The championship changes focus

Brawn GP have had about a month in the spotlight. With their Lazarus-like rebirth, their fairytale Melbourne victory and the diffuser controversy, no-one has been able to stop talking about them. The dominance of their performance in Melbourne led many to suspect that Brawn would have at least the first few races completely wrapped up.

But already in Sepang there were signs that the Brawn supremacy was not quite as large as it had seemed. Although Jenson Button won the race, Rubens Barrichello rued his 4th place finish. Then in China Brawn had to make do with a 3-4 rather than the 1-2 they will have been aiming for.

It is easy to write this off as a temporary blip. The Red Bull is clearly an awesome car in the wet. We saw this also in Sepang, when Mark Webber absolutely flew once it started to rain. This has been a trait of Red Bull cars for a few years now, and it even continues in spite of the radical changes to the technical regulations this year.

Fuel-corrected qualifying times show that Brawn still had the advantage over one lap in the dry. But nonetheless, Red Bull’s pace must be giving Brawn cause for concern. The car is also nifty in the dry, as we saw in Melbourne where Sebastian Vettel was running in 2nd for almost the entire race until his crash with Robert Kubica.

What’s more, Red Bull are now hard at work creating a double diffuser which will probably be on the car come Monaco or Turkey. There is already a question mark over whether Brawn will have the resources to continue to develop the car. Red Bull have a big area that they still haven’t exploited, yet they are already in a position to win races.

So congratulations to Red Bull, Sebastian Vettel and Mark Webber. What a transformation from last year’s damp squib. To think that there were rumours that Christian Horner was going to get the sack. Not any more!

Red Bull are among the most likeable teams, and Seb and Mark are two charismatic drivers. It has been noted before that this year’s press conferences are much better now that there are personable, chatty drivers finishing in the top three.

At the opposite end of the grid, an equally novel presence — Ferrari. Although the Scuderia can seek solace from the fact that Massa was running quite well until his retirement, the fact is that Ferrari are currently dogged by reliability problems and are not in a position to win races, never mind the championship. Now they have failed to score a point, though they have at least leapfrogged Force India. Nonetheless, this their worst start to the season since 1980. Ominously, that was the start of a 21 year long Championship drought for Ferrari.

Once again I must make the point that this makes McLaren look as though they are having a great season. Lewis Hamilton was racy in the first half of the race in China, no doubt using his kers to good effect. But later on he dropped off, constantly falling off track and spinning. This seems to be a return of his trait of poor tyre management.

In the end, the steadier Heikki Kovalainen leapfrogged him while he was off-track — the icing on the cake of a lacklustre race for Hamilton. 4th in the Constructors’ Championship is not quite the unmitigated disaster this season promised to be for McLaren. It seems as though the car is dire over one lap, but its race pace is not so bad.

One of the teams that McLaren has unexpectedly outshone so far is Renault. I feel deeply sorry for the way Alonso’s race unfolded. Renault opted for a bold and aggressive strategy by filling Alonso light. But this unravelled as the race was — unnecessarily, in my view — started behind the safety car.

This gave Alonso no chance to build up a gap as intended. Indeed, matters were compounded by the fact that Alonso took a pit stop at just the wrong time. This meant that effectively Alonso started the race from the back, rather than second as intended. The fact that Alonso made it back up to 9th by the end of the race is to be applauded.

Alonso’s team mate Nelsinho Piquet provided an excellent demonstration of just why he is not Formula 1 material. It is difficult to guess which F1 driver will get the sack first. There are two other prime candidates in my view.

First is Giancarlo Fisichella, who rumour has it is beginning to try the patience of the Force India team. Fisichella has been largely anonymous so far this season, apart from the moment where he forgot where his pit box was, to much embarrassment. In comparison, Adrian Sutil was running a highly credible 6th on merit when he aquaplaned off the circuit in Shanghai. Had he finished, it would have caused major embarrassment for Ferrari, who would have been the only team yet to score a point.

The third driver who must be hoping to improve soon is Sébastien Bourdais. I thought he should have been given another year to properly assess his abilities. The Frenchman promised he would be better on slicks. Well, now we have slicks — and he has failed to up his game.

He is being totally outclassed by this season’s only rookie, Sébastien Buemi. He showed moments of serious talent in Shanghai, including a bold overtaking move on Kimi Räikkönen. In the end, Buemi could not stop himself from having the occasional off, but he still managed to finish 8th.

Not many suspected that Buemi would be a star of F1 based on his GP2 performances. Mike Gascoyne (who, incidentally, was excellent on the BBC this weekend — could he be our Steve Matchett?) said something to this effect. I was first seriously impressed by Buemi after watching him in last year’s GP2 sprint race at Magny Cours. During that race he ploughed his way through the field, making Bruno Senna look a bit ordinary. That was also a wet race. Is Buemi therefore a wet weather specialist, not unlike his fellow Red Bull protégé Vettel?

Final word — what on earth happened to Toyota’s pace? And Williams for that matter. So much for the advantages of the double decker diffuser!

5 comments

  1. Renault gambled with Fernando. If the race would have been in the dry, Fernando would have started with extra-soft tires. That should have gave him the opportunity to build a big enough gap before the first pit stop.
    As soon as I saw the rain I (together with the Spanish fans) realized that everything was lost.

  2. Hmm, that’s an interesting one Neil. I think the jury’s out on Nakajima. He kept up with Nico Rosberg in the Championship for most of last year, though he does have a tendency to have unnecessary crashes. One advantage that Nakajima has over Fisichella is that he helps Williams pay for an engine supply. Plus, Fisichella is the one who dangerously drove over the top of Nakajima in Turkey last year…

  3. Frankly a disaster of a race, whether it’s the fault of the FIA for starting at least one Far Eastern race at a time the locals know to be a monsoon, at the monsoon time of year, or whether it was just the foibles of the monsoon season is up for debate. I would suggest it’s Bernie Ecclestones compulsion with the greenback and Mosleys compulsion to manipulate more events that make them conspire to ignore the actual racing in the hope that none of the paying public will notice.

    I have heard numerous rave reviews about the most exciting season ever in F1 and the only thing I find stimulating is that Jenson Button has at last found a car to match his much underused talents.

    Already the season is mired in controversy and it’s only race three, this isn’t motor racing, this is a joke. The racing is percieved to be exciting by the uninformed because the FIA are manipulating and micro managing every possible circumstance to artificially create a level playing field.

    Take the tyres, firstly we have the ludicrous situation where teams are compelled to use different compounds of tyre; fine you may think, that makes sense unless the precise compound of tyre is prescribed by, no, not the people who should know, Bridgestone, but by the FIA, tyres deemed by Renault to be only useful for 8 laps of Shanghai. Furthermore, with no in season testing, how can teams be expected to improve the cars performance other than simply chucking money at new parts tested on the cars during practise, qualy and the race. Which teams can afford that level of resource I wonder?

    Then there is qualifying, for no good reason we are having to tolerate stupid, restrictive fuel level controls but we’re still in the situation where the lightest car on the grid qualifys second, what is the difference between that and allowing the cars to run what they want? Are our grids any different than they were when we allowed teams to fuel the cars as they want? light for qualifying and then run what fuel strategy they want for the race; by all means publish the race weights but the current situation is over complicated and simply implemented so the bureaucrats can play at management and justify their ego inflated existence.

    Talking rubbish am I? how about cars out of the top ten being allowed to use what level of fuel they want to enhance their strategy, how on earth does that enhance the sport or even make the playing field moderately level, half way through the season we will have competitive McLarens and Renaults (Ferrari’s are another matter) so if Alonso or Hamilton have a pants qualy session they are allowed a fuel strategy that provides them considerable advantages over the other cars from eleventh down.

    And then there is KERS, is it any coincidence that the teams running the technology from year one are the wealthiest in the paddock. The watchword for 2009 was ‘cost saving’ (OK its two words) yet they are imposing a costly technology on teams to aid overtaking despie the yanks kicking ‘push to pass’ overboost into touch years ago. And what really amuses me is that the teams with the money to afford KERS are allowed to carry 30Kg extra weight and given 80bhp more for the privilege. The poorer teams are, however (and please correct me if I’m wrong here) given a 30Kg weight penalty (to make up for not gaining an 80bhp advantage from fitting KERS) and everyone cites moveable ballast as the compensation. How idiotic does the FIA think the public is?

    How about driver aids, I see the teams now have special soft rubber steering wheel cases for when the cars come into the garages and the wheel is removed. The wheels are so expensive because of all the electronics on them it would be a major disaster if one were dropped, we’re soon going to get to the situation where drivers don’t care about a number one or number two car, they will be taking their number one steering wheel to bed with them. Evidently Lewis Hamilton familiarises himself with the wheel by practising with it concealed in a bag. I watched the Clark documentary the other night where his method of driving faster was to concentrate harder on the rudiments of driving, changing gear properly, using the throttle better, steering more accurately etc. “then I went faster without trying”. His steering wheel didn’t even have MoMo on it!

    On another forum I proposed scrapping downforce altogether to save money, increase safety and add to the racing spectacle. I was lambasted by every ‘expert’ on the site. Every one of them claimed it wasn’t possible, it would be more dangerous, cars would take off, we would be going back 40 years and F3 cars would be quicker. Then I watched the documentary on Jackie Stewart and was mesmerised watching him drift his Tyrrell through corners. The car had wings but they were of the 1970’s type, looked good but probably didn’t do much. I watched his steel suspension wishbones move as they had to deal with road irregularities, but now we have carbon fibre wishbones, Ayrton Senna was killed by one, remember? and so they tethered the wheels to the chassis in the event of an accident but someone lost a wheel in Shanghai, was anything said? did the FIA instigate a safety inquiry? No, they continued their pathetic withchunt into someone who lied about a recorded conversation.

    I don’t want the bad old days of the 70’s back, and we don’t need them but something has to be done to liberate F1 or we will lose it forever as audiences dwindle and even we ‘knowledgeable’ hardcore abandon it for more credible alternatives.

    F1 is about design freedom, its quite simple really, the ability to go round a given piece of tarmac as quickly as humanly possible using whatever technology is available. OK, the drivers demand safety, quite rightly, so cars are well built and tracks have Armcos and gravel traps.

    The last recession (80/90’s for those of us that don’t remember) decimated the grid and taught us to save cost, then we ignored the lesson and cost went into orbit so engine development was restricted and V10’s were the order of the day, but diffusers and flat floor technology wasn’t the be all and end all so downforce went the same way as costs, ballistic. But nothing changed, it was still Ferrari, McLaren, Renault and the occasional minnow that won races. More expense, more regulations, and technology to overcome the regulations, and now were squabbling about someone in F1 telling lies! a distraction from more regulations?……No, surely not!

  4. I heard that remark by Gascoyne on Buemi’s GP2 performance. Thing is if you look at his performance from the point of view of consistent improvement throughout the course of the season then he really was quite impressive. Especially when you consider the lengths Senna and Pantano were going to throw the championship away…