After a demanding period of racing unprecedented in the history of Formula One, the ten teams now face a three-week break in which to ready themselves for the final six races of this gruelling 19-event calendar.
But for three teams in particular this short reprieve is just the calm before the storm, as the final six races will almost certainly result in one of their drivers being crowned World Champion.
Let us remind ourselves of the bare statistics first: Fernando Alonso leads Kimi Raikkonen with 87 points to 61, with Michael Schumacher third on 55. With six rounds remaining and each driver able to score up to 60 points, five further drivers have slender chances of victory: Jarno Trulli (36), Juan Pablo Montoya (34), Rubens Barrichello (31), Giancarlo Fisichella (30) and Nick Heidfeld (28). But they are all so distant their real chances are virtually nil.
Fresh from scalping a maximum ten points from Alonso in Hungary, Raikkonen is being talked up by the world’s media as having a realistic shot at beating Alonso. But perhaps too many of them are too quick to write off Schumacher, who lies just six points behind Raikkonen.
For all his woes with the floundering F2005 and Bridgestone’s sub-par tyres, Schumacher has at least avoided the kind of unreliability that has plagued Raikkonen. He has scored points in all of the last nine races. Now the latest Bridgestone tyres are showing far better one-lap speed than before and tyre wear problems are being more successfully managed with each race.
Ferrari are clearly fired up by their improved form, though the means by which they have achieved it is controversial. While the other nine teams have stuck to their pre-agreed pact to limit testing in 2005 to save costs, Ferrari’s testing schedule has been perhaps the biggest ever seen in Formula One. Now, with a genuine chance of nicking the championship in the dying stages, Ferrari have even reneged on the past years’ agreement not to test during the summer break, and Luca Badoer has been pounding around Monza in anticipation of September’s Italian Grand Prix.
In Hungary, Schumacher very nearly had the sustained pace to seriously challenge the McLarens. With another three weeks’ testing advantage over the other teams, it is not hard to imagine Ferrari being back on the pace when the teams reconvene in Istanbul at the end of August.
Ferrari, therefore, are key to the drivers’ championship battle. Alonso’s 26 point lead over Raikkonen means he needs an average of fourth place in each of the last six races to guarantee himself the title. Should Raikkonen seriously falter, an average of fifth places would keep Schumacher at bay.
With Renault’s reliability far superior to McLaren’s, for Alonso at least, Raikkonen’s title hope rests on the possibility of him racking up the wins with team mate Montoya and at least one of the Ferraris between him and Alonso on every occasion. It would help if the law of average could inflict upon Alonso the kind of unreliability that Kimi has suffered, but with Renault able to prepare the car as conservatively as they like to protect their championship lead, it seems unlikely.
Schumacher’s title shot is that crucial bit longer, but you do not underestimate any racer with 84 wins to his name and a dedicated supporting driver shadowing his every move. However, not only does he effectively need to win all the remaining races (when his only win so far this year was that tainted victory in America) but needs Alonso down in fifth – perhaps behind the dutiful Barrichello and both McLarens.
Kimi and Schuey both have their chances of championship glory but, ironically, both of them hinge on the competitiveness of the Ferrari and Bridgestone package in the final races. Fortunately for us fans, the gripping conclusion to the 2005 season will be played out over some of the most interesting venues to be used this year: the curious new Istanbul track, historic Monza, the legendary Spa and Suzuka circuits, the excellent Interlagos track and, finally, the behemoth Shanghai raceway at the very end of the season.