The Year of the Driver

To my mind, as I reflect back over the past 11 races, 2012 has very much been a driver’s year.  I look at the standings, and this is what I see:

  1. Fernando Alonso – Ferrari – 164
  2. Mark Webber – Red Bull – 124
  3. Sebastian Vettel – Red Bull – 122
  4. Lewis Hamilton – McLaren – 117
  5. Kimi Raikkonen – Lotus – 116

I see three teams and only one repeat.  Lets take a moment and marvel at this accomplishment.  At about this time, one year ago, each of these teams started to think about the 2012 car and how it would take shape.  Then we got to winter testing, and learned about as much as we always learn (not much).  But this we knew for certain.  McLaren and Red Bull had quick cars.  Lotus was very quietly confident.  Ferrari was in panic mode.

Despite Ferrari’s struggles, no team was scary fast.  It was very clear that Red Bull would not romp to victory again, as they had in 2011.

When we got to Australia, the true pace was revealed.  McLaren clearly had the fastest car.  Lotus was there or there abouts, Red Bull had some work to do and Ferrari was no where.  There were some midfield surprises.  Sauber and Williams were especially potent packages.  No one, though, expected them to hang around come the mid-season.  They were not that far ahead (like Brawn) and they do not have the money to keep up.  And so, as expected, Sauber and Williams have dropped off.

By the time the first seven races were done (and a crazy seven races they were), the top teams had separated from the midfield.  But interestingly, none of the top four teams managed to separate from each other.  Instead, we have a series of impressive drives from Alonso that keep Ferrari in the points hunt until they close the 1.5 second gap and McLaren have come down to meet Red Bull and Lotus.  Even more curiously, Red Bull and Lotus have taken very different approaches to their speed.  Where Red Bull gains their advantage through sheer downforce, Lotus makes use of a gentle tire set up and a much higher top speed.

So, 12 months after laying the first groundwork, multiple upgrade packages, and millions of dollars spent, we have four teams taking the top five places in the driver’s championship.  Any of these drivers has a fair shot at the championship.

Remarkable as it is, with the cars so consistently even in performance, the differentiator can only be found in the cockpit.  And when we look at who is in the top five drivers, it is clear that the cream has come to the fore.

Four of the five drivers are world champions.

Three of five are universally considered the best drivers on the grid at the moment (Vettel, Hamilton, Alonso).

Excepting Alonso’s 40 point advantage over Webber, positions 2 – 5 are separated by eight points.

Alonso, however, is the only driver to have won three races this year.  Alonso is the only driver to have scored points in every race this year.  He has taken a car that had no right to be called a Ferrari and, though three really great drives (including the stunner at Valencia), given the team time to catch up.

Can anyone doubt that the best driver of the year is leading the championship?  What seemed like a lottery has distilled into a season where the driver is the most important differentiator between cars.  Isn’t that exactly what we, as fans, want?

We have 9 races to go.  Game on.

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