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.