The 2011 world championship was always going to be one to remember. With the introduction of two major regulation changes – Pirelli tyres and a new Drag Reduction System (DRS) – overtaking was set to increase dramatically. A grid littered with world champions and motor sport legends, the battle for the title was going to be even more competitive than the year before, every driver wanting to make their mark on the season. So far the action has not disappointed.
With six wins already secured in the first half of the season, the reigning world champion Sebastian Vettel is clearly the one to beat in 2011. Astonishingly dominant in Saturday qualifying throughout the year (scoring eight of eleven available pole positions) Vettel has started his crown-defending campaign impressively. However, many have questioned his ability to race wheel-to-wheel under pressure, evident in his last-lap blunder in Canada and a disappointing performance at his home grand prix in Germany. Although this criticism may be partially warranted, it is easy to forget that this German prodigy is only in his fifth Formula 1 season. Still a young driver, Vettel has much to learn and even greater scope to improve, rendering his already extraordinary success in the sport even more remarkable. With an 85 point lead going into the second half of the season, Vettel simply needs to be consistent and continue to score points in order to achieve a consecutive world title.
As one of the most dynamic characters on the grid Lewis Hamilton has certainly made an impact on the sport this year, but perhaps not entirely for the right reasons. Frustrated with the car, a lack of competitiveness and some questionable tactical decisions Hamilton in the heat of the moment made disparaging comments about his team, something for which he was heavily criticised. To make matters worse, after a number of poorly advised moves that saw him crash out in Canada and cause numerous collisions in other races, Hamilton was a regular guest in meetings with the FIA stewards over his conduct. Thankfully this erratic behaviour –more reminiscent of his earlier days in the sport – subsided and with wins in China and Germany as well as a number of podiums, it looks as if Hamilton is going into the second half of the season in a more positive frame of mind.
Another driver who always impresses is the double world champion Fernando Alonso. Ferrari’s obviously number one driver, Alonso’s aggressiveness and determination make him one of the fiercest competitors on the grid at the moment. Ferrari seem to be especially slow starters when it comes to car performance at the beginning of the season and only after a number of rather large update packages did they begin to challenge the other top teams consistently. Even so, Alonso has managed to find every second of speed that the car could possibly give – a feat that highlights his driver pedigree.
Predictably, as the car improved the points haul did too and Alonso is now level with the McLaren pair of Button and Hamilton. The tracks featured in the second half of the season have traditionally suited Ferrari to a far greater extent than the European circuits, a fact that will give them confidence. Considering Alonso’s charge in the following races last year (where he narrowly missed out on a third world title to Vettel) it is quite possible that he could cause an upset again. Ferrari have signed Alonso for the next four years and if they can solve the technical issues that hamper their progress it is quite possible that an elusive third world championship is possible in the future.
Red Bull’s RB7 is still clearly the best car on the grid. Adrian Newey’s new design has not just emulated the success of last years model but improved upon it. Every pole position so far in the season has been won by a Red Bull driver, proving that this car is outclassing the rest of the field this year. As McLaren and Ferrari have struggled to perfect and refine their systems in the initial stages of the season, the Red Bull has been reliable as well as consistently fast. However, where this has allowed Sebastian Vettel to gather an extensive lead, his team-mate Mark Webber has struggled.
Notoriously unlucky, Webber has been unable to convert the raw pace of his car into victories. After his performance in the 2010 season, it was expected that Webber would be one of the most aggressive title challengers, but even using identical machinery to Vettel, he has been unable to shine as brightly. Having said that, memorable performances such as his battle from 18th to 3rd in China and his three pole positions at Catalunya, Silverstone and the Nürburgring show his competitiveness. When reviewing title challengers, Webber often seems to be unfairly overlooked. Statistically he is in the best position of any driver to attack Vettel for the championship, sitting on the leader board in second place with 149 points.
Although the aforementioned four drivers appear to be in the best positions for a title this season, Jenson Button in fifth place has also had an impressive year. Unequivocally the master of changeable conditions his masterful driving in Canada through a deluge of rain, safety cars, collisions, an immense five pit-stops and a drive-through penalty was – as he and many others described it – the ‘best win of his career’. In an emotional race in Hungary only a couple of weeks ago, Button celebrated his 200th race start with a victory on the same circuit where he won his first grand prix in Formula 1. Unfortunately consistency is key and with a double DNF in the British and German grand prix’s successively the 2009 world champion may have lost too many points to successfully challenge for the title. Even so, with such praise of his driving skills there is no longer any question of his success being a fluke and his move to McLaren was most definitely a wise decision.
Looking to the future, Formula 1 is set to be even more exciting in the years to come. With new circuits in India and America, the sport is broadening its horizons and expanding across the globe. A fresh crop of talented young drivers such as Paul di Resta, Kamui Kobayashi and Sergio Perez look set for F1 stardom with promotions to bigger teams in the future likely. A new set of regulations for 2012 sees the introduction of the more environmentally friendly 1.6 litre V6 turbo engines which will be a challenge for all the teams when incorporating them into their design for next years car.
In what is possibly one of the most unpredictable sports around, it is difficult to say what will happen in the races that will close out the 2011 season. All that is certain is if these upcoming events are anything like the ones that preceded it, we are in for a real treat.