Who will win the drivers' championship?

Wednesday 29th August 2012, 00:35 by Daniel Chalmers 

We are now heading into the business end of the season where it all starts to get very serious.

Fernando Alonso, Mark Webber, Sebastian Vettel, Lewis Hamilton and Kimi Raikkonen all have a genuine chance of lifting the crown. They all have cars capable of winning races, and we have some stunning tracks to decide the championship on. It couldn't be a more tantalising prospect.

Features editor Daniel Chalmers analyses the chances of all five men and makes his own personal prediction for each contender.

Fernando Alonso – currently 1st, 40 points clear of second place

Alonso is certainly going to take some beating if he isn’t going to win his third world title. He has been absolutely relentless so far and is arguably driving better than he has done at any point in his career. He has taken the maximum from every race weekend so far, and taking every little opportunity that has come his way.

He has a very useful 40 point lead in the championship and you have to say he currently has the best all-round car, even if it isn’t the quickest.

Since Barcelona, Ferrari has been competitive on all types of circuit. They have been strong on circuits with fast corners and slow corners in equal measure. They have also been quick in both cool and hot track temperatures and strong in the wet too.

Fernando Alonso (© Octane Photographic)

Ferrari has really got to grips with the difficult Pirelli tyres. In this championship understanding the tyres has been just as important as your car’s pace.

However Hungary showed that one or two of Ferrari’s rivals might just be starting to pull away from them again. Time will tell.

Also if it wasn’t for rain in qualifying in the two previous races before Hungary (Silverstone and Hockenheim) Alonso might not have scored 43 points over those two race weekends. Technical director Pat Fry admits rain has helped Ferrari.

However the good news is that there are plenty of races in the second half of the year where rain is possible including: Spa, India, Japan, Korea and Brazil. One or two of those races at least are bound to be wet. You can be sure Alonso will make the most of it.

Alonso also has the advantage of a team mate that won’t take points away from him, but on the other side of the coin Felipe Massa hasn’t been quick enough to take points off the Spaniard’s rivals so far. Chances are that won’t change.

The main thing for Ferrari and Alonso is they have to keep up their current form. Any dip in Alonso’s relentless form and his title rivals can come straight back into it. One bad weekend and there are a number of competitive cars that can finish ahead of him, resulting in him losing a chunk of his championship lead.

From Ferrari’s point of view there is a danger of them falling behind in the development race if they're not careful. Mclaren’s upgrades before the summer break were potentially a game changer. The likes of Red Bull and Lotus are going to be pushing massively hard too.

Finally every title contender has a misfortune at some point, and Fernando hasn’t had his yet.

Daniel’s championship prediction: 1st place

I think he will find life tougher in the second half of the season, as rivals are now getting stronger. I think he will still win the title but he will need a good result in the season finale to achieve it. I wouldn't be surprised if he loses his lead at some point.

I think Ferrari’s development and the weather will be the two key factors for Fernando. 

Mark Webber – currently 2nd, 40 points off the championship lead

After a miserable 2011, Webber is back to his 2010 form. The banning of the blown diffuser has really helped him, as the concept never suited his driving style. He has also adapted to the Pirelli tyres which was another issue for him last season. A huge improvement in his qualifying form over last year has made a big difference to his competitiveness in 2012.

His victories in Monaco and Silverstone were two outstanding performances.

The next two races are going to be crucial for Mark. At 40 points behind in the championship he can’t afford the gap to get much bigger. The issue is that Spa and Monza (the next two races) are Red Bull’s weakest two tracks on paper.

Although the team won those two races last year they had a much stronger car and less opposition. This year the weakness on those two tracks could be more exposed. The fact that the RB8 didn't perform brilliantly last time out in Hungary (what should have been a strong track for Red Bull) doesn't bode well.

Mark Webber (© Red Bull, Getty Images)

Webber’s consistency is still an area for concern too. When he has an on form weekend he is a match for the top drivers in the sport. However he has never been able to maintain that form for an entire season. That’s why he can’t be considered one of the very best.

Generally he has been more consistent this year, however in the last two races he finished down in eighth. Just goes to show how low you can fall on a weekend when you are not completely on your game. You don’t see the likes of Alonso, Lewis Hamilton and Sebastian Vettel having a weekend like that very often in a competitive car. There lies the issue for the Aussie.

During his title battle in 2010 he wasn’t able to perform in the last few races of the season when it really mattered. Curiously Mark always seems to perform better in the European section of the season. Out of his nine F1 wins seven of them have come in European races.

Again you have to wonder whether he will get much support in his title bid. When push comes to shove you still get the feeling that Sebastian is still very much the blue eyed wonder kid within the team.

If there is a decision between which driver to support in the title fight, it’s very hard to see Red Bull picking Mark over Seb.

Daniel’s championship prediction: 5th place

I just can’t see Mark putting together the run he needs to get himself right into the thick of the title battle. I can see him being on the top step again, but I think he will fall short when it really matters just as he did in 2010.

Sebastian Vettel – currently 3rd, 42 points off the championship lead

The quest for that third title is certainly proving harder for Vettel but that’s certainly no reason to rule him out of the title fight.

Although the car isn’t as strong this year we have still seen some very plucky drives from the double world champion this year. He had a great win in Bahrain, a great drive to second place in Melbourne and lost a certain win after a great performance in Valencia.

As is the case for team mate Webber the next two races at Red Bull’s two weakest circuits are going to be critical. Seb can’t afford the gap to Alonso to get any bigger. A points difference in excess of 60 points to Fernando, with seven races left would make life extremely difficult. It would probably be too much to come back from.

However as we have seen in the last couple of years Vettel is very strong in the second half of the season. Some of his best drives in 2011 were in the second half of the season including his wins in Spa, Monza, Korea and India.

Sebastian Vettel (© XPB.CC)

In 2010 he won three out of the last four races and snatched the title at the last race in Abu Dhabi. His level of determination is exceptional and if there is any chance of winning the title in the last few races of the year, he will do what he needs to do to try and achieve it.

The ace Vettel has up his sleeve is of course Adrian Newey. He is more than capable of coming up with a piece of magic that gives a huge boast to the young German’s title challenge.

Let’s not forget that Red Bull have had little slumps in both their title winning seasons. They then fought back both times to blow away the opposition.

Although that won’t be as easy to achieve this year, as Newey has recently admitted because of the tightness of the regulations. Plus their opponents are so much stronger this season.

Unlike three of his other title rivals Vettel definitely won't have the support of his team mate, although when it really comes down to it, he will probably be able to rely on the support of his team.

The points that Mark and Seb have taken off each other could prove costly in the end. Whilst they are still both fighting for the title, there is still the chance of costly contact between the pair on the track.

Daniel’s championship prediction: 4th place

My hunch is that this won’t be Vettel’s year. I think the FIA has succeeded in slowing Red Bull down and Ferrari, McLaren and Lotus are formidable opponents.

Vettel will surely win again in 2012, but sneaking into the championship final is probably the best he will be able to achieve.

Lewis Hamilton – currently 4th, 47 points off the championship lead

Hamilton has been driving brilliantly in 2012. We have witnessed a Lewis who still possesses incredible natural speed, but is also far more controlled. Less mistakes have been made this year. It’s really thanks to his team that he is 47 points behind Alonso. He really ought to be right up there with him.

McLaren’s speed with their upgrades was hugely impressive in Hungary, particularly their qualifying pace. If the Woking team can carry that form into the second half of the season, then Lewis has the potential to embark on a very strong run in the second half of the year.

If there are more upgrades like the one we saw before the summer break to come, then Hamilton’s chances are very realistic. As we have seen in the past McLaren are notorious for having an impressive development rate.

There is a good chance we could see more races like Hungary where Lewis storms to pole, and then does everything he needs to hang onto to that lead in the race. His qualifying form shows that in terms of out and out raw pace he is probably the quickest guy out there at the moment.

Lewis Hamilton (© McLaren.com)

With so many competitive cars on the grid at the moment there are a number of cars capable of finishing between Lewis and Fernando. Hamilton took 15 points out of Alonso’s lead in Hungary. A few races like that is all it will take to give the 2008 champion a fighting chance.

The main issue is that whilst McLaren are good at winning races, in recent years something has always gone wrong, and prevented them from winning titles.

It’s just hard to see McLaren going through a nine race run and not making a tactical error, not messing up a pit stop or not having a reliability gremlin or not getting into trouble with the stewards. You can’t afford many cock-ups when are trying to close down a championship lead.

Furthermore as Valencia showed with the incident with Pastor Maldonado Lewis’s tendency to get himself in a tangle with someone is never going to completely disappear.

Another key issue is that McLaren have often struggled to turn their tyres on in lower temperatures in 2012. They need to hope that their recent upgrades have sorted out that issue.

Daniel’s championship prediction: 2nd place

Out of the drivers chasing Fernando I think Lewis is the man most likely to put a run together to catch up with him. He is in great form and McLaren are just starting to come good again.

I think Lewis will just end up a few points short in the final standings. Ultimately McLaren's silly error in Spain will come back to haunt them.

Kimi Raikkonen - currently 5th, 48 points off the championship lead

Raikkonen has been a revelation in 2012 so far thriving in his comeback year. He’s got the mojo back that he lost during his last couple of years at Ferrari. Lotus has given him a quick car and there is less of the stuff that he doesn’t enjoy outside of the cockpit. It's a partnership that’s working very well.

His race pace has been strong all year so far and he has really got to grips with the Pirelli tyres. His middle stint on the soft tyre in Hungary was exceptional. He has been able to move forward from his grid position on a regular basis. Preserving the tyres and maintaining good pace has been a major strength of Kimi’s so far.

He has also been able to shake off his rustiness when it comes to wheel to wheel combat. Germany was the proof of that.

Kimi Raikkonen (© Lotus F1, LAT Photographic)

Now that he has fully re-adapted to F1 he should be even stronger in the second half of the season. Lotus are also really pushing for the title by doubling their development on the E20, which is absolutely the right thing to do.

If Raikkonen is to push for the title he needs to qualify further up the grid so that he has less work to do in the races. Lotus’ double DRS system could help Kimi to achieve that. If it can give him that extra half a second over a qualifying lap, that will make a massive difference to his chances.

Romain Grosjean may end up being the most useful team mate in the title battle. He isn’t close enough to Alonso in the table to be realistically involved. However his pace is strong and consistent enough to be a constant nuisance to the iceman's title rivals (as long as he makes it round the first lap without crashing).

Perhaps more important for Kimi’s chances is whether Lotus can widen their tyre operating window. Lotus have been at their best when the track temperature has been roasting hot. In Valencia and Hungary (where Kimi finished second) the track temperature was well into the 40s.

The problem is that in the next nine races, the only place where you can guarantee those sort of temperatures is Abu Dhabi. There are more races coming up where there is a chance of rain than a chance of boiling hot sun. That might just be Lotus’ downfall.

However if Lotus are consistently quick in the second half of the year, there is no doubt that Kimi is now very well placed to deliver.

Daniel’s championship prediction: 3rd place

I think Kimi will be much stronger in the second half of the season than the first. I can see a couple of race wins from him. I can also see him remaining in the title battle right until the very end.

I don’t think Raikkonen and Lotus will have quite enough to win the title, but they are going to be a big factor for the rest of the year for sure.

They will probably end up regretting that they started the season slowly, results wise.

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