was his willingness to take blame for a Hungarian race spent hitting everything that moved, as if he’d crashed into his bedside table upon waking up and decided to take it as a sign of something.

The lead is 21 points. But for one pit-wall gaffe, it would have been 38. Lewis believes he has more in his locker yet.

That pit-wall gaffe is something for which the neutral fan should be thankful. As a direct result of it, the summer break begins with Rosberg able to take the championship lead if he wins in Belgium and Hamilton fails to score. Substitute Vettel for Rosberg in the same situation and the top 3 drivers could head to Monza separated by less than 20 points. Imagine Vettel, already celebrating his wins in delighted Italian over the radio, going to Italy for the first time as a Ferrari driver right in the heart of the title fight, the Tifosi turning Monza into the kind of seething, foaming sporting cauldron only those of Latin blood can ever properly create, the Mercedes drivers cast into supporting roles by that most partizan of crowds…

Anything is possible. In truth, though, the Mercedes has had the legs of the Ferrari too often in 2015 for Vettel to properly sustain a title tilt, no matter how many miracles he might work between now and November. Seb’s presence guarantees that the Silver Arrows have to extend themselves come race day but the battle for ultimate honours remains between their drivers. My money remains on Hamilton.

Where’s yours?

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.

Why aren’t we previewing 2012?

It’s a combination of factors.  The main one is time, since I haven’t had enough of it to write anything of substance.  The other major contributory factor is that last year, I had time to sit and study pre-season testing and still fell some distance short of what could be reasonably classed as “a decent prediction.”  Without checking, I’m sure I said Vettel and Red Bull would win their respective titles, but you didn’t need to be Nostradamus for that one.  You didn’t really need to have watched a motor race before either, in fact.

This pre-season, I haven’t had the opportunity to check the numbers from testing in too much depth.  I do however know that those who have studied intensively are all coming up with different pecking orders, most of them saying we’re in for the closest season in living memory.  Take the fastest time recorded by each team who ran the final test in Barcelona and there’s only 0.9 seconds covering 20 cars.  That’s not going to be completely representative, of course – fuel levels, track conditions and tyres could all have artificially closed the field up to a degree – but there’s little doubt that things are going to be tight, especially in the midfield.

At the back, some things never change.  HRT are still building Pedro de la Rosa’s car but they did at least get one car ready for 10 laps of Barcelona during a filming day after official tests had ended.  This, terrifyingly, represents their best ever winter preparation.  2010’s cars were still being built as qualifying for round one got underway, while 2011’s was launched early enough but didn’t run because the dampers (the car) were stuck in customs (had not been finished).

This year’s world champion?  Bearing in mind how close it all seems to be, I’m betting the house on the Italian comeback king, Totali Buggeredifino.  Sounds like it’s going to be quite a ride, whoever wins.  Who knows, I might even get a few minutes to talk about some of it.

(I’ve actually picked Lewis Hamilton this year but, you know, keep that between us, eh?)

Anyone fancy a rumble?

We haven’t had a decent argument around these parts since the last time I wrote a post containing the word “Bahrain”.  Since it’s beginning to look a bit like I might have to pick up that thread again in the near future, let’s have a little warm-up.  A starter.  An amuse-bouche, if you will.

Not a single one of you is going to agree completely with this, my selection of 2011’s top 10 drivers.  It was a season in which many drivers showed flashes of brilliance but only a few delivered on a sustained basis.  I could have put seven or eight drivers in the lower reaches of the top 10, but in doing so I’d have made it a top 16, so there’s no place for Adrian Sutil (average until he realised he didn’t have a 2012 contract, though now this is being taken to trial, he’s probably going to have to do without anyway), Sergio Perez (the perfect endurance sportscar racer from times gone by, but I’m not absolutely sold on him as an F1 driver just yet) or Felipe Massa (a lovely, lovely man who I desperately want to become a top-line driver again, but…).  There’s space for this lot, though:

10. Jaime Alguersuari

Out on his ear after Scuderia Toro Rosso refreshed its entire driving staff, Alguersuari’s Formula 1 career looks to be coming to a halt.  He doesn’t turn 22 until March.

I’m not about to present a case for the Spaniard as some kind of great lost champion, not least because I don’t believe he is one, but he did enough in 2011 to be considered worthy of a continued stay on the grid.  Hamstrung in qualifying by a car designed with Sundays in mind, Jaime came from 18th on the grid to score points in 3 straight races, with a charging drive to 8th in Valencia being a particular highlight.  Later in the season, his battle with Rosberg for P7 in Korea was won with a blend of racecraft, tenacity and sheer speed.

Never once did Alguersuari let his car down.  Having outscored team mate Sebastien Buemi 26-15, he could be forgiven for wondering what more he could have done.  He’ll be back.

9. Paul di Resta

Given that Paul di Resta entered this season as reigning DTM champion, had experience as Force India’s reserve driver from last year and beat Sebastian Vettel in equal F3 Euroseries cars in 2006, it shouldn’t be any great surprise that he’s acquitted himself well.

Quick, media-friendly and with his head firmly screwed on, Paul’s first season as an F1 race driver was, for the most part, a lesson in how to make an entrance.  Very occasionally, a good result was lost to impatience – think of what might have been had he got to the end in Canada, or had he managed to avoid hitting everything that moved in Monaco – but those drives don’t stick in the memory.  Mature, strategically driven runs to 6th in Singapore and 8th in Brazil do, as does a beautifully-judged run to 7th in the changeable, slippery conditions of this year’s Hungarian race.

8. Michael Schumacher

Now heading into year three of Schumi Mk II, it’s finally completely safe to say that Michael has a race seat not just because of who he is, but because of how he drives.

No, 2011 wasn’t perfect.  Schumacher crashed into too many people for that (didn’t he, Vitaly Petrov?), while his old ability to switch on and deliver one searing lap in qualifying seems to have deserted him forever.  The race pace is back, though, and in a season where the rules didn’t unduly penalise those who qualified badly in a quick car, that was enough to see Michael through.  Three of his drives – Japan, Belgium and one of the drives of the year on the Canadian boating lake – wouldn’t have looked at all out of place in his first career.  Indeed, before the Montreal track dried out and the natural order was restored, the Regenmeister was catching Vettel for the lead.  He’s still in there, if you look hard enough.

7. Nico Rosberg

I’m still not absolutely sure how good Nico Rosberg is.

I think Nico has something of the Jarno Trulli about him, in that he tends to pull out something ridiculous over a single lap in qualifying, then spend the entire race sinking backwards until he ends up in the position the car deserved all along.  2011 has given that theory some credence.  Look at how often Rosberg comfortably outqualified Schumacher, then at how often the Mercedes cars finished the race line astern.  To some extent, though, he still suffers from not having had a decent yardstick since being partnered with Mark Webber at Williams in 2006.

2011 was a year of consistently solid driving.  I can only really point to his cameo at the front in China as an instance of his Merc popping up somewhere it didn’t deserve to be, but I can’t really point to any race in which I thought Nico was letting anyone down.  Hard to knock someone who scores points 14 times in 19 races, but in this case, it’s equally hard to feel justified in going nuts about it.

6. Mark Webber

I know without thinking that I’ve just upset at least one person by ranking Mark Webber this low.  Here’s why I did it.

In 2010, Mark Webber lost the world title to Sebastian Vettel by 14 points.  In 2011, the gap between the two men was 134 points.  Having qualified an average of 0.053 seconds off Vettel’s pace in 2010, Webber could only get within 0.414 seconds on average this year.  One of Red Bull’s drivers adapted to the needs of Pirelli’s new tyres and went about the business of using the year’s best car to win an awful lot of races.  The other didn’t.

When everything worked for Webbo, as it did during his magnificent ascent of the field in China, he was sublime.  From 18th on the grid to 3rd at the finish, he might even have won that day given another 5 laps.  He drove superbly well in Brazil too, rounding off the year by taking his only win of the season.  The problem is that the chap on the other side of the garage drove like that almost without exception.

5. Lewis Hamilton

How many times do you suppose Lewis Hamilton had an accident during a race in 2011?

I’ve counted 13, while also disregarding his various adventures in qualifying this year, and I’m still not sure I’ve got them all.  Whether colliding with his own team mate, expecting Kamui Kobayashi to disappear or running his ongoing campaign to royally upset all of  South America, Lewis did an awful lot to damage his reputation in 2011.  That he still ranks so highly in this little list owes everything to his performances in China, Germany, Abu Dhabi and Korea, a trio of superb victories bolstered by one of the finest pieces of defensive racecraft you’ll see for years.

4. Heikki Kovalainen

This, I imagine, is the bit where you go and read something else instead, but think about it for a minute…

Whenever there was an opportunity for one of the minnows to sneak through the first part of qualifying, whose Lotus was always the car that made it to Q2?  Whenever you looked at the race order after a couple of laps and saw someone unexpected dicing with Williams, Sauber and Toro Rosso, who was it?  Whenever you looked at a timing sheet and marvelled at how that driver had no business being so far up the field, who were you marvelling at?

Kovalainen.  If he’d driven a McLaren anything like as well as he drove that Lotus…

3. Jenson Button

During 2009, I wrote a selection of articles in which I maintained that Jenson Button was a perfectly decent Grand Prix driver but nothing more than that.  I may also have suggested that he was incredibly lucky to have enjoyed the performance advantage conferred upon him by that year’s Brawn GP car, that any man who won no races at all from June to November could count himself very fortunate to win a world title and, as the cherry on the top, that I didn’t really like him very much either.

So much of Jenson’s 2011 was from the very top drawer that it almost seems harsh on the rest of his year when you start picking out highlights, but let’s do it anyway.  Controlling the race from the front at Suzuka.  Another win in a wet/dry Hungarian race, just like his maiden victory in 2006.  That comeback in Canada, snatching victory on the final lap having risen through the field from the armpit of nowhere.  Oh, and this interview ahead of his 200th start in Hungary, in which he’s clearly winning a bet of some kind.

Jense, I was quite wrong about you.

2. Fernando Alonso

The bare statistics will tell you that in 2011, Fernando Alonso won a single race.  They’ll say he finished 4th in that year’s championship standings and that in doing so, he trailed the winner by some 135 points.

Bare statistics will make no mention of Alonso’s qualifying lap in Spain, when he dragged the Ferrari into P4 through sheer force of will alone.  They won’t tell you that he led the opening stint of that race, having put together as brave and combative a start sequence as you could ever wish to witness.  They will record that he finished the race a lap behind the winner, but won’t tell you that the F150 Italia simply refused to work on hard tyres and that, as was the case throughout the season, Alonso’s car never once left the ragged edge of adhesion.

I love statistics.  These ones are worthless.

1. Sebastian Vettel

Sensational.

The scariest thing about this man’s dominant 2011 campaign is that he built it all on taking pole position, building up a gap in the first few laps and then just maintaining it.  We will never know exactly how fast Sebastian Vettel could have been, because so many of this season’s races gave him absolutely no need to show us.  You can call it dull if you like – and let’s be honest here; sometimes, it feels like hard work even turning the TV on when you know in advance who the winner will be – but we might all be better served admiring this combination of driving and engineering brilliance while we have the chance.

Pick the bones out of that…

Don’t get too excited about this, but at some point in the next few days you’ll be reading about motor racing again.  First, though, this.

Nowhere on this site does it say, “Writing under the pseudonym Petrolhead Blogger, our hero is a dark and mysterious character but oh Doctor, does he understand sartorial elegance.”  If you cannot see me naked, then my clothes are performing the only role I really require of them.  For that reason, it’s very difficult for me to pass comment on exactly what Lewis Hamilton was thinking of.  I can however make this request: if you ever see me in public dressed like that, don’t just stand and watch.  Help me.

I owe you an explanation, don’t I?

The thing I’ve been busy with for the last couple of months is a job application.  I’ve ended the application process as the owner of considerably less hair than I had at the start, with what remains taking on a more obvious greyish tint than before.  I am 26 years old.

I’ve also ended the application process with a new job.  It’s not yet absolutely clear to me how much of my time this job will take up, but I wouldn’t be in the slightest bit surprised to find that I remain exactly as prolific as I have been throughout the past summer.  That is to say, I expect to continue writing bugger all.

While this place lay silent, Jenson Button was busy signing a new multi-year contract with McLaren.  Lewis Hamilton was busy securing a new multi-year deal for everyone in McLaren’s bodywork fabrication department, Felipe Massa was using Hamilton’s tendency to crash into him as a mask for his own recent decline and Sebastian Vettel was winning a world championship.  Well, as good as, anyway.

As it stands, Vettel has 309 world championship points after 14 races.  If he can somehow manage to score a further 1 point during the remaining 5 races, he cannot be caught.  If this tasks proves too arduous for Seb and Red Bull, he will still be world champion unless Jenson Button wins every remaining race.  Oh, one more thing: McLaren have had the fastest car in Japan all through this weekend but, with one of their drivers having made an unholy mess of his qualifying session (go on – have a guess at which one), Vettel’s on pole.

The tension is unbearable, isn’t it?

[One last thing.  Because I haven’t been checking my emails very much of late, I’ve only just realised that Dunlop attempted to give me some free tickets for the British Touring Car Championship event at Rockingham 3 weeks ago, as well as offering some tickets for you to win too.  PR and promotional activity has never affected my writing here or anywhere else – that is to say, you can offer me all the free gifts in the world and my editorial line will remain the same – but if I’m given the chance to offer you anything like this in the future, I’ll be sure to do so.  I have however missed the closing date for this one.  Sorry about that – Adam]