The 2011 Formula One season is firmly heading into the second half of its season with round 12, of 19, cranking up at Spa-Francorchamps from August 26-28. Two things are strikingly obvious this year. One was the early dominance of defending F1 champion Sebastian Vettel, the other the on-track action that appears to be getting better and better. This year the top three factors making the difference would have to be the Kinetic Energy Recovery System (KERS), the Drag Reduction System (DRS) and some would say the most influential - Pirelli's new tyres.
KERS is a piece of kit that recovers energy from the heat generated during braking and stores it while converting it into power that can be used to give the car a boot in the pants at a push of a button. The driver has access to an extra 60kW per lap for about six seconds. DRS, on the other hand, operates by opening a rectangle-shaped dufor in the car's rear wing, thus reducing drag and allowing the car to pick up speed. To activate the device, the driver must be within a second of the car in front for the green light to come on and can push the button only when he has closed to within 600-800m on the next straight.
These two gizmos add oomph, but the new tyres are an obvious advantage if used strategically. When the compound choices are added to pitstop strategies and age and tyre performance, if the combination is right, a car has a major advantage. As the cars have been developed during the season this has put added pressure on Pirelli to keep up, thus adding another dimension to this season's racing.
The two Red Bull Racing drivers, Vettel and Mark Webber, and their respective crews, appear to have gathered all the bits and pieces that go into F1 racing and got them to work from the opening gambit of the 2011 season. Vettel, especially, came out of the box like a scalded cat with a rocket strapped to its back and scorched to an early championship lead, winning the first two races in Australia and Malaysia.
Just as it was looking as if the season was over championship-wise by about race six, Lewis Hamilton snuck a win in China. Great, a challenger. However, Vettel won the next three races in Turkey, Spain and Monaco before Jenson Button shoved his nose in front in Canada. The season was starting to hot up, and despite Vettel winning at the European Grand Prix, there were three different winners in the next three races; Fernando Alonso in Great Britain, Lewis Hamilton in Germany and Button in Hungary.
Vettel still leads, 85 points in front of Webber, who's been accumulating points but has yet to win a race. Now the table gets interesting - if you think Hamilton is breathing down Webber's neck just three points back, think about the blast furnace the Brit must be feeling with Alonso a single point behind. Button's playing a watching game, still in touch with the battling trio 11 points off the pace.
There's a bit of breathing room, 64 points in fact, for Button as Massa needs to continue to improve if he wants to play with the leading pack.
"The season, like last year, has been fantastic so far with only a couple of what could be called 'boring' races," said Bob McMurray, who spent 33 years with the McLaren Formula One team. "We've had some real on-track battles with the true colours of Red Bull coming through denying their two drivers the real opportunity to race against each other and those of McLaren coming through by very definitely allowing their drivers to race. Witness the Hungarian Grand Prix."
One thing that is becoming apparent is the possible lack of mettle in Vettel when it comes to the hard yards. When he's on pole and gets a good start there's no holding him back. But when he's pushed he's prone to making mistakes, unlike Hamilton, Button, Alonso and even his teammate, Webber, who like a good old-fashioned street fight on track.
Ferrari's car is now a rocket ship, and in the hands of a former champion will continue to put the cat among the Red Bull pigeons. McLaren, unfortunately, shot themselves in the foot with bad strategy decisions early in the piece but seem to have sorted the problem out and are now providing their drivers with the right weapons to take the fight to Red Bull.
Let's hope Lotus can stop their slide back into the mediocre pack and give Vitaly Petrov a decent toy as he's proved he can mix it with the best.
The only other team that may surprise are Force India, who have, in Paul di Resta, a driver who's shown the more fancied Adrian Sutil up on occasion. Williams will have to do something to stop their slide into obscurity, and fast.
Mercedes appear to be just going through the motions in an effort to have a decent car for 2012. Let's hope it is really a development year for the team and they get it sorted.
Don't dare think Vettel has this year's title in his backpack. There's a long way to go yet and the chasing back are starting to get on their respective games.
The season may be half over but the race for the crown is just starting.
1 Sebastian Vettel 234
2 Mark Webber 149
3 Lewis Hamilton 146
4 Fernando Alonso 145
5 Jenson Button 134
6 Felipe Massa 70
7 Nico Rosberg 48
8 Nick Heidfeld 34
9 Vitaly Petrov 32
10 Michael Schumacher 32