McLaren and Red Bull have the package but, with five races to go, a range of factors will determine F1 title race
This raucous argument of a season may need to be resolved by arbitration. There are five races remaining, starting here on the streets of Singapore on Sunday night, and it certainly looks likely to go to the final race in Abu Dhabi on 14 November. The greater speed of the Red Bull cars and the superior reliability of McLaren have given a tortoise and hare element to the narrative, if only superficially. In reality it is not that simple. McLaren are more powerful than Red Bull on the long straights, while if you take away driver error there is nothing unreliable about Red Bull these days.
Red Bull have the best designer in the business, Adrian Newey, who has produced winning cars wherever he has been. Red Bull have the most adaptable chassis, which means they are now quick at most places, not just those with a high downforce. But McLaren, with their outstanding engineering team, claim they have made similar improvements on those low-speed, high-downforce tracks – such as the one here in Singapore – where they have disappointed in the past. We shall soon see.
It is a worry for Ferrari that Fernando Alonso and Felipe Massa have used the last of their allotted eight engines for the season – if either man uses a ninth he will be slapped with a 10-place grid penalty. Ferrari have been hot and cold this season, and consistency of performance is critical now. They have rallied after a wretched mid-season but nothing less than a strong finish will do.
But there are strong signs that all three teams are upping their game as the season moves towards its climax, to produce both greater reliability and stronger all-round performances on the widely differing tracks.
Who would be world champion if the drivers all had the same car? That has long been Formula One’s intriguing question. Most people consider Lewis Hamilton and Alonso to be the best drivers. But only just. The famous five are separated by 24 points, which means it could be the closest finish since 1981, when the top five drivers were seven points apart. Points were given out more sparingly then. Now every point counts. “From here on in we’re all looking for a podium position in every race,” Jenson Button says. “Even fifth isn’t good enough.”
There are three world champions out there, squeezed between the Red Bull pair who have never won the title. Hamilton and Button appear on top of their game, despite recent setbacks. Mark Webber just won’t go away, is determined and an ace qualifier. Alonso has made a number of errors but, with two wins in the past four outings, he may be timing his push to perfection. Sebastian Vettel, most agree, is a champion of the future, perhaps a multi-title winner. But this may not be his year after converting only one of his seven pole positions into a win. He has been too impetuous.
“I fancy Mark to win the thing, but only just,” says Patrick Head, one of the most respected voices in Formula One and the driving force behind the Williams team for a generation. “He’s got this incredible hunger. He’s not making the mistakes he used to when he was a younger driver. But while we’re all talking about who is the best driver, or who has the fastest car, I think the title could be decided by an accident or a reliability issue.”
McLaren are traditionally stronger than any other team when it comes to improving the car during the season. That is one of the reasons why they trail the faster Red Bull cars by three points in the constructors’ championship. They have more experience at the top than Red Bull, who appear to have been pulled back a little by the FIA, the governing body, which has introduced tough new tests relating to flexible bodywork. Ferrari, like McLaren, have vast experience of winning, though they have not shown it this season.
Head has been hugely impressed by all three. “They all deserve to be where they are. You’re looking at three very strong teams. If I had to pick one it would probably be Red Bull, just because they’re in new territory. McLaren and Ferrari have been there before, so many times.
“Having said that Red Bull know they should have won it last year, only to make too many team mistakes, while the cars were also sometimes unreliable. They have got on top of the reliability issue but they are now desperate to capitalise on the fact that they have a very good car and the pressure may show.
“But Ferrari have their own pressures. They are under this really tight scrutiny from their press and it has made them a little twitchy and nervous when it comes to making decisions. The car is good but they haven’t been getting the finishing points. They may well look back on the middle of the season, and those disappointing results in Turkey, Canada, Valencia and Silverstone, as the time when they lost the season.”
It is cars for courses in Formula One. But most teams seem to be ironing out their bumps, just as they have been here at the uneven street circuit, much to the disappointment of Renault, whose cars thrive on a bumpy ride.
This is the view from Rubens Barrichello, the most experienced driver in the sport, who recently competed in his 300th race. “Singapore might be less bumpy than it was but it could be wet and no one has any experience of wet conditions here. It’s a bit like Valencia without the high-speed corners, though there are some 90-degree turns. Japan will be very aerodynamically dominated. No one knows much about Korea. Brazil will be all about traction, while Abu Dhabi again will be very dependent on aerodynamics.”
The high downforce factor in Singapore is expected to suit Red Bull but McLaren and Ferrari are fancied to be highly competitive. The high speeds and fast corners in Japan – not unlike the tracks at Silverstone and Barcelona – are again expected to be to Red Bull’s advantage.
Korea is largely unknown but it is expected to be something of a mixture, with slow corners and some good long straights. But no one really knows much abut the surface. Brazil presents a muscular challenge. It is a power track and will surely give Red Bull the edge again, while Abu Dhabi, with its very long straight and with no really fast corners, just might bring a smile to McLaren faces.
The two most impressive drivers this season have been Webber and Hamilton and you feel it will be one of them smiling widest on the night of 14 November.