It’s halfway through the season - so if you applied the Winners and Losers sieve to the grid, who would be a winner and who would be sinner…?
Winners (in order of winningness)
After one ragged season in F1, Romain Grosjean has returned to show that first impressions can be deceptive. After some early season, early race mishaps – colliding with Michael Schumacher amongst them - he is learning to start grands prix with a more considered attitude. His pace during races has often exceeded his far more experienced team-mate and providing Lotus can keep supplying him with the level of equipment he’s had up to the Hungarian GP it should only be a matter of time till he wins a grand prix.
Fernando has dragged an ill-handling car from the middle of the field to the top of the driver table. At the same time his Maranello team, have gone about transforming what was a radical, unpredictable car into a consistent and fast car. It is still not as quick as a Red Bull or a Lotus, but it is testament to Alonso’s supreme ability that he has managed to optimise everything on his way to a considerable lead in the driver table. If you are a young, aspiring driver, there is only one star to emulate.
Last year Williams had their worst season since the 1970s. It was heart-wrenchingly bad for a team that grew from ‘garagistas’ to represent the pinnacle of technical excellence typified by their 1992 and 1993 (Adrian Newey designed) cars. Now they are back where they belong, contesting Q3 – sometimes getting two cars into Q3 when Bruno Senna gets his finger out – and winning races. Pastor Maldonado’s brilliant Barcelona win was when the pitlane could breath a collective sigh of relief. Mark Gillan should take a lot of the praise.
Earlier on in the season the McLaren pitcrew lost several valuable places for Lewis Hamilton in a series of embarrassing pitstop delays. Now they have turned it round and are producing world record pit-stop times, crucial as teams begin to understand their 2012 Pirellis and the racing becomes closer and more predictable. Now they can provide the edge ina World Championship campaign.
It was good to have former World Champion Michael Schumacher back on the grid, if only to add a bit of extra gravitas and the weight of history. Kimi Raikkonen’s return was less anticipated but provided far more impressive results. And straight away. Raikkonen’s consistency may yet prove to be a factor in the drivers’ title race in 2012. Unlike Schumacher on his return, when the Weltmeister was embroiled in a series of bangs and bumps with Petrov and Kobayashi, Raikkonen has kept out of trouble. He’s also managed to keep a tight grip on that smile slipping out.
Sergio Perez became the-man-most-likely-to-replace-Felipe-Massa after some stellar early season results and where he narrowly lost out to Fernando Alonso for his debut win. Perez may not have the qualifying edge of Sauber team-mate Kamui Kobayashi but he’s had some superb race results and his championship position would be that much better had it not been for the regular intervention of Pastor Maldonado. When he can get the car qualified well Ferrari will be much more confident of taking him on.
Last year Mark Webber wasn’t just beaten by his team-mate, he was pulverised. This year it’s been a delight to see that Mark hasn’t lost it, the 2011 car just didn’t suit (or maybe they didn’t tell him where the manual ride height adjuster knob was located). Webber’s resurgence has shown us an irritable side to the previously polite Sebastian Vettel, who is happy when things are going well but will have to learn Fernando Alonso’s virtues now that it’s not so easy. Webber took a great win at Monaco and could take more, and as the season wears on will probably be the cause of increasing friction from the Helmut-Marko-we-should-favour-one-driver lobby.
Lewis always used to be portrayed as the tear-arse, flat-out driving style, tyre destroyer. It clearly irritated him because he said after one race, “I keep hearing that my team-mate’s better at looking after his tyres”. Not any more. Martin Brundle will have to shelve that line of thought because in Hungary Lewis drove a superbly controlled race and won despite being hotly pursued in the last 10 laps by a Kimi Raikkonen with much better Pirellis. All the luck has gone against Lewis this year (punctures and pit disasters and Maldonado etc), while fortune has smiled on Fernando (Renault alternators in Valencia) who’s finished the last 40-odd races. That’s unlikely to go on.
At last he’s got his podium and he can retire a happy man. Despite a few wobbly crashes in the last two grand prix practices Michael Schumacher has spent this season getting a lot closer to Nico Rosberg. However the best moment by far was his Monaco pole lap. The podium that was gifted him at the European GP was nowhere near that achievement.
Drivers might have moaned at the start of the year that Pirelli’s 2012 rubber was a bit of a lottery, but as Aussie actor Brian Brown (very much like Webbo) once said in a Citroen advert – “well, it’s no fun if it’s too easy”. The teams have just about figured out how to get the best of them now, after we have been royally entertained by the sight of Saubers and Williams leading races.
Maldonado is certainly no pay driver, qualifying the car brilliantly and winning the Spanish Grand Prix under enormous pressure from Fernando Alonso. But at the same time he’s produced some of the most mullet-headed moments F1 is likely to see. His deliberate swipe of Perez in Monaco was stupidity of Mr.Bean proportions and the stewards should have given him more than an impossible grid slot. In Australia he threw away a hatful of points with a late race mistake and in Valencia he produced a golden moment of red mist idiocy when he couldn’t get past Lewis Hamilton and thought he could barge him out of the way. Losing a podium place and getting a penalty. The FIA should then have done him (and Sergio Perez) a favour by suspending him for two races so he could realise the error of his ways. But no he returned to bump Perez into retirement at Silverstone and DiResta in the sidepod in Hungary. Neither incident were his fault, he claimed. To which the stewards replied, yeah, right.
The points difference between Felipe Massa and Fernando Alonso is now huge, but it was Massa’s failure to get on top of a difficult car at the start of the year that was the greatest cause for concern. He often made up for poor qualifying with some great starts, but the seed of doubt had been sewn that Felipe wasn’t up to the job of being Alonso’s No.2. Ironically, right now, the last thing Ferrari want is for Massa to continue his progressive closing of the gap to Alonso and for the Brazilian to start to eclipse him – 0.1 or 0.2 back will be fine for the rest of the year
Despite the greatest collection of former technical directors in one team Mercedes are struggling. Last year their fourth place position behind F1’s grandees was aided by a radical Renault/Lotus design that proved resistant to development through the season. This year James Alllison has learnt his lesson and Lotus are battling it out with Ferrari and McLaren leaving Mercedes in a very-unlikely-to-recover-from fifth place and looking nervously over their shoulder at Sauber. The envy of the double DRS in the early races seems a long time ago now
4.Bruno Senna/Alex Wurz
They’ve brought in Michael Johnson as a trainer and Alex Wurz as a driver coach, but it took until the 11th race of the year before Bruno Senna delivered both a convincing qualifying performance backed up by a solid race result. Along the way he’s been the driver other drivers most like to crash into, but he’s also lost places and front wings at the start. Improved qualifying would take him away from these ruffians and chancers and he’ll need to put some points on the board soon if we’re going to be seeing him in 2013.
This was the year they were supposed to be joining the big boys, but they still haven’t got out of primary school. A move to grown-up facilities at the old Arrows factory at Leafield will help. It will also allow them to poach staff who don’t want to move their families from England’s central F1 belt that encompasses nearby Enstone (Lotus), Grove (Williams), Milton Keynes (Red Bull), Brackley (Mercedes) and Silverstone (Force India)
In the twilight career move to a lesser team the one thing you have to do is consistently beat your inexperienced new team-mate. The fact that Charles Pic is qualifying and finishing in front of Timo Glock is not great news for the German.
Mr Kindly Tyres should really have been doing a lot better than he is in a tyre sensitive year. For most of the first half of the season we’ve been given a running commentary about how his Mclaren MP4-27’s balance has been. It’s usually a dispiriting listen. Jenson has also been persuaded to change brake compounds from progressive to what James Allen describes as “bitey” and that can’t have helped. He’s on the road to recovery after recent good performances, but he would have expected to have done better, especially at Silverstone.
8.Ricciardo and Vergne
Like Wenlock and Manderville, they’re in big danger of being yesterday’s news very shortly. Neither have made a dramatic step forward. But at least they each have two eyes.
Last year we were asking when Robert Kubica would return – with little news of Robert’s progress, sadly it’s now a case of ‘if’ he will return.
10. Red Bull
The Red Bull team have been very much under the technical kosh this season with sudden race morning inspections from the FIA technical delegate Jo Bauer (a very unusual occurrence in the pitlane no matter what Christian Horner says). They’ve had to change holes in floors, their engine mapping and rebut allegations that they’ve been surreptitiously adjusting their ride height without the use of big tools. If only they could lavish that kind of attention on their KERS.