Championship Contenders - Part 1

 

The European leg of the 2012 Formula 1 season has now concluded after this past weekend's around the fabulous and historic Autodromo Nazionale Monza. The Formula 1 circus now heads off to Asia, first stop Singapore, to begin the final assault on what has already been a fascinating and at times controversial season. With 7 fly away races to come across a wide and diverse range of tracks; I thought it'd be good to have a look into the title credentials of the 6 challengers going for this seasons championship. With 7 championships already between them, it promises to be an extremely hard fought and tense battle to the end as we wait to see which of these great drivers will be lifting that trophy aloft in Brazil. The 6 drivers in question are of course: Fernando Alonso, Lewis Hamilton, Kimi Raikkonen, Sebastian Vettel, Mark Webber and Jenson Button.

Jenson Button

The season started perfectly for Jenson and his McLaren team in Australia. A front row lockout on Saturday and a double podium finish on Sunday, with Jenson taking home the spoils thanks to a strong drive throughout the race. Despite not having a brilliant race in Malaysia, Jenson was back on form at the third round of the championship in China with a second podium finish of the season, coming home 2nd behind Nico Rosberg.

Sadly for Jenson though, that was as good as it got for a good few races. He seemed to be really struggling to get a grasp and good understanding of the car, particularly struggling for setup in the qualifying sessions. This would often leave him right in the mid pack for the races; and without a setup he was necessarily happy with, he found it difficult to work his way up through the field. Between the Bahrain Grand Prix and British Grand Prix (that's 6 GP's) Jenson only scored 7 points, with a best of result of just 8th. Something needed to change and change quickly for the 2009 World Champion if he was to have any chance of getting back in the title picture.

That change happened in Germany, with the car appearing to be much more competitive. For the first time all season Jenson managed to out qualify team mate Lewis Hamilton, something that can only have filed him with confidence. He took that boost into the race, driving and battling superbly up the field, which allowed him to be fighting for the lead with Fernando Alonso in the latter stages of the Grand Prix. He came home in 2nd place, a result that saw him return to the podium for the first time since the Chinese Grand Prix way back in April, after a close fought tussle with Sebastian Vettel.

It wasn't until Spa though that we really saw Jenson and the McLaren click. Remarkably he'd not taken a pole position since his 2009 title winning season, but on that Saturday around the historic and iconic Spa circuit we saw one of the truly dominant qualifying performances in recent memory. He set a remarkable 3 fastest laps, with only the Sauber of Kamui Kobayashi coming within a few tenths of any of his times. He followed that up with an equally dominant victory in the race to firmly put his title challenge back on track; especially with so many of his rivals failing to score after the horror crash at turn 1.

Things were looking good for another podium finish for Jenson at Monza until a fuel problem caused the McLaren to suddenly stop. It was a retirement that he really could have done without, especially with the way some of his other title challengers fared on the day. That result sees Jenson remain down in 6th in the driver's standings; now 78 points behind championship leader Alonso. Are his title chances over? Maybe, maybe not. He'll certainly need to outscore Fernando at every race between now and Brazil to stand any chance, especially given how very rare an Alonso no finish is. Jenson is certainly capable of putting together back-to-back wins (as shown in '09), but given the depth of talent and potential winners at any race, it's going to be very, very tough.

Mark Webber

If there's one thing that Mark Webber has been this season, certainly when it comes to races anyway, is consistent. He began the season with 4(four) 4th places, a run of results that saw the Australian actually lead the championship after the Bahrain Grand Prix.

His first real stand out moment of the 2012 season came around the streets of Monte Carlo; a circuit he and the Red Bull like and have a great record on, having finishing no lower than 5th since 2008. He started on pole (after Michael Schumacher's penalty had been applied) and didn't look back from there; going on to take the win ahead of the hard charging Nico Rosberg and Fernando Alonso. The result moved Webber up 2 spots in the driver's standings; just 3 points behind leader Alonso.

Three solid but rather unspectacular results followed, before he really picked up the pace again at the British Grand Prix. Similar to Monaco, Webber has a fantastic recent record around the Northamptonshire circuit, having finished on the podium in 2009, 2010 and 2011. He took his second win of the season after overtaking the Ferrari of Alonso with just a handful of laps remaining, having been able to manage his tyres better in the final stint of the race.

Remarkably since then though, he's failed to finish any higher than 6th. Many of the struggles not just he, but the team as a whole have faced in recent races has been in the qualifying sessions. They've only managed to get one car through to Q3 in each of the last 3 races; and similar to Jenson Button earlier in the season, have found themselves starting in the ‘danger zone' in the middle of the field. A disastrous weekend for the team in Monza was compounded by Webber's late retirement after a spin on the exit of Ascari, resulting in the car becoming unsafe to drive because of the punishment the tyres had taken.

That result has dropped him to 5th in the standings, 45 points behind Alonso. Out of the 6 drivers going for the championship, Webber is the only one not to have previously lifted the trophy at the end of a season. All the others have been there and done before and as we all know, experience can count for an awful lot. Of course Mark is a very experienced driver, having been in the sport since 2002, but has never really found himself in a title fight, that is until this season. A recent drop off in performance has come at the wrong time for Red Bull, and the 45 point gap will not be easy to make back up. Still though, it's 25 points for a win nowadays, and if he can get one or two more to add to his tally then he'll certainly be in with a strong chance.

Sebastian Vettel

After his truly dominating performance in 2011, many were wondering whether Sebastian Vettel would be able to repeat the feat in 2012. From what we've seen in the 13 races, that doesn't look like it will happen. It's certainly been the most challenging season for Seb and the team for a couple of years, as car faults, lack of performance and speed at some circuits and a few off track controversies have all contributed to what has been a ‘mixed-bag' so far for the double and reigning World Champion in 2012.

Incredibly Vettel has won just one race so far this season, in Bahrain. You could argue that it was a race Lotus should have won, had Kimi Raikkonen not been stuck behind his team mate for several crucial laps. On top of this one solitary win, Vettel has only been on the podium a further 3 times, at Melbourne, Silverstone and Spa. At the same stage last season he'd been on the podium at 12 out of the 13 races, winning 8 and having a lowest finish of just 4th. How things have changed one year on.

Similarly to team mate Webber, Vettel has had a string of 4th and 5th places throughout the season. Although this had scored him steady points, it's often not the huge amount he'd been used to in the previous couple of seasons, particularly as his title rivals were often finishing ahead. It has to be said that the Red Bull has just not been as dominant as it was in 2011. Last season we would turn up to every track knowing pretty much that the Red Bull would be the fastest car, but in 2012 that has completely changed. It appears to be a different car every weekend, or more accurately it's been several different cars that have been fighting for the top spots. Red Bull have often found themselves the 3rd or 4th fastest car around some tracks; something evidently on display at Monza this past weekend.

Both Red Bulls failed to finish the race, with Sebastian suffering with the same alternator problem he encountered in Practice on Saturday morning. That being said, neither retirement that Seb has suffered this season has been because of driver error. Whilst leading in a typically Vettel dominating fashion, the car failed on him and caused the German driver to retire instantaneously. This was the kind of thing that just wasn't happening to him in 2011, so maybe some of the ‘luck' has worn off.

You'd be a fool to write off Vettel at this stage. You don't become the youngest double World Champion for nothing; and even though there are some (me partly included, although I am slowly being converted) that believe Vettel cannot hack it when under pressure, he is truly one of the greats on today's grid. Red Bull are a fine, fine race team and outfit and will undoubtedly give their drivers a more competitive car between now and the season finale in Brazil. Would you rule out Vettel winning a third consecutive title? I know I wouldn't, that's for sure.

So that concludes the first part of this article, having looked at the chances of Jenson Button, Mark Webber and Sebastian Vettel. Be sure to check out the second part here where I'll look at the chances of Kimi Raikkonen, Lewis Hamilton and Fernando Alonso. Happy reading people!

Top Drivers

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

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