Here, by popular demand, as we enter the summer shut down weeks, is our mid-season review.
We’ll do it in three parts, with the first part today.
It’s quite noticeable this season that the teams divide into three distinct groups: those who have matched or exceeded expectations, those who have had some breakthroughs but ultimately feel they “could have done better” and those who have disappointed.
In the first category, I would obviously place Ferrari and Lotus but also, just, Red Bull. Ferrari and Lotus have scored far more points and podiums than might have been expected at the start of the season and although both teams can look to specific races and know that, had the strategy or other factors gone their way they might have got more, they have nevertheless done a fantastic job so far.
Ferrari have only had one car scoring points, sadly, but take nothing away from the miraculous effort Alonso and the team have put in to win three races and get themselves into a position where they have a 40 point lead and the championship is theirs to lose.
Meanwhile Red Bull have matched expectations in the sense that they’ve had four poles, won three races and lead the Constructors’ points at the half way stage.
But it’s been a rocky ride; they started slowly due to the ban on blown diffusers and have had on-days and off days this season, but at the same time they have put in a massive effort to get competitive again, they are where thy are due to both cars scoring points. They are the only team to have scored 30 points or more on four occasions.
In the second category I would place Williams and Sauber as well as McLaren All three have had some success this year, but have also left a lot on the table, unrealised. Williams got their first win since 2004 and have qualified in the top ten seven times, but have let countless points scoring positions slip away from them; Sauber have built a really fast race car and scored two podiums and other strong finishes, but have missed many opportunities, largely by qualifying poorly.
McLaren have been erratic and in the early part of the season failed to turn the fastest car into a healthy points lead. However they seem to be turning it around now and the story of their second half of the season could be very different from the first.
And in the third category I would place everyone else; led by Mercedes , who got the breakthrough win in China, but have been very erratic apart from that; Force India have had odd moments, but are nowhere near the fifth place in the table they have targeted; Toro Rosso sacked two good drivers at the end of 2011 and have gone backwards; while Caterham, Marussia and HRT are all still swimming in the soup at the back, with Caterham occasionally breaking out of Q1 and beating Toro Rosso on merit.
The season has been characterised by the openness illustrated by seven different winners in the first seven races and by the possibility for mid-field teams to mix it at the front and score podiums and wins. So far seven different teams have put a driver on the podium, while 11 different drivers have stood up there. This is a very healthy trend for the sport.
The cars were close enough on performance that one team tuning the car and tyres into the circuit on any given weekend was the key to it.
However we can clearly see that some teams have a better handle on getting consistent performance from the tyres; as the season has progressed they have each found a mechanism for keeping the tyres in their preferred operating window. These teams are, not surprisingly, also the teams who are in Categories 1 & 2.
Ferrari started the season with real problems. The car pace in Australia was 1.2 seconds down on the McLaren, largely due to aerodynamic inadequacies. The pressure was immense and the team could have crumbled, but they kept it together, worked hard on turning it around and have done so.
They had a slice of luck in Malaysia, when the elements presented Alonso with a surprise win, but he’s been outstanding this year and has taken the maximum from whatever the car has to offer at every race weekend. Sometimes it’s been good enough for the win, sometimes only fourth or fifth, but he’s not put a foot wrong and has harvested points.
With no single challenger emerging from the Red Bull and McLaren drivers, the wins will continue to be shared out in the second half of the season and so it’s Alonso’s to lose at this stage. Webber’s position owes a lot to five fourth places; Alonso could probably replicate that and still remain on top.
A non-finish would change that, of course.
The pit stops have been brilliant all year, showing a real team hunger for success.
[Find out more about how Ferrari turned it around listen to Chief Designer Nicholas Tombazis in the latest JA on F1 Podcast HERE ]
Alonso: 164 Points (P1); 3 wins; 3 podiums; 2 poles; 216 laps led, Average grid slot: P6
Qualifying head to head vs Massa 11-0
Massa: 25 points; 1 lap led; Average grid slot: P11
Lotus are still looking for that first win and arguably could have had one by now, if the strategy had gone their way on a couple of occasions. But their return of 192 points, only one less than McLaren, is very positive and well beyond expectations.
The car is very fast, if not quite fast enough in qualifying to give the ideal platform for their race pace. But the car’s DNA is to get the most of the tyres in the race – Lotus can run longer stints on softer tyres than their rivals and this has been a real strong point.
They have been quick since the start of the year and arguably have been the most consistent team in terms of competitiveness on race day.
Their pit stops aren’t particularly fast (they were 7th in the league table in the first part of the year, now they are 4th), so there is room for improvement on a few fronts, but it’s been a fine start and it’s great to see Raikkonen on such good form, with five podiums in his comeback. Grosjean has been blindingly fast on occasions, but still lacks the composure to consistently convert that into results. He could have had more than 3 podiums.
The win will probably come in the second half of the season and they are in a battle to finish second in the constructors’ championship.
Raikkonen: 116 points (5th); 5 podiums, 2 fastest laps; 8 laps led; Average grid slot: P8
Head to head qualifying vs team mate: Raikkonen 4-7 Grosjean
Grosjean: 76 points (P8); 3 podiums; 1 fastest lap; 4 laps led; Average grid slot: P7
The pressure they have exerted on themselves to get competitive can be judged by the amount of brushes with the FIA technical staff. They’ve been sailing close to the wind, but it shows the team’s mentality of winning. Having found the winning groove in the last few years they aren’t about to lose it.
Vettel has driven well, albeit the peaks of 2011 have not been as many as he struggled early on with an awkward car. But he’s always a threat. He has also let himself down on a few occasions by saying the wrong thing after suffering a loss or a set-back. This also speaks to the desperation of staying a winning force, which is felt by all the team.
Webber has been consistent, by his standards, with a couple of good wins and five fourth places, but he knows that to have a crack at Alonso for the title he needs to rack up the podiums.
There have been a few signs lately of a return to the niggles of 2010 between the drivers, as Webber sits ahead of Vettel in the championship. Can either of them get control without rancour?
Webber: 124 points (2nd), 2 wins; 1 pole; 1 no-score; 66 laps led; Average grid slot: P6
Head to head qualifying vs team mate: Webber 5-6 Vettel
Vettel: 122 points (P3); 1 win; 2 podiums; 3 poles; 2 no-scores; Average grid slot: P4 (Best in field)
F1 mid season debate: What is your view? Who has impressed or disappointed you? Leave your comments below.