Archive: Brazilian Grand Prix

It can’t be easy being the oldest driver in F1. Just ask the BBC’s commentators.

I remember Martin Brundle once describing how the fact that he was the oldest driver in the 1996 season caught up with him and began to define him as a driver. Despite having a reasonable season, by the following year he had switched to his new career in broadcasting.

Meanwhile, David Coulthard’s final season in F1 was littered with clumsy accidents. Didn’t his first corner coming-together in the final race of 2008 just sum up his season?

Now it looks like it might be Rubens Barrichello’s turn to have a rusty final season. Certainly, his Australian Grand Prix weekend was about as error-strewn as it gets these days.

There was an off during Practice 2. A further spin in Qualifying 2 ended his session early, cementing 17th slot on the grid.

Then on lap one of the race he went off at turn 4. Some time later, he steamed into Nico Rosberg at the same corner. It looked suspciously like a ridiculously optimistic overtaking move that was only ever going to go wrong. But Barrichello later blamed his tyres. This sounds like a tall tale to me.

Rubens Barrichello is not the oldest driver on the grid this year. That accolade falls to Michael Schumacher, who is probably seen by most as a separate case. Schumacher faces his own kind of pressure — the over-the-hill seven times champion who should have stayed in retirement while his reputation was still in tact.

Beyond that, Barrichello is the stand-out old guy in F1. He certainly has the longevity and experience in F1 that no-one else has. He has started a truly staggering 300 grands prix. That is an astonishing 36% of all Formula 1 grands prix that have ever been held! But the experience doesn’t seem to be doing him much good at the moment.

I hope it doesn’t turn out to be the case. It’s impossible not to have a soft spot for the Brazilian. But I fear already that he may be having his “Coulthard year”.

I’ll be upfront here. While many like Williams, with their “plucky underdog” status and stridently independent approach, they have never been my among my favourite teams. To the extent that I have ever liked them, it has been as the anti-Ferrari. In other words, I like them about as much as I like McLaren, which is not very much — but hey, at least they can beat Ferrari.

Today, Williams can’t beat Ferrari, so I am rather indifferent about them. But at a time where the majority of the grid is made up of manufacturers — of cars and drinks — even I can see that there is something romantic about Williams. I think it would be good to see them at the front again.

But if I was a fan of the team, I would probably have well and truly lost patience by now. Every year the team says, “just wait — next year we’ll be back”. They spend all winter making positive noises. And then when it comes to the big day itself? They are even slower than they were before.

One of the most successful teams in history

When they last won a Constructors’ Championship in 1997, Williams had won more of them than Ferrari. The record was staggering — nine Constructors’ and seven Drivers’ Championships in just 20 seasons. It was an utterly fearsome record.

At that stage, Williams had won races in all but two of its seasons — its very first in 1978, and a brief drought in 1988 when the team had to make do with inferior Judd engines after Honda jumped ship to McLaren. Even then, Nigel Mansell managed to wring a couple of second place finishes out of it, which is more than can be said for what came after 1997.

Once again, Williams was left in the lurch after the departure of the front-running engine manufacturer — this time Renault. To make matters worse, chief designer Adrian Newey left Williams to join McLaren. 1998 was a year of continuity for Williams, in all the wrong ways — using what were effectively year-old Renault engines and what some said was the 1997 chassis adapted for 1998 regulations.

In 1999 the team faced further difficulties with Alex Zanardi struggling to adapt to F1 after a successful time in ChampCars. While the wins dried up, this difficult spell was thankfully short lived, as in 2000 Williams forged a new partnership with BMW.

2000 was a learning year for all concerned, but successes came between 2001 and 2003, when Williams returned to winning ways. Williams were even strong title contenders in 2003, with four victories and nine podiums, Williams were a strong player in a tight three-way battle for the championship. As unlikely as it seems today, Juan Pablo Montoya was almost a World Champion!

The slide from the top

Unfortunately, things started to go pear-shaped again in 2004. A radical “walrus nose” concept brought little in the way of performance, and a more conventional design was brought out midway through the season. Montoya managed to win the final race in Brazil, but this race remains the team’s last taste of success.

Almost every year since then has seemingly seen Williams slip back a bit further, with the successes of the old days becoming an ever more distant memory. In the past five years, the team has had just four podium finishes. (Barring success in Turkey, that number will reduce to three this weekend!)

The brightest spot has been 2007, when a consistent set of results from Nico Rosberg helped the team bag a commendable fourth place in the Constructors’ Championship (although that was after McLaren’s disqualification from the Championship). Apart from that, Williams have become a fixture at the back of the midfield — if you can call 8th out of 10 teams the “midfield”.

Arrogant enough to believe their own excuses

All the while, the excuses came, and fans were reassured: “next year is our year”. And next year comes and everything is all the same. Even if they trick people into thinking they’re fast by topping Friday Practice times, as Williams did in the first half of last season, people soon become wise to the fact that the car is not truly capable of it.

Before, there was always a positive spin to put on the situation. In 2009, Williams were bad — but at least Renault were worse and BMW weren’t much better. In 2008 people were more concerned with the alarming lack of pace in the Honda. 2006 was regarded as a tough deal for Williams, struggling with apparently sluggish and unreliable Cosworth engines.

It’s difficult to sugar-coat this year’s results in the same way. Although seventh doesn’t sound too bad, in effect the only teams that are behind them are either new (in the case of Virgin, Hispania and Lotus), facing hugely difficult political and financial constraints (Sauber) or have designed their own car for the first time (Toro Rosso). The shocker is that Williams are even being compared to teams like this.

Meanwhile, Force India look a great deal more convincing, and Renault have again leapfrogged Williams and look like potential challengers to the top four teams. Indeed, Toro Rosso even look like they can realistically challenge Williams on the racetrack, particularly with a couple of feisty young drivers who are stepping up to the plate in style, particularly in the case of Jaime Alguersuari. Meanwhile, in China Nico Hülkenberg finished behind the Lotus of Heikki Kovalainen.

It seems as though Williams allowed arrogance to get the better of them. It was always someone else’s fault. But increasingly, Williams have been made to eat humble pie.

Williams lay the blame for their early-2000s dip at the door of BMW. This ended in an acrimonious split in 2005, by which time each party had become convinced that the other side was not pulling its weight. But BMW did a pretty good job when they joined forces with Sauber, the disappointment of 2009 notwithstanding. Meanwhile, Williams became inert — a permanent fixture of the midfield.

Of course, if it wasn’t the engine’s fault, it was the drivers’ fault. I was very interested to see Frank Williams admitting that, in the light of Mark Webber’s recent successes, the team was too hasty to lay the blame at the door of its driver for their average spell in 2005 and 2006.

When we had him obviously our car was a disappointment and we felt he was part of the problem. He probably wasn’t actually, with hindsight. The major point was that the car had problems.

Is there a way back?

I think the Williams of today is a great deal less arrogant than the Williams of four or five years ago. But now the damage has been done. Is there a way back to the top for this proud team? 13 years on from its last Championship success, it’s difficult to see.

Already, there are rumours that Williams are unhappy with Cosworth (just like in 2006). Rumours are linking them to a partnership with Renault. Williams were linked to Renault last year too, and Frank Williams confessed that the prospect of “Williams Renault”, a reminder of the team’s most dominant period in the 1990s, was exciting.

Other rumours link Williams to a partnership with Porsche, with whom they have collaborated on kers. But the problems run deeper than the matter of their engine supply, as surely the lessons of the BMW split show.

Two proud championshipsDespite all of its history and past successes, Williams have tried and failed to recover for too long now. Sadly, it seems as though this year Williams have to make do with racing against the likes of Sauber, a zombie team that is on emergency life support, and Lotus, a team that didn’t even exist a few months ago.

I hope they can make it. I was privileged enough to be invited to the Williams factory and museum last year. The museum is a wonderful place, brimful of some of the most successful grand prix cars there have ever been. The team only goes back just over 30 years, but it is such a huge part of Formula 1’s history. It would be such a shame if Williams were stuck at the back of the grid forever.

It has to be said that the writing was on the wall for the Bahrain Grand Prix before the teams even arrived there. And it’s not due to the refuelling ban. There are arguments for and against refuelling, but on balance I think banning refuelling is a good idea.

The legacy of refuelling

Some people had decided in advance that scrapping it was a bad idea, and have used the relatively pedestrian Bahrain Grand Prix as definitive evidence that they’re right. But one race is far too soon to judge. And as I pointed out in the previous article, there was actually more overtaking than normal.

It is no secret that F1 has a bit of an overtaking problem. The amount of overtaking has declined steadily throughout its history, and nose-dived in 1994 when refuelling was introduced in the modern era. In the intervening decade-and-a-half, the amount of overtaking has been relatively stable at this low level.

For me, the biggest legacy of refuelling has been to gift seven World Championships to a driver who isn’t particularly good at wheel-to-wheel racing, but transformed “overtaking into the pit lane” (i.e. gaining positions just by being in the pit lane at the right time) into the most important aspect of modern-day grand prix racing.

It is often argued that this “strategy” element adds an important dimension to the racing. The argument goes that what is lost in terms of on-track action is gained in terms of strategic intrigue.

This may have been true in the early days of refuelling, when strategists were still finding their feet with the new rules. But over time, it became clear what worked and what didn’t.

Armed with 15 years’ worth of data, teams had their strategies worked out by computers to the extent that there was one clear optimal strategy, and the race was won or lost on whether your first stop was made on lap 17 or made on lap 18. More often than not, after the first stop, it was clear how the rest of the race would play out, and the whole spectacle usually settled down.

The powers that be concocted increasingly contrived ways to re-inject a strategic element into the racing, but it stopped working. We reached the ridiculous situation where cars were qualifying on race fuel loads, which still did little to avoid the harsh reality that there is one optimal strategy.

How to re-introduce strategy while keeping purists happy

For me, there is far too much talk about “the show”. F1 is not a show. It is a sport. As far as I’m concerned, if you want to see a show, you should go to the pantomime. Todd on the latest Formula 1 Blog podcast said it best: “Jim Clark didn’t take part in a show. He took part in a race.”

Yet, with the obsession with making F1 more entertaining, the rules have constantly been tinkered with. Sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t, and the powers that be have to tread a fine line. They must make the sport more appealing to people who, truth be told, aren’t really interested in F1, while keeping the purists happy.

F1 is special because it is, at its core, about finding the fastest driver in the fastest car. Everything else is tinsel. Some of the new rules actively go against this attempt to find the fastest.

Look at the obsession with strategy. Look at attempts at mixing up the grid. The current tyre rules are among the most unpure in F1 today.

Forcing drivers to use two different types of compounds achieves nothing for anyone except Bridgestone. And I am yet to work out what is achieved by the new rule forcing drivers to start the race on the same tyres they qualified on. What does it prove? Do we tie one hand behind the back of footballers to “spice up the show” there? It is ridiculous.

Yet, all the talk is to introduce a mandatory two stops. That is certainly what Martin Whitmarsh implied on the BBC’s coverage last weekend. The idea sends a shiver down my spine. And quite how it is supposed to spice up the action is beyond me. Just now the optimal strategy appears to be a one-stop. Now they want to enforce a two-stop strategy? It’s difficult to see the scope for spiced-up strategy action here.

But I can think of a way of re-introducing the strategy element while keeping the purists happy: get rid of the mandatory tyre change. This would blow wide open the possibility of a no-stop strategy, thereby potentially reducing the predictability of the current situation. Sure, Bridgestone will be unhappy — but they are leaving the sport anyway so there is no point in making them happy.

Aerodynamics

The decline in overtaking pre-dates 1994. It has been clear for years that it is not as easy for F1 drivers in F1 cars to overtake as it perhaps should be. There are plenty of pet theories as to why this might be. The ones that get the most attention are the ones that are put forward by Bernie Ecclestone and the FIA, as they are the most powerful people in F1. But of course, they have their own agendas.

The FIA and Bernie Ecclestone have long blamed modern aerodynamics for the lack of overtaking. The received wisdom has become that aerodynamic grip is bad news if you want overtaking, and that the emphasis should be more on mechanical grip.

I was very interested to see James Allen write about what Frank Dernie thinks about this — that’s it’s a load of old cobblers. I have felt for a while that the argument that aerodynamics damage the racing does not hold water. On a Renault podcast a couple of years ago, Pat Symonds pointed out that the races that have the most overtaking, as everyone knows, are wet races. In the wet, aerodynamic grip is ramped up, and mechanical grip plummets.

When you think about it, it’s so right. It does amaze me that, in the face of so much hard evidence to the contrary, people still blame aerodynamics for the poor racing. I have come to the conclusion that many people’s views on the overtaking problem are shaped largely by fashion and spin rather than the evidence.

Speaking personally, I love seeing what sorts of devices teams come up with. We have all been fascinated by McLaren’s “F-duct” (even though it seems to have done them “F-all” good). Neutering these sorts of areas is the first step on the slippery slope towards spec chassis. And then it just wouldn’t be F1 any more.

I am not totally averse to restricting the cars though. Formula 1 is, after all, a formula — it always has been.

I am no engineer, but it strikes me that F1 cars are simply too fast to allow for much overtaking. In particular, the brakes on F1 cars are so good today that there is little opportunity for a driver to perform an outbraking manoeuvre. With such small braking zones, the scope just isn’t there in the same way it might have been in the past. Is somehow reducing the power of the brakes a viable option?

The points system

Bernie Ecclestone has also sought to blame the points system for the lack of overtaking, and the system has accordingly been tweaked. I personally think there is something in this. The points system rewards conservatism.

Think about instances where a driver attempting to overtake faces a 50-50 situation (or, more accurately, a ⅓-⅓-⅓ situation). By this I mean that there is a ⅓ chance that a clean pass will be made and a position will be gained, a ⅓ chance that an attempt will be made but will fail, and a ⅓ that the move will go wrong and end in a crash. (Obviously this is a major simplification of the real-life scenario, but I think this “50-50″ thought experiment still underlines an interesting point.)

Under last year’s scoring system, for a driver in second place trying to overtake the leader, this “⅓-⅓-⅓” situation would lead to an expected gain of… -2 points. Under the new points system, the expectation is -3⅔ (although as a percentage of the winner’s points haul, this is better). No wonder drivers can’t overtake. It’s not in their interests to even try unless they are practically left an open door.

This was the core reason why I was in fact, contrary to the fashion, in favour of Bernie’s proposed “medals” system. Then, attempting to gain a position would be unambiguously advantageous.

The circuits

However, I think there would be much more to be gained in ensuring that circuits are more challenging and provide more in the way of opportunities to overtake. Nothing is certain. After all, Suzuka is normally entertaining, but produced a bit of a stinker last year. Sometimes it just doesn’t happen.

But we all know that certain circuits, in general, produce better racing than others. I really do struggle to think of any grand prix held at Interlagos that was boring. But I know not to expect much action at, say, Valencia or Shanghai. Or Bahrain for that matter.

We know this because teams and drivers will often turn up a circuit and say, “there is only a certain place you can overtake, and it’s here”. Adrian Newey, Sam Michael and Martin Whitmarsh are all in agreement. As the Williams technical director said:

You’ve got to ask yourself, why do you go to a race such as Barcelona where no one overtakes, and then take exactly the same cars to Monza, Montreal or Hockenheim and you get lots of overtaking.

And the McLaren team principal said:

You only need to do simple statistical analysis and look at where the overtaking moves are If, say, we race on 18 circuits with 350 corners, then 90 per cent of overtaking moves in a year would happen at just 10 corners… The fact that overtaking is focused on such a small number of corners clearly demonstrates that it’s circuit-dependent.

Ferrari and Renault went to Valencia in 2008 proclaiming that they know from their simulators that there would be little in the way of overtaking. Ferrari even based a fundamental decision about their engine on this prediction. And they were right.

But Bernie will not entertain the suggestion that the circuits are to blame. This is because, unlike the effort made by drivers or the aerodynamics or the strategy, this is the area that he is responsible for. And he doesn’t want to take responsibility for it.

The effect of adding a new slow, narrow, bumpy, twisty section that looks as though it was almost designed to prevent overtaking was predicted before the race began. Quite why the organisers of the grand prix thought it would be a good idea is beyond me.

GP2 world feed commentator Will Buxton saw the writing on the wall, and was left exasperated by the negative effect this different circuit configuration had on the GP2 racing. He predicted a similar negative effect on F1, and it transpired that he was right.

What else is Bernie to blame for?

While I confess that it is a bit too easy to lay the blame on Bernie Ecclestone for the boring race in Bahrain, there is another core part of F1 that he is responsible for, which led to a dull spectacle being played out in our living rooms last Sunday. But that is what I will deal with in another article in the near future.

25. Nelsinho Piquet

I don’t think there is much need to justify why I have placed Piquet at the bottom of the list. Suffice it to say that I hope he never races competitively again.

24. Sébastien Bourdais

Sébastien Bourdais spent the 2008 season explaining that we should wait to judge him until the return of slicks in 2009. Slicks came in 2009. He has been duly judged.

23. Romain Grosjean

I feel a little bit sorry for Romain Grosjean. He was thrown into as difficult a situation as it is possible to imagine. Having done no testing whatsoever, he became Renault’s second driver just in time for a massive scandal involving Renault’s previous second driver to envelop the team. He didn’t perform very well, but they were exceptionally difficult circumstances in my view.

22. Kazuki Nakajima

I thought Nakajima did a good job in 2008, but 2009 was a huge disappointment. His main achievement of the season was to qualify an admittedly impressive 5th place for the British Grand Prix. However, his race was poor and he finished 11th. Way to hoof it over the bar.

21. Jaime Alguersuari

As with the other drivers who were expected to hit the ground running mid-season, Alguersuari was disadvantaged by the fact that he had done no testing. It may also be said that he was brought into F1 too quickly by the impatient Red Bull driver development juggernaut. While he was British F3 Champion of 2008, he was having a moderate season in World Series by Renault and may have befitted from some extra time to develop his skills away from the intense spotlight of F1. As a result, Alguersuari spent a lot of his time crashing or being rather unspectacular.

20. Adrian Sutil

I do wish Adrian Sutil could show us something — anything — that would once and for all conclude that he fully deserves a place in F1. He does show flashes of potential, but contrives to throw his chances away. He could have had a decent points finish in China if he had been more careful in the worsening weather conditions. And he has gained a reputation for being involved in a lot of needless crashes. His crash with Nick Heidfeld in Singapore following a needless spin was particularly unnecessary. This was made all the worse by the fact that he pulled off a frighteningly similar manoeuvre in Japan at the following race. His performance in Belgium looked poor in comparison with his team mate who battled for the win all race long. The main saving grace was a fourth place in Italy.

19. Luca Badoer

Yes, Luca Badoer was massively disappointing as the substitute for Felipe Massa at Ferrari. However, as I have written before, he had a harder job than anyone else on the grid, being expected to become instantly competitive after 10 years away from racing. Given the circumstances, I think Luca Badoer performed quite admirably. It is not as though Fisichella could do much more in that Ferrari — and he didn’t have the excuse of being out of practice for a decade.

18. Sébastien Buemi

I think Buemi did a decent job overall in 2009, although it’s difficult to remember any real stand-out moments. He should have another year in F1, but ought to show more in 2010 in order to justify his continued presence on the grid.

17. Heikki Kovalainen

2009 was another disappointing year for Heikki Kovalainen. The Finn was totally outclassed by his team mate all season long, and never looked like a driver who deserves to be driving for a team as good as McLaren. He seems competent enough, but clearly lacks the hunger and seems incapable of putting in a truly great performance.

16. Vitantonio Liuzzi

Liuzzi made his long-overdue return to the cockpit in a Force India this year. He did a great job at his first race back in Monza, but was slightly disappointing for the remainder of the season. 2010 will be a very important year for his career — it’s make or break time for Liuzzi.

15. Kamui Kobayashi

Kamui Kobayashi was notable for being the one rookie who grabbed your attention. He had only two races, but he made a huge impression on the F1 world. He was ballsy and aggressive, and provided some hugely entertaining racing, particularly against Jenson Button! The downside to this was that he overstepped the line once or twice, particularly when he caused a crash with Nakajima in Brazil. I also doubt whether the driver that races for Sauber in 2010 will show the same hunger. In these two races, Kobayashi had nothing to lose and so took the necessary risks. In 2010 it might all be very different.

14. Giancarlo Fisichella

At the beginning of the season, Giancarlo Fisichella continued in the trajectory his career has generally taken — downwards. The season began ignominiously when he missed his pit box in Australia. There were even rumours that Force India were less than impressed, and were looking to replace him. Then came the rumours that Ferrari were looking to Fisichella as the replacement for the struggling Luca Badoer. Bang on cue, Fisichella put in one of the drives of his life. With his Force India car on song at Spa, he really should have won the race were it not for the kers of the Ferrari car he was about to step into. Once he’d secured his dream drive for Ferrari, it was back to business as usual as he lurched from disappointment to deeper disappointment.

13. Robert Kubica

Robert Kubica was unable to shine this year in the difficult BMW car. Matters were not helped by his height, which was a major disadvantage when BMW tried to run with kers. He took a while to score his first points of the season, and was behind his team mate in the Drivers’ Championship all year. The main consolation was a superb second place finish in Brazil. I hope that Renault can produce a good car for him next year — he deserves a better chance than this.

12. Nick Heidfeld

It was a difficult year for Nick Heidfeld. The BMW car was a massive disappointment and it must have been quite a demoralising season for Nick Heidfeld. Nevertheless, he managed to grab a handful of points, including a second place in the curtailed Malaysian race. He also did a better job at scoring points than Robert Kubica. I deeply hope Heidfeld gets a drive for next season.

11. Jarno Trulli

For a long time, I have disliked Jarno Trulli. However, grudgingly, I have to admit that he did a fairly good job in 2009, despite the Toyota team’s best efforts to throw it all away. Two third place finishes near the start of the season reflected the performance of the car. But his second place in Japan was truly impressive.


Come back tomorrow to read my top ten.

Belated congratulations to Jenson Button for becoming the 2009 World Champion. I know it’s long overdue, but hey — that’s what happens when real life takes over (more on that real life stuff can be found here).

I have not always been convinced that Jenson Button is a good driver. In fact, the only times he has impressed me before were his début season in 2000, and 2007 when he did an admirable job in what was by all accounts a horrendous car. In 2008 he was, oddly, not so impressive. Perhaps he had lost motivation after being let down by Honda for too many years, but the fact is that Rubens Barrichello did a better job in 2008.

The Brazilian had his moments in 2009, but it is difficult to argue that he was better than Jenson Button throughout the season. While Button’s sudden rise to the sharp end of the grid at the start of 2009 got many people asking whether it was all down to the car, Barrichello was often to be found scrapping around in the lower end of the points positions.

There is no doubt about the fact that this year’s Brawn car was much better than last year’s Honda car was a major contributory factor towards Jenson Button’s Championship victory. And it is true that Rubens Barrichello performed better than Button in the second half of the season. And, yes, without Barrichello’s vital set-up data, Jenson Button would probably have been nowhere.

But while Jenson Button was pounding in the wins, taking full advantage of the Brawn’s superiority while it was still there, Rubens Barrichello took too long to get up to speed with it. Let us also not forget that Jenson Button was seriously impressive during the first half of the season, putting in some of the best overtaking moves there have been all year.

It is certainly the case that this sort of aggressive form was not much in evidence during the second half of the season. After gaining victory in Turkey, it seems as though Jenson Button tensed up, not returning to form until Brazil.

For a lot of people, this was turning out to be a real damp squib. People do not like to see a driver winning a championship by merely bagging points rather than taking impressive victories. However, Button earned the right to be given this leeway, so impressive he was at the start of the season.

I would have said after Turkey that Jenson Button would have to have been really bad in the second half of the season to not deserve the title. But while he may have been slightly disappointing, he wasn’t really bad. He only failed to score once all year, in Belgium when he was crashed into on lap one. That is a pretty intimidating achievement.

Now it is no secret that Jenson Button suffered under the stress of defending his championship lead. Simply looking at his results for the season tells its own story. He was dominant in the first seven races, but occupied the lower end of the points for the rest of the season.

While some were critical of this drop in form, the fact is that almost all championship leaders do this. In fact, it would be completely foolish to any driver with a massive championship lead at the mid-way point to tackle the second half of the season in the same manner. As Ross Brawn said, if a football team is leading 3-0 at half time, they don’t play the second half in the same style as the first.

Looking back over the years, this is a pattern that is repeated time after time. The driver who leads at the halfway point of the season almost always scores fewer points in the second half of the season. Looking at the past ten seasons, the leader at the halfway point has always turned down the wick, with the exception of Fernando Alonso in 2005. The drop in performance has been particularly marked since the points system was changed for 2003, which shifted the balance towards consistency and conservatism over aggression.

(In seasons with an odd number of races, the middle race has been removed from the calculation.)

Year Leader at halfway point First half points Second half points Difference
2009 Jenson Button 69 27 42
2008 Lewis Hamilton 48 40 8
2007 Lewis Hamilton 64 39 25
2006 Fernando Alonso 84 50 34
2005 Fernando Alonso 59 74 -15
2004 Michael Schumacher 80 68 18
2003 Michael Schumacher 54 39 15
2002 Michael Schumacher 70 68 2
2001 Michael Schumacher 58 55 3
2000 Michael Schumacher 56 52 4

Clearly, Button’s drop-off was particularly extreme. However, it was not that much more extreme than Alonso’s in 2006. Alonso is rightly lauded for being conservative when he needs to be. Button should be too. Even though the drop-off seemed alarming, the fact is that he had made himself more than enough room to get away with it, and still secure the championship with one race to spare. Why expend more energy by taking the more risky strategy of going all-out for wins when you can achieve it in the way Jenson Button did?

Nonetheless, it is difficult to deny that the way Jenson Button won the championship was slightly underwhelming. It certainly wouldn’t have been very satisfying were it not for his scintillating performance in Brazil. Of course, he did indeed pull that performance out of the bag just when he needed it, so it is slightly academic now.

But by almost any measure you can conceive of, Jenson Button was the most deserving person to win the championship. I have had a look at different scoring systems that would reward more consistent performances throughout the season. Although it is always a spurious exercise to impose different scoring systems on a set of races that have already taken place (remembering that altering the incentives inevitably affects behaviour), it is interesting to look at systems that may have punished Jenson Button for not performing so well towards the end of the season.

One such system would be to split the season into, say, four sections, with drivers dropping their worst score from each quarter of the season. What with there being an odd number of races in 2009, this is affected by where you decide to place the splits. But with three sections of four races, and a final section with the final four races, this cuts Jenson Button’s lead down to just three points over Sebastian Vettel. However, Button would still win under this system.

Splitting the season into two halves and making drivers drop two scores, Button’s victory margin can be cut down to two points. However, Button still wins the championship.

The only vaguely sensible system I have been able to come up with is making drivers drop six scores from the whole season. This puts Button and Vettel level on points, although of course Button would still win the championship because he has won more races.

Only by splitting the season into two and making drivers drop three scores from each half does Vettel score more points than Button. Whether it would be desirable to have a system where six races from each driver’s season do not count towards the championship is debatable.

Looking at the results of the season, it is striking just how superior Jenson Button was to everyone else. Jenson Button only failed to score once. His nearest challenger, Vettel, chalked up five zeros. Mark Webber failed to score seven times, while Hamilton finished pointless nine times.

Button also won two more races than anyone else. To Button’s six, Vettel took the chequered flag four times, while Barrichello, Webber and Hamilton each took it twice.

In terms of the results, the clear closest challenger to Button has been Vettel. No doubt there would have been complaints about his championship too, due to his tendency still to make mistakes, and his alarming inability to overtake. And speaking of overtaking, who could deny that Button pulled off some of the best overtaking moves of the season?

Is Jenson Button a deserving champion? I can hardly imagine what more you could ask for.

The day after Bridgestone announced that they would be leaving Formula 1, it emerged that Toyota were poised to do the same. This was not as much of a shock as Bridgestone’s exit, but it is nonetheless major news.

Toyota are the third major manufacturer to leave F1 in just twelve months, and now rumours furiously swirl around Renault as well. But, as you may have gathered from the tone of my last article about Toyota, I find it too difficult to get upset about them leaving.

Today, Toyota company president Akio Toyoda apologised for Toyota’s inability to win a race in its eight season long campaign. It was noted that Toyota probably needed a win in order to secure their future in F1. Had a Toyota taken a chequered flag this year, may they have been given a reprieve?

I was intrigued also by Akio Toyoda’s words: “I offer my deepest apologies to Toyota’s many fans.” Which Toyota fans? I have never met one. They have been easily the least attractive team for their entire existence. Their policy of designing their car by committee was wholly unsuited to F1, and their strategy of employing mediocre drivers was not at all endearing.

How ironic that the cold and calculating Toyota F1 project should show some emotion when it is carrying out its most calculating move yet, to place the jobs of all of its workers under immediate threat. Akio Toyoda was tearful while mentioning the workers during the announcement of the company’s withdrawal.

You have to feel sorry for the staff at the team’s base in Cologne. While any F1 team finding itself in trouble is bad news for that team’s workers, those based in Britain are insulated somewhat by the fact that there are always a few other teams just down the road.

Those who have families in Germany will not find it so easy to turn to another team in motorsport to help them pay their mortgage. The closest conceivable option for those wanting to remain in F1 is the Hinwil, Switzerland-based team formerly known as BMW Sauber. But of course the future of that team is also on a knife-edge. They probably have all the staff they need anyway.

Many are also sympathising with Kamui Kobayashi, the rookie Toyota protégé who had a spirited two races at the tail end of the 2009 season. Alan Henry even went as far as to say that Kobayashi is, “the very best Japanese driver I have ever seen.”

Steady on there! Yes, Kobayashi was very impressive in his two F1 races. But he was, after all, racing for his career. He didn’t have the funds to do yet another GP2 season, and he was lucky to get his F1 break. But if he didn’t succeed in his stint, he was going back to work in a sushi restaurant.

As such, Kobayashi was highly-motivated, and took the risks he needed to take to stand out. Would he be like this in normal circumstances? It is impossible to tell. But his GP2 form was not exactly exciting. And let us not forget that he arguably caused a big accident when he moved across on Kazuki Nakajima at Interlagos.

Now Toyota have left F1, thereby leaving Kobayashi without a drive. Now he is a hero; a martyr. I am not terribly sure that status is deserved. Nonetheless, I hope he doesn’t have to put his sushi preparation skills to use for a while yet.

Toyota’s sharp exit from F1 does perhaps explain their odd behaviour surrounding drivers towards the tail end of this season. Timo Glock suffered from mysterious illnesses and injuries which paved the way for Kobayashi to get a drive.

Perhaps Glock was asked nicely to stand aside for two races so that the team could give Kobayashi a “sorry” present. “Sorry for not finding that seat in F1 for you after all your years of hard work in our young driver programme. Here are a couple of consolation races.”

Perhaps the biggest point to chew over is what this means for motorsport in Japan. Axis of Oversteer notes:

Toyota and Honda left F1 as has Bridgestone. Kawasaki dropped out of MotoGP. Suzuki and Subaru quit the WRC and Mitsubishi has called off its Dakar efforts.

I find it unimaginable that Japan might not be represented at all in F1. For there to be an exodus across top-line motorsport is seriously worrying. Here is hoping that it is just a blip as the Japanese motor industry goes through a particularly tough time.

I love the Brazilian Grand Prix. It is a unique circuit — not only anti-clockwise, but uniquely short in the same way you might think of Spa-Francorchamps as being uniquely long.

It is also special because it has now comprehensively replaced Suzuka as the proper place to settle a World Championship, particularly due to its useful time slot. It is on prime time on European television. That is another unique aspect of Brazil, due to the lack of North American races this year.

So it was most fitting that Jenson Button managed to seal the deal in Interlagos, even when it seemed further out of his grasp than ever. A disastrous qualifying session sent us off the scent. The only saving grace was that Vettel’s was almost as bad. But his main rival Barrichello was on pole at his home race.

Unfortunately for Barrichello, he never gets any good luck at Interlagos, even when he is doing well. I will never forget the tragedy of his car breaking down in 1999 while he looked like he could win the race driving for Stewart. His bad luck struck again.

After a strong first stint which he led with relatively little challenge, he somehow managed to lose the plot by failing to push hard enough at the start of his second stint, handing the lead to Mark Webber. Later in the race came his tangle with Lewis Hamilton, which resulted in a puncture for Barrichello.

(Apparently Lewis Hamilton can’t go to Interlagos without having an eventful time. Hats off to him for ploughing his way up to a 3rd place finish from 17th on the grid.)

In normal circumstances, therefore, we would normally be talking about Mark Webber’s fabulous win. And Pink Peril was right to point it out in the comments to my previous article. Mark Webber did a great job — the one person who managed to do well in both qualifying and the race.

He certainly had a better weekend than the Red Bull driver who needed it, Vettel. It was suspected that Red Bull would do well thanks to the “testing” Webber was able to do at Suzuka. Sadly we didn’t see much of Webber’s race because the television cameras were more focussed on the Championship protagonists.

As for the Championship winner, Jenson Button, I would say he had the race of his season — possibly even the race of his life. It really is as though his bad qualifying performance gave him the kick up the backside he needed. I read one story today which said that after his poor qualifying, he texted his mum to say, “Don’t worry mum, we’re going to kick some butt.” She replied, “Good, go and kick some butt.”

It was as though a barrier had been passed. Button was no longer defending his lead, as he had been since the start of the season. The tide had turned so far that he now had to attack to win. And attack he did!

His aggressive and ballsy driving was captivating to watch. He was already 9th by the end of lap one. Once the Safety Car period was over, he was ready to line up Romain Grosjean, and in the process took a risk by going round the outside. I thought Grosjean did a solid job when racing side-by-side for two or three corners against Button. Button put a lot of faith in the inexperienced Grosjean not to do something silly. But both came out of the fight looking good.

Within a lap, Button got past Kazuki Nakajima in a rather risky move at the Senna S. Several laps later, also into the Senna S, he finally got past Kamui Kobayashi who was in his first race. After that, as the pitstop strategies shook out, Button found himself looking good.

There has been some criticism of Kobayashi’s driving, particularly weaving in the braking zones. Certainly he pushed it too far later on in the race when he was involved in a high-speed accident with Nakajima. But his defensive driving against Button impressed me and suggests that Kobayashi has promise, even though he wasn’t particularly good in GP2 (like Nakajima).

While there was some decent racing going on for most of the race, the majority of the action came on the first lap which was rather crazy. My theory is that they just decided to do a Wacky Races thing because it was on prime time.

First there was the accident which brought an end to the races of Adrian Sutil, Jarno Trulli and Fernando Alonso. Alonso was so placid about it that the BBC’s commentators did not even notice him at first. He just trudged nonchalantly into his lift. I sense that he really has just been going through the motions, awaiting his big chance in a red car before exerting himself once again.

Little wonder Alonso went by unnoticed, because Jarno Trulli was running up to Sutil and gesticulated in quite a threatening manner. I am struggling to remember the last time I saw a driver so angry. It looked like it was going to turn into this sort of moment!

I am struggling to see what Trulli was so worked up about. Maybe Sutil could have left Trulli some more room, but I think Trulli was optimistic trying to overtake him there anyway. And it is not as if Sutil drove into Trulli. In fact, before Trulli loses control of his car you can see Sutil clearly make an attempt to steer away from Trulli to give him more space.

It was a racing incident in my book. But the accident that resulted was quite a high-speed one, which I guess is why Trulli was so rattled.

Then there was the pitlane fire, when Heikki Kovalainen drove off with the fuel hose still attached. It wasn’t Kovalainen’s fault — he was instructed to leave, but the fuel hose was still attached.

I really am confused as to why we get so many more of these incidents these days. I can’t remember ever seeing a driver leaving with his fuel hose still attached until Jenson Button did it at Imola in 2006. Since then there have been several, from Christijan Albers (who was effectively sacked for it), to Massa in Singapore last year and Alguersuari in Singapore this year, to Kovalainen now. And I’m sure there are one or two more that have slipped my mind.

The increasing frequency of these incidents is quite alarming, particularly when so much attention was given to Ferrari’s pit lane incidents in 2008. Surely teams and drivers must be more aware than ever of the possibility, and it is just bizarre that it keeps on happening over and over again now.

Massive, massive kudos to Kimi Räikkönen for driving through the fire which resulted from Kovalainen’s premature pit box exit. The fuel was more or less being sprayed into his face, and flames briefly exploded all around him. Yet he kept his foot down and kept driving.

After the race, he said his eyes were still burning! Yet he plodded on. As far as I’m concerned he could have been blinded by that sort of thing. He must have huge balls. And people say he doesn’t have motivation.

One last thing to mention — Robert Kubica. He finished 2nd, his best result of the season, after starting 8th. He had a great restart when the Safety Car pulled in — he was right on top of Nico Rosberg and passed as soon as he could. I am sorry that Kubica has not been able to show more of his talent this year. I hope Renault can build him the car he deserves.

Next we head to the brand new circuit in Abu Dhabi. The last time the Championship was decided before the final race of the season was in 2005. Then we were treated to one of the best Grands Prix there has ever been, the breathtaking 2005 Japanese Grand Prix. Maybe the same end-of-term atmosphere can spice up Abu Dhabi, which aside from the gimmicky pitlane exit looks like it will be another bland Tilke operation.

A report on the stunning Brazilian Grand Prix will follow at some point this week. I will also consider the vexed question of whether Jenson Button deserves to win the World Championship.

I have to admit that I wasn’t expecting Button to seal it in Interlagos, especially after his poor grid position. So I must confess that I hadn’t really factored in the possibility when I planned my week ahead! So unfortunately, a more in-depth analysis will have to wait for a few days.

However, what I will say just now is that after the way Jenson Button drove in Brazil, he was fully deserving of what he achieved. It was as though he woke up on Sunday deciding that he would be World Champion come what may.

He was aggressive and ballsy — the things everyone was saying he’d forgotten to be in the second half of the season. He pulled off some of the best overtaking moves there have been all season and in my view was seriously impressive.

It is never good when a driver wins a Championship while not winning a race. It is a bit of an anti-climax. But in this case it didn’t feel like a damp squib. Jenson Button may not have won the race, but it was no leisurely drive to 5th place. He fought for it and as such took the Championship in style.

Congratulations must also go to the Brawn team. As was widely predicted, they faded away as the season progressed and they got swallowed up somewhat in the development battle. But the fact is that they had the fastest car, and one with bullet-proof reliability at that.

Considering how much their backs were against the wall last winter, you have to say that the Constructors’ Championship has gone to the best team. And the team spirit shines through. No doubt there is an intense and special bond between team members because of the difficulties they went through last year. This probably made them stronger and gave them the resolve to fight as hard as they did.

Congratulations to Jenson Button and Brawn GP.

What an exciting start to the season. I don’t suppose it’s the done thing to yelp at 7am on a Sunday morning and wake the neighbours up, but I think that’s what I did.

First of all, hats off to the Brawn team. They’ve been through a lot over the winter. Let’s face it, as the Honda team they’ve been through a lot in the past two years. Their 1-2 finish in Melbourne is a just reward for the effort they have put into this car, and for what they have had to put up with from the high-ups at Honda.

And good riddance to them. By now it is banal to point out that Honda must be kicking themselves. They poured all that money into the development of the car, and have given that car away to a private team that they are subsidising in return for nothing. It makes Honda look pretty stupid for giving away such a great car. To the distant observer, it must look as though Honda have the reverse-Midas touch. Which, in fairness, they do.

Jenson Button’s victory was fairly uneventful, but Rubens Barrichello’s route to 2nd was more interesting. The Brazilian had a terrible start when anti-stall kicked in, and then got involved in a first-corner accident which damaged his car on the front and on the rear. His front wing got damaged further during a botched attempt to overtake Kimi Räikkönen. After the race Barrichello noted that the Brawn must be a good car if he can crash it so much and still finish 2nd.

Barrichello was lucky to inherit 2nd, of course, when Robert Kubica and Sebastian Vettel took some silly pills and decided to crash each other out. That was a disappointing incident for me because I like both drivers and to see them both hit the self-destruct button like that was not what you’d like to see from two such promising drivers.

Most observers agree that blame must be shared fairly equally between the drivers. It was Vettel’s original mistake that allowed Kubica to get so close, but the Pole was far too optimistic trying to take Vettel the way he did. Vettel was most apologetic on the radio to his team, and to BMW’s Mario Theissen after the race (Vettel obviously had one eye on his future BMW contract). But I’m not sure if Vettel did much wrong during the move itself. Maybe he could have backed off, but why should he?

In the rush to make something out of the mess, both drivers ended up compounding their problems by simultaneously slamming into the wall. Kubica’s incident was quite scary in a way because two of his wheels came off. In fact, one of the tyres came very close to striking his head. The tyres were then left lying close to the racing line on the circuit, bringing back bad memories of Alonso’s accident at Interlagos in 2003. I found it surprising that the tethers failed to do their job in Kubica’s accident, and I should think the FIA are investigating.

Vettel caused his own danger by continuing trying to race with three wheels on his wagon. Well, the team told him to at least. Red Bull have been fined $50,000 for that, and quite right too.

Very definitely not right is the 10 place grid penalty handed out to Vettel for forcing Kubica off the track. As far as I’m concerned, it’s as much Kubica’s fault for being in that position in the first place. It’s yet more evidence that the FIA stewards are only interested in bureaucracy, and are not interested in allowing the drivers to race.

All-in-all, Vettel had a disappointing weekend. He had to pull over with mechanical problems on Friday morning, and went on to spin off in the afternoon. He put in a strong qualifying performance to clinch 3rd on the grid, but his incident with Kubica was another black mark. Now there is a debate over whether his apologising shows that he doesn’t have a Champion’s menatlity.

Lewis Hamilton has been somewhat overshadowed by the fairytale of Brawn. Expectations were low as a result of McLaren producing a dog of a car this year. But with the spotlight turned away, Hamilton put in an excellent drive to make his way up to 3rd. You’d say there was attrition to help him, but there weren’t really that many retirements. All things considered, given the expectations McLaren must be chuffed to be 2nd in the Constructors’ Championship and sitting on 6 points to Ferrari’s zero.

As for Ferrari, they had a disastrous start, made all the worse by the fact that they weren’t expected to have a particularly bad race. Kimi Räikkönen was supposed to come back with renewed vigour. But he clumsily clattered the wall in a way which was very reminiscent of his worst moments of 2008. Meanwhile, Massa fell foul of a mechanical failure, confirming that Ferrari do not yet have a reliable enough car.

Toyota showed flashes of promise. The way both Trulli and Glock came through the pack after starting from the pitlane bodes well for the race pace of the car. Jarno Trulli’s 25s penalty seems harsh and there is some controversy surrounding it. It is true that the punishment doesn’t really fit the crime, but it was all the stewards could do in the circumstances.

Toro Rosso must be absolutely delighted with the way the race went for them. It may be as a result firstly of the Kubica–Vettel crash and secondly Jarno Trulli’s penalty, but they have scored 3 points and were the only team except Brawn to have two points finishes. I reckon Toro Rosso will find it very difficult to score many more points, but this is an excellent start to their campaign. It is also worth noting that rookie Sébastien Buemi put his team-mate Sébastien Bourdais in the shade this weekend.

Williams failed to fulfil the promise shown during practice. Kazuki Nakajima spoiled his race by slamming into the wall early on. Meanwhile, Nico Rosberg’s strong performance was totally ruined by his inability to make the soft tyres work for him. That may be a problem with the Williams car, in which case the team may be doomed as a result of the greater difference between tyre compounds this season. Nevertheless, 6th place is not a bad result.

For what it’s worth, I like the greater difference between compounds, and the on-track events this weekend appears to indicate that the rule changes have worked in their attempt to spice up the action. But that’s for another post.

We have just about become comfortable with the concept of night races, after the success of last year’s Singapore Grand Prix. But in Bernie Ecclestone’s quest to have all races starting at a sociable hour in Europe, could he have inadvertently invented the dusk race?

There were a couple of close calls last season. The season finale at Interlagos last year was strange enough. The fact that the entire circuit was plunged into complete darkness immediately after the chequered flag only added to it. The podium was lit, and the sky behind looked pitch black even with all of the techniques they can use on television to mitigate it.

The sun wasn’t even setting. Sunset was approximately 90 minutes after the end of the race. But heavy clouds ensured that if the race hadn’t finished, they may well have had to bring out the red flag anyway, so dark the place seemed.

It was a similar scenario during Friday Practice for the Italian Grand Prix last year. Even in the late morning, when the sun is high in the sky, a fierce storm gave teams a dry (okay, a very, very wet) run for the dark conditions they were to expect at the following race in Singapore.

In the past two yeras the start time of the Australian Grand Prix has been shifted from 1400 local time to 1530 last year to 1700 this year. The idea behind this is to have the race starting at 0700 British time (0800 CET), which is a smidgen more sociable than 0300.

I don’t know about you, but being a nightowl I much preferred the middle-of-the-night start. It felt like a special occasion, and for me it was all part of the romance and the excitement of the build-up to the start of the season.

Sometimes ITV put on a special night of programming building up to it. No such thing from the BBC this year of course. A “grand prix night” is a bit redundant when the grand prix is on in the morning. This is a missed marketing opportunity, showing once again that Bernie is not quite as smart as he thinks he is.

But does the later start also have implications for safety? The evening start is a messy compromise. Bernie wanted a night race, but the Australian GP organisers refused. So they met in the middle.

That’s all very well in normal circumstances. The race starts at 1700. So the sun will be pretty low, but it will still be daylight.

But what if something unforeseen happens? The start of last year’s Brazilian Grand Prix was delayed by fifteen minutes. If the race has to be stopped, that will add more time as well. On top of all this, the race may be anything up to two hours long (and that excludes any stoppages for red flags).

On 29 March 2009 the sun sets in Melbourne at 1918. Let’s say the formation lap takes three minutes. If the two hour time limit is reached, cars could still conceivably be running at racing speeds at 1905 (for the time it takes for the leader to reach the finish line, then the cars on the lead lap to complete that lap). Then there is the in-lap. If, for some reason, the red flag has to come out, they would only be able to take ten or fifteen minutes maximum to be sure that the race will be completed with the sun still in the sky.

It is an unlikely scenario. The two hour time limit is seldom reached, and a lengthy race stoppage is thankfully also rare. But the possibility exists. I’m surprised not to have seen anyone else mention this. Can the drivers, marshals and spectators be sure that all of the appropriate precautions have been taken?

Could the Australian Grand Prix be the first ever dusk race?