x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 22 July 2017

Formula One: Getting up to speed before all the action

With the second half of the season resuming in Belgium on Sunday, Gary Meenaghan assesses each team's performance so far and analyses what must be done to improve.

Lewis Hamilton, who races towards victory at the Hungarian Grand Prix in July, has had trouble converting his pace to more race wins so far this season. Mark Thompson / Getty Images
Lewis Hamilton, who races towards victory at the Hungarian Grand Prix in July, has had trouble converting his pace to more race wins so far this season. Mark Thompson / Getty Images

Ferrari

Fernando Alonso has proved himself as the best driver in the sport this season with a series of consistent performances that have seen him surge to the top of the championship standings, where he now holds a 40-point lead.

The Spaniard has been exceptional at times extracting the maximum out of a difficult car to finish within the points every weekend and triumph three times. Alonso's fine showing however is in direct contrast to troubled teammate Felipe Massa, who has failed to finish on the podium for 32 consecutive races. The Brazilian's struggles mean Ferrari sit only fourth in the constructors' championship.

For the Italian manufacturers to seriously fight for the constructors' crown they need two drivers hauling in points and that requires substantial improvement by Massa. If he does not provide the results before his season-closing home race in late November, he will lose his race seat. Alonso, meanwhile, must maintain his same level of excellence while urging his team to keep apace with their rivals. Only Ferrari themselves stand in the way of Alonso and a third drivers' title and all involved are all too aware.

McLaren-Mercedes

The English racing marque have developed a habit of shooting themselves in the foot this season. They had the fastest car at the start of the year as Jenson Button won in Australia and Lewis Hamilton qualified on the front row at the first five races. Yet a series of error-laden pit-stops and botched set-up decisions have seen the two Englishmen's title bids suffer.

Hamilton proved unable to convert his pace into race wins – he had to wait until race seven in Canada before finally triumphing – while Button's form fell off a cliff after his joy in Melbourne. The former won the last race in Hungary, where he proved dominant throughout the weekend, and confidence has returned going into the second half of the season. The latter too has improved and was rightly irritated by suggestions he will accede to the idea of letting his teammate pass to help Hamilton gain more points in the title race.

The next nine races could be very successful indeed for McLaren, but the Woking-based team must rid themselves of personal errors – a task proving harder than they would have hoped.

Red Bull Racing

It is testament to the recent success of Christian Horner's team that things do not seem to have quite gone to plan for them so far this season. The Milton Keynes-based marque lead the constructors championship, have claimed four pole positions and both Sebastian Vettel and Mark Webber have won races – Webber has won twice – yet nobody at Red Bull is content. In recent weeks, Horner has suggested other teams are deliberately sabotaging Red Bull's competitiveness by accusing them of breaking the rules. In Monaco and Germany the legality of the RB8 was brought into question, and each time it was found to be merely exploiting loopholes, which were quickly closed.

While Webber, who signed a new contract in July, sits second in the drivers' championship, Vettel, after being so dominant last season, has found the field more competitive this year. Adrian Newey, the team's chief aerodynamicist, continues to find ways of improving an already impressive car and if both drivers can improve their consistency, then like 2010, both can be in the title race come Abu Dhabi and beyond.

Mercedes

Following Nico Rosberg's maiden grand prix win at the third race of the year in China, expectations heightened of Ross Brawn's outfit, which has made the rest of their season seem largely disappointing. Michael Schumacher secured his first podium since 2006, but has also retired from six of the first 11 races.

Mercedes have real straight-line speed courtesy of their innovative "double drag reduction system" and have made the most of it during qualifying. Yet Sundays bring problems and they have so far failed to make the most of their starting positions. Rosberg more often than not slides backwards as the Mercedes suffers with high degradation on their rear tyres.

If they can improve their understanding of the Pirelli tyres and rid themselves of their reliability problems, their race-day performances will improve. A first win in six years for Schumacher is not unrealistic.

Lotus

Lotus have arguably been the most consistently competitive team on a Sunday this season and yet remain without a win. In direct contrast to Mercedes, qualifying has been the main issue for Eric Boullier's marque. Starting far back on the grid inevitably makes race-day more problematic and yet Kimi Raikkonen and Romain Grosjean have finished on the podium eight times between them.

Again unlike Mercedes, the Lotus is designed to better handle the tyres, allowing both drivers longer stints on softer compounds. Raikkonen and Grosjean both know that while they have exceeded expectations this year, they should have won at least one race so far.

Running the same double DRS that Mercedes utilise, Lotus are undoubtedly quick and Raikkonen has the potential to take the fight to Alonso.

Even though he has often started behind his teammate, he has looked much like he has never been away despite a two-year hiatus. Grosjean, meanwhile, just needs a little more composure and a maiden win can come his way.

Williams

Pastor Maldonado is proving the epitome of enigma. The Venezuelan has qualified in the top 10 in more than half of the race weekends so far, but aside from his first grand prix win in Spain and an eighth place finish in China, he has failed to score. His aggressiveness has at times got the better of him and instead of banking solid points he has pushed too hard and lost them all. The second half of the season should see him improve composure.

Bruno Senna, Maldonado's teammate, is under pressure to impress. Valtteri Bottas, the Finnish reserve driver, is waiting in the wings and while Senna has scored points six times so far this year, he has also endured some poor performances, finishing 17th in both Canada and Germany. The Brazilian must build on his seventh-place finish in Hungary.

Sauber

Much like Lotus, Sauber have achieved more than was expected in the first half of the season and yet will feel disappointed they have not taken more from races in which they proved particularly fast. Sergio Perez finished second in Malaysia, but could so easily have claimed his first win had he not slid off track in the closing stages. Kamui Kobayashi, likewise, has shown glimpses of his potential but not consistently enough. Sauber should have many more points than the 80 they boast in the constructors' championship. If they can improve their performance in qualifying, they may yet experience more afternoons of joy in the final nine races.

Force India

Vijay Mallya's marque has slipped down the pecking order this season. They seem to have stagnated while rivals have markedly improved and their ambition of finishing fifth in the constructors championship appears but a distant dream.

Paul di Resta, often regarded as the most impressive of last year's rookies, has failed to finish on the podium while Perez and Maldonado have both enjoyed the spotlight. The Scot knows he must impress if he wants to move to a more competitive team, but he is hampered by his team's lack of pace compared to the front-runners.

Nico Hulkenberg meanwhile is fighting for his career knowing that Jules Bianchi is being primed for a seat next season.

Improvement in qualifying is essential.

Toro Rosso

When Red Bull's sister marque ditched both their drivers at the start of the season and recruited two rookies, it was seen as a bold but risky move. While it initially looked like a masterstroke – both Jean Eric Vergne and Daniel Ricciardo qualified or finished in the top 10 at the opening four races – unfortunately for the Italian team the move has not paid off.

Performance of the car has gradually got worse with Vergne struggling in qualifying – he has failed to negotiate Q1 in five of the 11 races so far – and Ricciardo having little chance to impress in a car that is simply not competitive enough.

Caterham

Heikki Kovalainen has been consistently impressive this season and will surely have offers from more competitive teams come the year's end. The Finn maintains he feels at home at Caterham and wants to help the team improve, but the speed of development will not match his ambitions. Tony Fernandes's team should be fighting the midfield by now, yet remain more than a second behind. Vitaly Petrov has been unimpressive and with some of his high-profile sponsors pulling out this week, the Russian's position for next season is in danger. Imminent upgrades must lead Caterham into the middle order or their jewel – Kovalainen – would be quite right to walk away.

Marussia

Charles Pic, the team's rookie driver, has quietly gone about his business and has outqualified his more experienced teammate Timo Glock four times already, but that is about the only positive to come out of another trying season for the embryonic marque. Progress has been slow and, compared to the other two new teams Caterham and HRT, they remain an afterthought in much of the weekend's action.

HRT

Having relocated to Madrid and recruited a native driver for this season in Pedro de la Rosa, the Spanish team are growing into loveable underdogs in all the right ways. HRT have had a tough start after undergoing no testing at all during pre-season and not being allowed to race in Melbourne after failing to qualify within 107 per cent of the fastest time. Team principal Luis Perez-Sala will be content to continue developing at their own pace.

gmeenaghan@thenational.ae

twitter Follow us @SprtNationalUAE