Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Resurrection Man

So, from four, it looks like we are down to just two realistic contenders for the driver's World Title following the Italian Grand Prix. I had expected Red Bull to be right on the pace at Monza. Their car, after all, had been the class of the field at the very fast Silverstone race earlier in the year, and on balance, it appeared quicker than anything else around Spa - another very fast race track - a fortnight ago.

At Monza, it just didn't work out. Vettel looked to be seriously struggling for grip all afternoon and was lucky to score a single point after Hamilton committed hara-kiri on the final lap, trailing Nick Heidfeld's hitherto unfancied BMW Sauber. Mark Webber didn't even manage that - punted out by Heidfeld's team mate in a silly little accident at La Roggia on lap one. There was nothing, though, to suggest that he would have been any quicker than his young team mate on Sunday afternoon. If anything, Vettel had looked the faster of the two over the course of the weekend.

With Vettel now trailing Button by a massive 26 points with just 40 left on the table, and with both Red Bull drivers struggling for engines to go the rest of the season without grid penalty, there is now no way that either Red Bull driver can win the title. It is, I suppose, not quite beyond the bounds of possibility that Brawn could contrive to lose it - but as both Barrichello and Button would have to screw up, I doubt Ross Brawn is losing any sleep over the possibility.

It's all but certain that one of the two Brawn drivers, Rubens Barrichello and Jenson Button, will be World Champion by the year's end. A Brazilian up against an Englishman, for the second year on the trot. If you'd told me this time last year that it would end up that way, I wouldn't be too surprised - but I would have been rather taken aback if you then went and told me that Felipe Massa was out of action in hospital, while Lewis Hamilton lies a distant 7th in the title race, with not even a mathematical chance of retaining his crown.

Barrichello is the in form man, two wins from the last three races, quiceker than Button more often than not since, well since Button's remarkable winning run came to an end at Silverstone, back in early June. Button is the hunted, Barrichello the hunter, and it's no mystery that the latter is the psychologically easier position to be in - nothing to lose, and everything to gain. On the other hand, I'm sure Barrichello would happily sacrifice any psychological edge he might have for the 14 point cushion that his team mate is sitting on. In theory, all Button has to do is follow Barrichello home closely over the final four races and the title is his - providing nobody gets between the two of them.

Whichever of Barrichello or Button ends up World Champion, it will be quite a story. Let's not forget, after all, that at the beginning of the season, neither of them were certain of having a drive in F1 at all this year. Honda had unexpectedly pulled out of the sport, and at the height of the world economic crisis, it seemed unlikely that anyone would put up the cash to enable the hitherto unsuccessful squad to continue. After 9 years in the sport, Button was staring career oblivion in the face. A man whom, it seemed, had the talent but thanks to - what? a lack of killer instinct? simple poor timing? had never been in quite the right place at the right time and with but a single win to his name, it appeared that if the Honda squad didn't survive, he was more than likely bound for sportscars and a year on the sidelines. Nearing 30, there was serious chance his career would never recover from such a blow. Then, of course, he went and won six of the opening seven races of the year. He might not have won since, but it might still be enough to bring him the World Title. And how many would have bet on that during the Christmas holidays?

In a way, though, it would be an even bigger story, even more of a comeback from seemingly the point of no return, if Rubens Barrichello were to clinch the title. It seems he's been around forever. And he has been around for a very long time. He was racing back in the days of the original Lotus F1 team... and he might just hang on to see the new Malaysian-based team of the same name take its place on the grid next year.

Sixteen years ago, I was stood on the bank in the rain at the Craner Curves for the European Grand Prix. Everyone remembers Donington for Ayrton Senna's outstanding opening lap. But he was not the only Brazilian who put in a remarkable performance that day. Like Button he came into the sport young, and at the age of 20, he was set for a podium in only his third Grand Prix at the wheel of a Jordan Hart, until the fuel pump failed a few laps from the end.

It would be another seven years before he found himself at the wheel of a potentially race winning car - replacing former Jordan team mate Eddie Irvine at Ferrari. Unfortunately, he came into a team entirely built around Michael Schumacher, and while he was able to match, and even outpace him on occasion (more than can be said for most who were paired up with the German) he was never more than a number-2 at the team. To fail to win the title in five years at the team might suggest he wasn't a real first class driver, if it weren't for both his status as an outrider for Schumacher, and the simple misfortune of being paired with the best driver of his era throughout his time with the team.

His move to Honda looked like a bookend to a long career, and even before the Japanese manufacturer pulled out, there was talk that Barrichello's time with the team was up. In November, Honda were testing the young Brazilians, Bruno Senna and Lucas Di Grassi, and were reportedly particularly impressed with Ayrton's nephew. With KERS placing a greater importance on having a light driver at the wheel, and with Rubens one of the heaviest drivers on the grid (along with Kubica and Webber) it seemed more than likely that he would be dropped by the team.

So it was that Honda's withdrawal, far from ending his career, just might have thrown Barrichello a lifeline. The now-independent team, with little winter testing time, and without KERS, now needed an experienced pair of hands far more than it needed a young hotshoe who might or might not be the next great star, but who would certainly face a learning year. Brawn and Barrichello had worked for years together at Ferrari - Ross knew that Rubinho was nothing if not a safe pair of hands.

Nonetheless, in the opening races, it was clear that he didn't quite have the pace of his team mate, Button. At the season's midpoint, Barrichello had not won a single race, while Button had won six. At Barcelona and at the Nurburgring, it all appeared to be getting to him. Reportedly unpaid, he was damned if he was going to turn up merely in order to provide the same service to Button that he had to Schumacher for all those years. But a part of him wondered if Brawn was again, quietly and covertly, subjugating Barrichello's interests to those of his team mate.

After his outburst at the Nurburgring, I half wondered whether he would even see out the season - it seemed like a sad end to a man who could be as quick as anyone on his day. Remember Silverstone 2003 - and remember that the cause of the furore at Austria in 2002 was that he had been plain faster than Schumacher all afternoon. But rather than go away and sulk, he dug in and found his form, just as his team mate, Button, was beginning to struggle with his. And now, with four races to go, he's driving as well as he ever has done, and he has an outside shot at becoming the oldest World Champion since Alain Prost, back in 1993. It really would be some story if he pulls it off...

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