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F1 2013 Comment: Pecking Order

The RB9 remains by far and away the most dominant car currently on the F1 grid.

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After a couple of dominant performances by Sebastian Vettel in the last two races of the European season, Formula 1 heads once again to East Asia.

Before that, however, let’s see how the teams stack up:

F1 2013 Comment: Pecking Order

Red Bull

No question whatsoever. By far and away the best car/team/driver over the last few races, Red Bull have put daylight between them in first and those sputtering behind. Lead by their triple World Champion, Vettel, the RB9 has clocked up three wins in the last four races, four in the last seven.

It leaves RBR as a team a staggering 104 points clear of Ferrari, a lead that seems to be a winning lead at the moment. Sebastian Vettel also stand a more than convincing 53 points clear of Fernando Alonso, again in a lead that appears unassailable.

This surge in performance is certainly not a case of rivals dropping off. Rather, we’ve seen recently teams like Mercedes and Ferrari improve by fixing fundamental problems that were hampering their performances over the course of the weekend.

What Red Bull have done is just improve a hell of a lot more. They now sit in a comfortable position in both championships with plenty left in the tank, yet enough room to move to allocate enough focus onto 2014.

Their biggest moment during the last month, apart from the two race wins, was the announcement that Daniel Ricciardo would take over from the retiring Mark Webber come season’s end. One Australian for another. In the end, it wasn’t a massive surprise, such had been the indications Red Bull had given, for example trialing Ricciardo at the Young Driver’s Test at Silverstone.

It creates some excitement within the team, the introduction of something fresh and a new driver line-up after five years of the old one, which had gotten incredibly sour and bitter towards the end.

Fortunately for Red Bull, Ricciardo isn’t anything like Webber when it comes to authority, or at least not at this point in time. Ricciardo fully expects to be comprehensively beaten by Vettel in 2014, which allows Red Bull the increased scope to pull Vettel’s rank on the young Aussie.

2013 has at times appeared a breeze for Red Bull, and, as of now, there are signs that anything is going to change for the defending champions.

Ferrari

Whilst the racing has certainly taken a massive upturn from the evident despair of the performances in Germany and Hungary, Ferrari received its biggest lift in terms of optimism when it signed Kimi Raikkonen to replace Felipe Massa from 2014 onwards.

The administrative reasons aside, which were brilliantly handled by Ferrari by allowing Felipe Massa to announce his departure the day before Raikkonen eventually signed, this is something that the Scuderia had to get done soon.

The driver market was sure to dry up, and Raikkonen had effectively two options, stay Lotus or go for Ferrari. It was essentially Ferrari’s indecision that was keeping the deal from being signed and sealed, but they eventually came to the decision, ironically on the eve of one of Felipe Massa’s better performances, that the Brazilian simply had to go.

It’s no real surprise, it has been evident for some time now that despite Massa’s proven experience, his consistency of performance has never ever quite come back after that horrific accident in Hungary 2009.

The Alonso-Raikkonen partnership is pencilled in for two years, and that’s another smart move by Ferrari. It’s an experiment that could go either way, with Ferrari turning full circle on their motto of one number one driver and one number two. Now they’ve gone and got arguably the two most consistent drivers on the grid, making it almost certain that both drivers will be going head to head in terms of getting more points.

It could be a gamble that horribly backfires with the type of internal fighting seen at McLaren in 2007 when they recruited two drivers that both competed strongly for the title. Whatever the case, it’s such a strong statement from Ferrari and one that might be in response to the way Mercedes have set themselves up for 2014, with Rosberg and Hamilton making the strongest driver line-up this year.

In 2014 there’s no doubt whatsoever that Alonso-Raikkonen is the strongest driver line-up seen since the Prost-Senna days.

Mercedes

Coming out of the mid-season break on the back of Lewis Hamilton’s first win for the Silver Arrows in Hungary, most expected Mercedes to take their performance to yet another level in an effort to really pressure Sebastian Vettel for the championship.

It started well in Spa, with Hamilton claiming yet another pole position, his fourth in a row, but since then hasn’t quite worked out so well. A podium finish in Belgium was a good result, but ground was still being lost to Vettel.

Then came Monza, where the W04 was expected to go well with that powerful Mercedes engine, but Hamilton drove his worst qualifying in recent memory. He himself claims he drove like an ‘idiot’ and it’s hard to disagree.

Even though the Mercedes wasn’t in pole sitting form, to finish in P12 and not even make the Q3 cut was the performance that effectively spelled the end for Mercedes’ ambitions for any serious silverware this year.

Rosberg’s race was also quite unspectacular. Although he finished in 6th, the fact that he couldn’t get past a Sauber showed just how far Mercedes have seemingly dropped off matter of months.

You’d expect their performance to improve slightly over the next few races, but there really isn’t much incentive for Mercedes to do so.

Their focus is surely now almost completely on 2014, the year they’ve always noted as their time when the change in regulations will allow a complete shift in power to them.

Lotus

A couple of torrid races for Lotus just got a whole lot worse with the news that their star man Kimi Raikkonen is deserting them at season’s end to jump ship back to his former Ferrari.

It’s a body blow of mammoth proportions and consequences, of which has been most evident at the last two races.

Put simply, for Lotus over the last two years, Lotus has been Raikkonen and Raikkonen has been Lotus.

In 2013, Raikkonen has scored just over 70% of Lotus’ Championship points a massive discrepancy for a top team only slightly bettered by Jenson Button for McLaren among the top teams.

It leaves them with a massive decision to make, or potentially even three massive decisions.

First, they have to find a replacement for Raikkonen and find one fast before other teams start snapping up the talent. The two options are the obvious ones, Felipe Massa in a straight swap or Nico Hulkenberg for Sauber.

Taking Massa is the easy route, due to the safe nature of that recruitment. It would be seen as the logical decision for experience and proven performance in a good car, even though his consistency is a serious question. Hulkenberg would be venturing into something new and something unproven in a good car that is consistently capable of top five finishes.

The second major decision they have to make is whether or not they keep Romain Grosjean. The Frenchman has been able to string together four consecutive points finishes after four consecutive misses, but still doesn’t seem to be getting the best out of the car.

We now that at times he can show immense quality, this last seen in Germany, but his consistently, like Massa is a serious question. The difference between him and Massa is that Grosjean is young and has plenty of time to learn.

To let go of Grosjean would take tremendous bravery on the part of Lotus, as it would the second time in three years where they’ve had a complete cleanout of their racing drivers. Such instability can’t be good for the team, especially as it heads into a new era of regulations which aren’t exactly tipped to favour the users of Renault engines.

It would appear that Lotus are more than likely going to hold Grosjean and go for a young gun like Hulkenberg and look to the future.

For the rest of this season, though, they have nothing to play for, with Raikkonen’s championship hopes going down the drain after a pair of disappointing non-points finishes.

That doesn’t mean they can’t win a race, we’ve seen them do it last year and I’ll be surprised if Raikkonen doesn’t pull out one parting gift.

McLaren

McLaren are now officially ahead of Force India in the Constructors’ standings, a statement which in itself is an indictment of McLaren’s terrible 2013 season.

It’s ironic that they along with Mercedes will be the only big team to not change their driving line-up given their poor year, but Jenson Button has fought on admirably and Sergio Perez needs to be given time.

Their qualifying performances have been very promising, although their assertion before Spa that they could fight for the podium was rightly laughed off by the rest of the paddock.

This isn’t a good McLaren car and McLaren should themselves accept that. They should completely move their focus to 2014 because the fear is that with the reintroduction of Honda engines, things could go wrong and this lowering of McLaren’s colours in 2013 could become a more permanent damage if serious progress isn’t made in the off-season.

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