Spain may be the next official stop on the Formula One schedule, but the Italian circuit of Mugello will garner its fair share of attention prior to the arrival of teams at Catalunya. The venue plays host to the return of in-season testing, and the sessions will provide a very valuable opportunity for teams.
With a fifth of the season already over, teams simply cannot rest on their accomplishments to date, as the driver standings are much too tight. Sebastian Vettel may be the leader, but there are six others who trail by fewer than the equivalent of a race victory. In addition, eight drivers already have reached the podium this season, one more than the total from 2011. With the field on significantly more level ground this season, any innovation by one team could provide a huge boost.
Jenson Button certainly understands how close the competition has been this season, as he explained to The Sun, "Every race you want to have a good result and you know that a no-score is massive and it really hurts. You've got to be consistently near the front. I don't think it means you hold back going out for a win. You're not going to hold back if there is a maneuver or a move to go for, but consistency is going to be very important this year."
With Vettel dominating last year, a poor showing may have cost a driver a chance at second or third in the drivers' championship. This year, it could mean spoiling a chance at the title.
It may be difficult to assess who the true championship contenders are, considering how condensed the standings appear, but one measurement seems to shed some light: Three drivers this season -- Lewis Hamilton, Vettel and Button -- have spent far more time running among the top three than anyone else and have therefore put themselves in position for good finishes. Hamilton has run among the top three for over 58 percent of laps this season, best in the sport. Just behind are Vettel (51.1 percent) and Button (46.7 percent), while no other driver is above 30 percent.
Additionally, drivers such as Mark Webber have struggled. While his consistent finishes have put him in the middle of the title chase, he has only run 11 total laps among the top three this season (4.8 percent). He's the ideal example of a driver who could certainly be a championship threat, but thus far his numbers do not reflect exactly that.
Webber should not be ruled out by any means, however, and although his initial results have not been overwhelming, he's done an excellent job of staying right in the mix. As a result, he's a mere five points shy of Vettel.
While running among the top three does not always equate to podium finishes, it certainly will be key over the course of an entire season. Considering the early-season chaos, it's an excellent indicator of which drivers are the strong runners, and right now Hamilton looks poised for a victory sooner rather than later.
Meanwhile, a team that deserves a tip of the hat this year is Williams. After enduring an arduous season last year, the historic squad has bounced back considerably, having already secured 18 points. There is still much room for improvement, however, as the team has cracked Q3 just once in four events. So far, it has been a theme of what could have been with Pastor Maldonado; he crashed very late in Australia and has suffered several misfortunes since. He'll be an interesting one to watch over the next few grands prix.