Half-term report

 

The summer break is upon us and the first half of the season is complete. So how have the various teams and drivers fared so far? Who has had a good opening half to 2012 and who will need to improve during the second half to ensure they're on the grid for 2013? It would be too easy to simply look at the Drivers and Constructors Championship standings and say who had performed well and who had not so far. We need to see who has consistently performed to a competitive level, whether that be against their team mate, rival drivers or rival teams, across the eleven circuits that have been visited so far this season. From this we can then understand exactly who has a good (or bad) half-term report.

Shall we start at the back and work our way to the front of the grid? Let's begin with HRT. Although they still find themselves occupying the final two spots of the grid on more occasions than not, HRT may well be satisfied with how this first of the season has gone. They have certainly been much more competitive against the Marussia's in the fight at the back of grid and have even out-qualified them on a few occasions. Before this season started Narain Karthikeyan had not qualified ahead of any team mate since China 2005. I'm aware he's not been in Formula 1 all that time, but it's a remarkable (and unenviable) statistic. That trend has continued throughout this season, as Pedro de la Rosa has beaten him 11 times out of 11. I understand HRT are a Spanish team and having a Spanish driver makes sense, but to give it to Pedro always struck me as an odd choice. He's been a fantastic test and development driver for McLaren and has had previous runs in Formula 1 seats, so why did he feel he needed to come back and race for a team that were always going to run at the back? I think he'd have been better suited in a role as a mentor for a younger driver learning their trade. Still, he's qualified well (for the car he's in) and has definitely been the HRT driver to take it to the Marussia's so far in 2012. Solid, but very unspectacular.

It's been a tough season for Marussia, both on and off the track. Maria De Villota's horror crash at Duxford Airfield early in July shocked the whole motorsport community. The sheer amount of support and well wishes from fans the world over can only have helped Maria, her family and the team begin to get through this most difficult of situations. She's recently been released from hospital after two operations and her progress will be carefully monitored. I'm sure I speak for everyone in saying that I hope her condition continues to improve as her recovery continues. Back on the track and it's been an equally challenging first half for the team. They've dropped back from Caterham and into the clutches of HRT; and although they've generally finished ahead of HRT in qualifying and the races, it must still be discouraging for the whole team. However, I have been impressed with Charles Pic so far in relation to how he's performed against his far more experienced team mate Timo Glock. He's out-qualified Timo on several occasions and has generally performed strongly in the races; whether he'll be around next season I'm not sure. I thought Jerome D'Ambrosio was unlucky to lose his seat in 2011, so will Pic end up the same way? Marussia will need a strong second half to 2012 to convince Glock that it's worth him staying around. Based on the first half of the season, it doesn't look like they can provide a car that's capable of doing that.

I'm not entirely sure what has happened at Caterham this season. The team felt confident going into 2012 that they had a strong chance of gaining significant ground on midfield teams such as Toro Rosso and Williams. Unfortunately it's just not happened for them. Out of the two drivers it's been Heikki Kovalainen that has looked more likely, at least in qualifying, to take the fight to the more established teams. Heikki has managed on two occasions to ring the car's neck and get himself into Q2, but then hasn't been able to convert that in the races. The car is simply not quick enough and is not allowing the drivers, both of which are established and quick, to display their true speed. For me Petrov has justified being drafted into the team as he has been far more competitive against Kovalainen, particularly in the races, than Trulli was last season. They'll need to pick up soon though before management, drivers and fans become fed up with a seemingly continuous lack of progression up the field. They've improved since 2010 and 2011, but nowhere near as much as we were led to believe they would. Can they get that illusive first point in 2012? Based on the first of the season; no.

A strong start to the season in Australia and Malaysia has been followed by a huge slump in performance and competitiveness right through to Hungary; that's the story for Toro Rosso in 2012. The car looked good in pre-season testing and this transferred to the opening races of the season, with Daniel Ricciardo finishing 9th in Australia and Jean-Eric Vergne coming home 8th the following weekend in Malaysia. Unfortunately, that's about as good as it has got for the team this season. Barring Ricciardo's brilliant 5th place in qualifying at the Bahrain Grand Prix, the team have been nowhere and dropped right off the back of the midfield. Vergne's qualifying in particular has been poor, dropping out in Q1 on 6 of the 11 sessions. He doesn't seem able to get on top of the car, particularly when it comes to low fuel running and as a result has a tough time rescuing any type of result. Vergne and Ricciardo are very evenly matched and neither one has really shone more than the other. If either of them does want the chance to race for Red Bull in the coming years then they'll need to step up and pull away from the other. The car is uncompetitive and Red Bull have recognised this; parachuting some of their personnel down the paddock to STR. Buemi and in particular Alguersauri in particular were unlucky to be dropped, so Vergne and Ricciardo will need a strong second half to 2012 to guarantee a second season with the team in 2013. They've amassed just 6 points between them and sit firmly in 9th place in the constructors; simply not good enough.

Entering the 2012 season it appeared that Force India would have the most evenly matched driver pairing of any team, something that has proved to be pretty accurate. Drivers Paul di Resta and Nico Hulkenberg have both retired from one race this season and have both finished inside the points on 5 occasions. Paul has matched his best result in Formula 1 with a 6th place in Bahrain, while Nico has surpassed his previous best with a 5th place in Valencia. They've tended to qualify well this season, often having at least one car in the top 10, but have had a habit of dropping back a bit during the races. Despite the VJM05 being the most consistently quick car the team have had, they currently sit just 8th in the constructors standings, lower than they finished in both 2010 and 2011. Force India are the only midfield team that haven't really looked like challenging for a podium this season and the fact that Sauber (on two occasions) and Williams (a win in Barcelona) have has allowed both of them to be ahead in the standings. I think Force India have done fairly well this season though, but will need to continue qualifying and then finishing in the top 10 to stand any chance of catching Sauber in 6th. Two strong and quick drivers in a car that is fundamentally solid give them a good chance of doing that. Paul di Resta has been linked with the drives at Ferrari and Mercedes and would undoubtedly be a good addition to both teams, but he'll probably need a few more top 6 results to prove his credentials. Hulkenberg has said he's unsure whether he's done enough to ensure he's here in 2013. Personally I feel he has, particularly in recent races, and he should be retained for next season.

2012 could only be better for Williams than 2011 was. Thankfully they were much more competitive straight out of the blocks in Australia than they ever were last season; and had it not been for a late lapse in concentration Pastor Maldonado would have finished 7th and beaten Williams' total 2011 points haul in just one race. It was Bruno Senna who made the most consistent start to the season for Williams with consecutive points finishes in Malaysia and China. The highlight of the season for the team (and me) was undoubtedly Pastor Maldonado's fantastic win in Barcelona. It was one of the best drives I've ever seen from any driver, right from the first to the last lap. He controlled large parts; outpacing, outsmarting, out-thinking and overtaking Fernando Alonso; in Spain. Pastor has had a controversial first half to the season and has (in my opinion) been unfairly blamed for incidents with Lewis Hamilton and Sergio Perez in particular. The story of Williams' season has been being involved in too many crashes and incidents and both drivers have been guilty of that (Senna in Barcelona and Valencia, Maldonado in Valencia and Silverstone). Too many people are too quick to blame Maldonado. He's first and foremost a quick driver, he knows how to defend his position and can (though some may disagree) overtake. Senna has finished more races in the points that Maldonado but for me hasn't impressed as much. Senna has made it into Q3 just once whereas Maldonado has been there more often than not. In fact his qualifying performances have been extremely impressive all season. It's great to see Williams being competitive again and I for one hope it continues. Senna's future is uncertain at Williams and will for sure need some strong drives soon; having the right name and being a nice guy can only get you so far. He's ended the first half well with a strong and impressive 7th in Hungary, fending off Button and Webber for large periods.

In all honesty, Sauber have had a fantastic first half to 2012. Perez has had 2 podium finishes (1 of which should have been a victory) and Kobayashi has achieved his personal best finish in Formula 1 with a 4th in Germany. They started the season with a double points finish in Australia and have gone on from there. Perez's 2nd place in Malaysia was a particular highlight and he showed that day just what a talent he is. He caught up to the back of Alonso not just once, but 2 or 3 times throughout the race and clearly had the pace to win it, though could not get past the Spaniard. He backed up this up with a terrific drive in Canada where he again visited the podium after coming home in 3rd place. It was a race in which he showed off one of his main assets; his tyre management and conservation skills. It enabled him to overtake Alonso and Vettel at the end of the race on tyres that were nearly 50 laps old. Sauber have had a habit of qualifying poorly this season, leaving themselves a lot to do in the race. Kobayashi in particular has often started on the slower tyre and has tended to make it work to his advantage, particularly at Hockenheim in which he finished 4th. Kobayashi has shown that he's still one of the most exciting drivers to watch and isn't afraid to overtake anyone at any point. Perez though is the one to watch. A move to Ferrari seems inevitable at some point and I for one think he'd be ready to step up there for the 2013 season. In a team and environment like Sauber he's been allowed to flourish and showcase his talent under relatively little pressure. Can he follow the likes of Raikkonen and Massa from previous years and fight (and win in Kimi's case) for the world title? Yes. A great season for Sauber so far, will it continue after the break?

A good word to describe Mercedes in 2012 would be ‘mixed'. 2 points from the opening 7 races for Michael Schuamacher, but 69 from the same amount for Nico Rosberg would indicate it being a mixed start. Within those 69 points achieved 2 podium finishes; a 2nd in Monaco and a maiden win (and pole) in China. It may have taken over 100 GP's, but Nico Rosberg had finally proved he could win a Formula 1 race. He dominated the weekend in all honesty in a car that benefited greatly from the long back straight and its clever double-DRS system. Strangely Michael has scored more points since the car has become more uncompetitive than he did when it was fighting for podiums at the start. A mixture of crashes and mechanical faults saw him finish just 2 of the opening 7 races and score just 2 points. During that time though he did put in a stunning Monaco qualifying performance and would have been on pole had it not been for some questionable antics on his part at the previous round, for which he received a five place grid drop. Michael has been much more competitive this season and took his first podium since his return with a 3rd in Valencia. A late surge through the field on fresher tyres saw the 7-time World Champion come from outside the top 10 in the last stint to finish 3rd. The car has undoubtedly got less competitive though and are now the 5th fastest team in the paddock. They're not too far ahead of Sauber and given the way the Swiss team are performing currently, Mercedes will need a few more podiums to secure that 5th come the end of the season. 5th would hardly mark a successful season for a team like Mercedes though and questions will be asked if that is indeed where they finish.

You'd have to say the first half of the 2012 season has been a success for Lotus. Coming into this season neither driver had raced in the sport for the previous 2 years, yet straight out of the box they were both quick. Romain Grosjean in particular impressed early on with his pace, but couldn't convert that into finishes after comings together early in both the Australian and Malaysian Grand Prix's. A double podium finish for Raikkonen and Grosjean in Bahrain marked the start of what the Lotus was capable. In hindsight it was a race that Raikkonen should have won, but spent too long behind Grosjean and couldn't capitalise on the pace he had over Vettel. He again probably should have won the Hungarian Grand Prix after working through the field by running longer on tyres, but KERS issues and a circuit not known for overtaking saw Kimi come home in 2nd again. He's finished every race so far and failed to score in just one of them. A haul of 5 podiums for Kimi has seen the Finn rise to 5th in the standings and with an outside shot of the championship. He's shown no sign of rust from his 2 years in the WRC and has shown some ruthless and clean overtaking when needed.

Grosjean though has arguably been the most interesting driver of 2012 so far. His first Formula 1 stint was for want of a better word, a disaster. Racing in and winning the GP2 series last season did his confidence the world of good and Lotus saw in him what a lot of people always knew he had; natural speed. His 2nd place in Canada was a joy to watch as he, like Perez, managed his tyres better than the more established drivers and fought his way through late on to achieve his best result in Formula 1. For me though his best drive came at Silverstone, where after another first lap incident, Grosjean was forced to fight his way through the whole field. He went from 23rd to 6th, and had it not been for that incident, he could well have fought for (and maybe taken) the win. Lotus sit in 3rd in the constructors standings, close behind McLaren and just ahead of Ferrari. Both Kimi, Romain and the car are capable of winning races but will need to do so soon if they want to challenge for the big honours. A very, very positive first half for both the team and drivers. More of the same with the addition of a few wins in the second half and Lotus will be there or thereabouts come the end of the season.

It's been a strange season for McLaren. Over the past few seasons we've seen them started poorly and then have a resurgence through the middle and latter parts. This time round however, it's been the opposite. Jenson started with a win in Australia and finished 2nd in China; whilst Lewis took 3 3rd places from the opening 3 rounds in what appeared to be title challenge-esc driving (something we'd not always seen from Lewis in the past). Jenson went on to score just 7 points in the following 6 rounds, a run which has seen his title prospects all but disappear. Lewis' run during the same period wasn't quite as bad, but still didn't help his title ambitions. A sublime win in Canada, a track at which he and McLaren always go well, was not only great to watch but was also very much needed to get his season back on track after a run of 8th, 8th and 5th. The car appeared as though it wasn't allowing the drivers to get the most out of it and Jenson in particular struggled, both in qualifying and the races.

Jenson's strongest qualifying for a while at Hockenheim gave him the platform to have a strong race. He did just that and fought past the likes of Schumacher and Vettel to claim 2nd, his first podium finish since China. The pace of the McLaren was there to see, even though Lewis retired from the race after running in 18th for large periods. Debris from Felipe Massa's front wing caused a puncture for Lewis which effectively ruined his race, but McLaren were still able to use this to their advantage later in the race. Coming out of the pits on fresher tyres just behind the battle for the lead, Lewis was able to unlap himself against Vettel (which caused Vettel to lose his cool and precious time), allowing Jenson to gain and overtake through the second pit-stop phase. Lewis' stunning laps in qualifying for the Hungarian Grand Prix show that the pace is back in the car. Again, similar to Mercedes, it's been a mixed bunch for McLaren so far. At times they've had the quickest car and been unbeatable, yet at other tracks they're the 4th, 5th or 6th fastest car. It'll be tough for Lewis to win the championship this season, but Lewis is one of one a few drivers capable of clawing back such a gap. He'll need help along the way from Jenson who, if he sorts his qualifying out, can help Lewis and take points away from his rivals. A very strong weekend all round at Hungary will leave confident McLaren, and Lewis in particular after his second victory of the season, heading into the summer in confident mood.

What has been clear so far this season is that the Red Bull is definitely not as dominant as it was in previous seasons. At the same stage last season Sebastian Vettel had taken 6 victories and finished off the podium just once. This time around the reigning double World Champion has visited the top step just once and only finished two further times on the podium. Why has that happened? The new regulations for this season definitely seem to have affected Red Bull more than others and it took the team a while to get on top of the situation. During recent races though we've seen a Red Bull resurgence, and had it not been for a cruel car failure in Valencia for Vettel, the team would have been celebrating back to back wins after Webber's victory at Silverstone. The drive from Vettel in Valencia was reminiscent of many of his 2011 wins, dominating the field from the front and pulling away by up to a second a lap. The young German has definitely looked more ragged and frustrated this season, as shown in the incidents with Narain Karthikeyan in Malaysia and last week's un-lapping situation with Lewis Hamilton. I always wondered whether he'd be able to fight through the pack and overtake given how much time he spent out front in 2011; and from what I've seen so far I think it shows that he is beatable, but as shown in Valencia he can also be untouchable.

Team mate Webber on the other hand has looked more assured this season, driving with a consistency that has a habit of bringing success. He's finished every race so far and only failed to score on one occasion; results that have seen him rise to 2nd in the drivers standings. He's struggled at times in qualifying though and has failed to make Q3 on at least a couple of occasions, often meaning he finds himself having to fight and take risks whilst running in the midfield. He also seems to have developed a liking for finishing 4th, having done it 5 times already this season. 2012 seems to be presenting Webber with his best chance yet at winning the championship, especially given Vettel's and McLaren's struggles, but can he cope with the pressure? The Red Bull should be strong at most, if not all, tracks in the second half of the season which should give both Webber and Vettel the opportunity to close down Alonso. They sit 2nd and 3rd in the standings respectively, with the team also sitting top of the constructors standings thanks to both drivers consistently scoring (something many others haven't managed). It's definitely not been a stellar first half to 2012 given what the team achieved in 2010 and 2011, but it's not bad is it? I think most teams would bite your hand off to be in the same position.

Heading into the season opener in Australia, the team, drivers and fans must have been worried about what would be possible in 2012. The car looked slow, difficult to drive and a midfield runner at best. In the hands of Felipe Massa that's what it turned out to be (at least for the first 5 races) as the likeable Brazilian struggled to get on top of what was clearly a tricky car. It wasn't until the Monaco Grand Prix that Massa was able to get any kind of result out of the car, taking 6th place and running towards the front throughout. His best race of the season was undoubtedly at Silverstone where he finished 4th. His speed throughout was consistently strong, but the result was more important. Massa needs results and needs them quickly, not only to stand any chance of staying at Ferrari (which is looking more and more unlikely given the sheer number of drivers linked with the seat (Button, Raikkonen, Perez, di Resta, Kobayashi, Maldonado), but to also convince the other teams that he can still perform at the top level.

Alonso meanwhile appeared to be coping much better and extracting the most out of the car, as shown by his stunning drive in Malaysia to take victory in a car that simply shouldn't have been able to win. Alonso has been driving magnificently this season, probably the best he has driven in fact, and this has seen the Spaniard rise to the top of the standings. He's scored in 23 consecutive races, a run that started back at the 2011 European Grand Prix. His second victory of the season came at the European round in Valencia where a visibly emotional Alonso stood on the top step in front of thousands of proud and adoring Spaniards. He then took his third victory with a brilliant drive in Germany, fending off pressure from Vettel, Hamilton (whilst un-lapping himself) and Button and completing a lights-to-flag win. Even when the car isn't capable of winning Alonso still manages to pull out a strong result. He has a good idea before the race starts what his rivals are capable of doing over the 2 hours and sets his targets based on that. The knowledge and understanding he has of not only his car, but of his rivals as well, is unmatched and sets him apart from pretty much every other driver on the grid. He hasn't dropped a place on the opening lap of any race so far this season and has only failed to go forwards when starting from pole. In fairness Massa's starts have also been very strong and he too has generally moved forwards off the line. Ferrari will be very happy with how the car, specifically in the hands of Alonso, is performing. He's worked his way to the top of the standings without really having Massa there to help him, something that hasn't pleased the Ferrari management. Massa's future isn't looking good and it may be too late to save his drive in Ferrari and Formula 1. The first half of the season firmly belongs to Alonso, he's driven magnificently and has shown what a class act he is, both on and off the track. 3 victories and a 38 point lead at the top of the standings; not bad is it? It'll be tough for him to maintain that lead after the break with the pace of Lotus and the resurgence of Red Bull and McLaren, but if anyone can it's Fernando Alonso.

So that's my half-term report. It's been a great first half for Alonso, Lotus, Williams, Sauber and in parts Red Bull, McLaren and Mercedes. Can the likes of Massa, Vettel, Toro Rosso, Caterham and Marussia turn it around after the break? We shall see. Whatever happens, it's been a great first half of the season and arguably the most interesting and exciting in the past 15-20 seasons. Formula 1; you have to love it.

Top Drivers

 
Driver Points
Hamilton 252
Rosberg 211
Vettel 203
Raikkonen 107
Bottas 101
Massa 97
 

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