At half-time, who's in driving seat and who's eating dust?
At the mid-point of the F1 season, David Tremayne explains why it's been so up and down and who he expects to take control in part two
Q. Why have we had such a topsy-turvy season, with a record seven different winners in the first seven races?
A. The major problem for everyone has been finding the "sweet spot" of the "made to degrade" Pirelli tyres which wear even faster this year than last. They have deliberately been designed that way, and this year even half a pound of pressure or just one of two degrees over or below the optimal operating temperature can render a car an also-ran.
Q. Will Pirelli's tyres continue to exert such a huge influence over competitiveness?
A. Yes. Some teams will tell you that they think they are getting a handle on finding the "sweet spot", but the signs are that nobody is yet doing it really consistently. As Fernando Alonso noted last week: "It's going to be tight. As we have seen this year, in a bracket of two- or three-tenths there can be eight or nine cars…"
Q. Is any kind of pattern finally beginning to emerge at the halfway point?
A. Ferrari, Red Bull and McLaren look very evenly matched. The McLaren managing director, Jonathan Neale, said after the German Grand Prix last week: "Based on the data I saw from Germany, I think the three top teams have very competitive cars. Whilst it is undeniable that Fernando has driven really well this season, if you look at the point conversion rate of Red Bull they are also very strong, and we have to get in amongst that mix. There is still a lot to go though; I don't think it is static."
Q. Has there been much controversy?
A. Not a lot. What there has been has centred around Red Bull. First there were the holes in their floors in Monaco, then their hub design in Canada, and just recently their engine torque mapping which they have had to alter. None of the changes that have been required appear to have affected their performance much.
Q. Who will lead the fight for the championship in the second half of the season?
A. Ferrari, Red Bull and McLaren look strong, but as we saw after Canada with McLaren, it's easy to drop off the pace and have to make a massive effort to claw it back. The odds favour these three, however, because of their inherent strengths; financial muscle and experience.
Q. Can Lewis Hamilton and Jenson Button get back into the fight?
A. Yes, if the McLaren is competitive. There are 10 races left, which means there are 250 points up for grabs for the race winners, and in the constructors' stakes there are a maximum of 430 if a team were to finish 1-2 in every event (25 points for first, 18 for second). It's a long way from over.
Q. Who will be the surprise package in the second half?
A. Williams have already shown very strong form, with Pastor Maldonado taking that surprise win in Barcelona. Lotus won't actually surprise if they win because that's been due since Bahrain, but they could be the strongest contender against the top three. If we have another wet race, watch out for Sergio Perez in the Sauber, who so nearly scored a victory in Malaysia.
Q. How will the championship be won?
A. McLaren's sporting director Sam Michael predicts a "ferocious" development battle as the season moves into its second half, and the rate at which teams can keep bringing updates – as Red Bull did in Valencia, McLaren in Germany and Ferrari have done all season – will determine who keeps up the greatest performance.
The Ferrari president, Luca di Montezemolo, summarised the challenge facing them all: "I see very strong opponents: McLaren have made great progress, Red Bull are very strong".
Q. Will Lewis Hamilton stay at McLaren?
A. Where else can he go? The door is closed at Red Bull, Ferrari remains unlikely, and so does Mercedes. There seems to be a general desire on his behalf and McLaren's to stay together, if financial issues can be resolved. But it remains to be seen whether he signs a long-term contract or just a one-year deal, Mark Webber-style, to wait and see how things shake down for 2014.
Q. Will Michael Schumacher retire?
A. Almost certainly not. Having been pulped by team-mate Nico Rosberg in 2010 and '11, the veteran multi-champ is back on the pace and more often than not running ahead of his young compatriot in a car that better suits his aggressive oversteer style.
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