Halfway through the season and F1 title is still wide open

Things have looked up for Lewis Hamilton on numerous occasions this year, but he still is in a tie for the title. AP Photo/Christian Lutz

It's halfway through the Formula One season and there's a virtual dead heat for the lead in the world drivers' championship.

After nine of 18 races, Lewis Hamilton (McLaren Mercedes), Felipe Massa (Ferrari) and Kimi Raikkonen (Ferrari) each have 48 points. Robert Kubica (BMW Sauber) trails closely behind with 46 points.

"Last year it was just as close between the top three drivers [Raikkonen, Hamilton and Fernando Alonso] and there was one point separating us at the end," Hamilton said. "So I can only assume it will be at the last race again. I hope it's not, but …"

Actually if the F1 season were to end right now, Hamilton would be declared world champion. F1 tiebreaking rules say that the driver with the most wins is classed ahead of a driver with equal points but less wins.

If they have the same number of wins, then second place finishes decide who is in front. If they have the same number of second place finishes, then third place finishes come into play, and so on.

Hamilton and Massa each have three wins, one second, one third and one fifth. The tiebreaker? Hamilton's next best result is a 10th while Massa's is a 13th. Raikkonen has two wins, so he's listed third.

No one has been able to pull away in the points chase because each of the drivers, and their respective teams, have not been able to deliver consistent results. And Kubica's BMW Sauber -- while usually is not as fast as the McLaren or Ferrari -- has been able to consistently rack up points, so even with only one win, Kubica is still very much a contender.

Mistakes have been a problem for the drivers too: Raikkonen ran into the back of Adrian Sutil in Monaco and failed to score points, and Ferrari made the wrong call on what tires to use in Monaco and Britain, which caused Massa and Raikkonen to not finish as high as they could have.

"Of course we were not so happy with the results we got in the end," Raikkonen said of his fourth place in the British Grand Prix, "but we got back into the joint lead of the championship.

"Probably we should have got more points, but we made a mistake -- it happens in racing. It's not the first time and unfortunately, it's not going to be the last time, but it's just part of the game and we need to learn from it."

Overall, the Ferrari has been a quicker car than McLaren in the first half of the season.

"We haven't lost any speed -- we just need a good clean weekend," Raikkonen said.

Hamilton's most glaring mistake was failing to see the red light at the pit exit in Canada and hitting Raikkonen's stationary Ferrari. That resulted in Hamilton being docked 10 grid places in the subsequent French Grand Prix, where another penalty for cutting a corner meant that he ended up in 10th. A slow start and an accident with Fernando Alonso kept Hamilton out of the points at Bahrain.

Hamilton, however, says the media is exaggerating his and his team's inconsistent finishes.

"For us I think we have been consistently quick except for two races, Bahrain and Malaysia, where we weren't as fast," he said during a news conference while testing in Germany. "But I think without the problems we had in Malaysia we would have been third and fourth. I think we've been very, very consistent all year. I don't have an excuse or a reason for why it [our results] has been up and down."

Like Raikkonen, Hamilton says mixed results are just part of racing.

"You can't just have a perfect year; you don't have perfect years," Hamilton said. "There are lots of different things and problems that crop up. As you saw, Ferrari had their problems at the last race, but then we've had our fair share -- that's motor racing."

In the past though, F1 teams have come close to perfection. In 1998, Alain Prost and Ayrton Senna won 15 of 16 races for McLaren Honda. In 2002, Ferrari's Michael Schumacher finished in the top three in all 17 races.

Kubica has been preying on the occasional inconsistencies by the McLaren and Ferrari teammates.

"If I had not finished two or three races I would have 15 or 20 points less," he said. "For me it's important to score as many points as possible and to give the maximum. If my maximum is enough to win, good, if not then we have to improve.

"But I am trying to make sure that I will score points, which is most important I think in our position now as we don't have the car to fight for winning. The only way I can stay in front of those drivers is because they make mistakes or have problems."

Kubica has expressed concern that BMW Sauber is lagging behind the two leading teams in developing their 2008 car. After winning in Canada, he could only finish fifth in France. Then he aquaplaned off the rain-soaked track in Britain.

"The gap has increased," he said of BMW Sauber's performance level. "In
F1 everything can change quickly. If the gap keeps increasing for the next two or three races, then it will be very difficult to catch Ferrari and McLaren. It's true also that at the beginning of the season it was much easier to fight them.

"In Australia we were ahead of Ferrari. In Malaysia and Bahrain we were in front of McLaren. But the last three or four races we are not, but the gap is much bigger so even if you set up the car perfectly and do a perfect qualifying, the gap is big enough that it's impossible to be in front of them or close to them."

Still, Kubica is aiming directly for the championship.

"If after seven races some driver is leading the championship, but doesn't feel ready to win it, then he has to stay home," he said after his victory in Canada put him in the points lead earlier this year.

Speaking of consistency, Massa is driving better and more consistent than ever. This is due in part to his engineer Rob Smedly who has ironed out some of Massa's wilder driving habits. All of Massa's eight career F1 victories have come when he started at or near the front, and then dominated the race. Like last year, he has proved he is not going to play second fiddle to Raikkonen.

"The championship is very tight," Massa said in June. "We see four drivers very close in the championship with three reasonable good cars. You can see that even if you don't win a race you can be first in the championship.

"So that is why points are sometimes more important than the victory -- because if you win one race and don't win the next then it is better to do two thirds. Consistency is the key for the championship."

The championship will almost certainly be won by one of the four -- Hamilton, Massa, Raikkonen or Kubica -- and they could use a little help from their friends and teammates.

Lewis Hamilton

I'm ... hoping that Heikki takes more points off them than anything else, or that me and Heikki together take more points off them. There's a lot of competition and we've just got to keep on scoring points.

-- Lewis Hamilton

While the Ferrari duo of Raikkonen and Massa have been earning points, podiums and wins, in the first nine races of 2008, the same cannot be said for Kubica's BMW Sauber teammate Nick Heidfeld and Hamilton's McLaren Mercedes teammate Heikki Kovalainen.

Heidfeld's main problem this year is that he can't get the speed out of the car during one qualifying lap. As a result, he usually starts four or five places behind Kubica.

It seems that Heidfeld and the team have finally figured things out -- he had difficulty getting sufficient heat quickly enough into the front tires -- and he qualified fifth and finished second in the recent British Grand Prix.

"We conducted a complicated analysis of the situation and took measures to enable me to make better use of the tires for a single hot lap," Heidfeld said. "As an outsider it's tempting to think that all it takes to get the tires up to optimum temperature is a couple of burnouts. But that only heats up the contact area of the rear tires.
It is a complex issue."

Heidfeld is fifth in the championship with 36 points, so he certainly is not out of contention for the title. Crucially, he should now be able to take points off of the McLaren and Ferrari drivers, and that will help both his and Kubica's championship bids.

McLaren's Kovalainen, sixth in the standings with 24 points, has, obviously, had the worst results and luck of the six drivers on the leading three teams. His best finish this year was third in Malaysia, but he did win the pole in the most recent race in Britain.

Kovalainen says he's not upset that the season is half over and he still has to win his first F1 race.

"It's not frustrating," he said. "Of course, I'd have liked to score more points but I just haven't been able to put together any weekends without problems, without incidents. The most important thing to do now is to keep the focus the same and keep pushing forward and eventually it will arrive. No doubt about that."

You get the feeling that Kovalainen just needs a couple of good results and he will suddenly start winning races. He certainly needs to start finishing ahead of the BMW Sauber and Ferrari drivers more often.

"I'm … hoping that Heikki takes more points off them than anything else," Hamilton said, "or that me and Heikki together take more points off them.

"There's a lot of competition and we've just got to keep on scoring points."

After the past five races, four different drivers have led the championship with Hamilton the only one in the group to lead the standings twice.

How many more times will the championship lead change in the next nine races and the season finale in Brazil on Nov. 2?

Dan Knutson covers Formula One for National Speed Sport News and ESPN.com.