After Lewis Hamilton's dominant wins in the last two races it's not surprising that pundits galore are proclaiming that the world championship is his for the taking. Not that the over-excitable British media have ever stopped saying so anyway, but certainly Hamilton's current form makes his title challenge look very strong. His race pace at Hockenheim was markedly better than Ferrari's and while that ever-popular crisis theory is, as usual, premature, Ferrari needs a damn sight better performance in the near future if the reds are to rein in Hamilton's charge.
But let's not be hasty with predictions. If you compare the standings after the German Grand Prix from this year and last (which was then the European GP) it's a curiously similar picture -- and we all know what the outcome of 2007 was. Last year Hamilton was also leading the championship, with Felipe Massa 11 points behind and Ferrari teammate Kimi Raikkonen a further seven points adrift. This year the points' gap is closer but it's still nearly the same protagonists in the same order, including the BMW Sauber boys just behind.
It's the same three teams and their respective drivers in the top positions, the obvious difference being Heikki Kovalainen in the other McLaren instead of Fernando Alonso. At this time in 2007 Alonso was second in the standings compared to Kovalainen's current sixth, while at BMW Nick Heidfeld was ahead of Robert Kubica and now it's the other way round. But it's not a hugely different picture and if we take Alonso out of last year's equation (no offence to Fernando, simply for comparison purposes because he's not a factor this year) the top five in the standings are virtually the same.
Okay, it's not a wildly spooky scenario -- after all, McLaren, Ferrari and BMW are the top three teams -- but it's funny that there's so little variation in the standings a year apart. In 2007 the media was in the same feeding frenzy about Hamilton's title chances as it is now, while Raikkonen was almost counted out and Massa was never considered a serious contender anyway. A pox on all who persist with that opinion! I know some will be eager to inform me of Massa's shortcomings, no doubt with a certain amount of vitriol, but as a Felipe supporter of many years you ain't gonna tell me anything I haven't heard before, so don't bother.
While the top of the standings is much the same as 2007 the points are closer, only four between Hamilton and Massa, and Raikkonen three behind the Brazilian. Kubica is the same gap behind Raikkonen, so with 10 points covering the top four it's foolhardy to be hypothetically offering the trophy to anyone. Heidfeld is lagging behind but can't be counted out, although Kovalainen's deficit of 30 points to Hamilton would take an exceptional effort to overcome. It's not impossible; last year Raikkonen was 26 points behind Hamilton at one point and still came back to win but I doubt Kovalainen can do the same.
I like Heikki; I have done since his F3 days and I predicted he would end up driving a Renault F1, which he duly did. But he's just not consistently getting it together in races with McLaren so far this year. He's put in some great qualifying efforts, including his maiden pole at Silverstone, but one podium finish -- third at Sepang -- is below par for what one would expect from a driver in one of the best cars on the grid. He's not the luckiest guy out there but the others have had their mishaps too and I'm not convinced that Kovalainen can pull it back to rejoin the title fight.
As for Hamilton, there's no denying that he's the hot favourite right now. In the rain at Silverstone he had everything under control and at Hockenheim he was untouchable -- within half a dozen laps he was already nearly five seconds ahead of Massa. The safety car and McLaren's odd pit stop decision complicated matters but there was no way Massa was going to keep Hamilton behind him in the latter stages, the McLaren was simply too quick. That should, and no doubt does, give Ferrari something to think about. Both Silverstone and Hockenheim have often been dubbed 'Ferrari tracks' but the recent results hardly reinforce that opinion.
In Germany Raikkonen looked uncomfortable with the car all weekend and Massa's good qualifying effort subsided into a rather lacklustre race pace. Not what the Scuderia had been hoping for, naturally, but don't wave the crisis flags just yet. Raikkonen's title challenge in the first half of 2007 went in fits and starts but from Hungary onwards -- the next race on this year's calendar -- he was never off the podium. In comparison, Hamilton was off it four times in the same time span. That's not to say the same will happen again but it just reminds us that no matter what the current form predicts, things can, and often do, change.
Despite its heroic efforts, BMW is arguably still the outsider in this fight. Yes, Kubica is only 10 points behind Hamilton but, with all due respect, the Canadian win was as much to do with Hamilton and Raikkonen being out of the race as it was with BMW's prowess. Still, anything can happen and should Ferrari and McLaren falter again no doubt BMW will be ready to step into the breach once more. If it does it surely must be Heidfeld's turn for the top step. Nick has struggled with qualifying while Kubica grabbed the spotlight but Heidfeld is persistent and he's put in some excellent race performances while fighting his way up the field.
How will the scene at the top of the standings look after Hungary? The Hungaroring is not a circuit that often produces much more than a rather humdrum procession, so I wouldn't expect too many fireworks in the way of excitement. But maybe I shouldn't wish for any -- I felt rather guilty when Timo Glock crashed at Hockenheim because I'd just said to my husband that we needed some rain or the safety car to liven it up. Sorry Timo. But sometimes a race needs something to kick start it into action, so maybe some rain in Hungary wouldn't be such a bad thing.
This year's title fight has been kicking back and forth right from the start and with eight races to go it's great to see at least four or five and possibly even six drivers still in it. Mathematically there's more but realistically you'd have to think that only the top six are going to figure from now on, and perhaps only the top four. Unless something spectacularly odd happens, that is. What are the chances of that?