Who will come out on top in the closest championship battle in years?

Posted on | Author Keith Collantine

McLaren have momentum but their rivals aren't far behind
McLaren have momentum but their rivals aren't far behind

You have to go back a long way to find a championship as closely-fought as this one. Five different drivers have led the championship so far – and one of five different drivers’ could be leading it after the next round.

It’s a far cry from this time last year, when Jenson Button could have taken two weekends off and still come back leading the world championship.

But what matters most is who’s ahead on the evening of Sunday 14th of November. Who will it be?

At least five drivers in the running

The new points system is not responsible for the closely-fought championship we are enjoying.

The reason the title fight is so close is because in eight races, no-one has won more than two. Whereas eight races into last year, Button had won six times.

Here’s how the top five would look under last year’s points system:

Driver Actual points Under ’03-’09 points
Lewis Hamilton 109 44
Jenson Button 106 43
Mark Webber 103 40
Fernando Alonso 94 38
Sebastian Vettel 90 37

Having five drivers within a win of the championship lead at this stage in the season is extremely unusual.

And although Felipe Massa may be down in eighth place at the moment, it’s too soon to rule him out. However I expect Nico Rosberg and Robert Kubica won’t ultimately be in contention for the title as their cars don’t seem to be quick enough, often enough.

Two years ago Massa, Kubica, Kimi R??ikk??nen and Lewis Hamilton were covered by ten points after eight races. But this year it’s even closer, with five drivers covered by seven points in ‘old money’.

In most championships over the last decade, the eventual championship leader was usually ahead at this stage, typically with a two-win points advantage over his nearest rival.

This year’s title race is already looking like one to savour. But who will prevail?

The run to the title

How much the top three teams can improve their cars will decide whether they remain championship contenders.

Ferrari have promised a major upgrade for the next race on the calendar, with rumours suggesting they are to adopt Red Bull’s exhaust-driven diffuser configuration. Of the three teams at the sharp end of the championship, they are the ones that most urgently need a step forward.

As we’ve seen in recent seasons, McLaren can be expected to make rapid progress developing their car and they have the momentum after consecutive one-two finishes.

Red Bull developed their RB5 well last year, ending the championship with what was clearly the fastest car. They’ve made a lot of progress this year too, but have been stymied by some rule ‘clarifications’, the last of which – concerning their suspension – appears to have hit them hardest.

How will the teams’ cars perform over the remaining races? Based on what we’ve seen so far we can draw some broad conclusions:

Valencia Street Circuit – Likely to be a McLaren benefit but Ferrari may benefit from softer tyre mix
Silverstone – A Red Bull defeat would be a surprise
Hockenheimring – A close call, tyre options could prove decisive
Hungaroring – Not much use for an F-duct around here…
Spa-Francorchamps – Red Bull’s speed through the corners should keep them safe on the straights
Monza – Long straights and few fast corners – look to McLaren, and Ferrari who should go well at home
Singapore – Should suit McLaren best
Suzuka – Expect Red Bull to be strong
Korea International Circuit – On paper it looks like a good track for Red Bull
Interlagos – At the moment McLaren will like the long straight but not the bumps, Red Bull look good on the infield
Yas Island – Smooth surface, long straights, slow corners – should suit McLaren

These assumptions will change as the teams improve their cars, remedying their weaknesses and enhancing their strengths.

Bridgestone’s choice of tyres for the remaining races will also be important. Particularly for Ferrari, who’ve generally fared better at races where the super-soft and medium tyres were supplied (Bahrain, Monaco, Canada) than the soft and hard.

After that it’s mostly down to what the drivers can do with the cards they’ve been dealt. Every qualifying lap, every pit stop, every overtaking move, every tyre gamble on a rainy day will be crucial.

Who come out on top? Have your say in the comments.

The battle for the drivers' championship
The battle for the drivers' championship (click to enlarge)