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Ferrari Formula One driver Fernando Alonso of Spain drives during the Hungarian F1 Grand Prix at the Hungaroring circuit near Budapest July 29, 2012. (LEONHARD FOEGER/REUTERS)
Ferrari Formula One driver Fernando Alonso of Spain drives during the Hungarian F1 Grand Prix at the Hungaroring circuit near Budapest July 29, 2012. (LEONHARD FOEGER/REUTERS)

Motorsports

F1 mid-season report: The good, the bad and the ugly Add to ...

With the Formula One season starting its month-long summer hiatus with Sunday’s chequered flag in Hungary, it’s time for a mid-season review of the best and worst driver performances this year on the grand prix circuit.

With the first seven races bringing a record seven different winners, it’s highly likely that the word unpredictable would figure heavily in the description of the first half of the 2012 season.

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Much of the erratic nature of the season stems from the teams and drivers struggling to understand the Pirelli tires and how to make them work properly. The rubber has a small window of optimum operating temperature, which means that any driver who doesn’t get it bang on is in trouble. Some drivers even likened the sport to a lottery, with the winner in one race often being lost in the next. The complication in that equation is that no one actually understood what they were doing right when things went great, and conversely, no one really knew what they were doing wrong when things were terrible.

Despite the constant tire battle, there have been a few drivers whose performances made them stand out from the rest in the first 11 of 20 races on the 2012 calendar.

The best driver of the first half is easily Ferrari’s Fernando Alonso. The two-time world champion has shown beyond a doubt that he is in a class of his own when it comes to race craft and talent. What else can you deduce from a season-high three wins, two poles, and a 40-point lead in the world championship while driving a car that is likely the third or fourth quickest on the grid or worse this year? His masterful drive in a wet Malaysian Grand Prix was a thing of beauty and his ability to drag his car kicking and screaming to the front every weekend is almost supernatural.

While Alonso has been the best driver, Lotus’ Kimi Räikkönen must be tipped as the biggest surprise. The 2007 world champion returned to F1 this year after taking two years off to go rally racing and almost everyone expected him to struggle with the new cars and tires. A few months is an eternity in the rapidly changing world of F1, and jumping into a car after even a year off and being competitive is a massive challenge. Anyone who disagrees need only to look at the difficulties that seven-time world champion Michael Schumacher has had in his return from a three-year retirement. While Räikkönen has yet to win, it seems only a matter of time after five podiums in his first 11 races with Lotus. He is fifth overall in points.

On the other hand, there’s no doubt that the problem child through the first half of the season has been Pastor Maldonado of the Williams team. If there is trouble on track, it’s not a bad idea to assume that the Venezuelan is somehow involved. His list of transgressions grows at just about every race. He ran McLaren’s Lewis Hamilton into a wall late in the race on the streets of Valencia while battling over third place. He deliberately hit Sergio Pérez’s Sauber in practice in Monaco and then rammed him a couple of months later during the British Grand Prix while being overtaken. He was at it again in Sunday’s Hungarian Grand Prix, forcing Paul di Resta off track by hitting his Force India in the right sidepod with his left front wheel. The drive-thru applied for the action in Budapest was Maldonado’s fifth sanction for on-track incidents this year. Part of the problem might be the simple fact that Maldonado is unable to see that he’s done anything wrong. After being assessed a penalty in Hungary, he was true to form, saying he had “no idea” why the stewards would make that decision.

The biggest driver disappointment is a tough call, considering that more than a few have not lived up to expectations. The list includes Schumacher who had his sixth retirement in 11 starts in Hungary. When the car does make it to the finish line, Schumacher is rarely a factor.

While it seems a bit harsh to criticize a driver who has two wins and three poles this year, many certainly were not expecting Hamilton to be 47 points adrift of the championship leader when summer break arrived. The same should be said for his McLaren teammate Jenson Button, who is 88 points behind Alonso and 41 short of Hamilton’s total.

Easily at the top of the underachiever list is Ferrari’s Felipe Massa, who just can’t get things together this year. He has only one top-5 result and is 14th in points, 139 behind his teammate Alonso. With drivers scoring 25 points per victory, that puts him 5.5 race wins behind. It was also revealed in Hungary that Ferrari chose not to exercise its option to extend his contract to the end of next season. That move confirmed what most already suspected: Massa has driven himself out of a seat at the Scuderia in 2013.

The next race goes at the challenging Spa-Francorchamps Circuit in Belgium on Sept. 2. The season wraps up on Nov. 25 in Sao Paulo, Brazil.

What’s in a name?

Back in the days of “The Bridgestone Presents the Champ Car World Series Powered by Ford”, most people rolled their eyes at its ridiculously long and downright silly official name. Yes, it’s a sport that’s all about sponsorships and the guys paying the bills need to get recognition, but a stupid sounding name doesn’t make anyone look good.

While the defunct Champ Car series held top spot in the ridiculous name sweepstakes for years, it has now been surpassed.

Once simply known as the Brickyard 400 – as classy name as you’ll ever get – Sunday’s Sprint Cup race at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway went by the following: “Crown Royal Presents the Curtiss Shaver 400 at the Brickyard Powered by BigMachineRecords.com.”

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