Sunday, April 26, 2009

Tortoises and Hares

Four races in and we're starting to get a picture of where the balance of power lies in this year's Formula 1 championship. After several seasons in which various combinations of Ferrari, Mclaren and Renault have fought it out for the title, this year, it seems at the moment that two teams which had never won a race going into the season are in the strongest position right now.

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.

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Monday, April 20, 2009

The Quiet Champion

He died ten years before I was born, and yet, in a round-about way, I suppose he is ultimately responsible for my life-long fascination with the world of motorsport. Jim Clark was my father's boyhood hero, and as with many a racing fan I've known, it's an obsession I picked up from my dad. He took me to my first race as a seven year old kid - the European Grand Prix at Brands Hatch. I still remember the impact of seeing mid-80s turbo cars sprinting down into Hawthorn Bend, showers of sparks flying up from their titanium skid plates. I remember too, being taken around the pitlane to look at the cars in the fading light of early evening in October and getting my photo taken sat in the cockpit of Derek Warwick's Renault.

Had it not been for that trip, I might never have been drawn to the sport. Certainly, motorsport aside, I was always more interested in music, film and novels than I was in sport. So perhaps it really does all come down to the impact that an unassuming hill-farmer from the Scottish Borders made on a teenager in Cheshire nearly fifty years ago.

Last weekend's BBC4 documentary, Jim Clark: The Quiet Champion (UK readers can watch it on Iplayer until 8pm on Saturday) used archive footage, interviews with those who knew him and interviews with the man himself, told the story of the man whom many, my father amongst them, regard as the greatest racing driver there has ever been.

The film, the last of the BBC's triptych concerning Britain's multiple F1 champions, following on from Graham Hill: Driven and Jackie Stewart: The Flying Scot, transports viewers back into a world far removed from the modern sport. Ian Scott-Watson, who is interviewed for the programme, was Clark's early mentor, and lent him use of his DKW car to compete in a local sportscar race in 1956. Scott-Watson found that, within a few laps, Clark was able to lap 3 seconds quicker than he had been able to. A year and a half later, he was a works driver for Colin Chapman's then fledgling Lotus team, and by 1960, he was a Formula 1 driver.

In today's world, where F1 drivers have typically been racing karts since they were barely out of nappies, have come up through highly structured (and very expensive) junior formulae, often with the help of manufacturer-backed driver development programmes, it is amazing to think that, at one time, it was possible to go from being a hobbyist amateur, racing a borrowed car at a local motor club to a paid F1 driver in the space of under four years. It drives home the fact that the racing world was much more ad-hoc, much less commercialised than it is now.

Two years later, Clark was winning Grands Prix - picking up three wins in 1962 for Lotus, and a year later, he had won his, and Lotus' first World Championship. He was also an accomplished sportscar and touring car racer, particularly spectacular at the wheel of a Lotus Cortina. The documentary gives considerable time over to his trips to the US to compete in the Indianapolis 500. At that time, it was all but unheard of for European road circuit drivers to make the journey across the pond to pit themselves against the best of America's oval racers. Yet Clark proved to be a natural - leading 28 laps and finishing second on his debut. Two years later, in 1965, he won the race outright and becoming the first non-US driver to do so.

The documentary's title - The Quiet Champion hints at what stood out about Clark at the time. In an era when racing drivers were expected to be larger-than-life daredevils, Clark was, according to former Lotus mechanic Bob Dance "diffident and shy, not at all like any other racing driver." As someone who lives not far from the Border farming country where Clark grew up though, it doesn't surprise me so much. Even now, fifty years on, the Borders appear a quiet, conservative kind of place where the pace of life is slow, and not much ever changes. How much more true this must have been the case in the late 1950s and early 1960s?

As the documentary tells it, it is in the aftermath of that Indianapolis win that the commercial pressures begin to enter into Clark's life. Formula 1 might not have had anything like the media profile it does now, but an Indy 500 win was enough to get Clark on the front of Time Magazine. Whether this sat comfortably with a man who liked to relax while away from racing by returning to his Borders farm and tending to his sheep is not entirely clear. Certainly, he doesn't come across as being as comfortable in the spotlight as his contemporaries and subject of the two earlier documentaries, Stewart and Hill.

How he would have coped with the modern media-saturated version of the sport, where drivers are expected to be constantly available to speak to the press, to be figureheads for the corporations that fund their teams, that is hard to know... Perhaps it's simply a wrong-headed way to think about it. He was as much of his time as anyone, and even in today's racing world there are those who seem more comfortable in the spotlight than others. Today a Nico Rosberg or a Lewis Hamilton comes across happier being the centre of attention than say, a Fernando Alonso or a Kimi Raikkonen...

One moment in the film really rams home how different racing really was in Clark's day though. Clark is asked by a television interviewer "What's left to prove, how do you assess your chances of reaching old age, or even middle age, if you push it any further?" These days, such a question would be hyperbolic - motor racing may not be safe in the workaday sense of the word, but it has been 15 years since a driver died in a Grand Prix, and the possibility of dying at the wheel probably doesn't much trouble the average F1 driver. In Clark's day, though, such a question might be impertinent, but it wasn't sensationalist. it was a very different and much more dangerous world for a racing driver. A clip from the film drives the point home forcefully - "In 1958 these 16 men lined up for the start of the 1958 season. Today 7 of them are dead" a TV announcer declares in a stentorian tone.

In the end, Clark's luck ran out. A still unexplained accident in a minor Formula 2 race at Hockenheim, Germany saw his Lotus plunge off into the trees, killing him instantly. For all that death was far from unknown in the sport in those days, the impact of his death was still immense - for the simple reason that he was seen by his peers as the best of them all. Every racing driver, while knowing the dangers, probably preferred to think that others might have fatal accidents, but it wouldn't happen to them. But, as Chris Amon would later say "If it could happen to him, what chance do the rest of us have? I think we all felt that. It seemed like we'd lost our leader."

Was Clark the best of his generation? From this distance, I couldn't possibly say. I wasn't there at the time and the bare statistics can't tell the whole story. Those statistics are damned impressive though, with 25 wins from 72 race starts, his win/race ratio is bettered only by Michael Schumacher, at least once you strip out the anomalies who competed in only a few Grands Prix. And Schumacher, it should be remembered, was competing in an era where mechanical reliability was vastly better than it was in the 1960s. My father always thought, though, that the most telling statistic was that, in his whole career, he only ever finished second twice. As he put it, if the car held together, Clark usually won.

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Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Racing Through The Recession

The last few months have seen an awful lot of ink spent in the motorsport press contemplating the effects of the global economic downturn on Formula 1. Barely a week has gone by without news, or at least speculation, concerning some new cost-cutting measure or another, or rumours that a major team is in financial trouble, or a car manufacturer considering pulling the plug.

In truth though, the rest of the motor racing world is probably at least as badly affected. In the final analysis, motorsport is discretionary spend, nobody needs to race cars, and discretionary spend tends to fall away in hard times. The other week, I was down south paying a visit to my family and hearing tales of woe from my mother regarding the lack of sales at the trials bike importer where she works. What is true in the world of trials bike competition is almost certainly true of the club racing scene as a whole. People uncertain about whether they will be in work come summer are going to be cutting back on expensive hobbies like motorsport. I'll not know for sure until I have time to drop by Knockhill and catch the SMRC races at some point over the next couple of months, but I expect grids will be down on last year.

Of more interest to the casual racing fan here in the UK is how the country's premier racing series are coping with the downturn. The British Touring Car Championship, certainly the most popular and arguably the most prestigious of Britain's national racing series kicked off the other weekend at Brands Hatch the other weekend, and here the picture seems mixed. On the plus side, a championship which, a few years ago, was struggling to pull grids of more than 8 or 10 BTCC-spec cars had a field of 20 cars for its opener, and while it is difficult to judge these things definitively from the TV coverage, it looked as though Brands managed to pull in a decent crowd too.

Look a little closer, though, and it becomes clear that the BTCC has taken some big hits over the winter. The Triple-8 Vauxhall team is now the only full works team on the grid, with SEAT having packed their bags and handed over their Leons (but not the all-conquering diesel engines) to independent Clyde Valley Racing. Series runner up Mat Jackson is missing from the grid at present, and his website has gone awfully quiet since New Year. It would appear that with the withdrawal of sponsors Accident Exchange, there simply isn't the money to put his BMW on the grid. A shame, as he would surely be a potential title contender if he were. Team Dynamics have lost principal sponsors Halfords, and are effectively a one-car team, with Scot Gordon Shedden surely the team's only serious prospect now that the second car is taken by BTCC stalwart and longtime privateer David Pinkney, who must reckon buying a ride in a race winning team is better value than funding his own entry.

On the plus side, there are a few new entries. The aforementioned Clyde Valley Racing weren't exactly at the sharp end with their SEATS but they were at least within a second of being on the pace, though Brands is a very short circuit, so they'll have to find some time if they are to threaten the front-runners at all this season. In Adam Jones and Dan Eaves, they do at least have a pair of proven drivers. Also new, though it remains unclear whether it will prove to be anything more than a one-off entry, was the RML Chevrolet Lacetti. Ray Mallock's team haven't been around in the BTCC since Proton canned their BTCC effort, but with Jason Plato at the wheel, the team picked up a lucky win in race 3, and their driver lies 4th in the points table. That said, when a professional team like RML and a past champion with a media profile like Jason Plato can't be sure of raising the budget for a full season, it doesn't bode well for the championship's health.

Less promising is Arena Motorsport's efforts with self-built Ford Focus STs. In Tom Chilton and Alan Morrison, they have two drivers who can get the job done, but the cars would seem to be so hopelessly off the pace that it hardly makes any difference who is behind the wheel. The team will say that the opening race was effectively a test session, but sadly, I've never seen a car that slow out of the box go on to achieve much. Think, for example, of the hopelessly slow WTCC Focuses or Peugeot 407s of a few years back, or VLR's uncompetitive 307s. Of the privately built S2000 cars, only the Dynamics Hondas have ever been really competitive, and there have been persistent rumours that the team were quietly helped out by Honda themselves. Of the rest, I'm afraid that Liam McMillan's ancient SEAT and Martin Johnson's still older Astra Coupe are there solely to make up the numbers, while Nick Leason's BMW 120D goes only to show that a diesel engine is no guarantee of success in touring car racing.

If the works Vauxhalls aren't to have it all their own way, I think we're going to have to rely on the privately run BMWs to take the fight to them. They started well at Brands Hatch. Jonathan Adam, the Kirkcaldy based racer who impressed me when I saw him in action last year in the SEAT Cup, picked up a second place in his first race in the BTCC and can surely only improve as the season goes on in the Motorbase BMW. Rob Collard I've never thought of as more than a competent amateur, but he too won a race the other week, while Colin Turkington was consistently near the front. It might be a false dawn - the BMWs have always tended to run well around the Indy Circuit, and it is hard to avoid the fact that it was the SEATs that proved the most consistent threat to the Vauxhalls last year - or, come to that, that it was Mat Jackson's machine that was quickest of the BMWs. I hope I'm wrong - the BTCC has provided good, simple entertainment for the last few years and doubtless helped raise the sport's profile in the country more generally. It would be a shame if it lost its way.

Last weekend, it was the turn of the British F3 championship to get underway, with the traditional Easter Monday date at Oulton Park. The F3 series has to contend not only with the effects of the recession, but with the seemingly ever-multiplying options confronting junior drivers wishing to make their way to F1 these days. A number of those who might have been expected to make the jump to F3 this year have gone elsewhere. Formula Renault champion Adam Christodoulou is off to Star Mazda in the US, Alexander Sims has gone to the Euroseries, while Henry Surtees has joined a number of drivers opting for the new, and considerably cheaper FIA Formula 2 Championship (which would appear to be a more serious rival to F3 than to GP2.)

The result, last Monday, was that there was no obvious challenger to Red Bull's latest protege Daniel Ricciardo. Yes, Max Chilton and Walter Grubmuller grabbed a pole position each, but neither was able to convert that into a win. Both have been around in F3 for a while now without having previously much troubled the front-runners (Grubmuller was team mate to Marko Asmer back in 2007 and never won a race, while his Estonian team mate won the title) and one can't help but wonder whether their appearance near the front is a sign that the strength in depth of previous years simply isn't there in 2009.

It doesn't help that F3 has become terrifically expensive, in comparison with, for example, Formula 2 or Formula Master. In Autosport last week, in an interview with Ben Anderson, a number of the team bosses defended this both by pointing out that drivers get much greater mileage than in other series and that they learn to work with an engineer and develop a car - something which the Formula 2 approach of running the cars centrally makes impossible. It's a double edged sword, though. On the one hand, F3 might better teach a driver about the engineering aspects of the sport, but on the other hand, the very strictly standardised cars of Formula 2 ensure that the guys at the front are the quickest in the field, and not simply those who have the best equipment and the smartest engineer. Where the balance lies between the two must surely be influenced, to some extent, by whether drivers have the budget to do F3 properly.

Perhaps I've got it all wrong. Perhaps, in spite of their rather underwhelming starts, Formula Renault front runners from last year such as Adriano Buzaid and Riki Christodoulou, or the much hyped Formula Ford Champion Wayne Boyd, will come into their own. Or maybe I've simply underestimated the likes of Chilton and Grubmuller. All the same, I can't help but think that the F3 championship looks weaker than for some years, and I do wonder whether it is the global economic outlook, or the emergence of Formula 2 (leaving aside, for a moment, the American open wheel series, with their largely European driver line-ups), which has done the greater damage.

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Wednesday, April 01, 2009

Brawn Spring a Surprise

The grid that confronted us in Melbourne wasn't quite the surprise that the qualifying order for the opening race of the 1990 season in Phoenix had been. Nothing quite so downright bizarre as an Osella in the top 10, or Andrea De Cesaris' Dallara ahead of Senna's Mclaren, both Ferraris and both Williams.

Still, a month ago, you'd have got very long odds on the remnants of the old Honda team locking out the front row. In fact, many, myself included, were far from convinced that the team would even be on the grid, and the bookies were offering 100/1 on Jenson Button winning the opening race.

The odds didn't really shorten much when it emerged that Nick Fry and Ross Brawn had brokered a deal to put the stillborn Honda on the grid as a Brawn, with Mercedes supplying the engines. A car with next to no testing, hastily adapted to take a different engine from the one it was designed for, built by the guys responsible for the awful RA107 and RA108? It sounded like it would be making up the numbers and no more.

The picture began to change when the new car started topping the times in winter testing, but still there was a nagging doubt - Was the pace real or were the team running the car underweight to set headline grabbing times in the hope of attracting sponsors? As time went on, the doubters began to change their minds - Alonso talked of the Brawns being the favourites for victory, and ahead of last weekend, the bookies had had a radical change of heart and installed Button as favourite to win.

Qualifying in Melbourne gave us a definitive answer. Sebastien Vettel, in third, was six tenths away from Jenson Button's pole time, despite being fueled lighter. The Brawn appears to have at least half a second on its rivals at the moment, at least around Albert Park. On race day, they brought the cars home one-two, so completing the most remarkable turnaround I can remember seeing in the sport. The word miracle seems inappropriate - there are no miracles in the real world and Brawn's success was down to a lot of hard work from some very clever people in difficult circumstances. Still, it makes for quite a story.

I do wonder, though, whether their very success might make life more difficult for them later on. The sport's financial structure and deal-making remains as opaque as ever, but it appears that Brawn are on the grid only thanks to the FIA, FOM and FOTA having all put aside any differences to make sure that they got there. The FIA agreed to waive the $30m bond required of new teams, FOTA and FOM are thought to have agreed to treat Brawn as being entitled to Honda's share of the prize money and Mclaren waived their right to veto a supply of Mercedes engine for the Brackley team.

They might have been happy to do this when it was assumed that they were ensuring the survival of a team that would struggle at the back of the grid, not giving a helping hand to a team that had stolen a march on all of them in terms of understanding the new regulations and built a car which, at least for now, seems to have every bit as great an advantage over its rivals as Ferrari's F2004 did. And of course, after Robert Kubica and Sebastien Vettel did for each other's weekends and Jarno Trulli picked up a 25 second penalty for passing under the safety car, it was only the two Brawn cars that stood between Lewis Hamilton and a shock victory from the back of the grid! I do wonder, too, how Brawn's success is going down at Mercedes. Sure, the Brawns have the German car-maker's engines in the back, but you'd have to be a fan to know it - there's no Mercedes logos on the cars, and the casual viewer might have had no idea that their engines were actually in the back of all of the podium-finishers' cars.

Can Brawn get by without moral support from FOTA and Mclaren? Perhaps, after all, the deals are done now, but there is still the problem of money. The team are getting by for now with a dowry from Honda, but the Japanese car giant's support was almost certainly a one-time payment, and running a racing team is an expensive business. The more so if the team want to match the likes of Ferrari and Mclaren in the race to develop their 2009 car. The victory in Australia will be bittersweet for the 250-odd employees at Brackley who look set to lose their jobs. Can the team shed a third of its workforce without adversely affecting their performance? Only time will tell.

Fundamentally, the problem the team face is that in these straitened economic times, it may be hard to attract significant backers even to a team which is out in front and winning races. Maybe I'm being cynical, but I can't help but wonder whether Richard Branson didn't pull of a tremendous publicity coup for his Virgin brand without actually signing any cheques last weekend. Certainly if a major deal had been signed, it was a little odd that the team were sporting only a few small Virgin decals as they set about dominating the weekend's sports pages.

Perhaps the team's best hope is that, if the new, supposedly cheaper F1 is more than a mere mirage, the idea of picking up a well-run team with a car might just appeal to one of the car manufacturers not currently involved in the sport. One of the Korean car makers might be tempted by the opportunity to raise their profile worldwide, and perhaps Volkswagen-Audi Group might finally tire of toying around with diesel sportscars and join the party. They'd have a lot of work to do - Mercedes is unlikely to provide engines to them - but on the other hand, Cosworth have a pretty effective 2.4l V8 sitting around gathering dust, that they could probably be persuaded to sell for the right money.

The trouble is, for all that it might make a lot of sense, especially compared with the way some car-makers have gone motor-racing, it still looks unlikely given that the motor industry has been amongst the hardest hit by the current global recession. Discretionary spend, of any kind, is unlikely to be on the agenda when the fundamental problem facing car makers is the disappearance of the market for their primary product. Maybe, after all, Brawn's best bet is to "do a Williams" and try to run the team according to the conventional business model of selling sponsorship as was once the way almost all F1 teams operated, before the appearance of the car giants, billionaire soft drinks magnates and India's richest businessman changed the rules of the game.

I'd like to believe that if the results come, then one way or another, the team will survive. If a team can win races but still not raise the money needed to survive then something really is wrong with the sport. Can they go on winning races? If you believe what some are saying, much will depend on the outcome of the appeal against the Brawn's diffuser which Renault's Pat Symonds reckons is worth half a second a lap. For all that I'm sure they'll want to win their case on 14 April, it might not be the end of the world if they do lose the appeal though. For one thing, even if it is worth half a second a lap, the scale of the Brawn's advantage at Melbourne suggests they will still be amongst the front-runners. Secondly, I'm not entirely convinced by Symonds' claim anyway. Brawn's closest challenges last weekend were not the other members of the so called 'diffuser gang', Toyota and Williams (though both teams ran well) but the more conventional Red Bull and BMW.

No, I reckon what might swing it one way or the other for Brawn is the question of whether KERS will turn out to be an expensive dead end, or whether once teams have gotten to grips with it, it will turn out to be every bit as essential for anyone running at the front as semi-automatic gearboxes, active suspension or traction control was when first perfected. So far, the evidence is mixed. Only one team ran their cars in both KERS and non-KERS spec, and it was Kubica's KERS-free BMW which went quicker. But on the other hand, Kubica was quicker than Heidfeld last year too. In fact, the two men giving Button pause for thought last weekend were running cars with no KERS and conventional diffusers. It was noticeable though that those drivers running KERS, and in particular Lewis Hamilton, appeared to have an easier time overtaking people than the rest of the field around Albert Park, and Ferrari might have been up there too had they not dropped the ball in terms of strategy and then encountered reliability woes.

If KERS turns out to offer no advantages, at least when configured to the current rules, then I wouldn't be surprised if Brawn are able to remain among the front-runners all year. If, on the other hand, it turns out to offer a significant advantage, the team are likely to be in trouble. For reasons best known to themselves, Honda didn't leave their KERS system with the team when they pulled out of the sport and Ross Brawn say they are very unlikely to run the system in the car this year.

Ross Brawn has already achieved something any life-long racing afficionado would surely dream of - scoring a one-two in his first race as a team owner with a car bearing his own name. Whether his team can mount a tilt for the world title, and whether they can ensure their long-term survival remains to be seen, but the fact they've got this far surely augurs well.

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