Will Gray

Season review: The front-runners, part 1

Will Gray

As Ferrari faced up to another year just off the pace, Mercedes fought back from a similarly tough start to keep in touch at the tail of the front pack.

FERRARI

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Ferrari

Ferrari wind up season in Brazil

If Ferrari thought they might be a contender at the start of 2011, a deficit of 1.5s to Red Bull in the opening qualifying session put them in their place. There were glimmers of hope, but after a frustrating season Alonso's 'I give up' comment late in the year said it all.

It was soon clear that, despite the best intentions of Felipe Massa, Ferrari's campaign would be a one-horse show as the Brazilian suffered tyre issues and scored just 24 points in the first six races, compared to Alonso's 69.

Alonso's grid positions clearly demonstrated Ferrari's position in the running order, with four fifths and two fourths. But poor early race pace, and some reliability issues, saw Alonso claim just 4,6,7 from the first three races and although an upgrade showed promise — and a podium - in Turkey, it was not until Monaco that things began to pick up.

Ferrari started to look like they might overhaul McLaren as Red Bull's main contender, with improved race pace allowing Alonso taking a run of five podiums from six, including three second-place finishes and a dominant victory at Silverstone. His only glitch came in Canada, when having showed good pace he crashed out in the wet.

That mid-season inspiration failed to continue its momentum as the year went on, however, and while Alonso continued to pick up podiums and Massa started to show a little more form after getting to grips with the tyres, the race pace was not as strong as it had been.

Alonso took 100 points from the last seven races, while Massa took just 44 as he suffered regular spats with Hamilton. Another tough year for the Brazilian saw him manage no higher than a fifth-place finish as he ended up last of the lead six drivers on a little more than half the points of fifth-placed Hamilton.

In the latter part of the year, Ferrari took the approach of turning races into a testing period, introducing some radical bending wings (which vibrated horrendously on Massa's car) and working on all areas in a bid to find that extra little bit required to get back on form in 2012.

Whether that happens remains to be seen, but this year at least, Alonso, well settled in Ferrari red, proved once again that he can get the best out of a car, even if it is not the best on the grid.

MERCEDES

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Mercedes have hung on to frontrunners' coattails

High hopes of a surge to the front in the second year of the Silver Arrows were soon dashed when a pre-season upgrade failed to improve on initial testing form and despite pushing hard through the season they could not break into the big three.

Schumacher had hoped his second comeback year would at least see him match his team-mate Nico Rosberg this time around, but once again the younger German led the team and put the seven-times champion in his place, at least on a single lap, out-qualifying him by 16-3. The F1 legend did show moments of sparkle, but astonishingly he is still waiting for his first comeback podium.

Two points from the first two races was not what Mercedes had been expecting, with both cars taken out in incidents in Australia and, more worryingly, an utter lack of pace in Malaysia seeing them racing mostly outside the top 10.

Things switched dramatically in the next two grands prix as Rosberg led, albeit briefly, in China and both drivers had great qualifying pace in Turkey, with Rosberg taking third on the grid, although the race performance was not so good.

Troubles with both DRS and KERS didn't help in the early races but after a disastrous Monaco, in which both failed to score once again, Schumacher shone in the rain in Canada, racing in second until agonisingly dropping off the podium in the latter stages.

It was typical of their season, regularly threatening to break into the lead group but ultimately not getting everything together at the same time to do so.

Mercedes simply could not keep pace with their rivals' development and although the middle of the season saw more points come their way, they were mostly in the form of single figure scores that were never going to delight the big bosses.

Belgium saw another highlight for Schumacher as, after qualifying 24th, he charged through the field on the 20th anniversary of his F1 debut and passed Rosberg for fifth before the end. He took fifth again on a strong drive in Italy, and out-raced Rosberg to fifth in India too. These were the performances that confirmed just why he had wanted to come back.

Schumacher's season was, however, peppered with surprising mistakes as it appeared the pressure to match Rosberg led to some over-driving on occasion.

In the end, it was fortunate that Renault took such a tumble down the order, as once that happened Mercedes had little threat to their fourth position — yet they also never looked like regularly threatening third-placed Ferrari.

This season was supposed to be the big one for Mercedes, having written off much of 2010 to focus on 2011. Instead, their less than front-running performance led to late-season rumours that Rosberg could be off to Ferrari, but the German committed to the team for 2012. Next season, though, they will have to deliver.

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