McLaren team boss Martin Whitmarsh probably summed up the new Formula 1 season best in the wake of Sunday’s Bahrain Grand Prix.
“Who’s going to predict who’s going to win the next race?” Whitmarsh pondered after Red Bull’s Sebastian Vettel had become the fourth different driver, for the fourth different team, to win in the first four races. “It could be Red Bull, Lotus, Mercedes, Ferrari, us.”
A Formula 1 season has not started in such an unpredictable fashion for 29 years.
Back in 1983, Brabham’s Nelson Piquet, McLaren’s John Watson, Renault’s Alain Prost and Ferrari’s Patrick Tambay were the men in question. Only Watson did not go on to be a major contender for the rest of the season, which featured a four-way title fight between Piquet, Prost, Tambay and the second Ferrari driver Rene Arnoux.
Fernando Alonso’s Ferrari may not be the best car, but he is making it a contender. Photo: AFP
This year, the winners have been McLaren’s Jenson Button, Ferrari’s Fernando Alonso, Mercedes driver Nico Rosberg and Vettel.
Paradoxically, though, on the balance of form over the four races, you would probably say that of those four only Button and Vettel will definitely be championship contenders.
Rosberg’s Mercedes car is clearly quick, at least in qualifying, but its race pace has been inconsistent. Alonso has been driving brilliantly in the Ferrari – but on current form the car is nowhere near good enough to mount a title challenge.
THE SEASON SO FAR
For all the unpredictability of the results, and the thrilling spectacle of the races themselves, the same drivers and teams who have dominated F1 in recent years fill the top five positions in the championship.
Victory in Bahrain vaulted Vettel into the lead, ahead of McLaren’s Lewis Hamilton, Red Bull’s second driver Mark Webber, Button and Alonso.
Of those, Alonso’s position is the most remarkable.
At best, the Ferrari is the fifth fastest car behind the Red Bull, McLaren, Lotus and Mercedes. And there have been times when it was probably the seventh fastest – behind also the Williams and Sauber.
Yet the Spaniard has won a race and conceded only 10 points to the world championship leader after four grands prix.
This stunning demonstration of consistency and skill is why it would be hard to look past Alonso if there was an award for driver of the year so far.
If he is to be a title contender this year, though, much depends on the major car upgrades Ferrari are planning to introduce for the next race in Spain – and which will be tried out for the first time at the official F1 test in Mugello next week.
If these do not give Ferrari a significant boost in performance, even Alonso will drift out of contention and, presumably, be overtaken soon by the drivers immediately behind him in the championship – Rosberg and Lotus’s Kimi Raikkonen
MOST IMPROVED TEAMS – AND OTHERWISE
Just as Alonso is artificially high in the championship – at least in terms of the quality of the car he is driving – so Raikkonen and, arguably, Rosberg are artificially low.
It has been clear from the beginning of the season that the Lotus is one of the very fastest cars on the grid – but scrappy weekends at the first three races prevented the team from scoring strong results.
In Bahrain they finally got it together, and Raikkonen and team-mate Romain Grosjean finished second and third behind Vettel. As BBC F1 technical analyst Gary Anderson explained in his race review, the Finn might well have won.
According to figures compiled by Anderson, Lotus are second only to Caterham in a table that compares their performance last year to this.
Mercedes are some way down the list – but have definitely made more progress than any of the other traditional top teams. Ferrari are at the bottom.
The difficulty in assessing Mercedes’ potential, though, is that for all their impressive performance in taking pole and victory in China, their form in the other races has been poor.
The Mercedes is quick in qualifying – thanks in part, no doubt, to its controversial ‘double DRS’ system – but they are the team whose performance deteriorates the most from practice and qualifying to race.
You can be sure a lot of their work at the Mugello test next week will be focused on this phenomenon.
The next-worst team on this criterion, incidentally, are McLaren.
THE TITLE BATTLE
Ferrari are the most consistent top team (and behind only Sauber) in terms of form from practice to race – a measure of how close a team gets to extracting the maximum from their car.
Red Bull are pretty close behind, even though it took the world champions until the fourth race of the season to record their first win.
One of the reasons teams have been struggling with consistency – both from race to race and within a weekend – is that they are finding it difficult to get the best out of the Pirelli tyres this year.
As Button has said: “Last year, we knew the tyres had high degradation but we understood them. This year, I don’t really know what to make of the tyres.”
Teams are struggling to keep the tyres in the right window of operating temperature, and different cars work them better in different ambient temperatures. Circuit characteristics also play a role.
Mercedes, for example, have been suffering problems with rear-tyre usage. So China was perfect for them. It was run in cool conditions on a circuit that is ‘front-limited’ – the front tyres tend to go off first.
Red Bull, by contrast, were struggling to get their car to work properly in China, and the result was their worst qualifying performance of the year. The race was less problematic, but Red Bull’s race pace has been strong all year.
In the hotter conditions of Bahrain, on a ‘rear-limited’ track, Mercedes struggled and Red Bull shone.
Until Bahrain, McLaren had coped pretty well with the varying conditions from race to race, but their struggles with rear tyre wear in Bahrain will have set alarm bells ringing.
PICKING A FAVOURITE
Vettel predicted in Bahrain that, because the teams are all so close in terms of competitiveness, changing conditions will continue to have an effect on form throughout the season.
His team principal Christian Horner added that the season would “ebb and flow”.
“It is a matter,” Horner said, “of trying to be consistent at the races you can’t win and take the maximum out of them. And at the races you can, you need to deliver.”
So who is the favourite?
Before Bahrain, you would probably have said one of the McLaren drivers. Now, you might be tempted to say Vettel.
But what about Webber, who has had the edge on Vettel in three of the four races? Or Raikkonen? Or even Alonso, if Ferrari can effect a turnaround with the car.
One thing is clear – it’s all very different from last year, when by this stage it was already blindingly obvious that Vettel was going to be champion.
As to who it will be this time, as Hamilton has said: “It’s anyone’s at the moment.”
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