If Sebastian Vettel clinches the world championship at the next race, he’ll have done so with five races to spare.
No-one has won a championship that early since Michael Schumacher’s dominant streak in the early 2000s.
Some people have told me this has made the 2011 season “boring” and that Vettel’s domination of the championship has made F1 as tedious as it was during the peak of Schumacher’s reign. But I don’t agree.
More real racing
The differences between Vettel’s situation today and Schumacher’s a decade ago are far more striking than the similarities.
For one thing, it’s far easier to appreciate just how good a job Vettel is doing. No tailor-made tyres, no team mate pulling over to let him win – Vettel’s victories haven’t been as easy as some of Schumacher’s.
In the days when refuelling was allowed, it was easier for the driver of the fastest car to rise to the front without needing to overtake.
Simply put a bit more fuel in the car at the start, make the first pit stop a few laps later than everyone else and come out in the lead.
This isn’t a criticism of Schumacher, it’s just how the rules at the time shaped the racing. Thankfully, this predictable strategic formula is a thing of the past. The refuelling ban last year played a major role in promoting better racing.
So, while Red Bull have held the upper hand all year in qualifying, that hasn’t meant Vettel has been strolling to easy wins on race day.
Even when he has been on pole position, he’s often had to make moves on track to claim victory. That was the case in the last two races where he made brave moves on Nico Rosberg and Fernando Alonso.
On other occasions Vettel’s had to withstand terrific pressure. He crossed the line in Spain and Monaco with his closest pursuers just tenths of a second behind.
F1 wasn’t anything like as competitive as this seven years ago when Schumacher won 12 of the opening 13 races. At his first win in Bahrain the nearest non-Ferrari was over a half a minute behind, and it didn’t get much closer in the following rounds.
Poor championship, great races
The softer tyres supplied by Pirelli this year have allowed drivers to race each other more closely. Even when Vettel is up front, the action behind him is often terrific.
The championship may be one-sided but the races have been highly entertaining. The verdict from F1 Fanatic readers supports this view: the average Rate the Race score so far this year is 7.6 out of ten, compared to 6.7 last year.
The Chinese and Canadian rounds attracted particularly high scores thanks to something we’ve seen little of in F1 in recent years – late-race changes of lead.
The lead changed hands on the final lap in Montreal. In Shanghai Lewis Hamilton rose from fourth to first over the final 15 laps. He did it not through refuelling strategy nor even because the cars in front of him retired – he did it by overtaking them on the track.
Remember, too, the thrilling three-way scrap for victory at the Nurburgring between Hamilton, Alonso and Mark Webber.
The days of the races effectively ending after the last refuelling stops are behind us – and that’s obviously a good thing.
This year we’ve had battles for victory going down to the final lap, varied strategies, surprise wins and stacks of overtaking from the front to the back of the field. Through it all one man and one car has stood head and shoulders above the rest – because that’s the way sport is sometimes.
Fortunately in 2011 domination in F1 by one driver makes for far more entertaining viewing than it did in 2004.
That year stands out in my memory as the worst season of racing I’ve ever seen. What we have today may not be perfect, but it is incomparably better.
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Images ?é?® Red Bull/Getty images, Ferrari spa / Ercole Colombo, Pirelli
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