The 2008 season has been fairly dramatic so far, and we’ve seen some superb races and will undoubtedly see some more before the year is out. There is also little surprise that Ferrari and McLaren are heading the constructor’s tables with BMW close behind in third. However, some teams have made leaps and bounds over their previous form and competitors, while others appear to have stood still or even moved backwards.
Ferrari, while having a championship-winning car underneath them, have moved back a little. The slight downturn in overall performance isn’t too damaging; the Scuderia are still leading the campaign and are eleven points clear of McLaren. But for Ferrari, they certainly don’t look as dominant as they have grown accustomed to. The drivers have been making silly mistakes and this has cost the team a few valuable points, and likewise, the team have also made some questionable decisions on the pitwall.
Ferrari’s 2007 performance was interesting to follow as it was the first with the restructured team, and although they had little competition after McLaren were excluded, opinion is divided as to whther they would have taken the constructor’s title had the Woking team remained in the hunt. Comparing ’07 to ’08 though, I would have to say that Ferrari don’t look as awesome. They aren’t capitalising on the opportunities given to them when McLaren and BMW faulter; something they always used to maximise in the past.
The same could be said for McLaren; a little up, a little down. Again, decisions made on the pitwall have hurt the drivers, and decisions made in the cockpit have hurt the team. The only grace worth giving McLaren is that they have a new driver for 2008, whereas Ferrari maintained their pairing from 2007. However, at the sharp-end of the grid, this isn’t really a worthy excuse.
In recent races McLaren have comeback strong, winning the last three events while all Ferrari could do was take two podiums. This suggests they have improved, but as we all saw, the most recent victory in Hungary came at Massa’s expense. An expense though is just that, and while the title will be closely fought between these two teams, I don’t think either are candidate for most improved.
BMW have been a staple choice in the past two years for this award and the Swiss-German squad have steadily followed their plan which saw a win for them in Canada. However, while the German marque have definitely improved and closed the gap to their immediate rivals ahead, the overall balance in team looks to be a little shakey. Nick Heidfeld has suffered some qualifying issues, and Robert Kubica hasn’t looked entirely happy with the car recently. However, last season the squad finished with a fine tally of 101 points; currently they rest on 90, just ten behind McLaren. Therefore it is certain BMW will accrue more points this year than last, but I’m not sure this alone means they can take the coveted title of most improved team.
Renault have improved, but only after standing still during the winter break. They were rewarded in late 2007 with the return of Fernando Alonso to Enstone, but the first half of the season was difficult. Rookie team mate Nelson Piquet Jr has only just got into his groove, but this appears to be at the slight expense of the former-world champion. In 2007, the Anglo-French squad racked up 18 points finishes, which tallied up to 51 by the last race. So far in 2008, the manufacturer has only managed 9 top-eight finishes and 31 points.
Red Bull Racing
Red Bull Racing are a little tricky to judge. If we look at points alone, they’ve improved a little. 2007 saw the team take 24, and currently they stand on the same amount for 2008 with seven races still to run. However, the ’07 campaign was a bit of a disaster, especially in terms of reliability. 2008 has seen a better car (after it stopped falling apart), but the performances have been very much one-sided. David Coulthard hasn’t had the greatest of swan-song seasons, but Mark Webber has looked sharp and focused and when everything falls into place, the team don’t look too bad either.
Williams had a fantastic start to 2008, the kind of start that made us think that maybe, just maybe, they’re on the up again. A podium for Nico Rosberg and a sixth for Kazuki Nakajima in Australia was a joy to watch, but little did we know at the time that it was a flash in the pan. Both drivers are sitting on equal points at the moment, but the number in question is only eight. By the end of the 2007 campaign, the team had accrued 33 with Rosberg taking 20 of them and Alex Wurz taking a podium in Canada. Qualifying issues seem to be the crux of the squad’s problem at the moment, and I think it’s fair to say that Team Willy are not in contention for the most improved award.
Scuderia Toro Rosso
With the two Sebastiæn’s onboard – one a young talent, the other a multiple Champ Car champion – 2008 looked to be an interesting year for Scuderia Toro Rosso. They finished 2007 on a high with points finishes and strong runs. A seventh place finish in Australia this year looked good, especially as it came on Sebastien Bourdais’s debut. But since then the team have struggled at times and the drivers have been involved in a few first-corner mishaps. Between them though, Bourdais and Vettel have claimed four points-finishes, double that of their 2007 campaign, and the team are already equal to their ’07 tally in the constructor’s table. Qualifying appears to be their forte at the moment, but race performace is lacking at times. STR have improved, but having two ‘newbies’ in the car has hurt them.
Force India will likely finish the 2008 season where they started – at the back of the grid. This is also where they finished in 2007 under the name of Spyker. However, with a new owner, a cash injection and a new driver, I believe the Silverstone-based team have made some headway into the competition ahead of them. Although the Indias rest on zero points, one less than their ’07 performance, Sutil’s eighth place in Japan was a bit of a fluke.
However, while I believe Force India are improving, the results aren’t really showing it. Comparing the Q1 times at the start of the year with their recent performances, the drivers have slipped back a little. The difference between the the Q1 leader and the fastest Force India in Australia was 0.7s. In Hungary, this gap had grown to 2.3s. In Germany, the difference was 1.4s and in Britain it was 1.8s. In 2007, the opening race saw then-Spyker 2.7s off the pace and by Brazil, they were 2.9s down. The team have shown an improvement over their previous form, but the differences made to the team are yet to be felt on the track.
So where does that leave us? Well, we still have seven races to go before the overall performance of each team can be judged properly, but thus far, the award is looking likely to go to Toyota. At the end of 2007, the Cologne-based team had amassed 13 points and finished no higher than sixth. The management issued experienced driver Ralf Schumacher his P45 and brought in (half-rookie) Timo Glock as a replacement. They did their usual hyping at their launch and predictably, few people listened.
But already the Japanese-backed outfit have accrued 35 points and are in fourth place, four points ahead of Renault. Each driver has stood on the podium, their highest-placed finish remarkably going to Glock with second in Hungary, and Jarno Trulli captured third in France. In Hungary 2007, Ralf Schumacher was 1.1s off pole in Q3, while twelve months later, Glock was a mere 0.4s shy.
When I started this post, I believed I would be talking about either Red Bull Racing or Force India the most, but as it turns out, the team I used to berate with some regularity has shown real signs of getting it together again. Toyota’s last great campaign was back in 2005 when they claimed 88 points, but this was followed with a comparatively poor showing in 2006 with just 35 points to their name. 2007 was a disaster but this year, they look to be making some of the time back. The season is far from over, but if Toyota can maintain their development, the manufacturer’s investment could start to pay off. Maybe…