Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Straws in the Wind

Things have been moving quickly these last few days in the world of F1. On Saturday morning, I'd been planning to put together a little piece about how Jaime Alguersuari was faring as the youngest man ever to start a Grand Prix. By the conclusion of qualifying, that story had rather been overtaken by Felipe Massa's freak accident, which looks set to knock him out of action for the rest of the season. We can only be glad that the debris struck the side of his helmet as opposed to the visor, in which case he might not still have been with us at all.

The Hungarian GP itself didn't provide much entertainment, aside from Hamilton's as it turned out rather crucial pass of Mark Webber in the early laps on the exit of Turn One, so I got to pondering who might replace Massa at Ferrari for the rest of the season. I struggled to remember the names of their current test drivers to be honest (Luca Badoer and Marc Gene, in case your curiosity has been piqued) and I couldn't see either of them ending up in the car. I wondered instead whether the Scuderia might make a swoop for a current F1 driver. Robert Kubica, who hasn't seemed especially happy at BMW for a while, seemed a possibility.

The post-race penalty imposed on Renault for sending Alonso off down pit-road with a loose wheel-nut made me wonder if instead Ferrari had the Spaniard at the top of its wish list to replace Massa. With Renault seemingly out of the European Grand Prix at Valencia, and with it being Alonso's home race, it seemed all too possible that he might jump ship, especially as it's much rumoured he'll be heading over there in 2010 anyway.

Conspiracy theorists might wonder if the decision to penalise Renault (though not the driver who limped round the lap with a loose wheel. albeit to be fair he might not have known that the wheel was loose, as opposed to punctured) indicates that the FIA were somehow complicit in all this. After all, drivers have been sent out of the pits without wheels being properly secured plenty times in the past, it's just one of those things that happens from time to time.

To be fair, while it's possible, I'm not sure it's the most likely explanation. In the wake of Henry Surtees' tragic death at Brands Hatch the previous weekend, and in the light of Massa's practice crash, the stewards perhaps had reason to take an especially dim view of a team deliberately allowing a car with a wheel on the verge of flying off to continue back to pitlane. And besides, in these post-Todt, FOTA days, does the FIA really still stand for Ferrari International Assistance any longer?

What holed this particular theory below the water-line, though, was one of two further developments today - the news that Michael Schumacher will be returning to the cockpit to sub for Felipe Massa. To be honest I'm a little surprised that the German multiple world champion wants to get back into what does not look an especially competitive Ferrari, without the undisputed number 1 status. At the age of 40, he'll be by some margin the oldest driver to have competed in contemporary Formula 1 for a long time, and still nursing injuries picked up while motorcycle racing earlier in the year, it's not clear he's really at full fitness. Past returns by retired world champions - think Mansell at Mclaren in 1995 or Alan Jones in the admittedly uncompetitive Lola in 1986, have not gone well.

All the same, it will be interesting to see how he goes, even if it does perhaps threaten to overshadow what is fast becoming a very intriguing title battle between Jenson Button and the Red Bull pair of Mark Webber and Sebastian Vettel. It seems pretty clear that, even on hot days on circuits where mechanical grip counts for more than absolute aerodynamic efficiency, the Red Bull appears to be ahead in terms of pure pace now. On the other hand, Button has a very handy points advantage, and provided that Rubens Barrichello can be made to recognise the reality of the situation, it is at least clear that only one of the Brawn drivers can realistically walk away with the driver's title, while it is far from obvious even which of the two Red Bull drivers the team would be better off backing if they wanted to.

Today's other story, of course, which just might overshadow even the return of Schumacher, is the news that BMW is to pull out of the sport. After four years as a full manufacturer team (having previously provided engines to Williams) the Swiss-German squad appeared to be making real progress last year, with Kubica winning his and their first race, and being in contention for the title until the penultimate race. They've gone dramatically backwards this year and it has been interesting that both Bernie Ecclestone and the FIA have insinuated that this lies behind their withdrawal from the sport.

Which is of course entirely possible. Teams that are winning don't tend to quit. Teams that are embarrassing the owners, on the other hand, like Honda last year, do. That said, BMW were a leading light in FOTA and it will be interesting to see what the impact of their withdrawal will be on the sport. Perhaps the most ominous reading is that their decision to quit has little to do with either the global economic picture or the team's current lack of competitiveness (which may after all be temporary) but is a judgment on the way that the sport is being run. Ecclestone's tasteless comments about Hitler, Max Mosley's seemingly deliberate combativeness, and perhaps now the nagging suspicion that if Jean Todt wins the forthcoming FIA elections, little will really change.

There remains the question, too, of whether BMW will be the last of the manufacturer teams to pull the plug. The vultures have been circulating over the Renault team for some time now, and the FIA's decision to ban them from the European Grand Prix for doing nothing that other teams haven't done down the years will hardly have done anything to encourage them to stay. Toyota continue to burn vast amounts of cash achieving relatively little - with that first win looking no more likely than it has. And if Dietrich Mateschitz ever decides that he's got better things to do, say once he's picked up a World Title for his Red Bull team, a real hole would be left in the sport.

That's perhaps accentuating the negative. After all, there's supposed to be three new teams coming in next year, and there were several others who applied for entries only to be turned down by the FIA (cynics suggest because when the FIA was playing poker with FOTA, it wanted to keep some credible 'would be' entries up its sleeve). If these teams were thinking of entering in their own right, and weren't mere paper tigers, it shouldn't be beyond the resources of one or two of them to pick up the pieces left behind by BMW and Renault. And that's if Peter Sauber doesn't retake the helm at his old team, and Flavio Briatore can't find a friendly billionaire to take over at Renault.

Interesting times, then. I only hope that it doesn't overshadow what is fast turning into yet another intriguing world title battle, both between Red Bull and Brawn, and between Webber, Button and Vettel. There are times when it seems the F1 world is focused more on next season that on what is happening on the circuit on a Sunday afternoon. Not surprising, perhaps, at this time of year when all but a few teams and drivers will know by now that this is not to be their year (Hamilton or Raikkonen could quite easily win all the season's remaining races without standing any realistic chance of taking the driver's title) but a shame if an intriguing fight between three drivers and two teams which have never before been in this position ends up being overlooked.

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