THE formula 1 (F1) season has so far been a perfect storm of unpredictable results, thrilling races and a closely fought title battle.
Who would have predicted that a man who has not once had the fastest car would be leading the world championship as it neared its halfway stage?
Yet Fernando Alonso, whose Ferrari started the campaign more than a second off the pace, goes into this weekend’s British Grand Prix with a 20-point lead.
Who would have predicted that the defending world champion, who took 15 pole positions in 19 races last year, would fail to get into the top 10 qualifying shoot-out?
Yet that is exactly what happened to Red Bull’s Sebastian Vettel in China — and very nearly again in Monaco.
Who would have predicted that last year’s runner-up, a man who is renowned for his delicacy with tyres, would struggle for pace in a season in which the fragile Pirellis are the defining characteristic? Yet there is Jenson Button having a terrible time in the McLaren.
Who would have predicted that a driver who owes his place to sponsorship money and who was previously known for inconsistency and mistakes would win a race? Williams’s Pastor Maldonado did exactly that in Spain.
Or that it would take until the eighth Grand Prix for the season to have its first repeat winner? Step forward Alonso, again.
F1 has been maligned for years as being boring and predictable — overtaking, people said, was too hard and working out who was going to win too easy.
No longer! There has been so much action in the eight races so far that you almost won’t know where to look.
There are concerns that F1 has now gone too far the other way, that it is too unpredictable, that too much of a random element has been introduced by the fast-wearing, hard-to-operate Pirelli tyres that are at the root of this new direction.
In essence, the fear is that F1 has been turned from an exercise in precision engineering into a lottery. And there is unease in certain quarters that the drivers are always having to race “within themselves”, with tyre life their biggest concern.
Yet through the fog of uncertainty and apparent haphazardness, a pattern has emerged.
As the competitive edge swung wildly from one team to another in the opening races, it was revealing that the positions at the top of the championship were very quickly occupied by the best drivers – Alonso, Vettel, his Red Bull team-mate Mark Webber and McLaren drivers Lewis Hamilton and Button.
The list of different winners continued, until Alonso’s spectacular win in Valencia last time, but through it all, the big hitters continued to score consistently.
Despite that, there has undoubtedly been a welcome element of unpredictability, and the top teams have not had it their way.
So while Red Bull, McLaren, Ferrari, Mercedes and Lotus — the teams who have won every world title for the last 15 years — have all figured at the front, Williams and Sauber have also been up there with them. As, on occasion, have Force India.
This is partly to do with the tyres. This year’s Pirellis have been deliberately designed with an unusually narrow operating-temperature window. Getting — and keeping — them there is far from easy, and the big teams do not have exclusivity on clever engineering.
The unusually great importance of the tyres has so far lessened the effect of aerodynamics – for so long the determining factor in F1.
Just as importantly, the regulations have now been pretty stable for the last four years. When that happens the field always tends to close up. Both Sauber and Williams have serious engineering resources of their own, and have clearly built very good cars.
Through all of this, one man has stood out above the rest. Alonso has long been considered within F1 as the greatest all-round talent, and this year the Spaniard has driven with a blend of precision, aggression, opportunism, consistency and pace that is close to perfection.
He has taken two stunning wins and scored consistently elsewhere. In fact, had Ferrari’s strategy brains been a little sharper, he may have had four victories by now — that’s half the races. And all without anything close to the best car.
Of the two wins he has taken, Alonso himself rates the wet race in Malaysia as the better.
The race in Valencia shades it, for the skill and determination he showed in battling up to second place from 11th on the grid before Vettel’s retirement from the lead handed him the win.
Some of the overtaking moves Alonso pulled on the way to that win were utterly breathtaking in their audacity, the way he balanced risk and reward and made it pay off.
Hamilton’s season has been almost as good, but he has been let down by a number of operational errors from McLaren, ranging from bungled pit stops to refuelling errors in qualifying. He now faces an uphill battle to get back on terms with his old rival.
Alonso has long regarded Hamilton as the man he fears most in this title battle, but might he change his mind following Valencia?
After two years of domination, Red Bull have stumbled a little this year. Yet operationally they have still been the best team and their car has always been among the strongest on race day.
After a difficult first three races, either Vettel or Webber have now been on pole for four of the last five. Before retiring with alternator failure in Valencia the German put in a performance as crushing as any in his title-winning years (2010 and 2011), thanks to a major aerodynamic upgrade at the rear of his car.
Up and down the pit lane, rivals fear Red Bull have moved their car up to another level.
The confirmation — or otherwise — of that will come at Silverstone this weekend. Its blend of high-speed corners provide one of the most stringent tests of a car’s quality on the calendar.
Last year, following a one-off rule change that hampered Red Bull more than anyone else, the British Grand Prix was won by Alonso.