Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Every Dog Has Its Day - F1 2009 In Review - Part Two

Only Brawn, Red Bull, Mclaren and Ferrari actually won races this year. Yet the strangest thing about this season, in many ways, what marked it out from the 25 or so I've seen before, was that almost all of the remaining six teams on the grid had days when they looked as though they were in contention, and with a fair wind, they might have joined the winners' circle.

Perhaps the strongest of the six was the now departed Toyota team. It is ironic that the German-Japanese squad have had the rug pulled from under them by the parent company just as they were beginning to look like a serious racing team, as opposed to an enormously expensive white elephant. They made a number of very good calls this year. They were one of three teams to hit upon the double-diffuser concept from the start, and this put them in good stead in the early part of the season. They were also the only manufacturer team not to divert time and money into a KERS programme that they couldn't make work. The team locked out the front row at the third round in Bahrain, and I still wonder if they might have been in with a shout of victory of they had played a tactically smarter game - and in particular had they not put the wrong tyres on both cars at the first stop.

For much of the mid-season, the team appeared to slip into anonymity, struggling to make the tyres work and scoring little after Trulli's podium in Turkey. It was perhaps during this long, disappointing summer, the nadir of which came with a truly embarrassing performance at Monaco where neither driver could get sufficient heat into the tyres and one-time Monte Carlo winner Trulli was left ambling round at the back, seconds of the pace, that the decision was taken by the Toyota board to throw in the towel. If so, the late season return to form is all the more ironic. Timo Glock took an impressive second in Singapore after Rosberg and Vettel eliminated themselves from contention with penalties for pitlane offences and, Jarno Trulli, who had been nowhere in Singapore, settled the score at Toyota's home race (albeit on a track owned by Honda) at Suzuka, with another second place. In the end, it was a case of close, but no cigar for the team though. This year, they came closer than they ever have to taking a maiden race victory, but they leave the sport winless.

The same cannot quite be said of BMW-Sauber. Nonetheless, Mario Thiessen's decision to abandon development of the 2008 car to concentrate on a 2009 title assault now looks mightily presumptuous. It was never quite clear what was wrong with the 2009 BMW. There were times when it ran quite respectably. Aided by luck with the timing of the safety car, Robert Kubica looked in with a shot of victory at the opening race in Melbourne before he locked horns with Sebastian Vettel 3 laps from the end. Nick Heidfeld, who showed rather better relative to his much heralded team mate than he had last year, picked up a lucky second place a week later in Malaysia, and did a good job of picking up the minor points in a car that appeared capable of no more. There were days when it appeared Robert Kubica wasn't really interested, although it may only have been that he was less able to adapt to the 09 BMW's foibles than Heidfeld, who has rather greater experience of driving 'difficult' cars. That said, Kubica's drive to second in the Brazilian Grand Prix was one of the highlights of the year for me.

Unlike Toyota, who always struck me as a rather soulless team, devoid of real character, I'll miss BMW. Yes, they were ultimately just the plaything of a large corporation, but they done a good job of turning the Sauber team into a front-running squad, until things went wrong this year. That they didn't do the right thing by the Swiss team, failing to sign the Concord Agreement and selling the assets to shady investment company Qadbak rather than handing it back to Peter Sauber, leaves a slightly sour taste in the mouth. A shame, because the building blocks were in place to put together a really first-rate racing team.

Renault, in contrast with Toyota and BMW, appear for now to be sticking with F1. From being, at least in terms of race wins, the most successful of the manufacturer teams last year, they slipped well back down the order in 2009. It is hard to assess exactly how bad the 2009 Renault was, because it was effectively a one-car team. All of the squad's 29 points came from their departing number 1 driver Fernando Alonso. It is hard to know whether this was a case of Alonso dragging the car places it didn't really belong, or whether Romain Grosjean and Nelson Piquet simply weren't getting the job done. Probably it was a mix of the two. There was a pole position in Hungary, achieved by running ridiculously light, and a podium in Singapore, but other than that it was a barren year for the Anglo-French squad. They made the news only when the 'crashgate' story broke in the aftermath of the sacking of Nelson Piquet Jr.

Given the $100m fine that Mclaren got for unauthorised use of Ferrari data by one of its employees a couple of years back, the deliberate arranging of an accident to attempt to fix a Grand Prix seemed to be remarkably lightly punished all told. But then perhaps the FIA decided that now was not the time to start driving teams out of the sport. And arguably the chief beneficiary of the move, Fernando Alonso, got off lightest of all. It seems hard to believe he would have run the strategy he did in Singapore had he not had some inkling what was planned. Flavio Briatore bore the brunt of the FIA's wrath. He'll probably be missed about as much as Toyota F1.

Williams started the year in the best form they have shown for several seasons, another team to benefit from spotting the 'double diffuser' loophole in the 2009 aero-regs from the outset. Sadly, the cards never seemed to fall their way. Potential podiums in both the opening races were lost to the timing of the safety car and a bungled pit stop in Australia, and to the timing of the opening of the heavens in Malaysia. The team flattered to deceive to some extent, usually topping the timesheets in free practice, only to slip back down the order when it counted on Saturday and Sunday afternoons.

All the same, the team were probably stronger than their 7th place in the Constructor's Championship might suggest. Only once, at Singapore, did they look as if they might be within striking distance of winning a race, although Lewis Hamilton probably had Rosberg covered even before Rosberg effectively eliminated himself from proceedings by tripping over the white line on the pitlane exit. However, there were other races, notably Brazil and Malaysia, where car and driver looked much stronger than the final points tally suggests. As with Renault, Williams were held back by the fact that, in a tight and competitive field, they relied exclusively on Rosberg to pick up points. Kazuki Nakajima might be better than I thought him to be based on his GP2 performances, and certainly he was much closer to Rosberg on pace than Grosjean or Piquet was to Alonso, but in the end, he just wasn't quite quick enough to merit a place in F1. With Toyota's departure, his F1 career is probably over, unless he can use his connections to get a drive with one of the new teams next year.

The single biggest upset of the year, perhaps the greatest shock of the decade, came when Giancarlo Fisichella grabbed pole at Spa - not by running a silly fuel load - but by plain outpacing everyone else in a Force India. The team formerly known as Jordan were making steady progress towards the back of the field up to that point, sometimes frightening Toyota and BMW on their off-days, but until that weekend in the Ardennes, they had never actually scored any points. Yes, Sutil wasn't far off at Silverstone, and he impressed mightily in the rain in China until he flew off the road a few laps from the end, but the best you could say, really, was that while still backmarkers, they were much less far off the back of the pack.

Then Fisichella grabbed pole at Spa, and finished second. He was faster than eventual race winner Kimi Raikkonen too - it was really only the Ferrari's KERS equipment and, to be fair, probably Raikkonen's superior race-craft, which enabled the Italian team to take the victory. To prove it was no fluke, a week later, both Force Indias ran top-5 at Monza too. The VJM002 was clearly well suited to fast, open tracks. To judge by both the car's speed-trap times and it's remarkable fuel efficiency, which was better than that achieved by either of the other Mercedes-powered teams by some margin, it appears that the crucial advantage they had was tremendous aerodynamic efficiency. At tracks like Singapore and Abu Dhabi, where mechanical grip through slow and medium speed corners was crucial, they remained also-rans, but their late-season form was nonetheless a revelation.

Last, and in most respects, least, there was Toro Rosso. There was no repeat of the giant-killing performances of 2008 for the Faenza team, and it was a little hard to believe that they were running the same basic car as the Red Bull team which was in the running for the title. I suspect a large part of the explanation is that they simply didn't have the drivers to get the job done. Sebastian Buemi did a solid, competent job for a 20 year old in his first season, but it was hard to assess how quick he really was. Should he be judged by his pace relative to Sebastien Bourdais, who never seemed to get to grips with F1 at all, and relative to his still less experienced team mate Jaime Alguersuari? Or would a fairer comparison be with the 'A team' Red Bulls?

In what was a very competitive year, it could be argued that Toro Rosso did well to pick up eight points over the course of the season with what is by some distance the smallest team on the grid. Their approach to driver selection continues to baffle me. Jaime Alguersuari might be a British F3 champion, but his performances in the Renault World Series were hardly such as to mark him out as anything particularly special. If racking up points was the objective, then Takuma Sato or Anthony Davidson would surely have made more sense. On the other hand, Alguersuari is Spanish and well-connected, so it's possible than sponsorship concerns may have driven the decision, especially if Red Bull are still intending to sell the team. He did just enough, in my book, to merit a full season next year. In the end, Toro Rosso didn't have a bad season, especially in comparison with the team from which they were born, Minardi. The trouble is, everyone else, even Force India, had a better one...

End Note: Shell got in touch with me recently regarding promotion of a competition offering bloggers and aspiring writers the chance to establish a career as a motoring journalist. Those who know me will be aware that this is strictly a hobby for me - Ten years ago, it might have been right up my street, but these days I'm well settled in a job as a policy-wonk in Government and have seen too many people end up disillusioned when they mix work and pleasure. You, however, might feel differently, and if you do, you might want to take a look at this:

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