Sebastian Vettel leads the world championship, but Fernando Alonso is lurking behind him
Sebastian Vettel’s dominant drive to victory in Canada last weekend has prompted many to conclude that the title race is already as good as over.
The world champion’s seemingly effortless charge to the chequered flag in Montreal was the most convincing win of the year so far, and helped the Red Bull driver increase his lead over Fernando Alonso in the drivers’ standings to a comfortable 36 points with just seven races gone.
The nature of the win means that Vettel is now odds-on favourite to claim a fourth successive title, with the 25-year-old’s price amongst the bookies being slashed as low as 2/5, indicating a fairly sizeable amount of confidence as to the final destination of the 2013 world championship.
But is the title race really over at this still early stage of the season?
There can be no disputing that Vettel is the clear favourite to make it title number four at this stage. He has a lead larger than at any point since his stroll to the championship in 2011, and his Red Bull is looking stronger than it has at any point over the season. If your life depended on choosing a champion this year, you would plump for the German.
But take a closer look at the race in Canada and the season as a whole, and things don’t look quite as clear-cut.
Focusing solely on the last race for the moment, and the Circuit Gilles Villeneuve looks custom made for the RB9. With no high-speed corners to speak of, the track is far easier on its tyres than the likes of Barcelona and Sepang, meaning that everyone, even the notorious, rubber-wrecking Mercedes, had a relatively easy time of things during the race. This was borne out by the fact that the Force India of Paul di Resta was able to complete a marathon 57-lap stint on a set of mediums without any significant drop-off in performance.
Therefore Vettel’s Red Bull, one of several cars to suffer with high wear on the 2013-spec Pirellis, was rid of its main Achilles heel, and the tyre advantage of its rivals, particularly Ferrari and Lotus, was effectively gone before lights out, meaning he was able to push his car to the limit without any fear of having to conserve his rubber.
Not only that, but the RB9 is a clear step ahead of its rivals when it comes to generating traction, a characteristic that Montreal tests like perhaps no other venue on the calendar. The traction of the Red Bull is such that it makes the car capable of gaining at least a tenth through each acceleration zone, giving it a huge advantage throughout the lap and more than making up for what it loses through its relative lack of straight line speed. It’s also no coincidence that Vettel’s other convincing win this season came in Bahrain, another circuit which is heavily reliant on traction.
It so happens that traction is a weakness of the Red Bull’s closest challenger, the Ferrari. There is no doubt that the Scuderia have a cracking car on their hands this year, but its pace on circuits where good acceleration is a must has been noticeably lacking. Alonso was losing time to not only the Red Bulls through the traction zones, but the Mercedes as well, which delayed his charge through to second to the closing stages, and meant that even if he’d had a clear run at Vettel throughout the race, it’s unlikely he’d have ruffled many feathers upfront.
These factors created the perfect recipe for Vettel, and he took full advantage of it to produce the perfect dish for his team.
So what can we expect going into the next few races?
Focusing on the four tracks coming up, we have Silverstone, the Nurburgring, the Hungaroring and Spa.
They all have their unique challenges, but the quartet that makes up the next chapter of this season share some fundamental elements. All four have significant sections of long corners, plenty of which are medium to high-speed bends, all four should provide a bigger test of the Pirelli tyres than Canada, and traction is much less of an issue at each of these venues compared to Montreal.
This spells good news for Ferrari. Its car thrives on circuits with long, sweeping bends and its abundance of front-end grip means it can carry more speed through these corners than the Red Bull, and do it whilst being kinder on the tyres. Of the three tracks raced on this year that fit this profile, Alonso has won comfortably at two of them (China and Barcelona), and his spectacular front wing failure and premature exit from the Malaysian Grand Prix left an open goal for Messrs Vettel and Webber to squabble it out for the win, with explosive results.
If they get it right on the pit wall side of things, and luck goes their way with the weather, they have a very realistic chance of winning all four of those races.
And with the benefit of a driver with the relentless consistency and determination of Alonso to unleash on the field, if he gets a sniff of victory, he will be there every time to tough it out for the win.
Kimi Raikkonen is a potential third title contender, but his Lotus team appears to have taken a step backwards in recent races, and with the Enstone team overly reliant on tyre wear and hot weather – something far from guaranteed in the paradise of uncertainty that is the European summer – it looks as if his hopes may be starting to fade.
This leaves us with a probable repeat of the 2012 title battle; Vettel v Alonso.
Alonso trails Vettel by 36 points, but a win at Silverstone, coupled with a retirement for his rival, would cut the deficit to just 11, and with three tracks that should theoretically suit the Ferrari over the Red Bull to follow next, the title race would be well and truly back on again.
That’s not to say that Vettel doesn’t have a chance over the summer months. The Red Bull will undoubtedly still be right up at the sharp end challenging for podiums at the very least, and with the brain of Adrian Newey at its disposal, the team is only ever one upgrade away from taking a giant leap forward.
But if Ferrari does take the upper hand over the next few races, consistency will be key for Vettel. Even with a 36-point lead in his pocket, if Alonso can string a sequence of wins together, a sizeable advantage can evaporate fast for the championship leader if he’s not there picking up the points. It’s something these two men will know only too well after last year, when a run of four straight wins at the back end of the season helped Vettel overhaul a 39-point deficit to the Ferrari driver and take a lead he was never to lose in the title battle.
Things change so quickly in Formula One that it would be unwise to jump to any conclusions at this stage. What may look comfortable one day suddenly looks decidedly uncomfortable the next, and it is far too early to proclaim that there is only one outcome in this year’s title battle. The next four races will tell us much more, and only then will a clearer picture begin to emerge as to who will be crowned world champion in Brazil at the end of November.
For, to borrow a phrase from the legendary Murray Walker: “Anything can happen in Formula One and it usually does.”
And as the opening salvo of the 2013 season begins to take its final bow, a new chapter of uncertainty may be just around the corner.