Saturday 25 January 2020

F1: Close title race would capture the imagination

Ian Parkes

With the dust settling on the controversial Bahrain Grand Prix, Formula One can now look ahead to what appears to be the most wide-open title race for many a year.

For the first time in the past 29 seasons four different drivers and four different constructors have won the opening four grands prix.

Jenson Button with McLaren, Ferrari's Fernando Alonso, Mercedes' Nico Rosberg and reigning champion Sebastian Vettel in his Red Bull have all so far taken the chequered flag.

History now beckons in Spain when F1 pitches up at Barcelona's Circuit de Catalunya in a fortnight because only three times in F1 history have there been five different drivers win the first five races - 1967, 1975 and 1983.

Who is to say Lewis Hamilton, Mark Webber, Michael Schumacher or Kimi Raikkonen cannot maintain the current rare streak?

What we have witnessed so far underlines just how competitive the current season is, and not only because we have six champions on the grid for the first time.

As McLaren team principal Martin Whitmarsh pointed out following his team's wretchedly-disappointing race in Bahrain, no-one can accurately predict who will win in Spain.

Such a capricious scenario is vital for F1, which is in need of a good-news-story injection given what unfolded in the Gulf kingdom and also last season when Vettel dominated to record-breaking effect.

For once at the weekend, it was hard to begrudge him his now trademark raised index finger salute after claiming his 31st career pole from qualifying on Saturday and 22nd career win 24 hours later.

After all, it had effectively come from nowhere given just a week earlier in China, Vettel had qualified 11th, his worst grid slot for 42 races since the 2009 Brazilian Grand Prix.

A few weeks earlier in Malaysia, and for the first time in 27 grands prix, Vettel finished a race but failed to score a point.

It has been that kind of topsy-turvy season, how else can you explain some of the results, such as Rosberg, without a point in the first two races, then out of the blue claiming his debut pole and race win in China?

Look at Hamilton, three times on the front row, including one pole, yet his best race result has been three third-place finishes to start the season before a lowly eighth in Bahrain.

Button's run has been winner, zero points, second, zero points, so naturally he is hopeful the trend will follow in Barcelona and he will return to the podium.

As for Schumacher in his Mercedes, the seven-times champion has finished no higher than 10th twice, with the only drivers below him in the championship the combined six at Marussia, Caterham and HRT.

There is no discernible pattern behind the bizarre sequence of results, no rhyme nor reason with the exception that this year's Pirelli tyres are having a major impact.

Schumacher said as much in Bahrain, the 43-year-old expressing his frustration he is unable to push himself or the car for fear of the rubber degrading quicker than is the case.

As Whitmarsh has mentioned, finding the sweet spot when the tyre, the track and car all come together is proving elusive.

For instance we saw it with Sauber's Sergio Perez in Malaysia when he arguably should have won the race, only to make an error late on when pushing Alonso to the line.

It was the same for Rosberg in China and Raikkonen in Bahrain, but to a greater extreme for the latter as on one set of medium tyres he was poised to pass Vettel.

But switching to another set of the same compound it failed to work as well and the opportunity was lost, leaving the Finn to settle for second behind Vettel.

Pirelli director of motorsport Paul Hembery admits his company are doing exactly what has been asked of them, nothing more, nothing less.

It is certainly providing for compelling racing and viewing, although for a purist like Schumacher it is far from providing compelling driving.

In a world where you cannot please all of the people all of the time, but where 'the show' is paramount in F1, the uncertainty is captivating.

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