This extraordinary championship has – hopefully – four more chapters in store for us.
The title is still Mark Webber’s to lose; he has the fastest car and a ten point advantage. He has also had a couple of slices of “champions’ luck” this year and he has shown a willingness to gamble, in which I’m very interested.
Meanwhile Fernando Alonso is the man with the momentum. He and Ferrari are peaking at just the right moment. In the last five races Alonso has scored 93 points, Webber 74, Vettel 60, Hamilton 55 and Button 44.
Amazingly if you look at how things would stand under the old points system, Webber would have 80 points, Alonso 77, Hamilton 75, Vettel 74, Button 72, which is unprecedented.
If there is a problem with Korea and for any reason it isn’t possible to run the race, then it will hurt the McLaren drivers and Vettel the most as they need the maximum number of opportunities to score points.
But Webber also has to go out and take the initiative, he cannot simply hold on as Alonso is catching him too quickly for that.
In Hungary and particularly Singapore he went onto a different strategy from the others, one which required him to work hard. In Singapore he was obliged to do most of the race on a single set of tyres and to pass a few cars as well to make the strategy work and that is ambitious on a street circuit, however fast your car is.
He pulled it off – after questioning the strategy with his team at one point – and it brought him a podium, which was the height of his ambitions at Singapore, where he wasn’t really on the pace all weekend.
In Hungary Red Bull had a significant car advantage over the opposition, but by Singapore that had been largely eroded, possibly due to the more stringent FIA flexi tests.
Webber started fifth in Singapore but the early safety car presented his engineer with an idea. Believing that McLaren would struggle for pace on the option tyre during the opening stint, they brought Webber in to the pits on lap 3 under the safety car and put him on the harder prime tyre. This is the same medium compound tyre he used in Monaco and Budapest.
The objective was to take third place from Hamilton and the gamble relied on many of the cars in the midfield also pitting under the safety car, which luckily most of them did. The exceptions were Kobayashi and Glock. Meanwhile the cars immediately behind Webber on the road before his stop all continued – Rosberg, Kubica, Barrichello and Schumacher.
So Webber had lost six track positions, was behind one car from a new team and several drivers who are not easy to pass. He had to ensure that Hamilton did not get more than 27 seconds clear of him by the time of the McLaren pit stop, which turned out to be lap 28.
At the time it seemed quite a risky thing to do with a driver who is leading the world championship and Webber questioned it himself. There is always a risk inherent in any passing move, especially on street tracks where the corner angles tend to be tight, the kerbs are high and there isn’t much room.
By not taking the gamble, Webber would have finished fifth, which is 10 points, but the team believed that it could get him a third place, which is an extra 5 points. With Alonso in such challenging form, it was a gamble worth taking. Had he not taken it, he would now by just 6 points ahead of Alonso with four races remaining.
Passing cars was a pre-requisite, however and there’s a double risk here. You can collide -as Lewis Hamilton has done recently – or blocked. We’ve often seen fast cars get stuck behind slow ones on street tracks, the ultimate example being David Coulthard’s McLaren unable to pass Enrique Bernoldi’s Arrows at Monaco.
When Hamilton stopped on lap 28, for example, Kobayashi was 35 seconds behind, so had Webber not been able to pass the Sauber the strategy would have failed. Button would have stayed ahead and Rosberg would have undercut him for fifth place too.
Until lap 17 the hard tyres were significantly slower than the softs and Webber got stuck behind Barrichello, so Hamilton was able to pull away at over a second per lap. But after lap 17 the softs started to go off and the difference came down to more like half a second, which was more manageable and led to the gamble ultimately paying off. The gap peaked at 24 seconds on lap 23, but the McLarens stayed out too long trying to get the gap up to 27 seconds and it went down instead of up.
If Webber does win the title this year -and with Alonso on the rampage that is a big IF – then this gamble, the one in Hungary and the two occasions when he has hit another car and got away without damage (Singapore with Hamilton and Istanbul with Vettel) will have played a significant role in it.
As a side note, one could argue that Hamilton has been prepared to gamble recently with overtakes and has paid a heavy price. Without the gambles he would have scored a pair of fourth places, so they cost him 24 points, which would put him top of the table.
You need a bit of luck to be a champion and Webber seems to have been getting the rub of the green this season. Let’s hope for his sake that his luck holds, but he’s proven already the old cliche that fortune favours the brave.