Tuesday, 24 July 2012

Halfway There

It's exactly one year since I went to see my first F1 race at the Nurburgring. Last weekend's German grand prix also marked the halfway point of the current season, and I feel like it's time to sum up how the year's gone so far. 2011 was a year in which Red Bull were absolutely dominant, and it was a year in which we saw some phenomenal racing. While we more or less had the same winner and pole sitter in each race last year (one Sebastian Vettel), the races were so exciting that it almost didn't matter who was winning. This year, we've seen none of the dominance of any one team, however the racing has managed to become even more enthralling than last year.

At the opening round this year, we all expected Red Bull to continue their form of 2011. However, due to various rule changes it appeared as though the team were not quite as far in front this time around. Many people were also surprised by how different the cars looked - the introduction of the stepped noses on most of the cars prompted harsh comments around the aesthetics of the cars, although the McLaren team were perhaps rather smug on this front, having worked their way around having a step.

As ever, anticipation was high for Australia. A long break from F1 seems to have this effect on the fans as we rediscover what it is we love about the sport. The opening round also provides hints about how our favourite teams and drivers are likely to fare over the rest of the season. Once the famous five lights went out and the racing began in 2012, we started our season. The racing was much closer this year, and in the end it was the McLaren of Jenson Button who had the honour of taking home the first win.

With the scene set for the rest of the season, the next round in Malaysia would provide a hint as to whether McLaren's form in Australia was the start of a dominant season, or whether we'd see a range of top teams. A stunning race once again, it was the Ferrari of Fernando Alonso who took the second win. This was somewhat of a surprise, given the speculation surrounding the Ferrari team at the start of the year. 2011 was perhaps a bit of a shocking season for the team, and many people wondered whether the team had simply lost their pace. So, Alsono's win could be regarded as one of the surprises of the season.

Race three in China was again stunning, and we saw a third different winner in 2012. However, rather than the winner coming from our usual top three teams (Red Bull, McLaren and Ferrari), we saw Nico Rosberg take the win in the Mercedes. This was great news for the team, as we'd not seen the performance we expected since the team was re-branded from Brawn. After the third different winner from as many teams in as many races, many people began to wonder whether the trend would continue, and if so for how long?

The following week was the somewhat controversial race in Bahrain - a race that many people wished to be cancelled. I myself took a somewhat neutral standpoint, figuring that a sport cannot - and should not - be expected to sort out the problems within a country, and if all was safe for drivers, teams, staff and spectators that the race should go ahead. This is exactly what happened, and finally 2011's top team showed that they had regained some form, with Sebastian Vettel taking the win.

With Bahrain over, F1 returned to Europe to begin the mid-season. Spain was first up in May, and we again had a surprise. By this point, the top three teams had all had a win each, thus many people were expecting to see one of these teams take a second victory. However, an absolutely stunning drive by Pastor Maldonado led to Williams taking their first victory for a very long time. This made five winners from five teams in five races - a point which I think was great for the fans, although perhaps not so great for anyone trying to predict results. Thus, five races in and many believed that anything was possible in F1.

Monaco followed Spain, and this was again one of the most anticipated races of the season. The glamour of Monaco means that it's an absolute treat to watch. As with most street circuits though, there is very little overtaking, even with the DRS. However, given the circuit's nature, it's a treat to watch. Monaco also brought us our first team to secure its second win, with Red Bull's Mark Webber taking perhaps the most coveted win of the season. This made six different winners from six races: a feat that meant 2012 was already on its way to being a record season in F1.

Canada was the next race on the calendar, and after last year's madness with the rain we were all anticipating another thriller. However, given the number of winners so far, it was a race when most had given up predicting who would win. In the end, a second team secured their second victory: McLaren. However, we still had not bucked the trend of different winners, as it was Lewis Hamilton who took victory number seven. So, by seven races 2012 was officially record breaking, and the first season in F1 history to have so many different race winners in so few races.

prix in Valencia that held my attention. We also gained our first double winner of the season: Fernando Alonso - a winner that of course delighted the home fans.

This month, we also saw the British grand prix at Silverstone; a circuit which is full of history and considered a classic on the calendar. As the race was held in July, Britain did not disappoint and we had a traditional British summer: torrential rain so bad that people were actually turned away on qualifying day. Come Sunday however, we saw yet more magnificent racing and gained a second double winner of the season: Mark Webber.

So, last week in Germany brought us to the halfway point of the season. Once again, the racing was exciting, with overtakes and close battles galore. In the end our top-three finishers were Alonso, taking his third victory of the year; Button, whose second place brought him back up in the drivers' standings, hopefully to re-kindle his championship chances; and Raikkonen, who had managed to bring Lotus F1 home on the podium a number of times this year. However, these were not the drivers stood on the podium. Rather, Vettel took home second place, but had 20 seconds added to his time after a pass on Jenson was considered to be against the rules. So, even with the race over and done with, it's still hard to predict who gains which place!

In terms of the top three teams' performances, Ferrari were the big surprise of the year in my opinion. The speculation and talk at the start of the year set us up to expect a lower performance than we've actually seen. Alonso is currently 34 points ahead in the drivers' championship, and you'd be hard pushed to bet against his third championship at this point. During more recent races, we've also seen great performances from Felipe Massa - signs that Massa's maybe getting closer to his previous form before his accident in Hungary. Hopefully the rest of the season will make this clear.

Red Bull have shown none of their dominance, although consistently good performances have meant that they are still at the top of the constructors', if not the drivers' championship. Webber is currently Alonso's closest rival in the championship, with team-mate Vettel close behind. As we're only halfway through, it's to be expected that the team will push even harder to get back on top of the drivers' standings. Currently, Red Bull are at the centre of a row over engine mapping. While cleared to race in Germany, it's believed that the team have found another loophole in the regulations to be exploited. Whether the loophole is closed, or whether other teams simply try to emulate the team's discovery remains to be seen. It's certainly not the first technical row in which Red Bull have been involved, and I very much doubt it'll be the last.

McLaren showed impressive form at the start of the year, however recently things have slipped somewhat. Jenson's podium finish was surprising, and hopefully heralds the end of their underperformance of late. However, this is something we'll have to watch as the season progresses. Both drivers have had a large share of bad luck and performance issues, which is why both are slipping down the championship standings, and why Ferrari have overtaken second place in the constructors' championship.

A fourth team worth mentioning is Lotus. We've seen both Kimi Raikkonen and Romain Grosjean on the podium several times this year, hence Raikkonen's fourth place in the drivers' championship. This is a team which we've been expecting to win for quite some time now, and I'm fairly certain that we'll see one of their two drivers taking a victory before the season is out. The team itself is in fourth place in the constructors' championship, ahead of Mercedes.

So, overall we've seen a lot of credible performances, a lot of poor performances and everything in between this year. It's difficult to predict who will gain the ultimate victory of the championships by the end of the season, although this isn't necessarily a bad thing. This weekend, F1 heads off to Hungary before the month-long summer break. When we come back to the racing at the end of August, I'll be off to watch the race in person once again. It can't come soon enough!