2012 F1 season
But there is, and the contest for the drivers’ title is being led by Fernando Alonso, thanks largely to his superb damage-limiting performances in the F2012 in the first four races of the year.
“We leave Monaco heading the championship,” said Alonso on Sunday. “If I’d been offered that after the Mugello test at the beginning of the month, I’d have signed for it there and then, but if I’d been told that after Melbourne, I would never have believed it!”
Ferrari have bounced back from a faltering start to the season. The F2012 is not the fastest car on the grid right now, but it is greatly improved.
For evidence of that, look back at how Alonso wrestled with the evil-handling car in qualifying in Australia, until it finally got away from him and skidded into the gravel. Even a driver of Alonso’s calibre could not have put that car on row three at Monaco.
The changes made following the Mugello test have transformed the F2012 from a car that scrapes into Q3 to one that can contend for podiums and even victories. From being 1.51% slower than the fastest cars in the first four races, that deficit has been almost halved, to 0.77%.
Compare that to the figures for their rivals over the season so far (see table, right) and it’s clear Ferrari are in contention now.
(Incidentally, one other team have enjoyed a leap forward comparable to that of Ferrari in the last two races: Williams, who were 1.35% off the pace in rounds one to four, and 0.73% down in Spain and Monaco.)
Alonso’s damage-limitation in the opening four races have clearly stood him in good stead: fending off Pastor Maldonado for fifth in Australia, and of course his superb win in the rain in Malaysia.
The car may not have served him well to begin with, but the team has other strengths. He has every reason to be satisfied with Ferrari’s race strategy and their reliably rapid pit stops, both of which have helped him gain places and points.
The other good news for Alonso is Felipe Massa’s long-overdue resurgence in form last weekend. If the improved Massa is here to stay, his role will undoubtedly be to take points off Alonso’s rivals, a luxury the McLaren and Red Bull drivers are unlikely to enjoy.
Too close to call
We’re just six races into a gruelling, 20-race calendar – less than a third of the way through the season – and at this stage several drivers are in the hunt for the title this year.
Alonso’s closest rivals at present are the Red Bull duo. Last year’s world champions became the first team to win two races this year in Monaco, and have built up a 38-point advantage in the constructors’ championship. Their tally of 146 is shared evenly between their two drivers.
Bucking the trend from 2011, Webber has tended to be ahead in qualifying. Vettel has generally recovered well in the races but lost points with an unnecessary tangle with Narain Karthikeyan in Malaysia, and a drive-through penalty in Spain.
McLaren have a car that performs well in qualifying – at least in Lewis Hamilton’s hands – but less well in the races. On top of that multiple mistakes in the pits has robbed them of more points.
Mercedes were quick to point out after Monaco that Nico Rosberg has out-scored every driver in the field over the last four races. Having failed to score in the last two races, he’s now up to fifth.
Fortunately for Rosberg, he’s largely avoided the unreliability problems that have compromised Michael Schumacher’s campaign thus far, as well as the first-lap tangles with Romain Grosjean.
Six drivers are close enough to Alonso to be able to leave the next race in Canada with the championship lead. This sixth is Kimi Raikkonen.
Lotus’s pace is clear to see from the table above, and Raikkonen’s back-to-back podium finishes in Bahrain and Spain. However he’s tended to be out-qualified by his junior team mate so far, and the team’s performance in Monaco was clearly short of what they’re capable of with the E20.
This year is shaping up to be a repeat of the thrilling 2010 season, with the lead of the championship repeatedly changing hands. The championship will be decided by who can make the most of the opportunity they have each race weekend.
But if there’s one driver who will be hoping this year doesn’t have too much in common with 2010, it’s Alonso, who lost the title in the final round that year.
That was the second time he’d missed out on a third world championship in the final round. Will this be the year Alonso finally joins the elite ranks of F1′s thrice-champions?
2012 F1 championship points
Use the interactive 2012 drivers’ and constructors’ championship points graphs:
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Image © Ferrari spa/Ercole Colombo