Renault pulling away; Super Aguri should be pulled
The first half of this Formula One season has gone the way many observers forecast, as its inward half began with Sunday's Canadian Grand Prix and ended with another win for the all-conquering Fernando Alonso and Renault.
Meanwhile, at the other end of the competitive spectrum, the first-year Super Aguri squad continued to tilt at windmills in a bid to be taken seriously and Scuderia Toro Rosso picked up where the former Minardi team left off. Between those extremes, Honda and Toyota struggled to justify their budgets and BMW Racing showed gradual improvement in its debut season as a constructor.
How will it all end? While nobody can tell with certainty what will happen in the second half, a glance back at the first might be instrumental when handicapping the rest of this season. Here's a team-by-team look at 2006 to date, highlighting (and lowlighting) the contenders, the pretenders and the remainder.
Highlights: Seven wins (six by Alonso), 11 podium finishes, generous leads in driver and constructor standings.
Lowlights: Giancarlo Fisichella's scattershot first half, circus surrounding Alonso's scheduled departure for McLaren.
Grade: A+ (first in constructors' standings, 121 points)
Breakdown: Renault has been the shining star of F1 in 2006, picking up where it left off after a most successful 2005, which saw them win both titles in style. Alonso has finished on the podium in every race and has been dominant with four consecutive victories after Ferrari seemed finally to have its number once the European races began.
That's not saying things couldn't be better. Fisichella has been all over the scoring sheet, with a win in Malaysia countered by a retirement in Bahrain and finishes ranging from third to eighth in between. More consistency from the likeable Fisico and the constructors' race would be history already.
It's possible Renault has been distracted by Alonso's plans to leave and uncertainty about its 2007 driver lineup. Fisichella will return next year, it was announced in Montreal, which puts some strain to rest. If that means a more focused Renault in the second half, look out below.
Lowlights: Scoreless Australian GP, Massa's early difficulties, Schumacher's parking job in qualifying at Monaco.
Grade: A- (second in constructors' standings, 87 points)
Breakdown: It's hard to be satisfied with second place when you've been dominant for an eternity, but that's where Ferrari finds itself, again. It can't match Renault's pace consistently and, after a false dawn at the San Marino and European GPs, it's looking like it will be staying there.
Schumacher is doing reasonably well with what he has and is still ultra-competitive; perhaps too competitive, as his Monaco adventure illustrated. He's been thrashing the car in the vain hope it will go faster than its design allows and will keep doing so. It might have helped if Massa had contributed more early on, as he scored only once in the first three races and had a silly accident in Melbourne.
Ferrari will need Renault's help to make the second half worth watching and that looks most unlikely on Renault's recent form. Its chances of catching the blue dot in the distance are quickly falling to a low order of probability. Oh well. Second isn't all that bad.
Lowlights: Niggling performance issues, lack of quality qualifying results, too many DNFs.
Grade: B- (third in constructors' standings, 65 points)
Breakdown: The good news for McLaren is that when its cars finish a race, it earns points. The bad news is it isn't finishing often enough.
Montoya has failed to see checkers in four of nine events while scoring each time he completes the full race distance. Raikkonen hasn't come home twice and has also scored on every occasion he's been running at the finish. It must be a secret relief for the Ice Man to see Montoya's car expire for a change as his own McLaren career has been littered with DNFs.
Therein lies the problem. Reliability issues have plagued this team for several seasons and they've been joined this year by qualifying woes. The team has one front-row start in 2006 and doesn't have design supreme Adrian Newey around to make the necessary improvements. McLaren might steal a victory before the year's out on Raikkonen's resolve alone, but no more.
Highlights: Jenson Button's podium at Malaysian GP and pole position in Australia.
Lowlights: Maddening lack of consistency, Rubens Barrichello's brutal start, no points from last two races.
Grade: C- (fourth in constructors' standings, 29 points)
Breakdown: Honda must be wondering where all the magic went. It came into 2006 on the wings of an impressive offseason program and with the likelihood of having its strongest-ever driver tandem. It limps into the second half minus its technical director and much of its confidence.
Button showed promise early and had every reason to be proud after finishing third in Sepang and taking pole in Melbourne. His season started coming apart after finishing 10th in Australia and hasn't recovered since. Barrichello was no less than awful in his first four races and then recovered somewhat, scoring in three-straight events before reverting to early-season form in Britain and Canada.
Geoff Willis might be gone, but his car remains, and Honda must make it consistent if it's to make an impression. Button has found himself from first to 19th on the starting grid (though mostly in the top 10), while Barrichello's qualifying results range from a fine third to a pathetic 20th. Someone better start cracking the whip. Soon.
Lowlights: Failed to score in five of nine races.
Grade: C (fifth in constructors' standings, 19 points)
Breakdown:Bayerische Motoren Werke AG cast its lot with the former Sauber team when it chose to enter F1 as a constructor instead of going into partnership with Williams, to which it supplied engines for five years. It's been making slow but steady progress with its new associates as it seeks to establish a base to work from.
The team was criticized after signing former world champion Villeneuve, who was in bad form after a year out of F1 and poor results on his return as a stand-in with Renault. Still, Villeneuve and Heidfeld have provided decent results for a first-year outfit on race day, though qualifying is another story: three top-10s out of 18 tries and no placement higher than Heidfeld's eighth in Melbourne.
BMW hasn't set F1 on fire just yet, but it's important to remember that Rome wasn't built in a day, particularly in this league. Compared to Honda or the hellishly expensive disaster that is Toyota, BMW looks positively well adjusted. Watch this space.
Highlights: Ralf Schumacher's third place at Australian GP.
Lowlights: Messy departure of technical wizard Mike Gascoyne, Jarno Trulli's eight-race scoreless streak.
Grade: F (sixth in constructors' standings, 11 points)
Breakdown: Any manufacturer spending half a billion dollars a year on an apparently moribund program must be wondering why it's laying out all that cash. So it must be in Toyota City, Japan, where company executives could be excused for tearing their collective hair out as they face one failure after another on race weekend.
Schumacher's Melbourne podium has been the only light in a dismally dark year for a team that showed real promise in 2005 and had to expect more of the same this time around. Instead, it's faced derision (Ralf's reported $20 million contract), criticism as to direction (Gascoyne's exit) and outright ridicule (Trulli's truly horrendous start). The team is inexplicably talking about retaining Trulli for 2007. Go figure that.
Or figure this: $500 million divided by 11 points (should Toyota go scoreless the rest of the way, a distinct possibility at this rate) is about $45 million per point, a fairly pricy cost of participation. Toyota, which is entering NASCAR next year, might be able to put its F1 money to better use elsewhere. It could scarcely do worse than it is now.
Lowlights: Four-straight races without a point and six of nine overall; worst qualifying result in 31 years at European GP.
Grade: C- (seventh in constructors' standings, 10 points)
Breakdown: Legendary owner Frank Williams hasn't won a constructors' title since 1997 and won't be winning one this year. His team lost its power supply when BMW jumped ship and, as in 1998, he's making do with a second-line engine program until something better comes along.
Still, Williams has some driving talent on hand. Mark Webber, though flailing around somewhat this season, is still highly regarded, as is rookie Nico Rosberg, son of former F1 champion Keke, who's shown occasional flashes of brilliance. It's not like the team is foundering. Yet. Unfortunately the points aren't piling up and the DNFs are, with Webber having five and Rosberg four compared with 10 points between them to date.
The Nurburgring qualifying disaster indicates the car needs help sooner rather than later and Williams, who hates incomplete races as much as he hates paying drivers, must see more checkered flags to believe his fortunes will improve soon. He's getting a bit long of tooth and undoubtedly would like one more crack at the brass ring before he calls it a day. It won't be this year, though. Let's see what happens with the engine for 2007.
RED BULL RACING-FERRARI and SCUDERIA TORO ROSSO
Highlights: David Coulthard's stunning third place in Monaco, surprising raw speed from restricted Toro Rosso V-10 motor.
Lowlights: No contribution to speak of from RBR's Christian Klien, no points in first half from Toro Rosso drivers.
Grade: B- (RBR eighth in constructors' standings, nine points; Toro Rosso ninth, no points)
Breakdown:Dietrich Mateschitz, the soft-drink magnate who owns both Red Bull Racing and Toro Rosso, has spent hundreds of millions of dollars to enjoy the privilege of being the only two-team principal in the paddock. Time will tell whether his approach will bear fruit, but the early returns aren't all bad.
Take Coulthard's performance at Monaco, for example. The veteran showed why he's been kept around with a determined drive reminiscent of the former Stewart team's maiden podium, also scored in the principality in its first year of existence. Stewart, you'll recall, eventually won a Grand Prix before being absorbed by Ford Motor Co.'s Jaguar team, which Mateschitz then bought and rechristened RBR.
Klien could use a little of that kind of magic. Mateschitz's hand-picked choice for RBR's second seat is under fierce pressure to produce and hasn't done so, with one point and five DNFs (mostly through mechanical failure). He might be demoted to Toro Rosso or cut loose.
Toro Rosso should thank former Minardi owner Paul Stoddart for his foresight in fighting to keep the Cosworth V-10 instead of switching to the FIA-mandated V-8.
Though restricted as to peak performance, the V-10 is very quick in a straight line and has lots of torque for the slower corners, helping the team make up for its mechanical deficiencies. It's slated as a development squad and drivers Scott Speed and Vitantonio Liuzzi are getting good seat time in hopes of moving up the grid. Let's see what happens next year, which should be a better indication of how Mateschitz's two-team experiment is working out.
Highlights: Tiago Monteiro's consistent ability to finish what he starts.
Lowlights: Team cars colliding in Australia, no finish anywhere near the points as yet, rumors of another sale.
Grade: D- (10th in constructors' standings, no points)
Breakdown: The former Jordan team is reportedly on the auction block for the second time in 18 months. One would hope Dutch technology company Lost Boys BV, the proposed buyer, does a better job than current owner Alex Shnaider.
Shnaider promised to inject capital to revive the renamed Midland F1 team's prospects but instead ran his first season as owner on a budget even low-rent Minardi would have scoffed at. His second year isn't going any better, with Monteiro and Christijan Albers handling machinery that isn't close to being competitive. Albers, who moved over from Minardi, must be longing for his former team's V-10; Monteiro, whose only claim to fame is a podium at last year's disgraceful U.S. GP, dutifully plods around and brings the car home on a regular basis.
This team is in limbo and might vanish altogether if someone doesn't replenish its depleted coffers. Whether that's Lost Boys or someone else, they've got a huge task on their hands to make this team respectable. Eddie Jordan must be cringing at what's become of his hard work. It would be hard to blame him.
Highlights: Getting rid of Yuji Ide.
Lowlights: Where do you start?
Grade: D- (11th in constructors' standings, no points)
Breakdown: The long-suffering Minardi team might be gone but its spirit lives on in Super Aguri, a hapless first-year outfit that's well on its way to joining Forti and Pacific in Formula One's annals of competitive futility.
The team, thrown together just after the last minute by former F1 driver Aguri Suzuki, is using factory Honda engines, a mixed blessing considering Honda's 2006 failure rate. That up-to-the-minute power plant is wedged into four-year-old Arrows team chassis once on display in the Melbourne airport. This meeting of past and future technology predictably has yielded no points, many complaints about mobile obstructions and a myriad of blue move-over flags.
The team was smart enough to get rid of Ide, who had no top-flight open-wheel experience, after he clocked qualifying laps several seconds behind nominal team leader Takuma Sato. The question is why Franck Montagny, Ide's replacement and the holder of a decent racing pedigree, would consent to join the team. No answer has been forthcoming as yet.
Should Super Aguri find a decent chassis to mate with its Honda engines, perhaps next year might be better. If not, God alone knows how it could get worse, but it's possible.
Michael Kelley is a freelance journalist and a contributor to ESPN.com.