China 2009

April 20, 2009

I can’t remember the last time I saw less of a Formula 1 Grand Prix whilst my eyes were trained on it.  It’s reasonably rare to get a race like the one yesterday, where the rain is unrelenting and unchanging throughout, and the spray and lack of visibility was remarkable.  What it must have been like in the cars probably doesn’t bare thinking about, so it is testimony to the skills of the world’s twenty best racing drivers that there were so few accidents – especially considering that the race was the first wet running any of them had done in the entire weekend.  Particularly impressive, of course, was Sebastian Vettel.  Still not yet 22 years of age and twice a Grand Prix winner, we are surely watching the first steps of what will be a monumental career.

Red Bull had a dream weekend, all told.  Their car, so impressive in the wet all season, also excelled in the dry – although with fuel adjustment is still a little behind the Brawn on overall pace.  Significantly, of course, the team are yet to try a double-decker diffuser which, considering the man designing it will be Adrian Newey, is likely to make the car more competitive still.  I expect at least one Red Bull driver to be in championship contention right up until the end of the season.  As I have already mentioned, Vettel was brilliant in Shanghai, easily having the measure of all of his rivals and not making a mistake worth the name in impossible conditions.  Mark Webber always looked a step behind his teammate, but thoroughly deserved second place, his best result thus far in a Grand Prix.  With Red Bull’s car so fast and the diffuser still to come, it’s not hard to imagine that Webber may manage to break his Grand Prix duck some time this year.

Brawn looked a little out of sorts in China, but will be happy with third and fourth place in a difficult race.  Rubens Barrichello was impressive in qualifying but again lost out to Jenson Button on race day, Button’s smoothness really coming into its element.  Expect the white cars to go into Bahrain – where rain is very unlikely to trip them up – as favourites for the win again.

Third up were McLaren Mercedes, showing steady improvement all the time.  With new aerodynamic pieces, Lewis Hamilton got the car into the top 10 in qualifying, whilst the team’s KERS system has always made them a more competitive proposition on Sunday afternoons.  Hamilton was very racy indeed and provided a great deal of entertainment, but he overstepped the line too often, losing handfuls of time to spins and other excursions.  This allowed Heikki Kovalainen, who drove a rock steady race, to score his first points of the year.  As well as completing his first full racing laps.

Toyota were the first of the teams who had a really disappointing time.  Timo Glock drove a fine race in the circumstances, a poor qualifying plus a five-place grid penalty for a gearbox change leaving him to come from 19th to finish 7th.  Jarno Trulli was the race’s first retirement after being hit from behind by Robert Kubica’s BMW.  It wasn’t much of a surprise, as Trulli seemed completely bereft of any confidence or speed on race day, which has been the story of his entire F1 career.  A big step forward will be required in Bahrain, as the team – under pressure from the boardroom to win some races – look to get the full advantage of their diffuser before the rest catch up.

Toro Rosso‘s weekend was largely helped by the fact they have the same car as Red Bull Racing.  However, their real ace was Sebastien Buemi, increasingly impressive in his debut season.  He already seems to have the measure of his namesake teammate Bourdais, whose resigned radio calls back to his pit after failing to get into Q2 are already becoming a highlight of my Saturdays in 2009.  This weekend, though, Buemi qualified the car 10th and raced strongly throughout – although he was lucky not to have had more damage when he ran into Sebastian Vettel’s rear wheel during the second safety car period.  His 8th place means he has scored points in 2 of his first three Grands Prix, and increasingly looks like he has the potential to be a coming man.

Renault had a strange weekend.  Using their new diffuser, Fernando Alonso put the car on the front row of the grid by running with a thimble’s worth of petrol.  A victory for the PR war, it nevertheless completely shagged his race in tactical terms, especially when the heavens opened.  His first pit stop taking place even before the safety car had pulled in at the start of the race and from then on it was damage limitation, so 9th place was fairly respectable, the best the car could do on the day.  The same cannot be said for Nelson Piquet’s weekend.  Although he had the mitigating circumstance of Alonso having all the latest updated parts on his car, Piquet qualified at the back again and did little to improve on this in the race.  He’s under serious pressure now.

Ferrari can sympathise with this, as an entire country is now demanding answers.  However, despite not having any aero updates and running without KERS, Massa undid a poor qualifying with a strong race.  It was another fine performance from a driver whose attitude is just as impressive as his skill at the wheel, and another demonstration of how far along he has come.  Massa was lying in a competitive and well-fueled 3rd place when his car succumbed to drowned electrics, and would have more than probably scored a podium finish.  With the car as troublesome as it is, it will be nice for the team to know that at least in Massa they have a part they can absolutely rely on.  Whether or not they feel the same about Kimi Räikkönen I do not know.  The 2007 champion started the weekend in resigned mood, more or less admitting that the 2009 title race’s goose was already cooked.  This is not the sort of thing Michael Schumacher would ever have said publically, and not the sort of thing the people working in the factory need to hear.  His performances on the track this weekend will have done little to dispel any of this gloom, either.  Three races in, no points scored.  Unless you count the ones scored by the Ferrari engine in the Toro Rosso.

BMW also have it all to do.  A miserable qualifying left the drivers in a vulnerable position, and duly both Nick Heidfeld and Robert Kubica spent the race being nerfed, nudged and punted from pillar to post, Kubica particularly spending a good half of a minute in the pits longer than he had intended.  The team’s work on the 2009 car does not, as it stands, seem to have paid off.  However, few would bet against such an organisation not being able to make positive steps forward, particularly as the car seems to have the potential to be competitive on the longer runs.

Force India would clamber over their own mothers for BMW’s problems, of course.  Their car looks down on grip compared to all of their rivals and the drivers spun more in dry practice than in the wet race.  Adrian Sutil again demonstrated a fine grasp on wet weather driving, as well as a fine line in bad luck, aquaplaning off with five laps to run when he looked to have 6th place – and Force India’s first ever points – in the bag.  This must be particularly agonising for the team, as they know such conditions are not particularly easy to rely on.  Fisichella continued to plug away in the second car, gaining his third successive finish.  If they could graft his reliability to Sutil’s speed, they could well have a recipe for some points at last this year.

Finally, a weekend to forget for Williams.  Like their engine supplier Toyota, Williams face a race against time to fully exploit their aerodynamic cleverness before everyone else catches up.  However, this weekend seemed to be a step back in all directions – although Nico Rosberg again topped the timesheets in a free practice session, this time on Saturday morning.  Kazuki Nakajima, however, spent much of the race facing the oncoming traffic, whilst Rosberg – uncompetitive and gambling late on with intermediate tyres – saw any chance of a point evapourate as the rains returned in earnest.

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