German Grand Prix 2010 - 26/07/10

Fernando Alonso (Ferrari) - Getty Images

You would be forgiven for believing that Ferrari and Fernando Alonso had reached rock bottom at Silverstone in regards to their 2010 championship campaign, but the events of Hockenheim have shown that Ferrari can snatch acrimony from the jaws of glory all by themselves and without the help of a safety car, the weather or the stewards. It appears that alongside the championship momentum they have inherited from Red Bull, they have also inherited the controversy. Ferrari’s decision to move Felipe Massa over for Fernando Alonso for victory at the German GP may on the one hand be completely understandable, but their execution of the aforementioned swap has landed them in deep water with the fans, media and the authorities. What should have been just cause for celebration amongst the Maranello squad has degraded into a fervent defence of their tactics.

British Grand Prix 2010 - 19/07/10

As the 2010 season’s momentum once again passes through Red Bull hands like a baton, a pattern is emerging as to how the Milton Keynes squad deliver their victories compared to a seasoned winning outfit like McLaren. When Sebastian Vettel won in Valencia, Mark Webber had a dreadful start and ended up using Heikki Kovalainen’s Lotus as a launch pad to a horrific airborne accident. And as Mark Webber strode away to his series-leading third victory of the season at Silverstone, teammate Vettel received a puncture from Hamilton at the start and spent most of the day at the back of the grid, eventually recovering to 7th. The net result is that as Red Bull Racing emerge from the first half of the season with back to back wins, they are neither top of the drivers’ or constructors’ table despite their majority 5 wins this year, compared to McLaren’s 4 victories.

Mid-season Review - On The Verge - 14/07/10

Nico Rosberg

One driver who could easily have found himself in the top 5 so far in 2010 is Mercedes GP’s Nico Rosberg. This season is without a doubt the most important year in Rosberg’s career so far, his first opportunity with a proven front running outfit, the very team that won last year’s drivers’ and constructors’ world championships. Alongside him at Mercedes is seven times world champion, Michael Schumacher. If ever there was an opportunity to gauge the real potential and talent of an F1 driver, surely this is it for Rosberg. On the whole, Nico has outperformed Schumacher in qualifying and on race day, the only exceptions being the Spanish and Turkish GPs where Michael outqualified Nico and finished ahead in the races. This was attributed mainly to Mercedes bringing a raft of upgrades to the car which allegedly suited Schumacher more than Rosberg, specifically a longer wheelbase. As soon as Mercedes switched back to the short wheelbase for Monaco, Nico outqualified Michael again, though it should be noted that a late-race penalty for Schumacher dropped him out of the points, promoting Nico to 6th. In recent races, Rosberg appears to be rediscovering the scintillating early season form that made the paddock stand up and take notice, notching up another podium at the British GP to go with the 2 earlier podiums in China and Malaysia. However, this was also to be the year that Rosberg finally made the breakthrough as a Formula 1 race winner with arguably his best opportunity being the Chinese GP which he led for a while before falling off the road and gifting the lead to Jenson Button. His pace relative to Button and position on the road could just as easily have seen him come home 1st. Admittedly, Ross Brawn has conceded that his group concentrated much resource on last year’s titles at the expense of the 2010 car, with the development race not flattering Mercedes GP so far this season. As heartening as it is to see Nico find his way back towards the front of the pack, one feels that as McLaren and Red Bull gear up for a fierce championship run-in, that doesn’t leave much space on the top step for Nico Rosberg and Mercedes.

Fernando Alonso

Before the full extent of Red Bull’s advantage became clear in 2010, Fernando Alonso and Ferrari were the title favourites. With Sebastian Vettel’s Bahrain gift, after 1 race there was no reason to believe differently, which is precisely the point at which Alonso’s season picked up downhill speed instead of upwards momentum. Various dramas have included a first corner collision with Button and Schumacher in Melbourne, vehicle expiration in Malaysia after a bad decision on qualifying tyres, drive through penalties in China and Great Britain, catastrophic qualifying in Turkey, a crash in P3 at Monaco which resulted in Fernando sitting out qualifying and issues with traffic in Canada when he had race winning pace and poor safety car luck in Valencia relegating him to the lower points-paying places, as well as suffering yet another ego-crushing late-race move from a driver in a fundamentally slower car, with a revitalised Kamui Kobayashi taking over the mantle from Takuma Sato. The fact that Alonso was still very much in touch with the championship leaders even after the Turkish GP is a reflection of the topsy-turvy nature of this year’s championship and all the different drivers who have found their way to the top of the pile from race to race. The lack of consistency amongst the leaders allowed Fernando’s great pace in races to keep him in touch throughout a number of solid recovery drives, but Valencia and Silverstone saw Ferrari and Alonso fall foul of the stewards and safety car rules, leaving him nearly 50 points behind Hamilton in the standings going into the second half of the season. Fans of Alonso will be desperate to see what was originally billed as a dream combination finally come good and string together a series of faultless weekends in order to bring the double champion and arguably the most complete driver in the sport back into championship contention. One would have believed that teammate Felipe Massa would have been one of the greatest challenges to Alonso in his debut Ferrari year, instead of his own uncharacteristic propensity for errors and questionable decisions in 2010.

Rubens Barrichello

At Williams, Rubens Barrichello has predictably outperformed highly rated rookie teammate Nico Hulkenburg, sporting 29 points to the Hulk’s 2 points. The team are undoubtedly disappointed that the car is not capable of podium finishes under normal circumstances, often struggling to even make the top 10 in Barrichello’s hands. Having said that, the last two races in Valencia and Silverstone have seen the never-ending Rubens story pick up 4th and 5th place finishes on days when bigger names have run into trouble. Also predicted was the possibility of Hulkenburg starting to match Rubens on pace in qualifying by mid-season, and there are some small signs of that coming to pass. The Hulk has outqualified Rubens on 3 out of 10 occasions this year, most recently at the European GP. Rubens still definitely has the measure of Hulkenburg in the races as he clearly showed his ability to maximise an opportunity in the last 2 GPs and increasing his points tally by 22 at those two events alone.

Kamui Kobayashi

On the subject of rookies, Sauber’s Japanese newcomer Kamui Kobayashi has finally begun exhibiting more of the promise seen at the end of 2009 in his two Toyota outings. Qualifying roughly on par with the vastly experienced Pedro De La Rosa, Kobayashi has scored points three times in the last 4 events after a string of 4 consecutive retirements at the start of 2010, most notably running 3rd for a significant period of the European GP ahead of Jenson Button’s McLaren and pulling memorable late race moves on Fernando Alonso and Sebastien Buemi. The vastly improved Sauber package has given both drivers the tools to run competitively, De La Rosa even making Q3 at Silverstone. The securing of technical director James Key from Force India has added to the performance of one of the most disappointing packages at the start of 2010, but Key himself admits that the medium to high-speed nature of Silverstone suited the C29’s characteristics.

Photographs by Paul Hitchens

Mid-season Review - Top 5 - 13/07/10

1 – Lewis Hamilton (McLaren)

Lewis Hamilton

Throughout the first flyaway phase of the season, Hamilton showed plenty of speed and fighting spirit without the luck required to emerge as a winner in 2010. An unfavourable tyre call and collision with Mark Webber in Australia and a difficult qualifying in Malaysia meant that his scorching progress through the field on both occasions didn’t get him on the podium. A tactical masterstroke by teammate Jenson Button kept him off the top step at China and the Spanish GP saw a certain 2nd place finish snatched away from Lewis in the closing stages thanks to car failure. However, come Turkey and Canada, the McLaren had made up noticeable ground on the dominating Red Bulls. Hamilton won the Turkish GP after forcing the Red Bulls into the now infamous pressure error that left the way clear for Lewis’s first win of 2010. Just as in his debut season of 2007, Hamilton followed up his breakthrough win of this year with a second consecutive victory, and the subsequent lead of the championship. What was more remarkable about his Canadian performance was the fact that it was the sole occasion on which a Red Bull hadn’t started from pole this season. Despite the McLaren appearing visibly slower than the Red Bulls in Valencia and Silverstone, Hamilton bagged a brace of 2nd place finishes to maintain his lead of the world championship. Lewis has shown himself to be arguably the best overtaker in the sport currently, coming out on top during memorable tussles with Button, Alonso, Rosberg and Schumacher. The only blots on his copybook this year consist of the harsh words he’s had for his team during the races and weaving in front of Vitaly Petrov during the Malaysian GP. Hamilton’s ability to consistently finish high up the order and invariably move forward from difficult positions in a race will see him to this year’s World Championship if the Red Bull duo continue to fall over each other and suffer the bad luck that has stopped them from running away with both titles this year.

2 – Robert Kubica (Renault)

Robert Kubica

Right up until the beginning of the Lewis Hamilton phase of the 2010 World Championship began in Turkey, Robert Kubica was the driver of the season. An unfortunate start to the year in Bahrain masked the true progress and potential of the Renault team, until an inspired drive to 2nd place in Australia’s varying conditions made it clear that F1’s first Pole was back. Kubica followed what appeared to be a one-off result in special circumstances with seven more points finishes, a run that ended with his first retirement of the season in the recent British GP. Those points finishes included a 4th place finish in Malaysia and 3rd place in Monaco. As always, Kubica’s ability on temporary circuits has shone through in 2010, with his Renault being a genuine pole position threat in Monte Carlo and Montreal. To come back from the difficult 2009 that both Renault and Kubica have had and fly out of the traps as they have done in the first half of the season has been magnificent to see, and a timely reminder of the talent at his and Renault’s disposal. Kubica has also demonstrated he has lost none of his fight, often having to employ defensive tactics to maintain an early race advantage. His head-to-heads with Schumacher in Canada and Alonso in Britain will have indicated a significant unwillingness to relent. You get the feeling that he’s gotten the absolute maximum out of his package every weekend, thoroughly putting rookie Petrov, who has actually done reasonably well, in the shade.

3 – Jenson Button (McLaren)

Jenson Button

Incredibly, Jenson Button has probably done more for his career, reputation and legacy as a top F1 driver and world champion in the first half of the 2010 season by moving to McLaren and taking on home-grown hero Hamilton than through his efforts for Brawn GP in 2009. Two glittering early season victories in Melbourne and China highlighted Button’s speed, tactical nous and confidence in himself, firmly establishing Jenson as a serious title contender and the biggest intra-team challenge to Hamilton since Alonso. With Jenson’s easy manner warming him to the team, his tenure at McLaren will undoubtedly be longer than the Spaniard’s. Despite the strong start, the unforgettable battle with Hamilton at Turkey, his pass of Alonso to claim 2nd at Canada and a strong recovery drive at Silverstone to bag 4th from 14th on the grid, Lewis is slowly exerting a measure of superiority over Button on sheer performance in qualifying and race results. Button has also shown slightly less aggression in overtaking than Hamilton has, and is starting to find more limiting issues within the car at certain weekends. However, a similar ability to always move forward in races and his proximity to Lewis in the standings means that as upgrades continue to be placed on the MP4-25, Button will always have a shot at victory and subsequently, retaining his driver’s title. More than ever Jenson needs a weekend where he outperforms Hamilton in order to maintain the credibility of his championship bid as a first year McLaren driver.

=4 – Sebastian Vettel (Red Bull)

Sebastian Vettel

When you think of Sebastian Vettel in 2010, every image of a race-winning, pole-owning, world champion elect outing is accompanied by the memory of a brake failure, engine burst, pointless collision, drama. The incident with Mark Webber at the Turkish GP 3 races ago is still casting a shadow over operations at Red Bull, which undoubtedly affects the drivers. Questionable driving from Vettel on that occasion, as well as a similar jink towards Hamilton in the Chinese GP pitlane and his clumsy pass on Sutil at the recent British GP have all painted the picture of a driver who’s still on the verge of becoming the full article. Despite all of this and despite the fact that the Red Bull RB6 is without a shadow of a doubt the class of the 2010 field, Vettel has produced spectacular laps in qualifying and should really have more than the 2 wins this season to his name. Technical issues have robbed him of wins at Bahrain and Australia where nobody, including Webber, appeared to be on the same racetrack. If at any point this season a modicum of consistency and calm descends upon the Red Bull garage, Vettel is still close enough to the McLaren boys in the standings to deliver the championship that this car, alleged intra-team favouritism and his ability can clinch. Ten races into the season and we’re still waiting for that to happen, but we’ve had glimpses at Malaysia and Valencia of what is possible when a weekend goes to plan, and Seb’s scything late-race recovery drive at Silverstone has shown what’s possible when it doesn’t. The excitement and interest in this year’s title race has undoubtedly been helped by the issues faced by RBR, but however many future titles Vettel amasses, to miss an opportunity like 2010 for Red Bull and Sebastian Vettel would be criminal, even for someone who is close to being painted as the new F1 villain.

=4 – Mark Webber (Red Bull)

Mark Webber

On the opposite side of the Red Bull garage sits Mark Webber, at the opposite end of his career to Sebastian Vettel. It is incredibly difficult to separate these two as Webber has had equally glittering moments to Vettel this year, including a string of poles and two stunning wins at Barcelona and Monaco, as well as a controlled drive under difficult conditions for him personally at Silverstone. A very public spat with his teammate and now possibly his team may have earned Webber sympathy and followers, but at this stage of his career and with the opportunity he has to finally claim a major world championship, the outspoken Aussie may do well to get his head down and concentrate on the business of winning. Something he did most admirably at the British GP, but winning against such internal adversity will inevitably take its toll. In contrast to the highs, you always feel Webber’s style of attacking and defending will lead to incident. His collision with Lewis Hamilton in Australia, the horrific airborne episode with Heikki Kovalainen in Valencia and to a much lesser degree with Vettel at Turkey could all have been easily avoided. Valuable points lost on such occasions have allowed Hamilton and Button to creep ahead in the title chase. However, the way Webber is resisting any possible attempts by RBR to engineer Vettel into the lead driver position could help to keep the team honest as every move they make is widely and publicly dissected. Regardless of the immensely superior machinery at his disposal, Webber has followed up his breakthrough year admirably in regards to consistently being at the front and showing himself to be a regular race winner and series leader now he is free of his leg injury. The 2010 world championship is as much of a reality for Webber as it is for Vettel as long as the Red Bull management do not exert their authority too often over the race team’s operations and attempts to keep things equal between the two, although Christian Horner and Adrian Newey’s role in the British GP front wing debacle should not be understated.

Photographs by Paul Hitchens