Will Gray

Top of the table mid-term report

Will Gray

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With the teams taking a summer break it's
time to look at the movers and shakers so far this season and where they might
end up - starting this week with the fascinating battle at the top of the

A long time has passed since Fernando
Alonso, Felipe Massa and Ferrari were all smiles after their one-two finish in
Bahrain while Formula One was facing up to criticism and calls for more rule
changes following a season opener that failed to deliver the exciting spectacle
expected from a mouth watering line-up at the sharp end of the grid.

Since then Red Bull have dominated,
benefitting from technical consistency on all circuits, while their rivals at
Ferrari and McLaren have struggled to find form on occasions but are still in
the title hunt thanks to Red Bull's failure to deliver when it matters.

Reigning champion team Mercedes (nee
Brawn), meanwhile, have dropped into the clutches of Renault as Michael
Schumacher's comeback has failed to impress.

This season has been notable for its rapid
pace of development, led by innovations including the f-duct and the blown
diffuser. The attention to detail in design for the front-running teams has
also been astonishing - and it is these elements that have caused the order to
fluctuate so much, so far.

In terms of overall pace, the clearest
indicator is performance on low fuel in qualifying. Red Bull has been so
dominant that only once so far this year have they not claimed pole position -
but the pace difference between them and each of their rivals makes interesting

Ferrari was the closest team to Red Bull
early in the season, between 0.1s and 0.3s off the pace in Bahrain, Australia
and China (discounting the rain-soaked Malaysian qualifying session). Mercedes
and McLaren were a match for Ferrari in China, but in Spain the gap between Red
Bull and the rest increased to a massive 1.1s, with McLaren edging ahead over
Ferrari. This was around the point when the Italian team over-focused on the
f-duct design that McLaren had introduced at the start of the year - and their
design was not working.

It took Ferrari several races to re-focus
and at one point, in Turkey, they were the slowest of the top five teams. It
was not until the British Grand Prix, five races later, when they were back in
number two position thanks to a major development that included their initial
design for the flexible front wing. In Germany they were right with Red Bull
again before the dramatic gap seen previously in Spain re-appeared in Hungary,
with Red Bull's flexiwing apparently working better than Ferrari's.

McLaren, meanwhile, started off in third,
battling with Mercedes, and it was not until Turkey, Canada and Europe when
they started to peak, becoming the only team to knock Red Bull off top spot so
far in Canada. The improvement was in part down to the attention to detail in
their diffuser and front wing designs, but also down to the fact the venues
were relatively fast tracks that suit the McLaren.

Like Ferrari, however, McLaren's downfall
has been their need to copy a rival's innovation - in their case the Red Bull
blown diffuser. At Silverstone, they were forced to scrap their initial design
and although its efficiency improved in Germany and Hungary it has yet to
produce the levels of benefit they had expected.

The biggest disappointment, and the biggest
surprise, of the season so far, lies behind the top three - Mercedes never
rising higher than third fastest (and even then only twice) while Renault have
regularly punched above their weight.

Mercedes' problems were their own making as
they were forced to re-evaluate their wheelbase early in the season and had to
introduce a new compromise suspension to re-balance their car. They also tried
to bring in an alternative version of the f-duct, which does not work so well
as those now used by McLaren, Ferrari and Red Bull, and they have also failed
so far to find a solution to the blown rear diffuser.

So where will the challenge be in the title

It looks like a three-team battle. Red Bull
are firmly in the driving seat, of course, and although their performance
advantage in Hungary may have been a bit extreme, their blown diffuser and
f-duct are now working well and the clever flexiwing design has become the next
innovation their rivals need to copy.

It's hard to bet against them, but their
ultimate success depends on two things: firstly whether the FIA clamps down on
their testing well enough to hamper the flexiwing design; and secondly whether
they can calm their internal rivalry and get the team working together.

If they trip up, Ferrari look like they are
in the driving seat to take advantage having apparently sorted their f-duct
issues, developed a successful blown diffuser and gone well down the line in
flexible wing design development.

But in my mind McLaren are still the
biggest challengers.

They may have dropped away in recent weeks
as they struggled with the blown diffuser, but it won't be long before they get
to grips with it - and Lewis Hamilton is sitting pretty, just four points away
from Mark Webber in second place in the drivers' championship.

Hamilton has performed well this season,
comfortably out-pacing his reigning world champion team-mate Jenson Button,
despite some early wobbles. Button's two victories in the opening four races
are a distant memory, with Hamilton out-qualifying his fellow Brit 7-1 since
then and finishing ahead in all but one of the five races where they have both
made it to the finish.

The next two races, at Spa-Francorchamps
and Monza, are both fast circuits, and that suits McLaren. Suzuka and Brazil
are also likely to play into their hands - so that's four out of seven, and if
Red Bull are reeled in and McLaren can solve their diffuser issues Hamilton's
ability to push a car beyond its perceived limits could put him in with a

showing seconds off pole position for the top five teams (excluding the
rain-influenced Malaysian qualifying session)

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