It’s a drivers’ championship

April 27, 2009

The most extraordinary aspect to last weekend’s Bahrain Grand Prix was the closeness of the field.  Never before in the history of Formula 1 have such tiny margins covered the entire grid from front to back.  As such, it’s making it easier than usual to spot which drivers are on top of their game and which drivers are struggling.

I started watching Grand Prix racing in earnest from this point in the season – round 4 – 15 years and sixteen seasons ago.  The grid that day, the Monaco Grand Prix a fortnight after the death of Ayrton Senna, was a faintly surreal sight in the context of last weekend’s.  At the end of the Q1 session, a scant 1.5 seconds covered 20 cars.  In Monaco 1994, the same margin more or less accounted for the front row, Michael Schumacher winning his first ever F1 pole from Mika Häkkinen’s McLaren Peugeot.  Schumacher’s 1m18.560 lap was 5.5 seconds ahead of the 20th car, Olivier Panis’ Ligier Renault.  Meanwhile, Paul Belmondo, the 24th and last qualifier in the dismal Pacific Ilmor was 18.337 seconds away, 10.8 shy indeed of his own teammate in 23rd place.  All the more remarkable, considering that at the time, this was considered progress in itself, the field having been closed up by a raft of technical regulations at the end of the 1993 campaign.

Nowadays is perhaps the toughest time ever to be a Formula 1 driver in terms of scrutiny of your performance.  Not only did being a tenth off your teammate’s qualifying time – whilst far from ideal, you should be ahead of him – not used to constitute a crisis, it would also make little difference to your team’s overall fortunes.  Now it can be the difference between a podium finish or spending Sunday afternoon battling outside the points.  It is little wonder that already drivers like Nelson Piquet, Kazuki Nakajima and Sebastien Bourdais are nervously editing their CV’s.

Brawn GP are perhaps the team least troubled by this.  Whilst their car seems to have been caught in terms of outright pace by Toyota and particularly Red Bull Racing, in race trim the BGP001 seems to offer its drivers a platform to deliver consistently good results.  Still, Jenson Button will be feeling happier than Rubens Barrichello, who, although scoring points in every round, hasn’t joined the Briton on the podium since the opening weekend in Melbourne.  Button drove a wonderful race yet again, by far his best of the season thus far.  His pass early in the race on Lewis Hamilton – at the end of the straight and against a car with the same engine but with KERS – was truly and deservedly a race winner.

Red Bull‘s drivers, too, seem to be pretty evenly matched.  In terms of pace, at least, as again Mark Webber’s luck deserts him at the least opportune moments.  Nevertheless, Sebastian Vettel is driving beautifully at the moment and the RB5 car, still without a magical diffuser, looks to be another addition to Adrian Newey’s hall of fame after some quieter years.

Toyota‘s drivers may prove a little more under the cosh.  The Toyota was very much the car to have in Bahrain, yet neither Jarno Trulli or Timo Glock could deliver on Sunday.  The team have blamed the strategy for this one, but many more weekends like that and it will make people start to wonder.  Personally, I’ve been wondering about Jarno Trulli for years.  Few people are as quick as him in qualifying, but come Sunday all the push, drive and aggression seem to have left him.  Third place was much less than the team deserved.  All this bitching bitched, though, he very much had the measure of Glock this weekend, and added his first ever Grand Prix fastest lap.

McLaren‘s progress continues.  The car itself seems to have found over a second in terms of lap time in the last two races, an exceptional achievement in a field covered by little more than 150% of that.  Lewis Hamilton is driving better than I have ever seen him, for less reward than he’s ever had in his whole racing career.  If the World Motorsport Council are kind to McLaren this week – about which, more on Wednesday – and the team are allowed to continue unfettered in 2009, I expect Lewis to be on the podium by mid-season and a race winner again before the year is out.  Kovalainen continues to be a slim margin behind Hamilton in everything he does, but the penalty for this is proving increasingly severe.

Ferrari finally managed to scrape enough bits together to get a car into the points, plus both cars in the Q3 top ten shootout – a feat which has so far eluded McLaren in 2009.  However, in the race their bad luck continued, Massa enduring a troubled run and more Ferrari KERS gremlins.  Kimi Räikkönen, meanwhile, kept his head down and delivered a drive which left you in little doubt that it was the best that car could have achieved.  The problem is the horizontal nature of the team’s development thus far, which will be at least confronted, if not remedied, by a major aero update for Barcelona on May 10th.

Renault, too, are in a position where their efforts at developing a recalcitrant car are being put in the shade somewhat by McLaren.  Fernando Alonso remains optimistic, which is not an unreasonable position given the team’s huge mid-season advances in 2008.  Nelson Piquet had his best weekend of 2009 thus far, making it to Q2 and finishing the race a handful of positions and a respectable 13 seconds behind his teammate.  I have a feeling, however, that the decision to replace him will already have been taken and that the onus is on the Brazilian to do something outstanding enough in the next X races to make the decision be untaken.  A tall order in a difficult car against such a distinguished team leader.

Toro Rosso kept it on the straight and narrow again, but this, the first race of the season without safety cars or rain to mix things up, is probably the truest indication of their true form so far in 2009.  Of the two Sebastiens, Bourdais will be the happier.  Under pressure to perform against his promising rookie teammate Buemi, the Frenchman comprehensively outraced him on Sunday… although again failed to outqualify him after mechanical troubles in morning practice.

Force India, too, probably found themselves in a more representative position.  However, the team must surely be heartened by some of the flashes of genuine midfield pace the team’s new interim aerodynamic package was able to give them.  It’s testimony to the skill of the people they have there that they have been able to produce any updates as quickly as they have, that they seem to be a step in the right direction is an extra bonus.  Their drivers, Fisichella and Sutil, finished line astern in 15th and 16th places, a clear indication that the car hasn’t much left to give at the moment.  However, they are still looking like they are capable of giving some big names a hard time at any point of the weekend.

Williams bold march backwards continues at apace.  Nico Rosberg was again fast in practice but faded away in the race, having initially made a nuisance of himself towards the lower end of the top 8.  He eventually missed out on a point by a shade over 5 seconds.  Kazuki Nakajima, meanwhile, succumbed to bad oil pressure – the race’s only retirement and Nakajima’s third DNF in four starts this year.  Some day in 2009, Williams will have a eureka moment and finally wring some sustained pace from their car on race day.  Is Nakajima the man to be able to exploit it?  He has much to prove.

Last and very much last, BMW.  Their weekend was a plain and simple nightmare.  Finishing 18th and 19th, after myriad problems in the race including KERS issues and the loss of front wings left, right and (mainly) centre, would be bad enough for a team who qualified on pole here 12 months ago.  However, the fact that, based on practice and qualifying pace, they’d have fared little better with an unhampered run is much more of a concern.  BMW have got it very wrong somewhere along the line in their 2009 concept.  Improvements will have to be made quickly, or else the season will be a write-off and 2010 made the focus.  For an outfit who went into this year with huge preparation and significant confidence, it must be a winding blow.  Nick Heidfeld’s breaking of Michael Schumacher’s record of 24 consecutive race finishes will be little consolation: Schumacher’s 24 were all top three results.  Heidfeld brought up his 25th with 19th and last place.

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One Response to “It’s a drivers’ championship”

  1. alistair said

    impressive thing about the brawns is how they are grinding out the results even when they aren’t in ideal situations. it’s this ability (or luck) that’ll win a championship

    the championship favours the consistenly lucky… so best not to have webber or kovi in your team.

    I thought the force indias were doing pretty well, they have to score this year surely

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