Ayrton Senna

May 1, 2009

It’s hard to believe that it has been fifteen years today since the death of Ayrton Senna in the San Marino Grand Prix.  Hard to believe because there is something seemingly timeless about Senna.  Hard to believe, too, because he represents a such a different time, a different challenge in a different age, that it is difficult to equate what we now know as Formula 1 with the activity he dominated for ten years.

Dominance comes in a variety of forms, of course.  Senna ran the gamut.  He was a man of unearthly talent: plainly, simply and demonstrably faster than all the rest.  To that, he added phenomenal determination and focus, the ability to transform this basic natural gift into results within the World Championship framework.  Most of all, though, his extraordinary personality projected such an air over the sport that it was inevitable, perhaps, that the day he was no longer there would be the day Formula 1 would fundamentally change.

It is rare that such genius – that word so over-applied in sport and in life – emerges.  In sporting terms, any given activity might be lucky enough to experience its emergence once per generation.  This has certainly been the case in motor racing.  However, in the 1980s, two men arrived at the same time.  That their battle would be titanic was never in doubt.  However, what actually transpired between Senna and Alain Prost was so fierce – to the point, sometimes, where it seemed like neither man had any fear for their own life – made it transcend the rather cosseted world of Formula 1 motor racing, or motor sport in general.  A genuine clash of the titans, you could honestly believe – watching them during their two years as McLaren teammates in 1988 and 1989 – that not only were there no other cars on the track, but that they were the only two human beings left in existence.

Ayrton Senna is the reason why I am so interested in Formula 1.  However, it took his death for me to follow it to an obsessive degree.  The first race I actively sought out to sit down and watch was the first race of the post-Senna era, the 1994 Monaco Grand Prix.  Before this, I was a casual observer, watching bits here and bits there, aware of the key protagonists and something of their histories.  I always knew exactly what Ayrton Senna was doing, though.  He was the star man of the piece, even in a world inhabited by terrifying 1000bhp turbocharged engines, exotic locations and drivers like Alain Prost, Nigel Mansell or Nelson Piquet.  There are some people who are just too big to be contained by a wood-veneered television.

I am particularly grateful to the gods of fate that, at age 9, I happened upon the re-run of the 1989 Japanese Grand Prix.  That race, the culmination of the Senna-Prost rivalry in their days together at McLaren, has been bored into my psyche.  Nothing I’ve seen since my days of study, passion or hunger for Formula 1 has been anything quite like it.  The atmosphere could peel paint from the walls.

Ayrton Senna was 20 years older than me.  When he died, he was 34, a completely distant concept to any 14 year old.  Now I am just 5 years shy of that mark, I still feel unable to understand him, his life or his motivations with any greater clarity.  Such is his enigma, I think he will always remain miles ahead – as he so often was – ageless and untouchable.  I have no doubt that soon another generation will tick over and there will be another Formula 1 star of such fingertip genius that his rivals are left floundering in his wake.  Maybe it will prove to be someone already in place, like Lewis Hamilton or Fernando Alonso.  They will always be younger than me, though, which makes a big psychological difference to how special they will be to me, to my life.  The difference with Ayrton Senna is that he was that special to everyone – from children as I was, to hardened, cynical motor racing journalists, years his senior and who should have known better.  For all the numbers – ages, years, career statistics – Senna will remain a man apart, different to the rest.  His achievements on the track have since been dwarfed by the exceptional career of Michael Schumacher.  They will, in time, be nudged further down the all-time ladder.  Nevertheless, his name will continue to be the first one anyone looks for in the list; whose achievement one tries to equal.

Ayrton Senna da Silva is the single greatest sportsman I have ever seen.   I feel increasingly privileged to have shared a planet, albeit for such a short time, with such an outstanding human being.  I loved him.

Roland Ratzenberger 1960-1994

It would have been convenient for me to finish this piece there, all punchy and whatnot.  However, to do so would be unfair to the memory of the forgotten man from that shocking weekend at Imola 15 years ago.  Roland Ratzenberger – whose 15-year anniversary was yesterday – was the first man to die at the wheel of a Grand Prix car in eight years, the first at a race meeting in 12.  He was, as are the majority of Grand Prix drivers, an exceptionally talented man.  His popularity with his peers was starting to infect the Grand Prix paddock on a wider scale when he died.  He was old for a Grand Prix newcomer by modern standards – 33 – and the greatest shame for us all is that the most notable lasting effect from his time in the sport was to become a grim historical footnote, rather than allow us the chance to get to know him better as a driver, as a sportsman, as a man.

Ratzenberger’s accident – a head on impact with a retaining wall at 195 mph – is the cruellest and most vicious I have witnessed in Formula 1 during my lifetime.  Partially because it was caused by a mechanical problem and was not his own fault, but mainly because at the time the world had grown blasé about the phenomenal strength and safety of the cars.

Ratzenberger’s greatest legacy to the sport he loved is that, aside from Ayrton Senna a day later, Formula 1 has now entered its longest ever spell without a mortal accident.  But more than the awareness he so tragically raised, the sight of him and of Senna sat lifeless in ruined cars on global television has made the powers that be – the FIA, the drivers and the circuits – never relent or rest on their laurels in trying to improve the chances for the drivers or spectators when, as they always will, things come unstuck.

It could be argued that Roland Ratzenberger will prove to be one of the most important racing drivers in the history of Formula One.  But I can’t help but wish he’d merely have slipped, alive and well, into gentle anonymity instead.

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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.

Slow starters

April 22, 2009

There has been much discussion in the press, on the broadcast media and online about the dismal start to the Grand Prix season being endured by Ferrari.  This reaction is understandable given their almost monotonous level of success over the past decade, where they have won all but two Constructors’ Championship titles.  However, Ferrari are no real strangers to adversity, as you might expect from any team of a 59-year pedigree.  Previous fallow periods include the early 1990s – when the team went for nearly 4 full seasons without a race win – the early 1980s and the early 1970s, which culminated in a season of such lacklustreness in 1973 that the team often ran just one car for Jacky Ickx and didn’t even bother entering four of the the last six events.

The common uniting thread in all this, however, is that competitiveness has always returned.  In 1974, under new management with a new car and new drivers, Ferrari began a 6-year spell which yielded 3 drivers’ and 4 constructors’ championship titles.  The early 1980s saw a pair of dismal years immediately followed by two title-winning efforts for the team.  And the 1990s slump led to the construction of the Todt-Brawn-Byrne-Martinelli-Schumacher superteam who swept all before it in unprecedented style.

Ferrari’s problems this year seem to be related to grip, which a new aerodynamic package will be looking to address.  More of a concern must be their lack of reliability.  Previously bulletproof, Ferrari will be mindful of the old motor racing truism that it is easier to make a reliable car fast than it is to make a fast car reliable.  I think it’s fair inconceivable that the team will be in the doldrums for the whole of the 2009 season.  Felipe Massa particularly has demonstrated good speed in the races, only to be let down by his machinery, and their technical team is second to none.  The fact, however, remains that the team go into this weekend’s Bahrain Grand Prix knowing that a failure to score any points for the fourth successive race at the start of a season will be a new low tidemark.

In the spirit of Toto Roche’s Flag, I have decided to take a look through the history books (literally, in this case), to look at Ferrari’s other bad starts to a Grand Prix season.

1993 After 3 events: 1 point (@ 0.167 points-per-start)

Ferrari were really in a hole in the early 1990s.  Their drivers – Jean Alesi and Gerhard Berger – managed just a finish apiece in the first 3 races of 1993, with Berger taking the only point at the season opener at Kyalami.  In the July of this year, Jean Todt was brought in as team manager after a success in a similar role at Peugeot motorsport. 

What happened next: Fortunes picked up slightly as the season wore on, but the team only managed a final total of 28 points, good enough for 4th place.  The high point were three podium finishes – two for Alesi and one for Berger – with a best of 2nd in Italy.

1992 After 3 events: 5 points (0.833)

At the end of a disappointing 1991 season, where the team failed to win a race a season after fighting for the drivers’ championship, lead driver Alain Prost was made the scapegoat and sacked for unflattering comments about his car’s handling in the press.  Lacking any real experience or direction, Jean Alesi and Ivan Capelli struggled on as best they could with an unreliable and slow car.  Their haul of points all came at the third round in Brazil as the cars finished 4th and 5th, after retirements for both drivers in the first two races. 

What happened next: The team again finished 4th, with just 21 points to their name.  Alesi managed two podium finishes again – including one in the fourth race.  Capelli, however, struggled badly and was dropped for the last two races, replaced by the none-more-successful Nicola Larini.

1986 After 3 rounds: 3 points (0.500)

Again, Ferrari made a meal of things a year after a season where their lead driver challenged for the world crown.  In this instance, their points came from Stefan Johansson’s 4th place at the season’s 3rd round in Imola.  The problems were again twofold, with a slow and unreliable car. 

What happened next: Ferrari finished 4th with 33 points, Stefan Johansson’s four 3rd places and Michele Alboreto’s second in Austria the highlights.  Behind the scenes, major changes were afoot.  For 1987, Ferrari signed McLaren designer John Barnard, whose Guildford Technical Office built a car which won the final two races of the 1987 season in the hands of Gerhard Berger.

1981 After 3 rounds: 0 points

1980 After 3 rounds: 0 points

Ferrari began the 1980s in a terrible state.  Their 1980 season was a disaster, with defending World Champion Jody Scheckter scoring only 2 points all year and failing to qualify for the Canadian Grand Prix.  In his teammate Gilles Villeneuve, Ferrari had the generation’s outstanding driver, but even he was unable to wring anything out of the dire 312T5, a best of two fifths and two sixths.  He faired a little better in 1981, now alongside Didier Pironi in place of the retired Scheckter.  The season started even more woefully, though.  In 1980, the team at least managed a 16th place finish in the first 3 rounds.  In 1981 the first 6 starts yielded not a single finish. 

What happened next: Thanks in the most part to the brilliance of Villeneuve, Ferrari won two races in 1981, both of them masterpieces of the art.  Villeneuve won the Monaco Grand Prix in the worst handling car in the field when his exceptional teammate Pironi struggled to even qualify the car.  He followed this up with his famous Spanish Grand Prix win at Jarama, where he successfully used his car’s one major façet – it’s straighline speed – to defend against attack from a queue of four faster cars.  Ferrari went on to win the Constructors’ Cup in 1982 and 1983, but it was not without a cost.  Villeneuve died in a qualifying crash early in the 1982 season, whilst Pironi’s season was ended prematurely – with the Frenchman leading the championship – after a terrifying leg-breaking shunt in practice for the German Grand Prix.  1980’s tally was 8 points and 10th place, with an improvement to 34 and 5th in 1981.

1970 After 3 rounds: 0 points

Ferrari were all out of sorts at the beginning of the 1970s, as the new Cosworth DFV engine was adopted by the majority of their rivals, leaving Ferrari’s V12 hopelessly heavy and antiquated.  Behind also in chassis development, the team cut their losses and only entered a single car for Jacky Ickx in the early rounds, but it failed to finish a single one. 

What happened next: Ferrari’s fortunes picked up hugely from mid-season, the team eventually finishing second with 52 points.  Drivers Jacky Ickx and Clay Regazzoni racked up 4 wins, 5 pole positions and 8 fastest laps.  Their form was not sustained, however, as the introduction of Tyrrell’s first self-made car took all the honours for 1971.  By 1973 the team were in turmoil, leading to wholesale management changes and the appointment of Niki Lauda as lead driver.

1969 After 3 rounds: 0 points

Similarly to their 1970 season, Ferrari’s main problem in 1969 was the new DFV engine.  Their sole entrant, Chris Amon, failed to finish in any of the first 3 races.  What happened next: Ferrari scored just 7 points in1969, finishing equal bottom of the standings.  The highlight of their year was Amon’s 3rd place in the Dutch Grand Prix.

1964 After 3 rounds: 6 points

A slow start to the season, their sole points score coming from John Surtees’ 2nd place in round two. 

What happened next: After a slow first 4 rounds, Ferrari burst into life in the final 6 races of the season.  Finishing with at least one car on the podium of each of them, John Surtees 5 such finishes were enough to give him the drivers’ crown after the final race decider in Mexico.  Teammate Lorenzo Bandini also won a Grand Prix, at Austria, to go alongside Surtees’ two victories.  With a further 3 third places from Bandini, Ferrari also won their first Constructors’ Cup since 1961.

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.

There’ll be a more considered look at the Chinese Grand Prix here later on, but Sebastian Vettel’s excellent win yesterday means he still has a 100% record of converting pole position into race victory.  On the whole, anybody who has taken pole for a World Championship Grand Prix has usually gone on to win one, whether from the front of the grid or not.  In the 59-year history of the championship, there are just nine drivers who saw off all their rivals in qualifying but never managed to do the same in the race.

Chris Amon (NZ) 5 pole positions (1968 Spain, Belgium, Netherlands; 1971 Italy; 1972 France)

The brilliant Amon, clearly the best Formula 1 driver to never win a World Championship round, was afflicted by the most diabolical luck when there were championship points on offer.  Despite his frequent successes in non-Championship Formula 1 races and in a multitude of other formulae – including the Le Mans 24 Hour race in 1966 – Amon had to be satisfied with a best of three second place finishes.  Fortunately, a sportsman and a gentleman to the last, he was.

Teo Fabi (I) 3 pole positions (1985 Germany; 1986 Austria, Italy)

It’s difficult to know quite what to make of Teo Fabi’s career in Formula 1, encompassing 71 Grands Prix in the mid-1980s.  Driving exclusively for some fairly competitive upper-midfield teams, he would only occasionally put his head above the parapet and make his presence felt.  His best finish – two third-places – is probably a fair reflection of events.  His three pole positions, meanwhile, came out of left field.  He planted a Toleman Hart at the front of the grid for the German Grand Prix at Nürburgring in 1985, a season dominated by Alain Prost’s McLaren and Michele Alboreto’s Ferrari.  In 1986, he used the rebranded Benetton’s enormously powerful turbocharged BMW engine to take pole at the season’s two fastest tracks, leading in the first race before his motor failed.  Mechanical problems also saw him have to start the latter from the pit lane.

Jean-Pierre Jarier (F) 3 pole positions (1975 Argentina, Brazil; 1978 Canada)

An enigma.  Occasionally fast beyond belief, Jarier was too often afflicted with less-than-competitive machinery and mechanical gremlins.  He created a sensation in 1975, qualifying on pole for the first two Grands Prix of the season in an unfancied Shadow Ford.  However, a mechanical fault saw him unable to take the start in the Argentine race, whilst in Brazil he led until the car again let him down.  Finally given a chance in top line equipment at the championship-winning Lotus team in 1978 following the death of Ronnie Peterson in Italy, Jarier repeated the trick, dominating the Canadian Grand Prix until his car failed.  His best finish was third place, achieved three times in a career of crazily fluctuating fortunes and a lot of smoke.

Stuart Lewis-Evans (GB) 2 pole postions (1957 Italy; 1958 Netherlands)

Lewis-Evans, a driver managed by Bernie Ecclestone, is now largely forgotten, superceded by a welter of successful British racing drivers.  This is a shame, as Lewis-Evans demonstrated in his 14 Grands Prix a great deal of skill and promise – enough, indeed, to suggest that his name could have easily joined that of Mike Hawthorn, Graham Hill or John Surtees in the pantheon of English World Champions of the era.  Driving for Vanwall in 1958, Lewis-Evans achieved two podium finishes in third place – helping his team to the inaugural Constructor’s Cup – which would represent his best results.  His engine siezed up in the season-closing Moroccan Grand Prix, causing him to crash heavily.  He died from the burns he sustained six days later.

Eugenio Castellotti (I) one pole position (1955 Belgium)

The archetype flamboyant young Italian racing driver, Castellotti’s bravado endeared him to a generation of impressionable motor racing fans.  He had the talent to back up his bluster, though, finishing second in his second World Championship Grand Prix and taking pole for his third.  A further second place finish followed in France the following season.  He was killed when he was thrown clear of the Ferrari sports car he was testing at Monza early in 1957, aged just 26.

Andrea de Cesaris (I) one pole position (1982 Long Beach)

A countercultural legend of Formula 1 motor racing, de Cesaris achieved the majority of his notoriety thanks to his relentless crashing.  However, it must also be remembered that he was occasionally very, very quick.  Only bad luck prevented him from potentially winning in Belgium in 1983 and 1991, whilst he planted his Alfa Romeo on the front of the grid in California’s premier motor sport even at the beginning of the 1982 season.  In the race, however, he got held up by Raul Boesel’s lapped car whilst dicing for the lead with Niki Lauda’s McLaren.  Deciding to shake his gearchanging fist at the recalcitrant Boesel, Lauda easily slipped by on the straight.  His best result – 2 second places in the 1983 season – was not enough to save him from the ignimony of establishing the record for most Grand Prix starts without a race win: 208.

Nick Heidfeld (D) one pole position (2005 Europe)

Arriving in Formula 1 in 2000, a multiple champion in lower formulae and with backing from McLaren and Mercedes, much was expected of Heidfeld.  A dismal first season at the uncompetitive Prost team, though, saw much of the heat dissipate.  Settling into drives with Sauber, Jordan and Williams, Heidfeld has proven himself solid, quick and dependable without ever really showing the spark which might entice a top-line team to take a punt on running him.  Now back at Sauber in their new guise as BMW, Heidfeld has found himself in the most competitive machinery of his career and really must deliver quickly, as Andrea de Cesaris’ rather undesirable record is looming ever closer.  Heidfeld is already the proud owner of his own little piece of statistical history: his eight second places are the most runner-up spots ever achieved by a non-winning driver.

Mike Parkes (GB) one pole position (1966 Italy)

A talented engineer as well as a gifted driver, Parkes spent the majority of his short (7 Grands Prix) career at Ferrari.  However, his gifts as a spannerman were more richly prized than his driving by Enzo Ferrari and, in a time of unspeakable risk and danger, he was frequently passed over in favour of other drivers.  Nevertheless, he suffered a terrifying crash in the 1967 Belgian Grand Prix, from which he was fortunate to escape with just two broken legs, which ended his top line motor sport career.  He died in a road accident ten years later.

Tom Pryce (GB) one pole position (1975 Britain)

Pryce is often rightly cited as the one that got away.  A driver of enormous talent, his best of two third place finishes is more a reflection of his meagre equipment – Pryce spent his entire career save for one race with the midfield Shadow team – than his skill.  Still, despite the shortcomings of his cars, he was still able to exhibit enough of his huge natural ability to suggest he had the makings of a future Grand Prix great.  Sadly, it was not to be, as Pryce was killed in a brutal, freak accident at the 1977 South African Grand Prix, hitting a fire marshall who carelessly ran across Kyalami’s undulating pit straight in order to help Pryce’s stranded teammate Renzo Zorzi.

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.

With a bit of luck I’ll manage to crack out a more considered review of today’s semi-aquatic happenings in Sepang for you tomorrow.  Until then, you’ll have to make do with the moment you’ve all been dreading: the (albeit probably sporadic) return of list of the week.

This week: the twenty current Formula 1 drivers listed in order of when they last actually won a competitive motor race, from most to least recent.

1. Jenson Button 5th April 2009 (Formula 1 Malaysian Grand Prix, Sepang)
2. Felipe Massa 2nd November 2008 (Formula 1 Brazilian Grand Prix, Interlagos)
3. Lewis Hamilton 19th October 2008 (Formula 1 Chinese Grand Prix, Shanghai)
4. Fernando Alonso 12th October 2008 (Formula 1 Japanese Grand Prix, Fuji Speedway)
5. Sebastian Vettel 14th September 2008 (Formula 1 Italian Grand Prix, Monza)
6. Heikki Kovalainen 3rd August 2008 (Formula 1 Hungarian Grand Prix, Hungaroring)
7. Sebastien Buemi 3rd August 2008 (GP2 Series Hungaroring sprint race)
8. Robert Kubica 8th June 2008 (Formula 1 Canadian Grand Prix, Montréal)
9. Kimi Räikkönen 27th April 2008 (Formula 1 Spanish Grand Prix, Montmélo)
10. Sebastién Bourdais 11th November 2007 (Champ Car World Series Grand Prix of Mexico City, Autodromo Hermanos Rodriguez)
11. Timo Glock 30th September 2007 (GP2 Series Valencia sprint race, Circuit Ricardo Tormo)
12. Adrian Sutil 27th August 2006 (All-Japan Formula 3 Fuji Speedway race 2)
13. Nelson Piquet Jr 26th August 2006 (GP2 Series Istanbul feature race)
14. Kazuki Nakajima 30th April 2006 (Formula 3 Euroseries Lausitzring race 2)
15. Giancarlo Fisichella 19th March 2006 (Formula 1 Malaysian Grand Prix, Sepang)
16. Nico Rosberg 30th September 2005 (GP2 Series Bahrain sprint race, Sakhir)
17. Rubens Barrichello 26th September 2004 (Formula 1 Chinese Grand Prix, Shanghai)
18. Jarno Trulli 23rd May 2004 (Formula 1 Monaco Grand Prix)
19. Mark Webber 30th June 2001 (International Formula 3000 Magny-Cours)
20. Nick Heidfeld 24th July 1999 (International Formula 3000 Spielberg (A1-Ring))

A fairly impressive bunch of results.  Eighteen drivers have troubled the trophy engravers within the past five years, nine of whom have done so in the last 12 months and twelve having won fully-fledged World Championship Grands Prix.  The lowliest win is probably that of Adrian Sutil in an All-Japan F3 race, which nevertheless contributed to a championship-winning season in a well-respected Formula 3 series.  Most notable for me is Nick Heidfeld, just a few months short of a full winless decade.  At which time this blog will start to call him exclusively by girls’ names.

McLaren’s disqualification from the Australian Grand Prix for deliberately misleading the event’s stewards has left a sour taste in the mouth.  In a season where already – and very unusually – all the positives seem to be coming from the on track action as a spectacle as petty politicking rages all around it, it is still clearly an early nadir point which will hopefully not be challenged in the remaining 16 races.

For the driver, it’s another blow.  Lewis Hamilton is already as popular as a dose amongst his rivals.  Like Michael Schumacher, they complain about some his on-track exploits only for him to get away with his worst excesses.  And, like Schumacher, he compounds this frustration with also being a quite brilliant racing driver, a man of sufficient gifts that he need not ever attempt anything even approaching a bending of the rules or their spirit.  It is going to be hard work to regain his credibility with his fellows now.  As a sportsman, what he did is pretty much as low as it gets.

Hamilton claims he is not a liar.  On the whole, I believe him.  I’ve followed his career for 14 years and he has always exhibited a sportsmanlike integrity and a personal honesty.  However, I cannot believe that a man of his, very obvious, moral values was not at least partially complicit in his and his team’s baffling decision to mislead the stewards last Sunday.  The official line which is being taken here is that Hamilton was told to withhold certain pertinent details by Dave Ryan, McLaren’s (now at the very least suspended) sporting director.  The fact is, though, that Hamilton isn’t a rookie with it all to prove, he’s not clinging onto his drive, nor is he a stranger to the team.  His lengthy association with McLaren is now a thing of legend and its contribution his world championship triumph last year cannot be underestimated.  At the very least, Hamilton should have stood up to the team, refused their unreasonable, dastardly and unsporting request.  We will probably never know why he did not do this.  We will probably never fully rid ourselves of this little cloud hanging over the head of Lewis Hamilton the sportsman as a result.  A real shame.

Where Hamilton’s disgrace is all the more hurtful on account of its uncharacteristicness, the same cannot necessarily be said of his team.  In the past years, especially in the wake of the draconian penalties in the Ferrari espionage case, there has been a softening towards McLaren.  The great irony of this now is that this mainly has a sporting basis – they were the team most likely to be able to stop the domination of the Ferrari juggernaut set in motion by messrs. Brawn, Todt and Schumacher.  The decision this weekend has brought a lot of the old festering resentments back to the surface.  McLaren’s reputation, outwardly at least, has always been of a rather cold, mechanical outfit.  Since Ron Dennis’ Project 4 team took over at Woking in the early 1980s, the name McLaren has been a byword for ruthless efficiency and an endless, grinding pursuit of perfection.  When the victories dried up in the mid-1990s, people felt sorry for them.  A return to top line competition in 1997 and 1998, however, quickly reminded us of a rather uncomfortable truth: when wins are on the table, McLaren are the very sorest of losers, often lashing out like a bear with a sore head when things do not go their way.  Their punishment in 2007 was most probably reaping a decade of sown discontent – a muttered allegation here, an insinuation of unfair play there – which rubbed a lot of very powerful people, particularly Max Mosley, up the wrong way.  This was an unattractive streak, but it was also demonstrably a result of the outfit’s competitive urge.  Simply, it was being such bad losers which drove McLaren to be totally insuperable winners.

What is new here is the underhandedness,  something which has never been an issue with McLaren before now.  But it’s not just the duplicity which is so uncharacteristic, it’s also the stupidity.  Whoever is responsible for this piece of ugliness – be it a team decision, a group folly or a single rogue element – must have known that in the modern Formula 1, where everything from radio transmissions to the drivers toilet visits are scrupulously disclosed, they’d never possibly get away with it.  After 100 minutes of a race for which they’d qualified 18th in an uncompetitive car.  All this for just one extra point, when 4th place alone was practically a deliverance from the heavens.  The FIA say they reserve the right to punish the team further for this transgression.  I hope that they throw the bloody book at them.

Malaysian preamble

March 31, 2009

More of the same is to be expected from this weekend’s Malaysian Grand Prix at Sepang.  With only a week between the first and second races and the teams thousands of miles away from their European bases, it’s hard to see any of them making any fundamental progress up or down the grid.  Expect to see a strong performance from Brawn, then, but I have a feeling that it may prove to be Toyota, rather than Red Bull or BMW, who provide their sternest opposition for the laurels on race day.  Expect, too, to see a race which is at the very least as entertaining as last weekend’s, the Sepang track being custom-designed for modern F1 cars.  This could prove to be doubly so if the notoriously unpredictable and wild weather adds some rain into the mix.  Watch for Lewis Hamilton doing a rain dance in the pit lane.

This year marks the tenth anniversary of the first Malaysian Grand Prix.  It increasingly looks like a marker post for the future of Formula 1, the first stage in the expansion of the sport into the East.  More importantly, though, it has usually provided some good, interesting racing, which is all that really matters.  As is my wont, I’ve decided to crunch some hard stats about the Malaysian Grand Prix.

1999

Date: 17.10.1999.  Weather: Hot, dry and sunny.  Pole position: Michael Schumacher (Ferrari) 1m39.688.  Fastest race lap: Michael Schumacher 1m40.267.  Race winner: Eddie Irvine (Ferrari), from Michael Schumacher and Mika Häkkinen (McLaren Mercedes)

Notes: This was Michael Schumacher’s return from the broken leg which sidelined him for much of the second half of the 1999 season.  He dominated the race meeting – the penultimate event of that year’s World Championship – holding up Mika Häkkinen’s McLaren and then allowing his teammate through to win, putting him in the driving seat in the title standings.  Ferrari were disqualified after the race for a technical infringement on their barge boards, temporarily handing Häkkinen the world crown until the decision was reversed on appeal.

2000

Date: 22.10.2000.  Weather: Hot, dry and sunny.  Pole position: Michael Schumacher (Ferrari) 1m37.397.  Fastest race lap: Mika Häkkinen (McLaren Mercedes) 1m38.542.  Race winner: Michael Schumacher, from David Coulthard (McLaren Mercedes) and Rubens Barrichello (Ferrari)

Notes: The final round of the 2000 World Championship, with the title decided already in Michael Schumacher’s favour.  A promising battle between him and Mika Häkkinen, his title rival, evapourated early after the Finn was penalised for jumping the start.  Schumacher cruised to victory at a track where he was always a class apart, although he was chased hard in the latter stages by David Coulthard.

2001

Date: 18.3.2001.  Weather: Hot, dry and sunny, becoming very wet due to a rainstorm, then drying.  Pole position: Michael Schumacher (Ferrari) 1m35.220.  Fastest race lap: Mika Häkkinen (McLaren Mercedes) 1m40.962.  Race winner: Michael Schumacher, from Rubens Barrichello (Ferrari) and David Coulthard (McLaren Mercedes).

Notes: The first Malaysian Grand Prix in its traditional early-season date, this was the 2nd round of the 2001 championship.  The race was action packed.  An early race monsoon made conditions impossible, so impossible that 6 of the first 10 laps were behind the safety car and both Ferraris spun off the track.  The pace of the Ferrari F2001, though, was simply too much for the rest of the field to contain.

2002

Date: 17.3.2002.  Weather: Hot, dry and sunny.  Pole position: Michael Schumacher (Ferrari) 1m35.266.  Fastest race lap: Juan Pablo Montoya (Williams BMW) 1m38.049  Race winner: Ralf Schumacher (Williams BMW), from Juan Pablo Montoya and Michael Schumacher.

Notes: An aberration in a season of crushing domination by Ferrari, the second round of the 2002 World Championship at the time gave us the ultimately false hope that Williams might be able to stop Schumacher from breezng to a 5th title.  As it was, Ferrari still dominated the early stages of the race, through Rubens Barrichello, until his car let him down mid-way.  Michael Schumacher, delayed by a penalty for colliding with Montoya turn 1 on the opening lap, could do no better than 3rd behind the Williams pair.  However, he went on to win the next four Grands Prix, and had the title wrapped up by July.

2003

Date: 23.3.2003.  Weather: Hot, dry and sunny.  Pole position: Fernando Alonso (Renault) 1m37.044.  Fastest race lap: Michael Schumacher 1m36.412.  Race winner: Kimi Räikkönen (McLaren Mercedes), from Rubens Barrichello (Ferrari) and Fernando Alonso.

Notes: After Schumacher, M.’s crushing domination of the 2002 season, a raft of measures were made to even the playing field.  And they worked, as you can see from this result.  Michael Schumacher, normally a class apart at Sepang, could do no better than 6th after another first corner tangle, this time with Renault’s Jarno Trulli.  Alonso – at the time the youngest ever F1 polesitter – became the youngest ever leader of a Grand Prix (both records since have been eclipsed by Sebastian Vettel) before Kimi Räikkönen assumed a comfortable lead.  A race of firsts, it was Fernando Alonso’s first ever pole position and first podium finish in a Grand Prix, whilst Kimi Räikkönen scored his first Grand Prix win.

Join us again later this week when I cover 2004-2008’s events, in florid prose.

An inspiring start to a new Grand Prix season, where first race intrigue revolved around on-track racing, tactical intrigue and unpredictability to the last rather than the usual Melbourne-brand bumper car excitement.  This, too, was thrown in for good measure, making for a memorable and hugely encouraging start to the new-look Formula 1.  The pity, perhaps, is that the last-minute cameo of Albert Park’s traditional accidents deprived us of what could have been a very intriguing battle for the victory in the final laps.

However, Kubica and Vettel’s coming together was simply a racing incident, which have happened and will happen so long as cars race one another.  The real pity in all of this is that after such a positive beginning to a season, there are still so many unknowns.  Uncertainty over the legality of the winning car’s diffuser.  Uncertainty, too, surrounding the rear ends of the Toyota and Williams cars who featured so prominently in the race weekend.  Finally, uncertainty over 3rd place, as Toyota look set to appeal against Jarno Trulli being given a 25-second penalty for passing Lewis Hamilton under yellow flags, dropping him from the podium to 12th place after a spirited drive.  For all the joy, colour and excitement we witnessed today, it’s difficult to ever remember the sport being so united and yet so fractious at the same time.  The FIA needs to quickly resolve all these appeals, counter-appeals and grey areas, because it looks like the action has returned to the track and people need to remember to keep it there.

The day belonged to the Buttons.  Jenson Button won the race in a car I fully expect to be cleared as legal to race in the week after the Malaysian GP next weekend.  It was a controlled and measured performance of the sort of authority we often all suspected Button was capable of producing, if only he could get his hands on a good enough car.  The diffuser issue, temporarily pushed to the back of people’s minds, is most likely not the panacea of performance of the remarkable Brawn GP001 car, but once it is resolved, a levelling of the playing field will probably see the team begin to show their ring-rustiness.  As such, a performance like this one may prove to be the very best example of making hay while the sun shines, or yet prove to be the curtain raiser to a remarkable season of achievement.  Either way, it will rejuvenate Button’s career and standing in the paddock, he finally having proved beyond doubt that he can get the job done.

The second major button of the weekend was the KERS boost button.  Eddie Jordan was deeply sceptical about the introduction of the system in the BBC’s pre-race build up, and up to the moment the lights went out it was very much something which looked as though it could be taken or left.  Once the race was in swing though, it immediately proved its worth.  As well as providing an extra area of driving skill and tactical invention – watching the different drivers use their 6.7 seconds of boost per lap in different ways was, for me, a fascinating addition – it also spiced up the on-track action.  Being stuck behind a driver now no longer needs necessarily ruin your afternoon’s work.  Get on the push-to-pass button and get proactive… changing both the complexion of your own race and also the race as a spectacle seen from the outside.  There was certainly as much on-track excitement as I can ever remember there being at Albert Park, at least on a dry day. For all the changes the FIA have made in the 15 years I have been following the sport to “spice up the show”, these seem to be the first ones which have even vaguely looked like they might work.  Hats off.

Our third and final Button is Sebastien Buemi in the Toro Rosso.  Question marks hanging over his 20-year old head before the start, he delivered a fiesty yet mature drive which ultimately netted him 2 valuable points in a car which is probably not always going to be as lucky with other people’s mistakes as it was today.  He reminded me of Jenson Button’s first Grand Prix start, also at Melbourne, 9 years ago.  Whilst there have been more impressive debut in the meantime – Lewis Hamilton’s of course springs to mind – it’s undeniable that Buemi has put down a marker to suggest he may do more than just make up the round twenty.

Australia team-by-team

McLaren Mercedes

Pre-season testing, often so unreliable, proved crushingly accurate for McLaren.  The MP4/24 is as lacking in grip as it appeared and the team has a lot of work still to do… 2 seconds or more is a lot to find, even for a team of McLaren’s quality and experience.  Nevertheless, raceday was more encouraging and they will be delighted to have scored 6 points today.  Heikki Kovalainen’s struggle was ended in a mercy killing on lap one, as he got involved in the wake of Rubens Barrichello’s chaotic start.  Lewis Hamilton, however, demonstrated his true championship class.  His drive, both aggressive and measured, may well be his finest in Formula 1 yet.

Ferrari

A schizophrenic beginning for Maranello.  The cars were quixotically fast in practice and qualifying, and looked as though a combination of long-run pace and a tactical gamble could pay off in the race.  However, last season’s gremlins both returned to haunt the team, Massa’s car failing him and Räikkönen dropping the car off the road whilst in hot pursuit of the top three.

BMW Sauber

It’s difficult to know what to make of the BMW effort.  Kubica could well have won outright  had he not gotten involved with Vettel late in the race.  However, this raceday performance, coupled with a very decent qualifying, seemed at odds with a very average weekend up to that point.  Nick Heidfeld was very anonymous all weekend, leaving major questionmarks remaining about BMW’s real pace.

Renault

Renault arrived in Australia quietly confident and will most likely leave under a cloud.  The car, which looks like a sharpened hippo, is needlessly ugly it seems as it his simply not yet competitive enough.  Fernando Alonso did his best with a car undiscernably a step forward from last season’s R28 and finished a fairly anonymous fifth.  Nelson Piquet tapped into his mount’s sense of deja vu, meanwhile, and had a torrid time which eventually ended in the gravel after braking problems.

Toyota

Up against it the whole weekend, Toyota left everyone in no doubt that on the circuit at least, they are a force to be reckoned with this year.  Embroiled in the diffuser row upon their arrival, the team subsequently got demoted to the back of the grid after qualifying for an illegal level of flexion in its rear wing.  This amended, both drivers demonstrated the car’s strength throughout the meeting, Trulli winning a podium before being demoted for a yellow flag infringement.  Even so, Glock’s 4th place show that the team may finally have taken a step up in ultimate competitiveness.

Toro Rosso Ferrari

The Toro Rosso is not a car which seems able to match it’s 2008 form, which doesn’t represent much of a surprise.  Poor in qualifying, the team nevertheless leave Melbourne with a very respectable 3 points from a 7th and an 8th place finish, Sebastiens Buemi and Bourdais showing a keen understanding that getting the car to the finish of the first race will often pay dividends which seemed to escape some of their rivals.

Red Bull Renault

The fastest car of the weekend without a controversial double-decker diffuser, Red Bull have – if the estimates of a half-second performance advantage are correct – produced perhaps the fastest car of 2009 thus far.  Once the contentious issue is resolved, expect them to be challenging for wins.  Sebastian Vettel will be the most likely candidate for these, seemingly having both the measure of Mark Webber in terms of pace whilst more than outstripping him in terms of luck.  One day, something will fall right for Webber.  At which point everyone will most likely moan about how lucky he is.

Williams Toyota

Perhaps the biggest surprise of the weekend, the Williams car dominated the first practice days but fell back slightly at the most crucial time.  Still, Nico Rosberg demonstrated good pace in the race, hamstrung by a start hampered by Barrichello’s adventures.  However, a late-race dip in speed on the soft tyres cost him dearly, 6th place was the best he could do.  Kazuki Nakajima, however, was less impressive, finally spinning the car into the turn 5 wall.

Force India Mercedes

It’s hard to look past the fact that, on raw pace, Force India seem to be bringing up the rear so far, although glimpses of much more reliable midfield pace presented themselves during practice.  In a season where the difference between a point and being the last of the runners may be a second or less, Force India look like a team who should trouble the scorers this year.  In Australia, though, they just lacked that extra bit of urge, Sutil finishing 9th and Fisichella 11th, both nevertheless on the leader’s lap.

Brawn GP Mercedes

A dream start by all accounts.  Diffuser controversy aside, Brawn were quick all weekend and proved able to make the step up in ultimate pace at the right time.  What will most please the team, surely, will be the reliability and strength demonstrated by their under-tested car.  Jenson Button scored a well-deserved second Grand Prix win, whilst after an eventful race, Rubens Barrichello made it a Disney time 1-2 finish on the team’s first outing.  He was, however, probably lucky to escape censure for his first corner rough housing, or damage from that contact and a later nudge with Räikkönen’s Ferrari.