David Coulthard column: Golden era of F1 driving

Fernando Alonso (left) and Sebastian Vettel

He might not have won the Belgian Grand Prix, but you cannot fail to be impressed by Fernando Alonso's fighting spirit.

The Ferrari driver had a bit of a bad run going into the summer break but he drove brilliantly to take second place at Spa behind Sebastian Vettel's runaway Red Bull, fighting up from ninth place on the grid.

The Red Bull continues to be on balance the strongest package, but what is striking for me is that this season is very much about drivers.

Lewis Hamilton is shining at Mercedes, Alonso is outstanding at Ferrari and Vettel is having a superb season for Red Bull.

And while Kimi Raikkonen's title hopes took a major hit with his Lotus's retirement in Belgium, he is carrying the team with some excellent races from time to time.

There is no doubt that the championship situation is depressing if you are not a Red Bull fan. Vettel is 46 points ahead of Alonso with just 200 still available in the remaining eight races, and Hamilton and Raikkonen are even further behind.

But for me this season is underlining that this is a golden era of highly skilled number ones.

Vettel winning again confirms his brilliance behind the wheel and the consistency of the Red Bull design team, but the other top drivers are producing races that are just as exceptional.

Sebastian Vettel

Although Alonso is not winning as many races or drivers' titles as he deserves, he is still putting in exceptional performances. And finishing second does not in any way diminish his standing in the sport.

A lot can happen in eight races, and experience tells us it is not over until it is over.

But championships tend to be won by an accumulation of points until the mid-way point and then a defence of that driver's position thereafter.

There have been exceptions, of course - and last year was one. But Alonso's big points advantage was wiped out last year largely because he was fighting an uneven battle against a superior car.

That's not the case with Vettel this year - the Red Bull is at least as good as anything else out there. So assuming there are no exceptional circumstances it is hard to imagine anyone other than Vettel winning the championship.

Another thing in his favour is that the larger the points gap the more tempting it is for his rivals to start focusing more effort into next year.

If the title is only a longshot, teams like Mercedes and Ferrari are going to start turning off the tap of development earlier to try to steal a march on 2014.

Ferrari have already effectively said they are going to see how things are going after Singapore and then take a view - and that's only in two races' time.

Webber's Woes

Mark Webber's chances of challenging for the victory in Spa were wrecked by another bad start. He was on the back foot from then on and ended up finishing fifth.

Mark has had a sequence of poor starts going back quite some time and I have to believe he is a factor in that.

Starts are defined by software and driver reaction. That's it. Clutch contamination and preparation are variables but it makes no sense for Red Bull to give Webber a different clutch from Vettel.

I remember back in my Formula Three days, Brazilian Rubens Barrichello couldn't start and I could. Same car; same clutch. The only variable was the driver.

When we interviewed Webber before the race, he was already worrying out loud about the potential for a bad start.

He was psyched up for it already. Whereas I always believed I was going to have a great start. And I'm sure Alonso is the same; it's no accident that he keeps having brilliant first laps.

You don't have to be a rocket scientist to work out from things that have happened and stuff that has been said this year, that Webber is not that happy with Red Bull team principal Christian Horner at the moment and vice versa.

But that has no bearing on the technical performance of Webber's car, or his engineering staff and mechanics.

Red Bull chief technical officer Adrian Newey takes it personally when a car is not performing. It just does not enter his head to think something like: "The lead car has won, who cares about the other one?"

Newey looks at every detail. And Adrian likes Mark; Mark likes Adrian.

It's just like my time at McLaren alongside Finn Mika Hakkinen. At no time did I think I was getting second-rate equipment. I just didn't think I was getting preferential call on pit stops, or the psychological support and so on.

And on the odd occasions when there was one engine that had a bit more power, then it made complete sense for them to give it to Mika. The vast majority of the time, though, that did not happen - in fact we used to pick the engine numbers out of a hat to ensure it was completely random.

Vettel Looking Good For Monza

The final races come thick and fast in the F1 season and in just over a week's time we'll all be in Monza for the Italian Grand Prix.

Spa and Monza have tended to be difficult tracks for Red Bull but after that dominant performance on Sunday you would have to say Vettel is favourite to win in Italy as well.

One of the keys to Red Bull's speed at Spa was that they were not scrubbing much speed off through Eau Rouge.

The quality of the car meant that it was not sliding as much as the others through the fast curves there, so it held on to more of its speed. As a result, the Red Bulls were the quickest cars at the top of the steep hill out of Raidillon.

Sebastian Vettel

This could be a key advantage at Monza, too, where trying not to scrub off speed at Parabolica and the Lesmos - which are both important corners on to long straights - is a big factor in getting a good lap time.

Having said that, I expect both Ferrari and Mercedes to be competitive in Monza, so I would not be surprised if Alonso was able to pull out a victory there.

The Ferrari looked strong on race pace in Belgium, and at Monza they have all the advantages of a home race.

It's not quite like a football team playing at home, but they know that track so well. The marshals are subconsciously on their side and so on.

Human nature is what it is, and with that comes human error.

In Ferrari's case, there is going to be error in favour at Monza rather than error against. That's got to help. And when the margins are so tight, it can make a difference.

David Coulthard was talking to BBC Sport's Andrew Benson

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