So, it's all over then? No one will overtake Vettel now...
...Not so fast, writes Richard Rae. Ferrari and McLaren are still sorting out technical issues and, history says, will fight back
Tuesday 10 May 2011
It was probably inevitable that Sebastian Vettel's early dominance would lead to the 2011 Formula One season being likened to that of 2004. Those who were not bored into memory-erasing catatonia will recall that was the year in which Michael Schumacher, driving for Ferrari, won 12 of the first 13 races and secured the world championship with four Grands Prix still remaining.
While there is a gently distracting irony watching the great man's current struggles, and a lot more in hearing him suggest "the big joy" of racing is missing, some fear the manner in which his young compatriot Vettel has calmly controlled the races he has won suggests we may be in for another season in which the only real contest is to see who can join the 23-year-old on the podium.
Analysis, however, suggests that at the very least it is too early to panic. Brilliantly though Vettel has driven – particularly in qualifying, where he really does appear to be the outstanding talent on the grid – his races have been made somewhat easier than they might have been by Red Bull's rival teams, and to some extent by Red Bull themselves.
Very rarely have McLaren, Ferrari or the side of the Red Bull garage looking solely after Vettel's team-mate Mark Webber got everything right over a race weekend, and for all that he has usually looked to have some performance in hand, the margins of Vettel's victories to date have been sufficiently small to make it reasonable to hope that when they do, he will face some serious questions.
So too does the speed with which both McLaren and latterly Ferrari have developed and improved their cars. Two weeks before the season started McLaren's test results were catastrophically bad. For all that Red Bull mismanaged the Chinese Grand Prix, for McLaren to have recovered to such an extent that they were able to put themselves in a position to win in Shanghai was incredible, and had not a machine failure at their factory in Woking last week prevented them bringing further upgrades to Turkey, both Lewis Hamilton and Jenson Button would undoubtedly have presented Vettel with a much stronger challenge in Istanbul.
Hamilton, who finished fourth, even had to cope with a pit-stop delay for a cross-threaded wheelnut. Those upgrades, and more besides, will now appear in Spain in two weeks time.
"Frankly we didn't bring all the developments we wanted here, so we weren't quite as quick as we wanted to be, and when you're not you lose places," pointed out team principal Martin Whitmarsh.
"We didn't quite achieve what we wanted in qualifying, and if you then lose places at the start of the race it's very difficult to recover from that."
The performance of Ferrari suggested they too may soon be capable of giving the Red Bulls a run for their money. According to Red Bull team principal, Christian Horner, the battle between Webber and Fernando Alonso demonstrated the Scuderia are already back, and yet Alonso experienced a series of racing problems, particularly in passing the Mercedes of Nico Rosberg, which the Spaniard suggested cost him his chance to challenge Vettel.
While not quite in McLaren's position in terms of development, Ferrari only had minor bodywork upgrades, pending bigger changes for Spain and Monaco.
"We need to keep working, keep understanding better this car, these [Pirelli] tyres, the problems that we may have in the factory," Alonso said. "I think we need to keep in this direction for Barcelona, this improving course that it seems that we start here. This has to be only the first step of our recovery and in Barcelona there is much more to come from us, I'm sure."
Hamilton went on to admit that sliding wide while trying to pass Webber for third place on the opening lap cost him dear in a race in which he had the pace to finish second but not to win. The team were obliged to put Hamilton on a four-stop strategy after he hurt his tyres trying to make up ground, but kept Jenson Button on three stops which in retrospect did him no favours, despite the Briton's famed smoothness at the wheel. He could only finish sixth.
So both McLaren and Ferrari will expect to field much improved cars in Barcelona. But so, of course, will Red Bull. The outcome of a world championship thus far dominated by the energy drink team will ultimately depend upon who wins the technical development race. The rule changes, the introduction of the new softer tyres and movable rear wing, have to some extent played into Red Bull's hands, but history, not to mention resources, suggests the older teams will continue to close the gap.
1 S Vettel Red Bull 93pts
2 L Hamilton McLaren 59
3 M Webber Red Bull 55
4 J Button McLaren 46
5 F Alonso Ferrari 41
6 F Massa Ferrari 24
7 N Heidfeld Renault 21
8 V Petrov Renault 21
9 N Rosberg Mercedes 20
10 K Kobayashi Sauber 8
11 M Schumacher Mercedes 6
12 S Buemi Toro Rosso 6
13 A Sutil Force India 2
14 P Di Resta Force India 2
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