F1 is back on track but what can we expect in season's second half?
After the summer break the circus returns in Belgium today. So how do we stand with eight races left?
So, the summer break is over, the batteries of all 12 Formula One teams have been thoroughly recharged, and the circus hits the road again on one of the world's greatest race tracks at the start of the final run to the chequered flag. The amount of work that anyone has been able to do to their cars during the break has been strictly limited by the sport's ruling FIA, but most of them have none the less managed to bring upgraded technical packages here to Belgium in the effort to make a jump forward in relation to immediate rivals.
Remind us how the season began
Red Bull came out of the gate in winning form at the start of the year, with Sebastian Vettel winning six of the first eight races to build a huge lead in the world championship: 234 points to team-mate Mark Webber's 149 and the 145 apiece of Lewis Hamilton and Fernando Alonso. In the constructors' championship Red Bull have 383 points to McLaren's 280 and Ferrari's 215.
Can Vettel and Red Bull be caught?
These are not advantages that will be overturned easily. As Jenson Button recently said, it is as if Vettel is now starting an eight-race world championship with an 85-point lead.
But Red Bull haven't won a race since Valencia in July. Ferrari broke through to win in Britain, courtesy of Alonso; McLaren won the last two, with Hamilton in Germany and Button in Hungary. The heat is very definitely on, and as Vettel admitted yesterday, Spa-Francorchamps is not Red Bull's favourite track. That, however, didn't stop Webber taking pole and finishing second last year.
Realistically, it will take a miracle for Vettel to lose a second straight title. He can still finish third in all of the final races, even if, say, Hamilton or Alonso won all eight, and win by nine points, 354 to 345. Serious food for thought. But nothing is predictable in racing, especially at the level of intensity that has been such a feature of Formula One of late. If McLaren and Ferrari push Red Bull to fifth-place finishes, things could be very different. And retirements or accidents, however unlikely in this era of incredible reliability, could yet turn the tables. Red Bull aren't going to stop their own development, however, so it's hard to think Vettel will be toppled.
So if Vettel has it all but sewn up, who will finish second?
The mercurial Hamilton, surely one of the most exciting drivers of all time, the highly aggressive and utterly focused Alonso, the super-smooth and calculating Button and the under-rated Webber all have a chance.
Hamilton and Button have won twice apiece and Alonso once, so odds favour them after both McLaren and Ferrari turned their fortunes around to beat Red Bull. The honest answer is that any one of the three can be runner-up, while Webber will have to take a big jump to stay in that position. The top three teams are the only likely victors in the remaining races, but expect Webber to do everything he can to avoid going winless despite struggling on Pirelli's tyres.
The main thing that will determine the drivers' performances will be the rate of their team's technical development. "In terms of closing the gap to Red Bull, we have had a competitive race car for some time now," McLaren's managing director, Jonathan Neale, said last week. "The qualifying pace is where we have been falling short. I'm pleased to say that – except for the slight blip at the British Grand Prix – the trend has been good and we have been closing in.
"We haven't got the cars in the right part of the grid, but we are developing at a better rate and there are a series of upgrades planned for these next two races. That's what McLaren is here to do – to run deep into the season and to win races."
At Ferrari, the team principal, Stefano Domenicali, has taken Ferrari's poor early season form on the chin and made technical changes to recover lost ground. "What is important is that this is the baseline for the second half of the season," he says. "Even if I think the championship is difficult because the gap is quite big, the only thing we have to do is make sure we maximise the points and we will see at the end. It's not too late. But for sure it's not early. Eight races is still a long way to go, but we need to be realistic. I still see Red Bull very, very, very strong, and also McLaren in the last few races has done a big step forward."
And the rest?
Further back, can Mercedes hold on to their disappointing fourth, with Nico Rosberg and Michael Schumacher, against Renault, who are 14 points behind? Expect to see both teams throwing new parts at their cars, as Sauber, Force India and Toro Rosso battle for the financially crucial sixth position.
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