Looking through the raindrops

April 6, 2009

There was a certain inevitibility to it, in the end.  Starting a race at 5 p.m. in a country with tropical weather systems was always going to end with everybody in the dark, metaphorically and otherwise.  Nevertheless, Formula 1’s first half points race since Ayrton Senna won a 14-lap Australian Grand Prix at Adelaide nearly 18 years ago, did not skimp on entertainment or interest.  It’s becoming clear that KERS is very much worth the weight penalty of running it on race day, whilst the ten teams and their drivers teased us yet further by still not revealing the true pecking order.

Well, nine of them did, as it is now pretty much confirmed that Brawn do indeed have the car to beat.  Jenson Button put in his very best Grand Prix drive yet – in a car which he had never driven before in wet conditions, a tribute both to him and the engineers – and duly scored his first F1 hattrick of win, pole and fastest lap.  What is less clear is who their closest rivals are.  BMW have looked to be nowhere two race weekends in a row, only to suddenly appear challenging for top honours towards the end.  Williams are very quick indeed but don’t seem to be able to keep it up consistently for a full race distance.  Ferrari, too, are showing signs of pace amidst the panicking.

As I thought would be the case in the build-up to Sepang, though, the current pick must surely be Toyota, who had another very strong race capped with a third and fourth-place finish.  The TF109 car is now apparently equipped with a triple-decker diffuser which obviously worked wonders for grip and stability in the changing conditions.  The FIA appeal hearing about the diffuser issue is on Tuesday week.  If, as I expect, the gadget is passed legal to race, every team will arrive in China with one the following Friday.  In fact, it could end up like a battle between razor manufacturers, with each successive team fitting more and more levels to their diffuser.  Six-storeys, for less irritation.

Toyota’s drivers, too, are clearly relishing their new car.  Timo Glock is coming on rapidly as a Grand Prix driver, showing a knack for making canny tactical calls and having the talent to translate them into results which is often the mark of the true top-line driver.  Jarno Trulli remains something of an enigma on race day, but there’s little doubting his speed in qualifying.  Something has got to give under this sort of pressure, and I don’t expect it will be too long before Toyota finally win a Formula 1 Grand Prix.

Who else will win one is a big question.  McLaren and Ferrari surely won’t remain in quite this much disarray all year, so they cannot be discounted.  At the moment, though, Brawn and Toyota’s big rivals are perhaps Red Bull.  Adrian Newey’s car is pretty well bolted to the floor – witness it’s grip in damp conditions yesterday – and in Sebastian Vettel has one of the quickest drivers around.  Their bad luck on Sundays can’t continue indefinitely.  Williams, too, are showing promise.  I believe their problem is related to tyre graining, which makes it hard for Rosberg to keep up the same pace throughout.  However, two races down and Williams have set one fastest lap and led one race until the first pit stops.  It’s a sure sign of a team moving in the right direction.

Ferrari’s direction is, from a historical viewpoint, reassuringly scattered.  After a boob in qualifying with Felipe Massa’s car, Räikkönen fitting rain tyres a full six minutes before any precipitation was eccentric to say the least.  Desperate, would be another way to describe it.  When you consider that Force India, now looking like they are firmly embroiled in the battle to avoid the wooden spoon again this year, were the only other team to replicate the gamble, it speaks volumes for Ferrari’s questionable competitiveness.

Ironically, given their relative one-lap pace, it is their great rivals McLaren who seem to have the edge on race day.  Their KERS system is clearly super-efficient and helping the drivers redress some of the grip-related problems they are suffering.  Or rather, he is suffering, as again in 2009 Lewis Hamilton finished lap 1 as Woking’s sole representative in the race.  Heikki Kovalainen needs to get some serious lappage under his belt quickly.

As for the remainder, Toro Rosso had another solid if unspectacular race, flirting on the fringes of the points when the race was stopped.  Lastly, Renault‘s plug-ugly car remains relentlessly off the pace, with Nelson Piquet still stubbornly off the pace of his teammate, even in spite of Fernando Alonso being laid low this weekend with an ear infection.  It’s hard to see Piquet lasting a full season at the team at his current level of competitiveness and it just may be the case that this knowledge itself is not helping his driving.

All this said, the difference between success and failure is still incredibly slim, with the field often separated by a couple of seconds only over a single lap.  It’s still all to play for, but it’ll be Brawn to beat in Shanghai.

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