Conclusions from the Singapore GP
Lewis Hamilton becomes more of a help than a title hindrance to Fernando Alonso but Sebastian Vettel is ever more threatening...
Last Updated: 25/09/12 12:20pm
McLaren make one of their two tough tasks almost insurmountable
McLaren's problem is that everytime they solve one, another one crops up. At the start of the season, they had the pace but not the pit-stops. Then they had the pit-stops but not the pace. And now they have the pace, and the pit-stops, but not the luck. Nor the reliability. Championship-winning stuff it is not.
Lewis Hamilton ought to have won this weekend - he reckoned doing so would have been "easy", an exaggeration, but an understandable one in such frustrating circumstances - just as Jenson Button ought to have finished on the podium last week at Monza. As often said, one breakdown may be regarded as unfortunate but two looks like...well, you know the rest.
Having already made hard work of a season they should be dominating, Hamilton's gearbox failure saw McLaren slip further back in both title races on a weekend when they should have leapt forward in at least one. Had Hamilton won the race then the Drivers' Championship would have been his to win too.
Still, all is not yet lost, and the Constructors' Championship is still eminently winnable for McLaren, especially as Mark Webber is enduring a dramatic loss of form that has produced just sixteen points in five races. But Hamilton has no second chances left with six races remaining and a deficit of 52 points to retrieve. How quickly his situation changed on Sunday. Having been poised to trim Alonso's lead to just twenty points prior to his retirement, Hamilton's task is now as straightforward as it is stark. "I need to win the rest of them," he admitted to reporters after fronting up with impressive stoicism. And that assessment is almost certainly no exaggeration: were Alonso to average third place in the final half-dozen races - and the Spaniard, not entirely incidentally, is now third in the all-time list of podium finishers after passing Ayrton Senna with his 81st top-three finish this weekend - then only six consecutive victories would be sufficient for Hamilton to claim the championship.
It's the tallest of tall orders and such is the size of the challenge that Alonso would probably welcome Hamilton advancing a couple of steps in Japan and Korea given that both Vettel and Kimi Raikkonen currently stand between the former McLaren team-mates. It's easy imagine to the flicker of a smile when the Spaniard reflected in the Singapore paddock how "at Monza, it was Lewis winning the race and Sebastian retiring. Here it is Sebastian winning and Lewis retiring. So for me it is OK if they keep doing it like this." Albeit inadvertently, Alonso's rivals keep on protecting his position of strength by beating each other and were Hamilton to win the next couple of races it would be Vettel, and not Alonso, who stands to lose the most in the standings.
Nor was the Spaniard slow in pointing out that although Ferrari lacked speed this weekend after their much-anticipated upgrades failed their Friday audition, Vettel was the only one of his five championship rivals to finish in front of him on Sunday. He keeps on doing it and the wonder is why we're still surprised; if the last seven months has taught us anything, it's that Alonso could teach Harry Houdini a trick or two.
Vettel gives Alonso no room for relaxing
The trick for Sebastian Vettel, on the other hand, will be to ratchet up the pressure on Alonso by following up Sunday's win with at least one more before F1 reaches India. Victories are the one thing that seem to be beyond even Alonso's feats of escapology and Ferrari's apparent regression this weekend to the fourth or fifth fastest package will be of as much encouragement to Vettel and Red Bull as concern at Maranello.
Alonso has not yet shown the slightest hint of buckling - his only retirement this season was at Spa when he was shunted out of the race by an airborne Romain Grosjean - under the strain of trying to win Ferrari's first Drivers' Championship since 2007, but the impression that the F2012 has ceased to be a potential race-winner is a serious palpation. It means that Alonso is just one race retirement away from being second favourite in a race he has led since July.
Better to be fast but unreliable than reliable but slow
Will Hamilton's retirement - his fourth in the last seven races - have any bearing on his plans for 2013? Surely not. If the choice is between Mercedes and McLaren then it's surely better to stay with a team that is fast but unreliable than gamble on a team whose two drivers have scored fewer points combined than Hamilton himself this season. If Mercedes had a competitive case for luring Lewis out of McLaren, it ended in April.
A little result for a big cost
It might sound like a small matter but Timo Glock's twelfth place is a big thing for Marussia and an even bigger defeat for Caterham. It's a result which has propelled Marussia into tenth in the Constructors' Championship and leaves them set to recoup bonuses worth around £10m in prize money and travel perks ahead of their fellow 2010 newbies.
HRT will not have expected any better, but Caterham certainly did and their failure to progress even to the outer reaches of the midfield has been major one of the disappointments of the season. Occurring less than a month after their expensive relocation to a new facility at Leafield, demotion below Marussia would be a heavy blow.
Success isn't always a winning formula
Since triumphing at Silverstone in July, Mark Webber has qualified no higher than seventh and finished no better than sixth. Pastor Maldonado, meanwhile, has yet to follow his Barcelona win - a 'breakthrough victory' as deceptive as that of Nico Rosberg in April at Shanghai - with a solitary point. Sometimes, winning isn't all it's cracked up to be.
Schumi sure to race in Suzuka...but for the wrong reasons?
Could Michael Schumacher's ten-place grid demotion (doubled from the conventional five spots on account of his mistake being his second such offence of the season) yet manifest itself into a race ban? In 2002, Sauber opted to 'rest' Felipe Massa at the United States GP after the Brazilian was given a grid penalty for crashing into Pedro de la Rosa the week before at Monza, and Mercedes could yet consider a similar course of action given Schumacher's points-scoring prospects at Suzuka have been reduced to the miniscule by the Singapore stewards.
That Mercedes almost certainly won't omit Schumacher, however, is a result of several factors, none of which are particularly flattering for anyone concerned. For salient starters, Mercedes' position is static in the Constructors'' Championship. They're fixed in fifth and Schumacher's points-scoring prospects are irrelevant compared to the embarrassment his omission would cause to both driver and, far more pertinently, a team which was reputedly recently summoned to appear in front of the company's hierarchy and 'justify their belief that the team's form will improve and be a more effective contributor to Mercedes operations'.
Nor is there much reason to suppose that a short-term change would prove beneficial. Jerome D'Ambrosio's rather lacklustre performance as Romain Grosjean's stand-in at Monza made transparent the difficulties any driver chucked in at the deep end will face because of the ban on in-season testing. And then there's the simple quandary of exactly who Mercedes could appoint as Schumacher's stand-in. There are no obvious candidates banging on the door, let alone a designated third driver waiting patiently for an opportunity.
So, even though it's unlikely he'll be able to do much more than maintain modest appearances, it's thus a racing certainty that Schumacher will race at Suzuka. And, all told, the explanation is a tangled web that reads as a microcosm of Mercedes' rather undistinguished year.
Lotus follow Renault in running up a blind alley
With Kimi Raikkonen still within a couple of race wins of the World Championship summit, it's a little early to ask where it all went wrong for Lotus this season, but since the summer break their year has seemingly passed from peak and dwindled into decline. The ramifications of Romain Grosjean's first-corner mistake at Spa were still apparent this weekend when an angry Frenchman looked to be over-driving, but Raikkonen's frustrations - including a failure to reach the top-ten qualifying shoot-out - were of an entirely different ilk and probably the consequence of the team's own misdirection.
Different name, familiar problem? Last year's development of a forward-blowing exhaust concept on the R31 ultimately ended with the team regretting a "bold, but ultimately failed experiment". "An albatross", was technical chief James Allison's succinct assessment.
And although the financial power of F1's three behemoths must be a factor in Lotus' relative post-summer decline, the suspicion remains that history is now repeating itself with the team running up a blind alley pursuing a Double DRS concept that, two months after it was first trialled in Friday Practice at Hockenheim, is still not race-ready.
'The device' may be run in Suzuka but it is perhaps telling that McLaren announced prior to Spa that they didn't think there was any value in its pursuit. "It [the double DRS] hasn't received the maximum amount of resource because we have got a finite amount of resource, and we try and spend it where we get the biggest bang for the buck," Martin Whitmarsh declared on the final day of F1's summer break. "Our judgement so far is that we have been able to find other projects that deserve that resource and we can get a greater performance return from."
The warning was there - and judging by the way Lotus and McLaren's seasons have progressed since August, it's one that Lotus should have heeded.