In the second of two parts, ESPN rates the performance of the front half of the grid so far this season
1st, 415 points
Despite all the talk of challenges from Ferrari and a resurgent Red Bull, Mercedes should have won all 12 races so far this year. The only one it missed out on was the Spanish Grand Prix when its two drivers collided spectacularly in a race where, perhaps, Mercedes was at its most dominant. But there have also been some very tight races. Ferrari could have beaten Mercedes at the season-opener in Australia with a better strategy and Red Bull should have won in Monaco had it not been for a botched pit stop on Daniel Ricciardo's car. The key to success has been a gradual but potent evolution of Mercedes' engine and chassis package. The extent to which Mercedes was ahead of its rivals in 2016 was clear as early as last year's Italian Grand Prix when the team introduced a power unit upgrade aimed understanding R&D work for this year. It should be no surprise, therefore, that Mercedes has lost none of its advantage over its rivals this year and has given itself a comfortable buffer as focus turns towards 2017 development.
Despite the performance advantage, reliability became a big concern at the start of the year as Lewis Hamilton suffered a series of issues that compromised several qualifying performances. After completing over 6,000kms of reliable running in pre-season testing, the problems came as a surprise and even led to some fans accusing Mercedes of giving Nico Rosberg preferential treatment. After making reliability a priority the issues dried up, although the legacy of the early-season turbo and MGU-K failures will be felt by Hamilton in the second half of the season when he takes at least one big grid penalty to stock up on new components.
Once the reliability issues were brought under control, the Mercedes drivers found themselves occupying the same parts of track more often, resulting in collisions in Spain, Canada (albeit a much smaller one) and Austria. All of a sudden, the Toto Wolff's main task became driver management and after Austria new rules of engagement and stricter penalties for collisions were introduced. So far, these appear to be working, but don't mistake that for thinking the edge has been taken out of the championship battle.
Lewis Hamilton (1st, 217 points, 9/10):
What must have been going through Hamilton's mind when he walked away from his wrecked car in the Turn 4 gravel trap at the Spanish Grand Prix? His big chance to score his first win of the season had been lost in the space of four corners, he and Nico Rosberg were facing serious sanctions from team management and he still had a 43-point gap to his teammate in the championship. He was a quarter of the way through the season and already it was looking like it wasn't going to be his year. But amid all the turbo failures, poor starts and missed points there was one important positive to hold on to: at no point had Rosberg beaten him on pure pace alone.
Sure, Rosberg had won the opening four races convincingly and was leading when they collided in Spain, but at every point the two cars had been on track and functioning correctly it was Hamilton who had the edge. That was reason enough for Hamilton to believe that over the remaining 16 races of 2016 a 43-point gap could be overturned. But what even he, with his near infinite self-belief, could not have predicted is how quickly it came about. In the space of just seven races the 43-point deficit turned into a 19-point lead -- and without a single DNF for Rosberg. Hamilton's only blip was Baku, where he crashed in qualifying and failed to recover in the race, but every other opportunity has been seized in the style of a true world champion. A grid penalty for a new turbo and MGU-K looms over Hamilton's second half of the season, but his performances since that collision in Spain have already cushioned the impact.
Nico Rosberg (2nd, 198 points, 7/10)
Rosberg did everything right at the opening four races of the season. After two straight championship defeats to Hamilton, he had to start 2016 on the front foot and he did just that by extending his winning run (and Hamilton's losing run) from the end of last year to seven consecutive races. But Rosberg wasn't kidding himself. He knew as well as anyone that Hamilton's charge had been hamstrung by reliability issues and it was only a matter of time until he hit back hard.
Had he selected the right engine mode at the start of the Spanish Grand Prix things could have been so different, but ever since his car flicked into power preservation mode midway through the third corner of the first lap at Barcelona, his championship challenge has experienced a similar loss of momentum. The resulting collision at Turn 4 added extra edge to the battle between the Mercedes drivers, and it is Hamilton who has taken advantage of it. Rosberg's poor judgement in wheel-to-wheel racing and lack of confidence in mixed conditions have been laid bare since then, and with a dominant car at his disposal, he has scored just three podiums in the last seven races. Against an opponent like Hamilton, such weaknesses are not only exposed but thoroughly exploited. Any hope of salvaging this title will need a return to the clean and clinical driving he demonstrated pre-Spain.
2nd, 256 points
Red Bull deserves huge praise for overhauling Ferrari in the first 12 races of 2016. Coming into the season the team was just lucky to have itself an engine after its spectacular falling out with Renault in 2016. Renault has made gains this year but Red Bull has also once again produced a very strong chassis, one its rivals think might just be the cream of the crop. That strength has been a springboard for the team to move closer to the front -- its pace in Monaco a hint of what it might do with a more equal playing field on the engine side.
As for drivers, the decision to promote Max Verstappen was a stroke of genius, keeping him at the team long-term and giving him a car to match his enormous talent. With Daniel Ricciardo also at the helm, Red Bull is correct to think it has the strongest driver line-up on the grid -- a partnership which is already getting the best out of both men. After some difficult years, the future is looking very bright for the former world champions.
Daniel Ricciardo (3rd, 133 points, 9/10): If points were awarded for bad luck, Ricciardo might well be closer to Lewis Hamilton's title lead. Denied a win through Red Bull's strategy blunder in Spain -- which ultimately helped Red Bull teammate Max Verstappen claim a win -- his team then snatched another defeat from the jaws of victory with a botched pit stop in Monaco. That race had looked like Ricciardo's to lose ever since he claimed his maiden career pole the day before with one of the laps of the season. The arrival of Verstappen has given Ricciardo a wake-up call and he's responded admirably to the Dutch teenager's arrival at the team, scoring a podium at the last two races. His impressive Saturday form, which has seen him out-qualified just once in 12 races, is another reminder of the supreme talent Red Bull has at its disposal in Ricciardo.
Max Verstappen (6th, 115 points, 9/10): Where do we start with this kid? An astonishing win in Spain on his Red Bull debut validated the decision to promote him from Toro Rosso. Great drives followed in Canada and Great Britain -- the latter including a superb overtaking move against Nico Rosberg. He keeps raising the bar of what we should expect of him. His ability to manage races and his unflappable coolness under pressure (such as the final laps in Barcelona) belie his tender years and are areas which will only improve with time. Some questions may remain about his aggressive driving at times but Verstappen has proven this year he truly is the real deal.
3rd, 242 points
If 2015 was a positive surprise for Ferrari, 2016 has been a disappointment. By this point last year, Ferrari had won two races and outscored its previous points tally by 110 points. This year it has scored no victories and is 28 points down on its 2015 tally. But the struggle should not be overplayed. There were opportunities to win in Australia and Spain before poor strategy choices ultimately let the team down, and with resources split between 2016 and 2017, it may be that Maranello has made a prudent choice to focus on next year's car instead of this year's.
Of greater concern is the resignation of technical director James Allison, who stood down from his post after the unexpected loss of his wife, Rebecca, to meningitis. Allison was the rock around which the Ferrari technical team was structured and his absence will be felt throughout Maranello both this year and in the build up to 2017. But to confuse the recent dip in form with its long-term concerns would be a mistake, and it is likely the team will bounce back with stronger performances at Spa-Francorchamps and Monza -- two circuits that should suit the SF16-H more.
Sebastian Vettel (5th, 120 points, 7/10):
To judge Vettel on his points tally this year is unfair. Three great opportunities for points at the Bahrain, Russian and Austrian Grands Prix were all stripped away through no fault of his own and in reality he has comfortably outpaced teammate Raikkonen who is two points ahead. However, the star quality that shone through so often last year has been less evident in 2016, albeit partly due to Ferrari's struggles relative to Mercedes and Red Bull. His British Grand Prix performance was a low point, however, as he struggled throughout the weekend and finished ninth in the race. For a driver with 42 career wins, it is remarkable to think he has scored just three under the current V6 turbo regulations. There is a very real possibility that he will finish this season without adding to that tally, which will put his relationship with Ferrari under additional strain going into 2017.
Kimi Raikkonen (4th, 122 points, 6/10)
Raikkonen has improved on his performances from last year, featuring on the podium at a third of the races so far and coming within 0.6s of his first victory since 2013 at the Spanish Grand Prix. However, he still lacks one lap pace relative to Vettel (he has been outqualified 8-4 this year) and that too often puts him at a disadvantage on Sundays as he has to work his way back through the field. His contract renewal came as a surprise to many in the paddock, but when put in the context of Ferrari's wider concerns, Raikkonen's lacklustre performances are not biggest issue at Maranello.
4th, 96 points
Quite clearly, Williams has been out-developed by its rivals so far this year. On several occasions upgrades have not led to a significant performance gain and have seen Williams slip further and further away from the top three. Having spent two seasons challenging for podiums, Williams is now fending off fellow Mercedes customer Force India and even having to consider the threat of McLaren as it continues to make steady progress.
In truth, Williams is still performing at a very good level given its resources compared to Mercedes, Red Bull and Ferrari, but it's hard not to judge the team in the context of 2014 and 2015. In both seasons its development was ferocious and kept it competitive with the rest of the pack before tailing off towards the end of last year. This year it has especially struggled on slow, low-grip circuits, suggesting a basic lack of downforce. With its limited budget it looks unlikely the team will make significant inroads after the summer break now attention has shifted to 2017.
Valtteri Bottas (7th, 58 points, 7/10): Undoubtedly his star is shining slightly less brightly than it was this time last year, but that is as much to do with Williams' drop down the pecking order as his own form. The Finn has been solid so far in 2016 and turned in a great drive for a podium in Canada. Despite failing to build on his impressive 2014 campaign in the year and a half since, Bottas is still a hot commodity on the grid and seems to have been getting the maximum out of Williams' car when he's had the chance to.
Felipe Massa (9th, 38 points, 4/10): Massa's 14th F1 season started brightly, out-performing Bottas at the opening three races of the season. However, his form has tailed off since and coming into the summer he had scored points in just one of the previous six races. Questions are rife about Massa's future in F1, with Jenson Button among the names linked with his Williams seat for 2017, and the popular Brazilian has done little to prove why he deserves another year in the sport. Massa may well be on a farewell tour for the remainder of the season.
5th, 81 points
Force India continues to punch above its weight in Formula One, making the most of a modest budget to challenge regularly for points and occasionally for podiums. This year Sergio Perez has twice brought home silverware, with podiums in Monaco (thanks to a healthy dose of luck) and Baku (on genuine pace). The team should have scored more points at the start of the year but a series of first corner collisions and bad luck left it with just 14 points from the first five races. Since then, the following six races have yielded a further 67.
In the second half of the year the team can realistically target Williams' fourth place in the championship and must look to capitalise on races such as Singapore and Abu Dhabi, where the car should perform well. Off track, the legal affairs of team owners Vijay Mallya and Subrata Roy remain a distraction, but so far that has not put Force India off its stride.
Sergio Perez (8th, 48 points, 8/10):
Two and half years after his unceremonious exit from McLaren, Perez has rebuilt his career and is once again being talked about as a candidate for a top drive in Formula One. While doubts remain over whether he is truly a world championship contender given the right car, his two podiums this year prove he is capable of making the most of opportunities when they present themselves. Intriguingly, he has a contract with Force India for next year but is still putting himself on the driver market for other teams. Renault presents a good long-term option, but in the short-term he is arguably already at the fourth best team on the grid.
Nico Hulkenberg (10th, 33 points, 6/10):
Hulkenberg has been one of the most frustrating drivers to watch this year. There is little doubt that he is one of the more talented drivers on the grid, but he has been unable to convert that into concrete results. Strong performances in qualifying in Monaco and Hungary should have yielded better finishes in the race, while a points drought from Bahrain to Spain has taken its toll on his position in the standings. Yet all that could be reversed in the second half of the season if he can finally score the podium that has so far proved elusive during his six seasons in F1.