Lewis Hamilton’s victory at the Hungarian Grand Prix marked the end of the first half of the 2013 Formula One season, one which has seen a cavalcade of drama and surprises.
Indeed the only predictable aspect is that Sebastian Vettel in his trusty Red Bull has a comfortable lead over his rivals.
The question of who is most likely to snatch the championship away from Vettel is an interesting and complex one. Lewis Hamilton, Kimi Raikkonen and Fernando Alonso are now the remaining leading contenders, the four most take to be the top class of the grid, proving that despite all the accusations of F1 being a very expensive lottery, quality in motor racing always shines through over time.
Despite the huge talent of these three contenders, the success of their respective championship challenges is intertwined with the form of their cars.
Raikkonen’s Lotus is consistently fast but never the outright pacesetter, as zero pole positions and five second place finishes attest.
Hamilton’s Mercedes is a much more complicated beast. Hugely fast – the W04 has seven pole positions from 10 races, four of which are Hamilton’s – the Silver Arrows have a tortured love story with their Pirelli tyres.
A tendency to severely overheat the rear tyres, exacerbated by the metal belt Pirelli introduced for its 2013 constructions retaining much of the heat generated, hampered Mercedes throughout the season and led to nightmare Sundays in Spain and Germany as the heat in the tyres caused profound degradation and the cars slipped backwards.
The events of Silverstone, where Hamilton was one of the victims of exploding tyres as the Pirellis were overloaded by the demands of the high-downforce track, and lost what was looking like a secure and brilliant victory led Pirelli to change their tyre constructions.
Hungary was the debut race for these new 2013 compounds with 2012 construction, which simplistically meant a change from a steel belt to a Kevlar one. As Kevlar is a synthetic fibre rather than a metal, much more of the heat generated by the cars was dissipated from the tyres.
This profoundly affected the dynamics of a few teams, and Mercedes, as the team struggling the most with heat, benefited the most. The W04 no longer dropped back from its customary pole position and remained able to beat the RB9 throughout the race.
A team which this change negatively affected was Ferrari. The scuderia and their star driver Alonso have, at a couple of points this season, had the best race car and after a glorious win in Spain in particularly, looked like the closest rivals to Vettel.
However development has ground to a halt in the past few races, and Ferrari, in a testament to how rapidly the top teams develop their cars, have been left behind. Alonso’s last four race results are second, third, fourth and then fifth, an ominous slide which has surprised a few and disappointed even more, including its star driver.
Management admitted that Ferrari were still having trouble with its windtunnel and a series of under-performing upgrades brought since Alonso’s victory at the Spanish grand prix have put their championship bid drastically back.
Alonso now seems to be as fed up as any other Ferrari supporter. While as in 2012 he optimistically encouraged Ferrari to keep trying as they saw Vettel slowly beat them to the championship, this year the Spaniard appears much more pessimistic in his interviews.
In Hungary Alonso, after three and a half years of seeing Vettel in front of him on a grid, finally had enough. His agent talked to Red Bull principal, Christian Horner in an attempt at one of two things. Either he knew this meeting would be spotted and could be used as a last ditch bluff to get Ferrari to realise that they could lose their prime asset if they don’t improve, or Alonso really is interested in the seat at Red Bull. After all, who isn’t?
Raikkonen looks the favourite to replace Mark Webber to team up with what might then be four time world champion Vettel. Whether or not Red Bull are actually considering Alonso is unknown, they might also be using the meeting as a bluff to disgruntle their Italian rivals, but if they know that he is indeed available then it would be an oversight to not at least consider him for the seat.
As for the remainder of this season, the four person battle looks set to continue, with all four teams confidently claiming their challenges are strong.
The question however remains, are any of them stronger than Sebastian Vettel and his Red Bull RB9. In four weeks in Belgium, we’ll be a step closer to finding the answer.