The spanners fly: Chinese Grand Prix preamble

April 16, 2009

Wednesday’s FIA ruling on the legality of Toyota, Williams and Brawn GP’s double-decker diffusers has finally lifted a great fog from the brave new world that is Formula 1, 2009 style.  Grumbling though they may be, the onus is now on the other teams to rise to the technical challenge, which makes a refreshing change to anybody who has followed the sport for a number of years.  This, gentlemen, is what Formula 1 is supposed to be like.  However, in spite of their pathetic whinging, expect the majority of the pit lane to be fully double-deckered up very soon – by the opening of the European season in Spain at the very latest.  Indeed, both Renault and McLaren will be debuting their version of the concept this weekend in Shanghai which, given both teams’ less than spectacular opening two races is very much the least surprising thing that could have happened.

Perhaps more surprising are some of the decisions coming out of Maranello.  It’s the early 1990s all over again at Ferrari, with heads rolling and bodies being reshuffled around the factory in order to arrest the team’s meagre 2009 season.  15 years ago, when it seemed like the team had more or less forsaken winning on a matter of socialist principle, such affairs were common.  However, it’s rather odd to see it happening again, however inevitable it was.  Success in Formula 1 – as with the majority of team sports – works on a helix curve, so a dip from a Ferrari team who have rewritten the rulebook on Formula 1 dominance in the past decade was only to be expected.  Given that that run was built on a very un-Ferrari spell of stability, though, it will be interesting to see the effects of the rejig on the team’s fortunes.  Interesting, too, will be to see if a conservative strategy – Ferrari have neither a new diffuser ready for Shanghai, nor will they be using their troublesome KERS system this weekend – will be the way forward.  Either way, it has been most amusing to see Ferrari not getting their own way so far in 2009, especially in their favoured battleground at the FIA buildings, Place de Concorde, Paris.

With the diffuser verdict in and the teams still several weeks from being able to return back to their safe European home to scratch their heads and lick their wounds, it’s reasonable to expect more of the same in Shanghai.  The Brawn will remain the car to beat, with Rubens Barrichello no doubt keen to put one over on Jenson Button at a circuit where, in 2004, the Brazilian won the inaugural race for Ferrari.  Toyota, too, will be looking to make the most of their technological advantage whilst they can.  Williams will, I think, struggle in the race – their car is proving hard on its tyres over long runs and the compounds that Bridgestone are taking to Shanghai are on the entertainingly soft side.  Expect rubber to be a major talking point at some point this weekend.  McLaren and Renault will – if the protesting teams were right about the 0.5 second-per-lap advantage of the trick diffuser – see some improvements, too, but they’ll need more than just a half second to get back on terms.

Of the non-diffuser gang, I expect Red Bull to be the strongest competition.  I think that their rivals should be pretty worried about how fast the RB5 car will be once Adrian Newey has added an extra storey to the arse end, because they already have the makings of a fiercely competitive machine.  I would not rule Webber or particularly Sebastian Vettel out of the running for pole position or even a big score on race day.  BMW and Ferrari’s schizophrenic cars add an extra spice of the unknown into this oriental blend on a track where racing is not out of the question.  Here’s hoping for three out of three good races.

My ultimately risible China 2009 prediction:

Pole position: Button (Brawn GP)

Podium: 1st – Rubens Barrichello (Brawn GP); 2nd – Jarno Trulli (Toyota); 3rd – Sebastian Vettel (Red Bull).

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