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Catch Me If You Can



31 MAR - 03 APR 2016

We’ve seen it twice before in Formula 1. One driver winning four world titles in a row, that is: Juan Manuel Fangio did it between 1954 and 1957, then a bloke called Schumacher did it between 2000 and 2003. Michael then went and did it for a fifth successive time in 2004. Can his compatriot and successor Sebastian Vettel do it this year?

Q: Unlike Schumacher and Vettel, Fangio did not take those consecutive titles in one make of car. Can you name the marques in which the great Argentine won the title from 1954-57?

At halfway in the 2013 World Championship campaign Red Bull’s Vettel enjoys a 38-point lead over Lotus ace Kimi Raïkkönen. Simple arithmetic tells us that with nine races remaining the Kimster needs to outscore Seb by 4.2 points per round if he is to add a second title to the one he picked up with Ferrari back in 2007. Simple common sense tells us that’s unlikely…

Vettel has won 40% of the races so far this year, taking his career tally to 30 in the process. Only five men now stand ahead of him in the all-time winners’ list, and of those only one is racing today. That’s Fernando Alonso, whose two wins for Ferrari in 2013 have taken the Spaniard to a career total of 32. Ahead lie only Schumacher, Prost, Senna and Mansell.

While Raïkkönen is second overall, the Finn has won just once – right here in Melbourne in March. But a total of six podiums underlines his consistency as well as his speed, and that’s a quality that has his Lotus bosses purring.

“I would have to give Kimi 10 out of 10," says Eric Boullier in his own mid-year appraisal. "He's done a terrific job right from the beginning of the season and his remarkable run of 27 consecutive points finishes speaks for itself.

"No matter what happens he's always there, as we saw in the final few laps at Monaco. He is playing a big part in pushing the team forward, and of course having such a popular character in the seat has its advantages too."

It also has its disadvantages: the Finn is now, according to most paddock pundits, vying with our own Daniel Ricciardo to replace the departing Mark Webber at World Champion team Red Bull for next year. But then, the same pundits are saying Fernando Alonso is a candidate for the most prized seat in F1 right now as well…

Fernando will have been happy to hide away for the summer break after a torrid fortnight that saw Ferrari slide backwards – he is third behind Raïkkönen, they are third behind Mercedes – and president Luca di Montezemolo issued a fairly public reprimand to his star driver for saying, when asked what he would like for his 32nd birthday on July 29, “Someone else’s car...”

All in all, 2013 has been about the usual suspects. The 30 podium places so far have been shared among four teams: Red Bull, Lotus, Mercedes and Ferrari. Hold on, we hear you say: ‘Usual suspects’? What about McLaren?’

Yes indeed, what about McLaren: no podiums, 57 points (that’s a mere 220 fewer than Red Bull), a best finish of fifth for Jenson Button back in April in Shanghai – and meanwhile Lewis Hamilton has been proven right in his headline-hitting switch to Mercedes.

The 2008 World Champion had to wait until round 10 in Hungary for his first victory at the wheel of a Silver Arrow, but when it came it was classic Hamilton: a surprising but commanding pole, an authoritative display in the race, an imperious approach to passing contenders like Raïkkönen and Webber: this was a man in total control.

Some are now saying Hamilton’s not out of the 2013 title chase, although at 124 points he has 48 to make up on Vettel and that really does seem like a bridge too far.

Still, Mercedes seem to have taken more advantage than most of the mid-year switch by Pirelli to its 2012 tyre construction after all the hoo-hah we have seen in the first half of the year. Now the Italian firm is even saying it wants wider tyres for 2014 as we switch from the last throes of the normally aspirated 2.4-litre era to the brave new world of 1.6-litre turbo-charged engines. (By the way, just Google ‘Mercedes V6 engine’ to hear the first few bars of what the German firm calls ‘A new music’ for 2014...)

If we abstract Button and substitute Raïkkönen, then it’s the ‘Big 5’ of recent years all over again: Vettel- Raïkkönen-Alonso-Hamilton-Webber. Mark, of course, has announced his withdrawal from the F1 lists, choosing to do it his own way by flying to Austria to tell Red Bull chief Dietrich Mateschitz face-to-face and next morning lobbing a hand grenade into the build-up for the British Grand Prix.

He’s off to endurance racing with the renascent Porsche team, and this time when we read ‘Webber flies at Le Mans’ it should be on the track, not through the air as it was with Mercedes-Benz last time out at the famous French circuit. Let’s hope Mark can take his race wins into double figures before he pulls down the garage doors on a superb F1 career. As we wait for the return to most people’s favourite circuit, Spa-Francorchamps, at the end of the month, we also await news of Dan Ricciardo’s future. The popular West Australian’s position right now is something of a paradox: having promised to ‘blow it apart’ between himself and Toro Rosso partner Jean-Eric Vergne this year, he finds himself two points behind the Frenchman at the midway stage.

Yet it’s only Ricciardo who is being touted as the possible Webber replacement at Red Bull. “It’s about pushing yourself when everyone is watching,” he insists, but while his qualifying performances have been outstanding the cold hard points on the table from his races don’t yet add up to a convincing case.

Still, at least Dan has 11 of those points to his name this season so far. That’s 11 more than any of the new kids on the block, among whom Valtteri Bottas has caught the eye while quietly getting on with the learning process at Williams. And so far neither Caterham nor Marussia has scored a single point – not just this year, but since they came into the sport. That’s 68 races so far with no tangible reward: for some F1 folks it’s not all about winning four titles on the trot...

A: it was a tricky question, in a way: Juan Manuel took the title in 1954 by driving both Mercedes and Maserati machinery, he was in a Mercedes in 1955, in both Lancia and Ferrari cars in 1956, and in a Maserati in 1957.

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