This weekend’s Belgian Grand Prix is the start of a relentless second half of the season. Nine races in just 14 weekends sees Sunday’s race at Spa followed in quick succession by Italy, Singapore, Korea, Japan, India, Abu Dhabi and USA before it all comes to a close in Brazil.
And with 225 points still on the table there’s all to play for.
Vettel currently leads second-placed Kimi Raikkonen by 38 points with Fernando Alonso one point further back and Lewis Hamilton trailing by 48 points.
But it is Hamilton, now well ensconced at Mercedes after his initial struggles with braking troubles and general bedding-in issues, who is on a roll and tipped to be Vettel’s biggest challenger.
The most improved driver of the frontrunners in the first 10 races, Hamilton has scored 74 points in the most recent five compared to just 50 in the first five.
In contrast, Raikkonen netted almost twice as many points in his first five races as he did in his second five and Alonso’s score rate has also dropped off.
The problem for Hamilton and his bid to catch and pass Vettel for the title is that his Red Bull rival has been consistently scoring all year, his first five races netting 89 points, his second 83.
Mercedes now has, without question, the fastest car on a single lap having taken seven of the last eight pole positions – four going to Hamilton and three to Rosberg.
Their big problem this year has been tyre degradation in races, with the car generating such high temperatures on the rears that they quickly lose grip. That has not only slowed them down but it has also put huge constraints on the team’s strategy options and often forced them to take a less effective race plan than their rivals.
Crucially, the last five races have seen them convert three of those poles into victories – but that still does not mean they have all their problems solved for this second half of the year.
Two of those wins came at Monaco and Hungary, both low-speed circuits where pole position counts for much more than normal and where slow corners do not deliver high demands on the tyres. Aside from Singapore, which has some similarities, this kind of track will not be seen again this season.
The other win came at high-speed Silverstone but was due in significant part to the fact that Rosberg come through unscathed after many the front runners, including Hamilton, suffered race-ruining blow-outs.
Hungary has been singled out as a sign of things to come, because it was run in very hot conditions, but in truth it lacked the kind of high-loading corners and high lateral forces that really caused Mercedes their biggest problems.
Spa is different, with some long straights that will benefit Mercedes in terms of straight-line speed but some fast corners that could load up the rear tyres and, if the temperatures get up high enough, could really test Mercedes again.
If this weekend proves they have found the solution, though, then it really is game on.
Mercedes are now odds-on every time for pole, and with a car that works over longer distances they will be able to control the pace from the front and manage the race, exactly as reigning champion Vettel has done time and again on his way to his three consecutive world titles.
But to close the gap, Hamilton needs more than that.
He needs his rivals – and most importantly his team-mate - to take points off Vettel if he is to have any chance of stealing the crown.
So far, Mercedes have only managed success with one car – on average, when both cars finish they are at least three places apart and when they won, the second car managed only 4th, 4th and 19th.
So if Mercedes can start making it one-twos and, with Rosberg now out the championship picture, invoke team orders to ensure Hamilton leads each time, then things could change quickly...and it could be a very different second half.
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