Tortoises and Hares
Brawn GP were quickest out of the blocks at the end of March and Jenson Button has won three of the first four races. However, after looking unassailable at the opening race, perhaps 3 quarters of a second a lap quicker than anyone else, their margin of superiority looked much reduced in Bahrain last weekend. Toyota, benefiting from a decision to run the cars relatively light in qualifying, and from Jarno Trulli's superlative single-lap speed, locked out the front row, but in terms of fuel-corrected pace, it was probably Sebastian Vettel's Red Bull which was fastest in qualifying. Had he not got stuck behind Lewis Hamilton's Mclaren early on, which subsequently left him boxed up behind Jarno Trulli's Toyota while it lost time on the harder compound tyres during their second stints, he might well have been able to take the fight to Button. Certainly, Brawn no longer appear to have the kind of advantage that enabled Button to run away from the field at Albert Park and it seems that Red Bull and, to a lesser extent, Toyota, are leading the charge.
It seems that already at both Red Bull and Brawn, a kind of unofficial Number 1 driver appears to have emerged. Rubens Barrichello generally looked quicker than Button at Honda last year, but has been unable to match him in the opening races of this season. As has long seemed the case, in a bad car, like last year's Honda or the 2001 Renault, Button is usually outclassed by his team mate, but in a good car, he's hard to beat. Whether this is down to a lazy streak in his nature, as Flavio Briatore seemed to hint back in his Renault days, or whether it is simply that his smooth, unfussy style gets the best out of a good car, while leaving him floundering with a poorly-sorted car that requires a more improvisational approach, is hard to say. He's certainly getting the best out of Ross Brawn's latest creation though.
Over at Red Bull, it has been the young Vettel who has led the team's charge. His advantage over Webber in terms of pure pace is small, if he has one at all (he has generally looked a mite quicker in qualifying) but Webber's year has been beset by small misfortunes. The first-lap collision with Kovalainen which left his car compromised for the afternoon, the race stoppage just as things were beginning to turn his way in Malaysia and the contre-temps with Adrian Sutil in qualifying at Bahrain which left him with an impossible task on Sunday. I'm not sure that Vettel is really any quicker, but his win at Shanghai and strong second place in Bahrain (he would have had a podium in Australia had he not collided with Kubica too) mean he's the man with the momentum behind him, and will surely be getting priority for any new parts and first call on strategy and fuel loads. Mark Webber's bid to be the 21st Century's Chris Amon continues unabated...
So will it be a straight fight between Vettel and Button for the World Title in 2009? I doubt it. Behind the battle between the Virgin emblazoned Brawn of Jenson Button and 'Kate's Dirty Sister' (I can't help feeling there's a good one liner in there somewhere) Toyota have been looking very racy. The Japanese team have been around for the best part of a decade, sometimes near the front of the midfield, sometimes nearer the back, but rarely really threatening the front-runners. In the opening races of this year, though, it looks as if they might have turned the corner. Had they got their strategy right in Bahrain, rather than running the slower hard compound tyres in the middle stint, handing Button track position, they might well have taken their first win.
Over the season as a whole, they might be a better bet than Red Bull or Brawn, too. Those first two teams are private, customer-engined teams and while they appear well-funded, they don't have the kind of financial resources that the world's biggest car maker can bring to bear if it chooses. In past seasons, Toyota haven't been quite close enough to the front for that to make any difference, and the front runners, particularly Ferrari and Mclaren, have had equally great resources. 2009, though, just might represent the team's best chance for the team to achieve some kind of return on the massive investment they've made - though they're going to have to be sharper than they were in the race at Bahrain.
So, will the 2009 season be a battle in which the leaner and more nimble Brawn and Red Bull teams have come off the blocks quickly and will fight a rear-guard action against the perhaps more cumbersomely run but ultimately richer and better-resourced Toyota squad? Maybe, but maybe not. The real big guns, Mclaren and Ferrari, have both started the year in disarray. The Mclaren was initially hopeless, utterly lacking in downforce and over a second off the pace. Lewis Hamilton came within an ace of a lucky podium in the opening race all the same, but threw it away by being economical with the truth to the stewards (and I don't care if he was under instructions from Dave Ryan or anyone else in the team - he had the option of simply telling the truth. A week later, this was followed by the firing of Ryan, the resignation of Dennis and rumours that there had been a rift between Hamilton (or his father) and the team. Then came the summons to the FIA World Council meeting today, just in case the team weren't unsettled enough.
It was noticeable that in Shanghai, Mclaren as a team and Hamilton in particular seemed a little out of sorts. He threw the car off the road on more than one occasion and for the first time that I can recall, ended up beaten by his team mate in a straight fight. A week later, both Hamilton and Mclaren bounced back in Bahrain, mixing it with the Toyotas and Red Bulls, his deficit to the front-runners seemingly down to about 3 tenths of a second. If the team can make up that much time that quickly, then one has to wonder how long it will be before they catch, and pass, the three teams at the front.
Ferrari's start to the season might have been less chaotic and unsettled than Mclaren's, but they have been struggling with an unusual problem with their new F60 - unreliability. Mechanical problems eliminated both cars in the first race, Raikkonen in Malaysia and Massa in China. This from a team which in the Schumacher era seemed all but immune to car failures. On top of that, the car has hardly been scintillatingly fast. They've usually been floating around the edges of the top 10, which is hardly what Maranello has come to expect.
Some might wonder whether this is a sign that Ferrari is reverting back to type in the post-Schumacher, Todt and Brawn era. I'd caution against such an interpretation, though. Like Mclaren, they may be suffering from having thrown everything at trying to clinch the 2008 title while others were working on their 2009 cars, and I think that as the season goes on, Mclaren and Ferrari will make up considerable ground,
Enough to put them in contention for the title? Maybe. As with Renault and BMW Sauber, who have also struggled unexpectedly, they are running KERS. Perhaps KERS has turned out to be a blind alley, but it is equally possible that teams simply haven't quite got to grips with it yet and that as the season wears on, those who have been using KERS from the beginning will see things come their way. If nothing else, it already offers a significant advantage away from the line, often enabling drivers to snatch two or three places from non-KERS cars in front. And in spite of moves to improve overtaking opportunities, track position still counts for a lot in modern F1, as we saw all too clearly last weekend.
Quite possibly, the pattern for the year as a whole is one of Brawn coming out of the box very quickly, with Red Bull and Toyota chasing them down over the following races, and with Ferrari and Mclaren - the slow starters - chasing Toyota and Red Bull in turn. Assuming, of course, that BMW and Renault remain stuck in the midfield, which I wouldn't necessarily take as read. It's like a post-modern version of Aesop's fable about the tortoise and the hare. Except that in F1, track position counts for a lot, and given the choice, I'd take a 30 point championship lead and a well-sorted car over a superior engineering base or more money for development parts. It's advantage Button, but there's still much to play for.