2011 – Sebastian Vettel's moment in the spotlight, the Red Bull Racing star's time to defend the title he grabbed so spectacularly in Abu Dhabi last November. Anyone with a smidgen of F1 knowledge could see that this season would be a real tussle for supremacy; a new superstar may have been born, but it would be foolish to discount the likes of Lewis Hamilton, Jenson Button, Fernando Alonso and even Mark Webber. So, now that more than half of the races have gone, let's take a peek at how things are shaping up.
The drama kicked off before a wheel had even turned in anger, when news of Lotus Renault GP ace Robert Kubica's rallying accident filtered through to our screens. A partially-severed hand and fractured limbs put paid to his season, and regular F1 stalwart Nick Heidfeld was drafted in to replace the Pole.
Then, when political unrest in the Middle East spread to Bahrain, the inaugural race of the campaign looked to be in severe jeopardy. Would the grand prix go ahead anyway despite the uproar? No, Bahrain wasn't to be, and proceedings got underway a fortnight later instead, restoring Australia's Albert Park to its former position of season-opener.
Vettel began as he meant to go on with solid victories from pole in the first two events. The RB7 with the young German at the helm was unstoppable, and despite team-mate Webber's solid fifth and fourth-placed finishes in Melbourne and Sepang respectively, the difference between the pair at this early stage was evident. The Australian's spark that had almost propelled him to a first title in 2010 seemed to have evaporated, more the pity for his legions of loyal fans out there.
The order changed slightly in Shanghai, with McLaren-Mercedes' Lewis Hamilton snatching victory in the closing laps of the race. The Briton had gambled on a late tyre change, and it paid off brilliantly. Things weren't so rosy for Jenson Button, however, the other McLaren driver emerging red-faced after parking in the wrong pit box.
Three more Vettel victories followed in Turkey, Spain and Monaco, but whilst he was running away with a second consecutive championship, another former champion was landing himself in some real hot water. Hamilton caused a stir in Monaco with some risqué manoeuvres that put up the backs of Felipe Massa and Williams rookie Pastor Maldonado – and saw him being hauled over the coals by stewards as a result. When quizzed by BBC reporters after the eventful race as to why he was getting into so much trouble, an obviously-irked Hamilton shot back: “Maybe it's because I'm black. That's what Ali G says. I dunno.”
Fortunes swerved again in Canada, in one of the most exciting races of all time. Only 25 laps had been completed before rain stopped play, and the true fans amongst us sat glued to our screens as commentators struggled hopelessly for something to fill the void. Two excruciating hours passed before anything happened, and no-one was prepared for what came next.
Hamilton and Button both gunning for glory on the same piece of track was only ever going to end in tears, and as the former dived between his team-mate and the pit wall, the inevitable collision punctured his tyre and forced him into retirement. Cue safety car, and cue Vettel to dominate the re-start. Ferrari's Fernando Alonso joined the mix, and tangled with the unfortunate Button in Turn Three. The blocking move didn't pay off for the Spaniard, as his scarlet machine foundered on the kerb and faded into retirement. Another safety car, please.
Button had certainly had his Weetabix, as he grittily picked off Webber and then Schumacher to find himself in P2. Could he do it? Shaving seconds off the gap to Vettel with every lap of the dying race, there was nothing to stop him having a good go. Just as the German flag was being unfurled to be raised above the podium, the usually flawless Vettel slipped crucially into a mistake as he ran wide a mere seven corners from the end. That was it – game, set and match to Button as he roared through and tore away over the line to claim only the second non-Red Bull victory of 2011. Heart-stopping stuff.
Since then, fortunes have been well-and-truly mixed. The last four victors have been Vettel, Alonso, Hamilton and Button respectively, and although the defending title-holder is 85 points ahead of nearest rival Webber, he'd be daft to stop looking over his shoulder. With Hamilton boasting 146, and Alonso on 145 points, the battle for the F1 2011 crown is far from over. If anything, it's just beginning.
by Bev Rimmer
Stay-tuned later this week for our Top Ten Drivers of F1 2011 so far!