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The beginning of this Formula 1 season bears many similarities with the Brawn GP-dominated 2009 championship in which Ross Brawn’s team had won 5 of the 6 opening races. It looked a foregone conclusion back then: Brawn GP could have won the next few races and have basically secured victory in both the drivers and constructors championships with ease. Fortunately for the other teams, and most importantly the fans, resurgence from Red Bull Racing made the end of the 2009 season a much more closely fought affair.
So will Red Bull be so kind this year and make the rest of the season less predictable? It’s going to be a tall order for the other teams, but like we saw in 2009, the tables can quickly turn and the team who looked invincible can fall foul to reliability issues and the advances of their rivals. The former is probably less likely to impede Red Bull because, bar a few KERS issues, their reliability has been excellent. It will be up to the other teams to raise their game.
So what can the chasing pack do? Or more accurately: what can McLaren do? Fernando Alonso has already resigned Ferrari’s chances to that of a mathematical possibility. He believes unless Ferrari can win the next three races, with Red Bull failing to score, his team have already lost sight of championship victory.
McLaren, despite a 58 point gulf between Lewis Hamilton and Sebastian Vettel and a 61 point gap in the constructor’s standings, are most likely to stage a comeback. We saw last weekend at Monaco how the speed of the Red Bulls was matched by McLaren, with Jenson Button clawing back seconds per lap towards the ends of the race only to fall foul to a monumentally inconvenient red flag deployment.
Its seems that despite formidable qualifying performances (Sebastian Vettel has started on pole position in all but the Spanish Grand Prix) the pace of the Red Bull cars can be matched by McLaren during a race. The superior tyre strategy of the McLaren team in Monaco meant Sebastian Vettel was exposed to attack from Jenson Button and Lewis Hamilton has shown his capability to overtake Sebastian Vettel in race conditions as he did so during the closing laps of the Chinese Grand Prix in which he claimed victory .
The Red Bulls have been less than convincing off the line too: Button and Hamilton snatched the lead into turn one at China, Alonso laughed in the face of the Red Bull front row in Spain and Mark Webber has often lost track position at the first corner. In the races that Vettel has dominated from the off (Australia, Malaysia and Turkey) he has led from the start and has had the opportunity to forge a comfortable cushion between him and the chasing cars. It seems that if the young World Champion is sitting in pole, his rivals must intervene at the first corner to force the Red Bull team into changing to a backup race strategy.
The technology gap between Red Bull and the other teams is also decreasing. Red Bull began the season with the fastest car no-doubt, their formidable speed at the front of the pack in Australia and Malaysia showed this, however their rivals have been adding new technological additions to their vehicles every race. There were no additions to the RB7 chassis in Monaco and Spain, could that be confidence in their machine or a window of opportunity for McLaren who have brought extensive technical modifications to the last few races?
There is still over half of the season to go and in theory the championship is still anyone’s for the taking. However, the fact remains that the man in front is the reigning World Champion, a supremely fast driver who is sitting in arguably still the fastest car on the grid. McLaren and Ferrari are going to have to pull something out in the next two races: Montreal and Valencia, both street circuits which will not allow the Red Bulls to stretch their legs on lots of open track. They will need to use every ounce of their racing expertise, not to mention some of the fortune which has favoured Sebastian Vettel this season to stay in the running.