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)
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)
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)
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)
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