Sunday, 15 July 2007

The Championship: where we're at.

It’s Sunday evening and I thought it would be good to spend half an hour or so taking stock of the last fortnight. Stepneygate aside, the last couple of races have been good for the sport and good for the championship fight.

Firstly we have the resurgence of Ferrari and Kimi Raikkonen in particular. The Scuderia have bought radical new aerodynamic packages to both the French and British Grand Prix and their cars looked super fast.

Raikkonen was flying at Silverstone and was at least four to five tenths of a second faster than the Mclarens. Massa too had a similar advantage and did an excellent job of scything his way through the field. It was a much more impressive than his drive through the pack at the season opener in Melbourne where the Ferrari enjoyed a similar advantage. Ferrari’s dominance at the test session at Spa last week suggests that Mclaren have got their work cut out if they are going to get back on a level playing field.

Then there is the revival of Alonso. It never really showed at Magny Cours due to his grid penalty but the Spaniard has definitely stepped up his game. He simply outclassed Hamilton at Silverstone.

Mclaren have said that they elected to turn the wick down on Hamilton’s engine and this seems to be one of the chief excuses being bashed around for Hamilton’s performance. This is clutching at straws, even for me. The team would surely have only done this after the first round of pit stops once it became clear that indeed Hamilton couldn’t match Raikkonen and Alonso.

A poor race set-up was another reason being put forward for Hamilton’s slating. An interesting theory discussed by Ed Gorman (see HERE) is that Alonso has been deliberately hiding his cards in practice so as to avoid the decision from above to copy his setup on to Hamilton’s car. If this is true and was indeed one of the reasons for Hamilton’s setup problems at Silverstone then perhaps the Britain has slightly further to go on the technical side of things.

In any case it is still mighty close between Alonso and Hamilton and it will be interesting to see if Alonso can maintain this small edge that he seems to have pulled out.

All this sets up a mouth-watering second half of the season. After back-to-back victories you would have to say that Raikkonen is the better equipped of the two Ferrari drivers to take the fight to the Mclarens. He his currently eighteen points adrift of Hamilton and this is still a massive deficit bearing in mind the reliability of Mclaren and the way the points system is structured. Hamilton can win the drivers title on second place finishes alone. I wonder at what point Mclaren will elect to go defensive and focus all their resources on reliability rather than performance development. This might not sit well with Alonso but could be the team’s best chance to win the driver’s championship given Ferrari’s revival.

Ironically it is the actions of Ferrari’s Nigel Stepney that could be one route back into the title hunt for Raikkonen. We have a real threat of points deductions or a race ban for Mclaren following the allegations against chief designer Mike Coughlan and this would be a huge blow to Alonso and Hamilton.

Can Raikkonen win the title on merit alone without anything happening to Hamilton? I think he will be hard-pressed to do this. Massa will be key because in theory, even if Raikkonen won the last eight races, Hamilton could still beat the Finn to the title by finishing second. So Raikkonen will need Massa to be in the mix. Easier said than done. Playing second fiddle to Raikkonen will be a bitter pill to swallow for Massa given his early season form. Conversely for Mclaren, in a scenario of Ferrari-Raikkonen dominance, the last thing the team needs is their two drivers battling it out and taking points off each other.

At some point in the next few races both of the top teams will have to make some difficult decisions about their approach to the championship. Whether or not their drivers will listen of course is another matter.

Lewis Hamilton 70
Fernando Alonso 58
Kimi Raikkonen 52
Felipe Massa 51
Nick Heidfeld 33
Robert Kubica 22
Giancarlo Fisichella 17
Heikki Kovalainen 14

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