Need I say more? The 2010 F1 season has officially arrived, because the circus is back in Monaco, baby. Monaco is the heart and soul of F1, it’s the ultimate stage of motorsport, and the one race everyone wants to win. Regardless of how the Drivers and Constructors championships play out, the Monaco GP will guarantee one driver their place in auto racing history. Adding to the intrigue of this year’s race is the relative parity of the elite teams this year except for the Red Bulls, who have been consistently faster in every race this season. Five previous winners will be lining up on the grid, and Schumi has a chance of scoring a record tying 6th win. Monaco, for all its glitz and glamour, is a driver’s circuit. The challenge of driving an F1 car through a tightly enclosed makeshift street circuit is the ultimate test of a driver’s ability to control and push a car to its absolute limit.
3 of the last 4 Monaco winners went on to win the Drivers championship, which bodes well for this year’s winner. Unlike other circuits, Monaco emphasizes less on aerodynamics and top speeed and more on traction, braking, and driver control. Despite its ferocious nature, Monaco is the most difficult circuit to overtake, so qualifying and pit stop strategies usually end up determining the race results. We’re a 1/3rd of the way into this season, so instead of a running diary of the race, let’s hand out some preliminary grades to every driver for their performance so far this season. You have 3 hours, you may begin…
Mark Webber: A+
Webber is currently the hottest driver on the grid. He followed up his win at the Spanish GP with a dominating win from pole position at Monaco. He almost pulled off the perfect race, but was denied by teammate Sebastian Vettel for fastest lap. At the beginning of the season, there was a considerable amount of speculation if Webber could race wheel to wheel with the other top drivers. He hasn’t been exactly stellar in traffic, evidenced in Australia and China, but he’s been arguably the strongest in qualifying with 3 pole positions, and his two wins and 78 points are tied for the lead. He’s in a groove right now, and he has to be considered a championship contender. If he can maintain his consistency, I wouldn’t be surprised if he’s in the hunt for the Drivers championship all the way to the last race of the season.
Sebastian Vettel: A
Vettel’s up and down season so far can’t be blamed on him for the most part, as the reliablity of his RB6 has failed to match its raw speed. Which begs the question, why has Vettel suffered from reliability issues while his teammate Webber has been relatively unscathed? Vettel might be the faster driver, but his aggressive driving style could also be working to his detriment. Vettel’s season feels reminiscent of Kimi Raikkonen’s 2005 season, when he stormed to 7 race wins and was widely considered the driver of the year, despite not winning the Drivers championship. The Iceman that year was also forced to retire three times with reliability issues. We’re only a third of the way through this season, and it remains to be seen if Red Bull can improve the reliability of the RB6. At the same time, Vettel is tied for the Drivers championship lead with Webber, and if I was forced to choose one driver, I would go with Vettel.
Fernando Alonso: A-
Alonso’s maiden season with Ferrari started off with a bang at Bahrain, but it’s fizzled out as of late. His drive at Monaco was a spirited salvaging of a lost race for the Spaniard, who wrecked his car during Saturday’s last practice session and was unable to participate in qualifying. Even with the return of Schumi, everyone is looking at Alonso to set the standard for the Drivers championship battle. If the most complete driver in F1 can find that extra 1 percent of pace throughout the rest of the season, Alonso has a chance to climb the pantheon of the greatest drivers in F1, and reaffirm Ferrari’s unmatched stature as the greatest F1 team ever. Vamos, forza!
Felipe Massa: B-
After his down to the wire championship battle with Hamilton in 2008 and his near death incident at Hungary last year, Massa has seen his share of drama and intrigue. Much like Manny Pacquiao, Massa has markedly improved at his craft from the beginning of his career. But this season has been somewhat of a speed bump, and he’s been uninvolved with the leaders at the front since his 3rd place finish at Bahrain. Alonso’s pit entry pass on Massa at China is the biggest story this season involving the Brazilian, if he wants to change the tone of his season, he needs a strong performance sooner rather than later. I wouldn’t count on it, but who doesn’t enjoy rooting for the underdog?
Jenson Button: A
The reigning world champion put on clinics in silky smooth driving and race management at Australia and China. His unfortunate retirement at Monaco was the fault of a plastic cap that was lodged into his radiator duct intake, which led to his engine overheating within two laps. But his most significant feat this season has been his success in winning over the entire McLaren team with his mild mannered enthusiasm for racing for Team England, who thought they already had their talisman in Hamilton. Could we see a repeat of 2007, when McLaren drivers Hamilton and Alonso duked it out to the last race of the season, only to be pipped by the Iceman Kimi Raikkonen? Let’s hope so!
Lewis Hamilton: B+
If Vettel this season has been the fastest, then Hamilton has been the most exciting to watch. His relatively mediocre qualifying performances have forced him to put on some clinical demonstrations in overtaking on race day, especially at Australia and China. But his season has also been marked several black eyes, from his temporary arrest for doing a burnout on a public road in Melbourne, to murmurs that he is a marginally overaggressive driver. But love him or hate him, he expects to be in the mix, as does frontrunners Red Bull, who recently called out Hamilton and Alonso as their biggest threats for this season, but not Button interestingly.
Michael Schumacher: Incomplete
Why no grade for Schumi? The main reason, as evidenced by his strong performances at Monaco and Spain, is because he dealt with a car that clearly didn’t suit his driving style for the first four races of the season. Granted his teammate Nico Rosberg outperformed him with the same car, but some of that can also be attributed to rust from being retired for three years. His critics in the media and in the F1 community have been quick to jump on him and write him off as a contender, and it’s possible he may have conceded too much too early in the season to mount a challenge for the Drivers championship. But this is no regular man, he is Schumi, a 7 time world champion, and still the GOAT, and any season with him behind the wheel has special meaning. It seems he now has a car that suits his style, can he at least repay his team for their efforts by winning a few races before season’s end?
Nico Rosberg: B
For most of this season, Rosberg has managed to outperform his legendary teammate while fielding endless questions over the disparity in their pace. Mercedes’ improvements(or radical changes) introduced at Spain were widely touted as Schumi flexing his muscle over the all German team, and his lack of pace didn’t help to quell the rumors. And lately young Nico has been a little chilly towards the media, and things could get frostier if he continues to fall behind Schumi. If Nico wants to follow in the footsteps of his father and former world champion Keke, then he needs to man up, tighten his racing shoes, and drive flat out. Only then will he be able to truly challenge for #1 status.
Robert Kubica: A-
The surprise of the season, Kubica signifcantly raised his stock with strong drives at Australia, Malaysia, and Monaco. There’s no doubt that Kubica is in the same class with the other top drivers, but there was considerable speculation over Renault’s operation coming into this season. Of all the team driver duos in the paddock, Kubica’s edge over teammate Vitaly Petrov is the most sizable in terms of sheer speed, and if wasn’t for the Pole, the engineers at Renault would be pulling their perfectly moussed hair out. Courtesy of F1Fanatic, this chart gives you an idea of the disparity in speed between the drivers in the context of within their team.
The big question with Kubica is will he stay after this season, or could he jump ship and go to Ferrari or somewhere else?
Team Lotus: B
Of all new teams this season, Lotus has shown they have the strongest operation, although that isn’t saying a whole lot. But I expect them to show the most improvement by the end of the season, and their investment in veteran drivers Jarno Trulli and Heikki Kovalainen should pay off at some point. It’s unlikely that the team will score any points this season, but if they do, then it could set a positive tone going into next season. Colin Chapman isn’t exactly doing jumping jacks in his grave right now, but a podium finish could maybe yield a wry smile.
Virgin Racing: C-
It’s one thing to use a budding technological development tool like CFD to wholly design an F1 car, like Virgin did, but it’s another thing to design a race car with a fuel tank that isn’t large enough to finish a race. Branson’s new pet project has been an exercise of visionary pomp and grandiose hubris. All the buzz surrounding the team at the beginning of the season has been replaced by moans and smirks over their futility. Branson needs to realize that he can’t just wave his magic entrepreneurial wand and proclaim a new era has begun in F1. For him to do that, they need to win races, and if it wasn’t for Team Hispania, his Virgin outfit would be the laughingstock in the paddocks.