Taking Stock After Bahrain
A motor race does not a season make, to mangle a phrase. Three races in and Lewis Hamilton is superhuman, Massa has gone from hero to zero and back again, and poor Alonso and Raikkonen are bidding to become the forgotten men.
The reality, of course, is a bit less dramatic than that – three of the drivers mentioned have had varying fortunes, one has not put a foot wrong as yet. As a result, we have a three-way tie for the lead of the championship with the fourth very close behind; which is great for the sport but nothing to get too excited about just yet.
It is true that Lewis Hamilton looks to be even better than we expected. He is quick, consistent and unflappable in the car, realistic and respectful out of it. It is hard to see how he could have made a better start to his career in F1 and all that we have seen so far points to his being a champion in the future.
But let us not get carried away – in two out of three races, Alonso has been the quicker McLaren driver and he is not going to despair because Lewis beat him in Bahrain. He will just work the harder to be fastest in future.
What is really impressive about the Alonso/Hamilton pairing is that I detect absolutely no needle between them at all. After the finish in Bahrain, Alonso went up to Hamilton to congratulate him and you could see he meant it. And Lewis continues to acknowledge that he is still learning and makes his respect for Alonso quite clear. For this year at least, they make a formidable team.
Things are a bit more complicated in the Ferrari team. Were there any justice in the world, this ought to be the year that Kimi Raikkonen walks away with the championship; he has served a hard apprenticeship, suffered more than his share of bad luck and demonstrated his speed again and again. Yet he finds himself with a teammate who wants to be number one and his old team suddenly come good with a car that performs as well as the Ferrari. Nothing comes easy for the Finn, it seems.
There is a new determination about Kimi this season, however, and it is no accident that he shares the championship lead with the McLaren drivers. In those races where Ferrari give him a car that can win, he will do so; in others he will take as many points as he can. Kimi wants the championship and no longer treats each race as a separate entity.
The roller coaster of Felipe Massa’s fortunes so far is indicative of his strengths and weaknesses. When things go well, Felipe can look unassailable; when they go badly, he tries too hard and makes mistakes. It has been said that Massa needs the support of his team to do well and it seems that he is getting it. Whether this means that Raikkonen receives that much less remains to be seen but I begin to suspect it.
So it is debatable that Ferrari are as well-knit a team this year as is McLaren and that could make all the difference at the end of the season if the championship remains close. Already McLaren have a lead in the constructors’ competition with a car that is not consistently as quick as the Ferrari – the difference is in the quality of the driving team.
If the champion this year is to be one of these four drivers, I think it has to be either Raikkonen or Alonso. Massa is too easily pressured into error and Hamilton has the patience to wait his turn. And, of the acknowledged “stars”, Alonso is the more likely winner since he is in the better team.
There is always the possibility that a wild card, perhaps in the shape of Nick Heidfeld, might be added to the mix, however. Now that would be really interesting…