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!