The F1 championship this season could go down as one of the most fiercely contested in the history of the sport. Mark Webber, Lewis Hamilton, Fernando Alonso, Jenson Button and Sebastian Vettel all have realistic chances of claiming the crown, and are currently separated by just 24 points, less than the number handed out for a race victory.
The name at the top of the standings has changed seven times so far and, with just five races remaining and 125 points to play for, now seems like an ideal time to take stock, look closely at the contenders, and try to predict who will triumph.
Mark Webber – 4 wins, 187 points
The Aussie has more victories under his belt that the other contenders this season, and leads the championship thanks to some exceptional performances and his ability to consistently pick up points, even in tricky races. Webber has just one retirement to his name, and that was his spectacular exit from the European Grand Prix, becaming airborne after driving over the back of Heikki Kovalainen.
After a slow start to the season, consisting of just one visit to the podium in the first four races, Webber started the European season with a bang, winning in Spain and Monaco. Victory at Silverstone followed, and then a completely dominant display in Hungary. However, Monza at the weekend was difficult for Webber, and it was only Lewis Hamilton's retirement that allowed him to re-emerge at the top of the standings.
At 34, this season may represent the best (and possibly only) chance for Webber to realise his dream of becoming world champion. Hamilton, Button and Alonso have all been there, and Vettel is young and shows such promise that he will be able to jump into the best car on the grid in future years. Webber does not have the luxury of time though. He will be at Red Bull again next year, but who is to say that they will be as competitive, and if Vettel remedies some of his shortcomings, 2011 may not see Webber with the upper-hand over his teammate.
The teams predict that the RB6 will suit the remaining tracks better than McLaren's MP4-25 and Ferrari's F10. Webber has the psychological advantage of being the championship leader and, should he maintain a healthy lead over his teammate, the full support of Red Bull towards the end of the season. But neither Red Bull or Webber have the experience of winning championships in F1, the reliability of the RB6 has been a matter of concern (although mainly for Vettel), and the team seem to have a tendency to shoot themselves in both feet on occasion (the collision in Turkey being the prime example).
Webber is the bookies favourite to take the title, and the likeable Aussie would be a very popular champion. There are four other men, however, who will be determined to fight him to the bitter end.
Lewis Hamilton – 3 wins, 182 points
Considering he failed to complete the first lap in Italy, Lewis Hamilton should be grateful to only be five points behind Mark Webber in the championship standings – a seventh place will get you six. The 2008 world champion may have missed out on extending his lead at a track where McLaren were ultra-competitive, but as Webber could only finish sixth, and the other three had such a disastrous time out in Spa, Hamilton is still a close second favourite to take the title.
F1 observers will tell you that Hamilton, along with Alonso, is one of the most talented drivers in the sport. They will also tell you that the Hamilton of 2010 is much better than the Hamilton of 2007 and 2008 – more level-headed, more thoughtful, and less prone to accidents. Martin Brundle suggested that the early-career Hamilton reappeared at Monza on Sunday, but otherwise the Brit has shown some fantastic driving this season.
It took Hamilton until Turkey to get his first win of 2010, profiting greatly from the Red Bull drivers' inability to pass each other without colliding. This was followed by a sumptuous win in Canada, and the great victory in Spa just over a fortnight ago. He has also had four other podium finishes this season and, like Webber, has shown great consistently in picking up points here and there.
If he doesn't win this year's title, Hamilton will immediately look back to Spain, where a puncture just a few laps from the end dropped him out of second place, leaving him pointless. A gearbox problem ended his race in Hungary, and the early exit in Monza gives him three DNFs so far this season. Any more failures to make it to the chequered flag could spell the end of the title challenge.
Although McLaren have conceded that Red Bull will have the upper-hand in terms of pace in Singapore, Japan, Korea and Brazil at least, the Woking-based team have been able to capitalise on Red Bull's mistakes this season, and won at tracks where they did not look to have the best package. Hamilton will need to rely on this knack again if he is to win a second world title, but he is still in with an excellent chance of taking the challenge to Webber.
Fernando Alonso – 3 wins, 166 points
A good week for Alonso has kept his title hopes on track. The decision of the World Motor Sport Council not to punish him for the team orders debacle in Germany, followed by a win at Ferrari's home track on Sunday, has left him 21 points behind leader Webber. The Spaniard still has work to do to claim his third title, but it is still far from unassailable.
Team orders may still be banned, but Alonso has an advantage over his fellow title contenders in that his teammate, Felipe Massa, is all but ruled out of the championship. Ferrari will not be able to tell Massa to yield to his teammate, but the Brazilian is sensible enough to know what is expected from him, and he will assist Alonso in any way the rules allow.
Ferrari are not expected to have an advantage over Red Bull in terms of pace at the remaining circuits, but if Alonso can be a consistent visitor to the podium, capitalise on any Red Bull mistakes, and keep the two McLarens in check, then he has a chance. There have been occasions this season where Alonso has made uncharacteristic mistakes, and these will have to ironed out.
Jenson Button – 2 wins, 165 points
Many predicted that Button would struggle right from the beginning this season. It was predicted that Hamilton would be much faster, and he would have absolutely no chance to defend his title. Then he won in Australia and China, and everybody began to eat humble pie. He was praised for his shrewd decisions on tyre choice in both of those races, in particular in Australia, and people really thought that he could compete with Hamilton, and possibly get that second championship.
After F1 came to Europe, things haven't gone quite to plan for the world champion. Unlike his teammate, who has been able to pick up decent results even though rivals have been quicker, Button can boast just four podiums in the ten races since China. If the car is working well, Button is virtually unbeatable, but teammate Hamilton can get more out of the car in other situations.
It is going to be tricky for Button to overhaul the three drivers ahead of him in the standings. He is the only driver in contention not to get a pole position yet this season, and has been outperformed by Hamilton at a few races this season. A couple of DNFs for Hamilton and Webber could put him right back into the lead of the title race, but Button will need a little bit of luck if the championship is going to head back to Frome at the end of the season.
Sebastian Vettel – 2 wins, 163 points
If Vettel does not win the title, he will remember 2010 as a series of 'what ifs'. The German, who is undoubtedly a great talent, has been on pole position seven times this season, but has only one win from these races, the European Grand Prix in Valencia. Starting from third, he also claimed victory in Malaysia.
In the first two races of the season reliability problems prevented him from taking relatively easy victories. Not all the blame of failing to reach full potential can be focused on the team however: The now infamous Red Bull collision in Turkey was generally regarded by all but the team as more his fault than Mark Webber's, and the Belgian Grand Prix descended into a comedy of errors for Vettel right after he managed to spear into Jenson Button from the side, while the pair of them were going down a straight.
However, when Vettel is on it, he is an excellent driver. His debut win from pole position in the Monza monsoon of 2008 was spectacular, and his drive to fourth place on Sunday, completing all but one lap of the Italian Grand Prix on soft tyres, was a great example of a well-executed damage limitation exercise.
Which Vettel will we get in the final five races? He has the potential to get pole at all the remaining tracks, and from there go on to collect a series of strong results, lifting him right back into contention. Bookies give Vettel and Alonso equal title odds, predicting that they are both more likely to win the championship than Button.
If Red Bull's dominance in the remaining races is as complete as everybody predicts, then Vettel is more likely to take the crown than Alonso. He can beat Webber, as we saw last year and at stages this season, and could quickly narrow the gap to the championship leaders. Anymore stupid mistakes though, either on his part or Red Bull's, and he will wave goodbye to his title chances for another year.