Vettel's rivals fight for second-best

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 08 September, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 08 September, 2011, 12:00am


This weekend should be a time for Ferrari fans to revel in. The Formula One fraternity are in Monza for the Italian leg of the 2011 championship. In the good old days of Michael Schumacher in the prancing horse, a victory would be expected as standard. Nowadays there are no such guarantees.

Ferrari have shown flashes of brilliance this season, and at times Fernando Alonso has seemed as fast as any on the track. But there is still work to do because, tantalisingly close as they may be, it's not enough to sustain a challenge for the top spot. There may have been six podium finishes for the Spaniard, but only one win. Alonso may be the first of the rest after the Red Bull duo in the championship standings, but he's still more than 100 points behind Sebastian Vettel.

The team say their priority is to sort out better use of tyres. Last time out at Spa, Alonso was wheel-to-wheel with the Red Bulls on soft tyres. Once he had switched to the medium compound tyre - which he has to do at some stage in the race - he started to go backwards. It's not a new problem. The team struggled with it earlier in the season, but they thought they'd sorted it.

It's never a good sign when management don't seem to know how to fix a problem and that's why, even with an avalanche of red 'Tifosi' flags around Monza, Ferrari won't be confident of sending their fans into seventh heaven this weekend.

What is more likely is the relentless march of Red Bull, and Vettel in particular. Before the season got underway again in Belgium, there were optimistic noises from McLaren. They said the race to be crowned world champion wasn't the forgone conclusion that it seemed. After all, the German hadn't actually won the previous three races and had been off the podium once.

The British team felt that the momentum was swinging their way, and if only they could improve their qualifying form, all might not be lost. Well, their argument was well and truly put to the sword in Belgium. Lewis Hamilton crashed out. Jenson Button and his team made a mighty mess of qualifying that even a heroic drive to third couldn't rectify.

I think the truth of the situation is starting to dawn among fans. No one is going to catch Red Bull. No one is going to catch Vettel. The season is barely over the halfway mark, but it is over as a title race.

Yet it doesn't feel as empty a spectacle as in the years of Schumacher and Ferrari's uber dominance. I think this may be down to the fact that the races have been so entertaining, with incident and overtaking. It may have camouflaged Vettel's march to back-to-back titles. Luckily Vettel doesn't intend to coast his way to the end of the season.

Talking of Schumacher, it was good to see him cover himself in glory and not bits of other driver's cars for once. This column has long argued that it was a mistake for the German to return from retirement. However, in Belgium he showed a glimpse of why he won so many titles. Spa marked the 20th anniversary of his debut in Formula One, when he made people sit up and take notice with his performance in the Jordan.

It was a bit of an anti-climax initially when he crashed in qualifying and ended up at the back of the grid. Luckily for us all, it just set him up for a glorious afternoon slicing through the opposition into fifth place. It was the old Schumi, back to indulge us with raw speed and clinical overtaking. It may not have been his best result of the season, but it was certainly the most impressive and enjoyable - for both him and the fans.

He may not be in the red of Ferrari, his Mercedes team may not be Italian, but there will be very few 'Tifosi' waving the prancing horse flags who won't want their old hero Schumacher to show the same flair this weekend in Monza.