You can read part 1 of my mid-season rankings, where I assess the bottom half of the grid.
6. Force India
Force India have come along way in the past couple of years. From being perennial tail-enders, they are now solid midfield runners and can regularly expect to beat the likes of Williams, BMW Sauber and Toro Rosso. Vijay Mallya has succeeded where Alex Schnaider and Spyker failed.
A question mark remains over the driver lineup. I still find Adrian Sutil rather unimpressive. In his fourth season, surely we should be seeing more. And Vitantonio Liuzzi, while showing flashes of excellence, has generally failed to live up to expectations.
Force India also need to be careful that their progress up the grid does not come to a shuddering halt, with a mass exodus of their technical team having occurred this year. James Key has moved to assist in Sauber’s resurrection, while Mike Gascoyne has poached some of his ex-Force India colleagues to join him at Lotus. Looking at the five teams that are ahead of Force India in the Constructors’ Championship, it is difficult to see how they can make much more progress.
It hasn’t quite gone to plan for Mercedes. Seemingly fed up with McLaren, the manufacturer opted to buy the Brawn team that was so stunningly successful last season. Then, in a crass marketing stunt, they signed Michael Schumacher with much fanfare. Well, it’s all been a bit of a damp squib.
The car has not met up to expectations, and I have heard rumours that Ross Brawn is not too happy with the way Mercedes run the show (who knows if there is truth in that though).
For my money, Mercedes must have the worst driver line-up with the possible exception of Sauber. Nico Rosberg is relatively well rated. But let us face it — we all know there is still a question mark as to how good he really is. Meanwhile, it was clear to me from the very start that Michael Schumacher would be rusty, and his performances has fully justified my view.
It would have been much better for both Nico Rosberg and Michael Schumacher if a more sensible driver was chosen. Schumacher could have kept his dignity in retirement; Rosberg could have learnt from a genuinely solid and reliable barometer. Someone like Nick Heidfeld, perhaps. Or, you know, Jenson Button or Rubens Barrichello…
It has similarly come apart for Ferrari. Although they showed promise at the start of the season, with a win in Bahrain (even if they didn’t quite have the outright pace). But since then the story has been one of a slow but steady decline as the season has progressed, as Ferrari have failed to keep up the pace of development, and as the Championship has increasingly focussed on Red Bull and McLaren whose cars are far superior.
The drivers have to take their fair share of the blame too. Fernando Alonso has been making many more mistakes than usual, and he is not as enjoyable to watch as he used to be. A worrying development for the person I consider to be the best driver of the past decade. Meanwhile, after a relatively bright start in Bahrain, Felipe Massa has seemed off-colour for most of the season.
They may be fifth in the Constructors’ Championship, and, yes, they have the fifth fastest car. But I have elevated Renault in my rankings because it is an astonishing comeback.
It is incredible to think that just a month ago, the Renault F1 Team was mired in the quite unsavoury scandal that became known as ‘crashgate’. Having lost its sponsors and its star driver in addition to its team principal and technical director, you would expect 2010 to be a rebuilding year for Renault.
But the rebuild was swift. The team has rebranded to focus on its racing heritage, feeling less like the team that descended from Benetton. It has a steady new boss in the shape of Eric Boullier, who I think is doing a fantastic job. And its new star driver, Robert Kubica, looks set to become the team’s long-term centrepiece.
Kubica is doing really well just now and seems happy — by his standards at least! Vitaly Petrov is a fair bit off his pace, but he has not disgraced himself in my view. It should be remembered that Petrov is the only rookie among even the midfield teams, never mind front-running teams — so he should be given a bit of room to breathe and develop.
2. Red Bull
Red Bull should be number 1 on this list. This ought to be their year. They came out this season with easily the fastest car. Their car is still easily the fastest car. They have two of the best drivers on the grid.
Unfortunately, the last little bit — professionalism, cohesion, restraint — that takes all these ingredients and turns an operation into a championship winning Formula 1 team is missing. If it isn’t some kind of reliability problem, it is a strategy goof, or the mother of all mismanagements.
Just now, Red Bull remind me of where McLaren were at a few years ago. Unable to control team mates. Bizarre strategy calls. Constantly walking into traps that they set up for themselves. Somehow conspiring to hoof it over the bar in the face of an open goal.
The statistics illustrate it well. Out of ten races, Red Bull have had nine pole positions, but have had just five wins. They lag behind McLaren in both championships. For a team that has what is probably comfortably the quickest car, Red Bull have managed to immensely stuff it up so far.
McLaren have not been without their troubles this season. At the start of the season, it was clear that their car was not as quick as they would have liked. But the way they are dealing with it is the opposite to Red Bull, and that signals to me that they have learnt a lot from their difficult period in the mid-2000s.
As with Ferrari, they were scuppered by poor tactics during qualifying for the Malaysian Grand Prix, severely compromising their race. Yet they still salvaged a fair points haul. Jenson Button did the same again at Silverstone a couple of weeks ago. Even when it goes wrong, McLaren sort it and get it right. McLaren is now more agile and astute in its strategy calls than it was two or three years ago.
Martin Whitmarsh has done an outstanding job to plug the few gaps in McLaren’s abilities that Ron Dennis left behind. Now McLaren are a formidable force that should never be underestimated.
McLaren’s pace of development alone makes them stand head and shoulders above the rest. The high-profile failure of their new blown diffuser at Silverstone is only really notable because it is so unusual for a new McLaren part to go wrong. Other teams have this sort of difficulty all the time. Witness the various botched attempts to adopt the F-duct, another part of the McLaren package that makes it the best of 2010 so far.
Then there are the drivers, who are both on song. Despite various figures constantly trying to goad them into a bloody deathmatch, they appear to get on like a house on fire.
Witness the difference between the McLaren team mates and their Red Bull counterparts at Turkey. McLaren’s drivers had a misunderstanding, but instead of blabbing to the media or making silly hand gestures, the drivers sorted it out with a quick chat after the race. Very professional. Lewis Hamilton’s and Jenson Button’s approach is a very healthy approach to racing all round.
That is what makes them championship winners, and today’s championship leaders. That is why McLaren are still the best team, even when they don’t necessarily have the best car.