Nine races into the 2006 season the drivers’ championship is looking increasingly one-sided. The second part of our half-season report looks at the drivers who have excelled so far this year – and one or two who may be worried about their prospects of getting a good seat for 2007.
10 Giancarlo Fisichella
There were plenty of explanations for why 2006 would be a better year for Fisichella before it starts – in his second year at Renault the car would suit him better, he’d only been unlucky in 2005, etc…
But the vast difference in speed and consistency between himself and Fernando Alonso is hard to argue against. Sure, Fisichella won in Malaysia, but on that occasion Alonso was badly compromised.
At the same point last year, Alonso led Fisichella 59-17. This year, it’s 84-37. Which begs the question: why did Renault give Fisichella a one-year contract extension?
9 Nick Heidfeld
He has put team mate Jacques Villeneuve slightly in the shade, and usually leads the pack of drivers who jostle to take the best finish available behind the ‘big three’ teams. Still, you occasionally get the feeling that there’s more to come from him.
8 Felipe Massa
Felipe Massa’s season at Ferrari has not been the unmitigated disaster many expected, but it has been plenty embarassing on occasions: spinning out of third in Bahrain, shunting the car in qualifying and the race in Australia, and again in qualifying in Monte-Carlo.
He is, of course, burdened with the extra work that Michael Schumacher’s team mates always are, and he did put one over Schumacher at Malaysia. But the fact that his contract with Ferrari for next year is entirely dependent on what other drivers do tells you all you need to know.
7 Rubens Barrichello
If Honda felt that poaching an experienced ex-Ferrari driver would help them achieve that extra last notch of professionalism needed to become race winners then, for one reason or another, it hasn’t worked out that way.
6 Mark Webber
With all the hype surrounding rookie team mate Nico Rosberg the efforts of Mark Webber have been occasionally overlooked. He has threatened some excellent finishes only to be thwarted by mechnical failures – while leading in Melbourne and while third in Monte-Carlo.
But he know well enough to keep the faith at Williams and bide him time until the car becomes reliable.
5 Jenson Button
Button was the top qualifier over the first for races of the year and took the pole in Australia. But that race also hammered home the deficiencies of the Honda as Butto had no pace to defend his position with, and the car failed on the final lap.
4 Juan Pablo Montoya
Despite three wins last year, McLaren and Juan Pablo Montoya simply haven’t gelled. Montoya has proved himself capable of beating team mate Kimi Raikkonen (Imola) but has too often let himself get frustrated by a naturally understeering car at odds with his stlye.
In Spain he spun and blamed the car and in Canada he hit the wall. He’s had a little misfortune – like his opening lap clash with Villeneuve at Silverstone that spoiled the car – but on balance it’s been a disappointing year.
3 Michael Schumacher
Halfway through the season, it is starting to look like there will be no eighth championship for Michael Schumacher. For all that people have lauded his ability to get more out of a car than is possible, he is desperate for a fraction more pace from his Ferrari to bring him on terms with Alonso.
The desperateness with which he feels this was clear for all to see at Monaco, when he half-intentionally slithered his car to a halt at Rascasse to obstruct oncoming traffic in a vain attempt to stop Alonso taking pole. The stewards threw him to the back of the grid. Since then, you can’t help but feel that Alonso has held the upper hand both psychologically and on the race track.
2 Kimi Raikkonen
After last year’s fast-but-flaky MP4-20 McLaren needed to build on the speed and fix the unreliability for 2006. Unfortunately, they seem to have done the opposite, and as a result they are likely to lose star driver Kimi Raikkonen to either Renault or Ferrari.
The only saving grace is that the car appears to be getting better – Raikkonen was third in the last two races and appears confident ahead of the United States Grand Prix. It would be great to see him stay at McLaren to partner Alonso next Year (it is utterly inconceivable that he might join Schumacher at Ferrari), so let’s hope McLaren come up with the goods in the second halfoof the season.
1 Fernando Alonso
It’s hard to enthuse about how stunning Alonso’s season has been without lapsing into reams of statistics. Let’s just say this – of nine races this year, he has only failed to win three, in which he finished second. And of those, on one occasion he was held back by being over-fuelled (Sepang) and at the other two (Imola, Nurburgring) Ferrari were simply quicker.
He’s been quick on ‘aero’ circuits and ‘point & squirt’ tracks. He’s kept his head amid treacherous track conditions in Melbourne and Montreal. And on the days when the Renault’s had a slight advantage, he’s made them look unstoppable. You couldn’t have asked for more from Alonso in the first half of the season.