Monday, 1 August 2011

Vettel Charging to the Title

As the Formula 1 paddock shuts up shop for a few weeks as the teams and drivers enter a mandatory summer holiday, the anticipation of an exciting second half of the season is building. For many, the Championship looks bleak - Sebastian Vettel extended his lead over second place Mark Webber to 85 points in Hungary last weekend - but that won't take away from the racing, which has seen some of the best Grand Prix racing in years.

For each Championship protagonist, they have put themselves in a no-pressure situation. Ferrari have nothing to lose and everything to gain with Fernando Alonso. The Spaniard lies 89 points behind and has already said that Ferrari must start taking risks in it's maximum attack approach. He shares a similar story with both McLaren drivers - Hamilton is the closest McLaren driver to Vettel but 88 points behind, while Jenson Button's mastermind performance at the Hungaroring decreases his gap to Vettel, albeit four whole race wins behind with 100 points. Even the defending Champion can approach his racing with a sense of no-pressure. Because even if his outstanding consistency in 2011 takes a downward spiral, he can rely on the resurgent duo of McLaren and Ferrari to trip each other up frequently.

Hamilton and Alonso will need to assist each other

Vettel can even depend on his team-mate Mark Webber to get involved and take points off of his rivals. Webber has also been ultra-consistent in 2011, finishing every race between second or fifth and bringing home valuable Constructor's Championship points as well as chipping points off of Red Bull's rivals. The consistency and reliability of Red Bull in general has been supreme - all of the teams feared a Red Bull car with strong reliability statistics, and, forgiving the odd KERS issue here and there, the RB7 has yet to be severely compromised by reliability woes that it's older RB6 machine suffered, most notably in Bahrain, Australia and Korea.

And the outfit from Milton Keynes have been reaping the benefits of a combination of fearsome qualifying pace, a strong driver line-up and bulletproof reliability. What has been a fascinating Formula 1 season has been covered up by 11 qualifying sessions of Red Bull dominance and Sebastian Vettel taking 6 wins in 8 races, bearing similar traits to Jenson Button's title triumph with Brawn GP in 2009. But now he needs to "maintain the gap" - which won't be easy.

Vettel has only taken pole in one of the last three Grand Prix (albeit his team-mate taking the other two), with none of those races being won by a blue and yellow car. Ferrari have consistently proved that they can threaten Red Bull now, with Alonso standing on the podium in the last four races, one of them being on the top step. And now McLaren look to have overcome their dip in form at Valencia and Silverstone and have taken the last two wins and only just missed out on pole in both of those races, underlining their performance and warning Red Bull that the close end of the season won't be the same walkover like it was earlier in the year.

Adrian Newey has upgraded the car to within an inch of what the regulations have dictated and now the teams behind them are catching up faster than they were before. The top three are separated by tenths and track characteristics are going to play an even bigger part going into the final stages of Vettel's 2010 title defence. Spa and Monza will be tough circuits for Red Bull, although it is noteworthy that Mark Webber stole pole position in the Ardennes forest a year ago and an ambitious strategy aided Vettel into a crucial 4th place at Monza. Red Bull need to use all of it's newly found experience to survive a McLaren-Ferrari onslaught at the next two Grand Prix. From then on, the RB7 looks capable of holding it's own, particularly at Singapore and Suzuka. But with McLaren and Ferrari focusing on their weaknesses - McLaren being high speed downforce and Ferrari lacking pace on the Saturday - it looks like the gap is going to be even closer.

Is Newey running out of ideas under these regulations?
But, as we've been seeing all season - particularly in the most recent races - Vettel has had his fair share of good fortune. If it wasn't for the red flag in Monaco, arguably Vettel might have hit the cliff on his super soft tyres and lost a key victory. At the Nurburgring he was fortunate to get away with an early spin and manage to get away with 4th place and 12 key points. And at the most recent event at the Hungaroring, had Hamilton and McLaren not made a crucial blunder by going with the super soft tyres and going against the rest to blow a potential 1-2, Sebastian may not have picked up three extra points. Instead, his Championship lead is increasing or only dropping by tiny margins. Call it luck, or on the flipside you could argue that his low-risk approach has seen his rivals fall by the wayside while he pushes on to collect any scraps. And when he's not capitalising on misfortune for others, he is grabbing pole and sailing off into the distance. The guy looks unbeatable on his day. Unfortunately for everyone else, he's looked every bit a World Champion in every single race.

These next two races are crucial for Red Bull. The team and Sebastian Vettel have destiny in their own hands. They look uncatchable, but be sure that the chasing pack will be giving them as hard a time as possible.