Friday, October 30, 2009

From Zeroes to Heroes - F1 2009 in Review - Part One

Part One - The New Stars and the Old Guard

What a strange, strange year it was. By season's end, we had got used to watching Brawn and Red Bull fighting it out for victories, but this time last year, if you had told me that the constructors and drivers titles would be fought out between a team that had never so much as won a Grand Prix before and one that didn't yet even exist in its current form, I wouldn't have taken you very seriously. And never mind this time last year, on the eve of the F1 season, the Guardian's F1 Season Guide declared that Jenson Button had about as much chance of winning a Grand Prix in the 2009 Brawn as he did with the VW Camper van he keeps at home.

For as long as I have been following the sport, it's been the rule that Grand Prix teams do not suddenly emerge from the wilderness of the lower reaches of the midfield and start challenging for World Championships. They slowly creep towards competitiveness and respectability, over a period of years, as Toleman/Benetton did between 1984 and 1994. Or else they gradually fall into decline, as with Lotus, which went from winning championships in the 1970s to ignominy and, finally, collapse, in the 1990s.

A number of factors came together this year with the result that things were a little different in 2009. Firstly, the most significant rules change since the banning of slick tyres in 1998, in fact perhaps the most significant rewrite of the technical rules since the banning of ground effect before the 1983 season, meant that the inbuilt advantage that the leading teams had from refining the same basic designs over many years - of always starting from a higher base than anyone else - was gone.

Secondly, gone are the days when, aside from a few big teams at the very front - Mclaren, Williams, Ferrari and Benetton/Renault, the rest were mere bit-part players, content to make up the numbers. All ten of the teams on this year's grid are large, serious operations with designs on winning races and even titles. Force India and Toro Rosso are small only relative to the size of such as Toyota and Mclaren. They have large factories and staff numbers well into three figures. A far cry from the days when the back end of the F1 grid was made up of such operations as the tiny AGS, who, in their early days, ran with a staff of just 7, operating from the filling station owned by team principal Henri Julien. The rules change provided a golden opportunity for the likes of previously struggling Honda to steal a march on their more established rivals. Whatever they might claim publicly, they are probably still kicking themselves back in Tokyo that they ducked the challenge.

It begs an intriguing question, though. If Honda had stayed in the game, would they, and Jenson Button, now be World Champions? On the face of it, if Brawn GP could do it, with no winter testing, after having to lay off many of their staff in order to make ends meet, and in spite of the last minute compromises required to shoehorn Mercedes' V8 into a car designed around the Honda power plant, then there is every chance that a full works Honda effort might have dominated in the manner of Ferrari in the early years of the decade, or Mclaren in the late 1980s.

But, but... If the car had been present at the earlier winter tests, might that have given rival teams a heads-up as to the key elements of the design that ensured that in the early races, it was as much as half a second a lap quicker than anything else - in particular their creative interpretation of the rules governing diffusers? After all, Brawn never looked quite the force they had been in the second half of the season, as more and more teams brought their own take on the double-diffuser concept along. And might the last minute change from the Honda V8 - widely reckoned the least powerful engine in 2008, to Mercedes, generally reckoned the strongest unit, have been a net advantage, even allowing for the butchering of the chassis required to fit it in to the Brawn? After all, while the differences between the performances of the engines is probably not great in this rev-restricted, 'performance equalised' era, it might have been enough to blunt Brawn's competitive edge and ensure they were scrabbling around for podiums, rather than winning everything in sight in the opening races of the season. And how much did Rubens Barrichello's vast experience of developing and setting up a car help? More than once, Button is reported to have gone down a cul-de-sac and ended up copying his team mate's set-up wholesale. Word was, before their sudden departure, Honda wanted one Bruno Senna in the car...

We'll never know, but that it all worked out must be no small credit to the genius - for once surely the right word - of Ross Brawn. It is said that he took the Honda job in part because he was miffed at having been passed over for the job of replacing Todt at Ferrari but surely he never thought that it would end in him winning the world title with a car bearing his own name?

It was his arch-rival Adrian Newey's team which ran him closest in the battle for the titles. It's a rivalry which stretches back over nearly 20 years now - Newey's Williams against Brawn's Benettons, Newey's Mclarens versus Brawn's Ferraris, and now Brawn's eponymous team were chased by Newey's Red Bulls. Red Bull were almost certainly another team to benefit from the major rules changes over the winter, even Newey having been unable to overcome the inbuilt head start Ferrari and Mclaren appeared to have under the old rules.

Had the decision regarding the legality of double diffusers gone the other way at the start of the year (remember that? quite a storm at the time as I recall...) I rather suspect that nobody would have got close to the Red Bulls this year. As it was, Newey's car was designed in such a way as to make it very difficult to simply 'bolt a double diffuser' on, and only when they produced the beginnings of a solution at Silverstone did their season really take off. As a generalisation, it appeared that on aerodynamic downforce, there was nothing to touch the Red Bulls by mid-season, but that they still struggled for pace through the slow and medium-speed corners in comparison with Brawn, and perhaps, Mclaren.

Nonetheless, a team which went into the season never having won a race ended up with 6 wins on the board, and kept themselves in the running for both titles until the penultimate race. They might have run Brawn still closer had they not been hampered by Renault engines which appeared neither as powerful nor as reliable as the Mercedes units in the Brawns. Mateschitz and Newey might ponder too, whether Vettel might have been World Champion had he not thrown away points with silly mistakes in Australia and Monaco. Probably he still wouldn't quite have outscored Button, but who knows...

Behind Red Bull and Brawn came the two teams which had fought a titanic battle for the previous year's championships. That very fight might have been a part of the explanation for their falling short of the absolute pace this year. Such was the intensity of the development war between them last year, that they couldn't direct as much development time to their '09 cars. They still ended up third and fourth in the constructors championship this year, and were the only other teams to win Grands Prix. One wouldn't bet against a reversion to the status quo ante next year.

Mclarenstarted the year in real trouble, perhaps even further from the pace than they had been with the 'problem child' MP4/19 in 2004. There was turmoil off-track too when the storm in a teacup that was 'liegate' threatened to seriously destabilise the team's season. With no testing allowed, and with a car that was going on for 2 seconds off the pace, it could easily have been a truly miserable season for the Woking time. Yet, thanks in part to access to the best simulation tools in the business, and probably in no small part to having maybe the out and out fastest driver on the grid on their books, the team turned things around enough to pick up two Grand Prix victories [add in note on cons. title pos] and in so doing, became the first team to win with a KERS-equipped car.

Mclaren and Ferrari were the only teams to stick with KERS throughout the whole season. Whether the weight penalty and design-compromises forced by the system were such as to negate any performance advantage it offered, or whether it just so happened that the best sorted chassis happened not to be so equipped, was never entirely clear. With an agreement between the teams not to run KERS in 2010, we are unlikely to find out any time soon, but I'd be surprised if we have seen the last of KERS.

There were times when it seemed that Mclaren was suffering for not having a number 2 driver able to get near Hamilton's pace. Rather than settling into the role this year, Kovalainen was if anything less competitive relative to his team mate than he had been last year. While Hamilton was rarely off the podium in the latter part of the season Kovalainen never got on it. Whether he'll keep his job at Mclaren remains to be seen...

The same was true, only more so, of Ferrari after Massa was put out of action by head injuries sustained in qualifying for the Hungarian Grand Prix. While Raikkonen won the Belgian Grand Prix, the Finn seemingly having been put on this earth for the purpose of going quickly round Spa, neither Badoer nor Fisichella succeeded in so much as scoring a point for the team [check]. In contrast with Mclaren, Ferrari didn't seem to improve much over the course of the season. They started the year fighting for the minor points, and broadly, that's how they finished. Whether the car was quicker or slower than it would have been without KERS, the system played a crucial part in securing their only win. There was no doubt that Fisichella's Force India was quicker round Spa, but the KERS button was enough to ensure that, with an identical fuel strategy, there was no way that he could find a way past Raikkonen.

For all that the team seem to lack some of the hard-nosed discipline of the Schumacher/Todt/Brawn era (surely they wouldn't have roped in Luca Badoer) I see no signes of an early-90s style collapse at Ferrari. With Fernando Alonso heading to the Scuderia, and with the focus switching relatively early to the 2010 car - where, though the rules appear to be relatively stable, the ban on refuelling may result in the need for fairly radical changes - one wouldn't bet against a return to form for the Scuderia. And who's most likely to take the fight to them if they do? Well Hamilton looked pretty awesome in qualifying in Abu Dhabi didn't he. ...

(I've split this into two parts owing to sheer length, soreness of fingers and uh, a feeling of idleness. Next week - the departing manufacturers, and the rest...)

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