Brazilian Grand Prix 2009 Part 2- 27/10/09

With the celebrations in full swing at Interlagos, and Jenson Button having been on fire as opposed to his ‘08 Honda, it was easy to forget what else transpired in Brazil. Excluding Michael Schumacher’s memorable charge through the Interlagos field during his 2006 swansong, the last time we saw such an impressive aggressive scalpel cut through the field was Nico Rosberg on his Bahrain debut in the same year. On the way to setting the fastest lap of the race, we were afforded a glimpse of a future champion, or so we thought. But is it fair to have expected Nico to have achieved more in the three and a half years since then?

This season has predictably been a case of horses for courses, and Williams’s constant early season chart-topping practice performances flattered to deceive. Having said that, Rosberg has produced a consistent string of good points finishes just short of a podium during a season where many teams have had flashes of frontrunning competitiveness. What is not in question is that having been fastest in Q2 and running in a podium position, Williams and Rosberg should have left Brazil with more than one broken gearbox and Nakajima’s crushed FW31.

Nakajima was helped into race and possibly career retirement by Toyota debutant Kamui Kobayashi, who despite that ‘racing incident’ had a promising weekend. His positive exposure was of course helped awfully by the fact that his most noteworthy battle was with the world champion elect, but Kamui didn’t disappoint. He fought Button without a hint of appearing out of his depth, not to mention having qualified in an accomplished 11th place. Toyota will have been eager to have Glock back in the car for Abu Dhabi as it will be the sort of track that suits his abilities. As Kobayashi remains in the Toyota, his undoubtedly impressed employers will ask for more care and courtesy in braking zones, Kamui has already made his point and his claim. It should not however be forgotten that Nakajima himself made an interesting debut at Interlagos not so long ago, and is now staring an F1 exit full in the face. Longevity and success in Formula 1 is about much more than a memorable debut, something Nico Rosberg knows all too well.

The second Toyota of Jarno Trulli and Adrian Sutil’s Force India were involved in another quite spectacular ‘racing incident’ very early on that also accounted for Fernando Alonso’s Renault. The resulting safety car rescued Lewis Hamilton and Kimi Raikkonen’s afternoon. Hamilton was able to use a stop under safety car conditions to effectively eliminate the weaker tyre stage and move onto a strong one stop strategy. Starting 17th, finishing 3rd and passing a desperate Rubens Barrichello was also worthy of being called a champion’s drive. It’s a shame that Lewis’s pass on Rubens resulted in a puncture for the home favourite, effectively handing the title to Button. On the podium, it seemed that Hamilton was bereft of any joy amidst the realisation that he was no longer the world champion, no longer driver of car number 1.

Aside from world championships, big screen debuts, massive crashes and pitlane flash fires, someone actually won the race. Mark Webber qualified his Red Bull second with a strategic fuel load, allowed Rubens to lead the first stint and passed him during the pitstops while the entertainment unfolded behind him. Webber’s whole weekend and race victory was massive for him, but as events transpired, somewhat inconsequential in the closing context of 2009. This is a shame because as all eyes were elsewhere, he was quietly achieving what people had placed far above him throughout his career. Presumably, with a fully healed leg and race victories now under his belt, an improved 2010 Red Bull (Cosworth?) will be Webber’s last chance at a championship. One feels however that if the next Adrian Newey creation is a reliable frontrunner, it will be championed by Sebastian Vettel, who has silently transformed from a Little Britain-quoting darling of the paddock to a very serious and intense Formula 1 driver, worthy of all the fear and respect the others can afford.

Brazilian Grand Prix 2009 - 26/10/09

It´s the Brazilian Grand Prix and the home favourite, the title challenger, started on pole position. The Englishman in car 22 is within touching distance of his first world championship. Inevitably it ends in heartbreak for the thousands of Paulistas gathered there to cheer on He Who Would Emulate Ayrton. The Englishman in his British car and its German heart finished 5th, finally having passed the labouring but impressive and combative Toyota, but behind the flying young German wonderkid and his energy drink, the star of the future. That was 2008.

In 2009, history saw fit to shatter those collected hearts once more as Jenson Button driving a Brawn Mercedes joined Lewis Hamilton and his McLaren Mercedes on the champions´ list. This was no cruise-to-collect drive though, Button forcefully and purposefully overcame the obstacles of his own creation to seal the title in resonating fashion. Some called it a champion’s drive, and certainly pulling off that many aggressive overtaking moves with so much at stake, climbing from 14th to 5th in the process was the mark of a tremendous driver. However, in a slightly alternate championship context it could have been viewed so differently. After all, without Barrichello’s puncture, all 3 of Button’s title rivals would have finished ahead of him with Vettel even getting in front having started behind.

As it was though, the championship situation was such that Jenson only needed to come home with a handful of points to wrap up the prize, and instead he blasted his way through the midfield and into respectable points. Despite Rubens starting on pole and scampering away, despite Webber’s magnificent chase and overhaul of Barrichello, despite Hamilton’s incredible rise from 17th to 3rd, Jenson hogged the camera and thrilled with his textbook manoeuvres which is more than can be said for Trulli and Sutil, Rubens and Lewis, Kobayashi and Nakajima. Button’s recent woeful qualifying performances remain the sole question mark over an otherwise faultless campaign.

How deserving Button is of the title has somehow become a topic of debate in the latter half of the year. Undoubtedly, world champions in their hallmark season are expected to challenge for race wins at practically every meeting, but Button’s pace in qualifying has restricted him to midfield starts and mountains to climb on race day. A string of 9 races yielding only one podium stands in stark contrast to six wins out of seven races at the start of the season. Nevertheless, mountains he has climbed. Button has on nearly every occasion moved forward during the race and kept out of trouble, constantly putting pressure on his title rivals to push it as far as it can go because they know Jenson will always score points and barring the odd Grosjean, finish.

Facts are nice, they can support either side of the argument for a worthy champion. As well as the aforementioned downturn in race victories, the facts show that in his championship season Button has so far won more races and had more fastest laps than Hamilton did in 2008, he’s had fewer penalties, he hasn’t caused any controversial accidents or performed any questionable race antics. As expected, Hamilton’s qualifying record is better in his championship year than Button’s, 7 poles to 4. This season alone Button has twice as many wins as his nearest competitor (Vettel), the same number of poles and fastest laps as his nearest competitor (Vettel), but you know what they say about statistics. The overall picture, and fact, is that Jenson Button is the most deserving recipient of the World Championship this year. How that stacks up against previous world championship campaigns by drivers such as Fernando Alonso, Kimi Raikkonen, Michael Schumacher and Mika Hakkinen however, is a different story.

Italian Grand Prix 2009 - 17/09/09

Beneath the growing shadow of Renault’s race-fixing allegations, the 2009 Italian Grand Prix took place. This was a race of returns. The return on McLaren’s enormous investment into the originally woeful MP-4/24 was a return for Lewis Hamilton to the front of the grid in recent events, re-united with Adrian Sutil on the front row of a race event at Monza. The return of the Brawn team to the top steps of the podium in 2009, which has sounded the death knell for Red Bull’s championship aspirations. The return of the old Jordan crew, now Force India, to giant-killing ways has led to the return of Vitantonio Liuzzi to the limelight in Formula 1. Finally the return of the ghost of Nelson Piquet Jr’s 2008 Singapore GP has resulted in the resignation of Flavio Briatore and Pat Symonds. In fact, just about the only team not making headlines at the Italian Grand Prix was Ferrari.

From 1st and 4th on the Monza grid, McLaren would have expected better than having Hamilton leapfrogged by the Brawns and subsequently binning it on the last lap as well as having Kovalainen suffer such a catastrophic opening stint. Heikki and McLaren failed to make his one stop strategy benefit them over the race distance in the way that Barrichello, Button and Raikkonen were able to profit from theirs, adding to the ever-growing list of disappointing race day outcomes for the McLaren No.2. Lewis delivered all that could be expected of him in his first and second stints, and even for the best part of the third stint. Opinion is very split down the middle as to the wisdom of Hamilton’s end of race rampage and the subsequent shrapnel. While many have flocked to the defence of World Champion Hamilton’s unyielding racing spirit, equally as many have questioned the risking of 6 driver’s and constructor’s points in addition to the associated financial bonus and podium glory on the last lap when Button was seemingly uncatchable. On the one hand you can understand that his competitors realise he will push beyond a reasonable limit right up until the very last yard and that has its benefits for Hamilton, but on the other hand it has granted them a psychological footnote that on the ragged edge, at a crucial time in a race even with full focus, Lewis is still capable of dropping the ball spectacularly. One thing you cannot dispute is the entertainment value of having a driver like this in F1, and any attraction to the racing side of the sport is thoroughly welcome this season.

Conversely, Brawn GP will be ecstatic at how the Monza weekend unfolded for them. Their textbook execution of a smart one-stop strategy beginning with a positive and forceful opening lap for both Barrichello and Button has catapulted them once again into the sole championship spotlight. Rubens had the better weekend, qualifying ahead of Button with a lap more worth of juice and making the tyres work for him throughout the stints, unlike Button who struggled in the opening section of each stint only to find better pace towards the latter half of each segment. While Brawn may secretly have hoped for Jenson to take the lion’s share of the points in order to tie up both championships as soon as possible thereby allowing them to focus entirely on next year, Rubens winning races and showing his most ebullient racing colours can only be good for overall team morale and Formula 1. Seeing a downtrodden, suspicious Rubens end his career in the shadow of his teammate (again) is far less preferable than having two previously forgotten drivers going at it hammer and tongs for the rest of the season in marvellous machinery while having the greatest of respect for each other. Those who are supporting Jenson will also be greatly heartened to see him defeat a resurgent Barrichello in the final races of the season and really wrap up the title in style. Melbourne-style, Bahrain-style, Barcelona-style, Turkey-style, Monaco-style. Jenson had the last (unintentional) Monza laugh though when he inadvertently questioned the sexual persuasion of the second Lesmo corner during the TV press conference. Watch and listen carefully to the world feed at around 2’33.

This week’s episode of the Ferrari vs Force India war was waged between Kimi Raikkonen and Adrian Sutil. In hindsight one cannot help but feel that a lap or two’s worth of extra fuel may really have paid dividends for Sutil seeing as how Kimi was always going to rocket ahead of him and the way things went for Kovalainen and his cumbersome fuel load. An extra lap on low fuel for Sutil could have made all the difference. As it happens though, when Sutil is facing the possibility of points and there is a hint of Kimi in the air, he must hit something. Sure enough, the unfortunate recipient was one of Sutil’s own pit crew. With Ferrari and Raikkonen also botching their pit stop, this was the moment that slick Force India pitwork would have reaped the sweetest reward, but it was not to be. BBC’s featured coverage of Force India pit stops to the calming soundtrack of Sigur Ros in their pre-race build-ups may well need to be broadcast in the Force India briefings! Unwarranted ridicule aside, this was a tremendous result and follow-up performance by Force India when you consider the mightily impressive return of Tonio Liuzzi in the sister car. Qualifying 7th on his 2009 debut and going so well in the race, he deserved better than a retirement. Liuzzi has however placed himself firmly back on the F1 map, capably occupying the seat vacated by Ferrari newboy Fisichella whose own Italian GP weekend was undoubtedly disappointing for him.

No current piece of F1 writing is complete without a mention of the Renault race-fixing scandal sadly, and the consequences of the aftermath will be long-remembered. Fernando Alonso’s name is once again linked to thoroughly distasteful sporting malpractice after a painful season spent rebuilding a tarnished reputation. One hopes for his sake and that of F1 that what emerges over the next few days does not tar him the way Michael Schumacher’s transgressions coloured people’s view of his glittering and worthy career.

All eyes on Romain Grosjean at the 2009 Grand Prix of Singapore…

Late Season Thoughts - 12/09/09

After a conqueror’s start to the 2009 campaign, Jenson Button and Brawn GP have begun to face question marks being raised against their title credentials and overall worthiness of an inevitable championship. While recent results have brought his title run-in under unwelcomed scrutiny, Button is yet to throw away valuable points or wins by going off the circuit on the first lap and handing the lead to a rival, needlessly over-defending a position at the end of a race resulting in retirement and sacrificing a certain podium, engage the anti-stall on the starting grid multiple times, incur a race penalty through questionable driving and causing accidents, spin off during a wet race with a high attrition rate, try to have another driver and team penalised for unavoidable action under a safety car or publicly lambast his team strategy. Every win that was there for the taking has been taken. His is a championship lead earned and deserved, but regardless of all the above, history will judge his season on the smaller percentage that remains.

There have been some notable casualties in Formula 1 this year in all areas including drivers, management and even a whole manufacturer. Following McLaren’s Melbourne Muppetry, Ron Dennis stepped out of the light and Martin Whitmarsh, Dave Ryan and Lewis Hamilton rightfully bore the public brunt of their misdemeanour. This of course was conveniently being forgotten about until Renault’s recent issue with Nelson Piquet Jr reminded us what plagues F1. Piquet’s overdue sacking earned Romain Grosjean an early F1 baptism, but his debut outings were spared intense public analysis due to Luca Badoer’s woeful performances. Sebastien Bourdais made way for Jaime Alguersuari at Scuderia Toro Rosso to the simultaneous disappointment of some who felt the Frenchman never had the luck required on days where big results were possible, and the relief of those who believed there was no room in F1 for a downbeat so-called champion who could not convincingly show Buemi up as the rookie driver. Of all the departures, BMW-Sauber’s decision to withdraw from Formula 1 at the end of 2009 is the most disappointing. While it’s hard to ever class the BMW-Sauber operation as passionate, their measured positive-gradient-graph approach and success in F1 was great to see as a stark contrast to Scatter Graph Toyota.

Ferrari have demonstrated clearly that there is a right and a wrong time for charitable and emotional decision-making. The sentiments expressed by the team in the wake of Felipe Massa’s freak (and it was freak) accident in Hungary were touching and thoroughly believable. The decision to place Luca Badoer in a race seat for Valencia and Spa Francorchamps in Massa’s absence was slightly less believable. A driver who had, in a previous life, shown no spark of talent worthy of a Ferrari race seat and had been deprived of racing experience for a decade was clearly being rewarded for services rendered. Uncompetitive machinery can only go so far as an excuse since all other recent Ferrari drivers have shone in uncompetitive machinery at some point in their careers. While on the subject of Ferrari drivers’ careers, Kimi Raikkonen has gone from 6 non-scores out of 9 races to claiming three podium finishes on the trot, culminating in a customary yet harassed win at Spa. Giancarlo Fisichella, the driver responsible for the aforementioned harassment, will of course take the second Ferrari race seat from Monza onwards. One hopes this does not turn out to be yet another ill-advised charitable and sentiment-laced decision.