Twenty points left to play for and the leader of the title standings with a 14 point head start.  Never before has such a shoo-in seemed quite so parlously placed.  Jenson Button’s position is even stronger still, when you consider that he has won the most races of the 2009 season and cannot be overhauled on that count.  This leaves Rubens Barrichello and Sebastian Vettel needing to overtake his points tally – a tie will not be enough.  So, Rubens Barrichello needs 15 points and Sebastian Vettel 17.  With 20 remaining on the table.  It speaks volumes for the strangeness of the 2009 season that it is perhaps Vettel who looks like the champion-in-waiting following his blitz of the Japanese Grand Prix.  Today, Toto Roche’s Flag takes a look at what each man needs to do and how likely they are to do it.

Sebastian Vettel (69 points)

In needing 17 points with two races remaining, Vettel is looking to emulate Kimi Räikkönen, who pulled back that exact deficit to win the 2007 title.  The elephant in the room for Vettel, however, is his engine situation.  Vettel has now used all eight of his 2009 engine allocation, at least 3 of which are in a bucket somewhere in Milton Keynes, having lunched themselves in exotic locations around the world.  The question is, does Red Bull have enough good horsepower remaining to give him the best chance of chasing up the steep hill of Interlagos’ pit straight and securing top honours?  Taking a ten-place grid penalty for a ninth powerplant would surely signal the end of Vettel’s ambitions, as finishing lower than second place in Brazil would put him out of the fight for this season.  As such, I imagine they’ll be throwing caution to the wind.  It’ll be win or bust, or win or blow your engine, in São Paulo.

What Vettel needs to do:

Put simply, to outscore Jenson Button by 17 points in the final two races, Vettel needs a win and a second place at the bare minimum.  Even then he’ll be dependent on Button’s results.  In Brazil, he needs to outscore Jenson Button by 7 points, which means finishing second at the very lowest.  Vettel will be simplifying the challenge and chasing after two wins.  With the field so close, Interlagos thought to be a circuit better suited to Brawn and his engine worries, Vettel is still very much the outsider.  However, I have a sneaking feeling that, if the title chase goes down to a last race decider (for what would be the fourth consecutive season) it will be Vettel, rather than Barrichello, still in the hunt.

Rubens Barrichello (71 points)

Rubens Barrichello cannot win the championship before the last race in Abu Dhabi, which would be his 285th Grand Prix start.  This would see him comfortably overhaul Nigel Mansell’s record of 175 starts before a first world title.  What we’re looking at here, then, is the fairytale aspect which every good story needs.  Rubens needs 15 points on Jenson Button in the final races, which means he must finish at least 4th in Brazil (with some help from elsewhere) to keep the fight going.  To add to the fairytale aspect, then, it seems likely that Rubens will need to win his home Grand Prix if he wants to entertain decent prospects of his first World Championship.  Rubens Barrichello winning at Interlagos – the track where, as a child, he first glanced a racing car from over a wall – would be the biggest fairytale of them all, not least because of his indecently bad luck on home ground.  Next weekend’s event will be his 17th home race, his results in the previous sixteen are as follows:

1993 DNF (gearbox), 1994 4th, 1995 DNF (gearbox), 1996 DNF (spin), 1997 DNF (suspension), 1998 DNF (gearbox), 1999 DNF (engine), 2000 DNF (hydraulics), 2001 DNF (collision), 2002 DNF (hydraulics), 2003 DNF (fuel system), 2004 3rd, 2005 6th, 2006 7th, 2007 DNF (engine), 2008 15th

Raw statistics don’t always paint the most accurate picture, but these give, at the very least, a reasonable impression.  However, even these can’t fully describe the extent of Barrichello’s Interlagos curse… in 1999 he led the race on merit. He led again in 2000 and 2002, looking on course for a comfortable podium finish behind teammate Michael Schumacher (in a dominant and otherwise unfailingly reliable Ferrari).  In 2003 he started from pole, turned the fastest lap and was leading the  race easily when a fuel pick-up problem caused him to run out of juice.  He was on pole again in 2004 – a year when Ferrari won 15 out of the 18 races – but on race day his car couldn’t match the pace of Williams or McLaren.  It’s at times like this when you must be tempted to dig up your house’s foundations to make sure it’s not been built on a Native American settlement or the like.

If it was anyone else – taking into account the Brawn car’s likely pace at the track, taking into account the driver’s local knowledge and motivation – then Barrichello would be the comfortable pre-race favourite.  However, as much as I would love to see his luck finally change at home, I just can’t even picture what that would look like.

What Barrichello needs to do:

Rubens has to outscore Jenson Button by 5 points in São Paulo, which means he cannot finish any lower than 4th place.  He has said this week that he’s not interested in maths and contingencies, and will just be going for the win.  That’s all he can really do now.  Because whilst it must be said that his position is a little stronger than Vettel’s, he is in the same car as Jenson Button and his teammate has been regularly finishing right behind him.

Jenson Button (85 points)

Jenson Button won 6 out of the first seven races, you know.  Honestly, he did.  Four of them from pole position.  Two of them with fastest lap.  You must surely remember?

Since the Turkish Grand Prix, which was on June 7th, Jenson Button has only scored 24 points.  One-third of these came at one race, in Italy.  It’s fair to say, then,  that his championship chances are fairly heavily predicated on the 61 points he accrued before everything went to bits.

Duly, he’s come in for some frenzied criticism, most of it coming from anxious British journos, all secretly hoping for another home champion.  Some of it is probably well founded.  However, the beginning of his slide into mediocrity was to do with his car, rather than any issues relating to feeling the pressure: Rubens Barrichello did not finish ahead of his Brawn teammate until he won the 11th round in Valencia, emphasising the fact that the team’s problem was the team’s problem and not Jenson’s.  However, it is fair to say that since Rubens complicated the issue by his two excellent late-season wins, Button has looked a shadow of his former self.   Since Valencia in August, he’s only finished ahead of Barrichello once.  It’s almost comforting, the way British sportsmen always refuse the easy path.  Button’s two predecessors in his vaulnted position – Damon Hill and Lewis Hamilton – underwent similar wobbles.  For Hill, it was his starts.  During the summer of 1996, his inability to get himself cleanly off the line saw Jacques Villeneuve able to grab great handfuls of Damon’s points cushion at every race.  Hamilton, meanwhile, twice demonstrated a curious loss of judgement and composure, causing him to once just lose the title and once just win it.

Jenson’s problem is qualifying.  In the races, he is driving well.  However, with the entire field’s qualifying times usually covered by 1.5 seconds, he’s having to drive well mired in traffic with the flying wings and the wheels banging.  Martin Brundle has said that Button really needs a champion’s drive now, something commanding enough to demonstrate that the title being his was never in doubt.  Damon Hill did it at Suzuka in 1996 and Lewis Hamilton in Shanghai last year.  I honestly believe that if Button can secure the title in Brazil, the release of pressure will see him take a win of such dominance in Abu Dhabi, we’ll all wonder how anyone else could possibly have won a race in 2009.  Sadly, it currently seems that if the title will fall to him at Interlagos, it will most likely drop into his lap as his winning it any other way.

All of this said, the points never lie.  Button is 14 points ahead because he was an insuperable obstacle in the first races of the season.  No-one since has demonstrated the same mix of consistency and speed.  If he backs his way slowly into this thing, he’ll deserve it as much as anyone else.  Let’s be honest here: both Rubens Barrichello and Sebastian Vettel would love to be in the position of being able to stumble towards the title.  Whoever wins the World Championship always deserves it.  There’s no duffers there.

What Button needs to do:

Despite what he may be thinking, what people may be saying and the way that he may be driving, Button has the least pressure of the three contenders.  Put simply, Button will be in the hunt all the way to the end of the season.  In the worst-case scenario, he’ll arrive in Abu Dhabi for the finale with Rubens Barrichello needing to take five points on him.

To take Vettel out of the running, he needs to finish within 6 points of the German.  This means that if Vettel wins, Button has to finish 5th.  If Vettel is second, Button needs seventh.  If Vettel finishes lower than second, he is out of the race.

To take Barrichello out of the running, Button needs to finish within 4 points of him.  So, a Barrichello win would require 3rd.  Barrichello in second would need 5th, third would need 7th and fourth can be covered with 8th.  As I said before, Rubens cannot finish lower than 4th in Brazil if he wants to be World Champion in 2009.

If he manages to cover both of these contingencies – i.e. finishing within 4 points of Barrichello and six of Vettel – at the same time, he will be champion in Brazil.  If Button really wants to make things easy for himself, all he needs to do is finish in third place at Interlagos, which will put this thing for bed once and for all.

All Jenson Button needs is belief now.  Because winning the title from 15 or 17 points behind with two races left is pretty unbelievable. Read the rest of this entry »

Tiers and tantrums

May 12, 2009

As I had hoped, the Spanish Grand Prix answered a lot of questions about the potential direction of the 2009 season.  It’s now clear that Brawn are set fair to be the team to beat this year and that when it comes undone, as it inevitably will, in terms of reliability, mistakes or other japery, that Red Bull are the team most likely to pick up the pieces.  Ferrari, too, are starting to show their teeth, and in a season where the field is covered, front-to-back, by 1.5 seconds, it can’t be too long before someone other than Jenson Button or Sebastian Vettel wins a race.

The quality of the racing was also notable for its improvements.  The cars are now certainly following one another closer than they have been able to for some time, and although overtaking is still incredibly difficult (which, I have always believed, it should be… this is Formula 1, after all), steps which have been taken to improving the closeness of the racing have been steps in the right direction.

Of course, F1 being the sport it is, it threw up just as many new posers in the process of answering these points of competition.  Firstly, the budget cap issue has the potential to be the post divisive and damaging since the FISA-FOCA wars of the early 1980s.  Ferrari’s board are today meeting to discuss whether or not they would still be willing to enter a two-tier version of the sport.  Whilst I firmly subscribe to Max Mosley’s view that the sport can survive without Ferrari – it did so for great swathes of the 1980s and 1990s, from a competition standpoint at least – more of a concern is that the Scuderia are merely at the vanguard of a larger exodus.  Dietrich Mateschitz, the owner of Red Bull, was in Barcelona to state categorically that his teams would similarly not enter next season’s championship in the current proposed form.  It also looks likely that Toyota will follow suit… even if it proves to be  a move of financial expendiency dressed up as a sporting objection.

Formula 1 would be hugely devalued by such a walk out.  Ferrari, the Red Bull quartet and Toyota are more than just eight cars, they are thousands of exceptionally talented and experienced people, many of whom count the business of Formula 1 racing as their whole life’s work.  A turnout of hastily cobbled-together teams with new names, mercenaries and refugees racing to an arbitrary financial constraint, probably all with a Cosworth engine… it would be the end of the sport in everything but the name.

It cannot be denied that, particularly now, the costs of Formula 1 racing are totally unsustainable.  To complain that new teams are being put off from entering, blanching at the level of fiscal commitment, however, is to ignore the fact that it was ever thus.  During the insane turbo era, Formula 1 saw more entrants than at any time in its history.  Very few remnants of those heady days still exist in their current form, but notable drivers and engineers have been cherry-picked from the projects and have gone on to enjoy famous careers.  Formula 1 is a meritocratic exercise.  The better you are, the more money you earn.  The more money you earn, the better you can invest in being better still.  However, you only need to point to this season as an example of the fact that it’s not simply a case of money talking.  The raft of measures the FIA has instituted in recent years have been with a view to helping the teams to help themselves, to help the sport.  I think that they have worked.  Before the budget cap row erupted, talk was of two new teams entering the sport for 2010.  Things looked healthier than they had in nearly 20 years.  Perhaps the best thing the FIA can do now is to take a step back and try and help the sport themselves.

Maybe a better solution would be to get each team to declare their outgoings for the previous season at the start of the new, and then apply a penalty in that season’s constructor’s championship – let’s say a point for every $1 million dollars, over a certain sum of money.  This would allow teams to set their own budgets, but also allow them the option of balancing this against a better position – and ultimately more prize money – in the following year’s Constructors’ Cup standings.  Either way, to penalise the teams for their decades of excess is one thing, but to end up penalising the fans can simply not stand.

It’s a scary future, so the best thing we fans can do is relish the present.  2009’s big sporting issue is currently Rubens Barrichello.  After years of toeing the Ferrari party line, Rubens’ throwaway comment that he’d not tolerate a similar situation at Brawn has been gleefully jumped on by the media, trumpeted as a QUIT THREAT or an ULTIMATUM.  Things are, in reality, likely to be far less fractious.  Barrichello knows why it was he lost the Spanish Grand Prix – his pace in the vital 2nd and 3rd stints was just not sufficient.  He and his team will, I’m sure, work to work out precisely why this was.  Because if Rubens starts to find himself in a position where he can’t trust the team or their strategic judgement, he knows better than anyone that his role will be completely untenable.

This is a situation I simply can’t see a man as intelligent as Ross Brawn allowing to happen.  Barrichello’s huge experience – Jenson Button is Formula 1’s 4th most-experienced current driver, yet Rubens has started nearly 120 Grands Prix more – was an important part in giving Jenson the car that allowed him to win pole position and the race.  It will continue to be priceless, more and more so as Button and Brawn edge closer and closer to a sensational championship tilt.  Rubens Barrichello’s day in the sun will come in time.  At the moment, he just has to accept that no-one is driving at Jenson Button’s level.  This is evidenced by the fact that he won on Sunday on a non-optimal two-stop strategy.  If Ross Brawn, the sport’s most celebrated tactical genius, wanted to deliberately scupper Rubens Barrichello’s race, I’m sure he could think of a better way than giving him the faster strategy and hope beyond hope that it would go wrong somehow.

For all the new and exciting in 2009-vintage Formula 1, it’s in a way comforting that hot air, rumour and hearsay still rule the roost.

2009 season opener?

May 6, 2009

And so, then, the Spanish Grand Prix.  This is the one we’ve been waiting for, when the pre-season favourites will suddenly re-emerge and put the upstarts in their place.  Sadly, for them at least, this is not a theory I subscribe to.  I expect that McLaren, Renault and Ferrari will make some significant progress as the year goes on, but I do not see that it will be at the expense of the teams who have started 2009 running at the front.  It should present an almighty treat for us, though, if in an already extraordinarily close year we were to gain four, six or even eight new cars and drivers with a realistic chance of winning any particular weekend.

The new look to the front of the pack this season has, I think, tricked a lot of people’s minds into thinking that there’s something not quite real about the current championship situation, that things will soon be redressed when we all wake up.  The fact of the matter is, however, that all the races so far have been normal events with points to be had.  For all of the new winners and surprised-looking mechanics and grim-faced Ferrari management, Jenson Button arrives in Barcelona with 31 points from a possible 35, twelve ahead of his teammate and 13 ahead of Red Bull’s Sebastian Vettel – looking increasingly likely to be a serious championship protagonist this year.

Had Lewis Hamilton or Felipe Massa arrived at the Circuito de Catalunya with such a margin, people would already be writing this season off as a contest.  They’d be treading dangerous ground to do so, but there’d still be a reasonable chance they’d be proven completely correct.  I don’t see why the same can’t be applied to Button’s chances.  The reason why we expect Hamilton, Räikkönen, Massa or Alonso to be in Button’s position is because they drive for teams who have, traditionally, done the best job in producing a fast car.  This year, Brawn did the best job.  Quite whether they will be able to match their more experienced rivals’ pace of development is a big question mark, as is how they will balance this season’s races with their efforts to maintain their competitiveness in 2010.  Let there be no doubt, though.  However plain their car’s paintwork, however unlikely the story, Jenson Button is very much in the mix to win this.  The points don’t lie.

Spain will, though, be a race of much intrigue.  Countless new parts will be appearing all over every car in the pitlane – including on a Brawn car which looked a little breathless against Toyota and Red Bull in Bahrain, if only in qualifying.  Ferrari and Renault will be looking for big steps forward, whilst McLaren – finally free from the Melbourne fiasco and able to concentrate on going forward – will be looking to continue to steadily build, as they have impressively been doing at every race this season.

Even the smallest teams will be looking for any advantage, in a season where half a second either can either bring you a point or see you last of the runners.  Force India’s KERS is, I understand, nearing being ready for race weekends.  Williams’ innovative flywheel system cannot be too far behind, either.  All of this brings BMW’s struggles into stark contrast: the Munich outfit will be without the system this weekend.

However, for me the most important indicator of progress I’ll be watching for on Sunday afternoon is whether or not the new rules – designed with the specific purpose of improving the racing on-track – are really working.  Barcelona has, in recent years, provided some of the starkest, bleakest and most dismally processional races you could ever wish to see.  Forget finding out who’s going to be competitive for the rest of the year… I want to find out if one car will be able to make a competition of it by passing another one on the circuit.  Fingers, as ever, crossed.

Useless prediction:

Pole position: Button (Brawn Mercedes) (because Barcelona favours the most aerodynamically efficient cars always)

Race result: 1st: Button (Brawn Mercedes); 2nd Vettel (Red Bull Renault); 3rd: Lewis Hamilton (McLaren Mercedes).

This time they are really spoiling us…

The BBC’s exceptional coverage of the 2009 Formula 1 season continues at apace with these magnificent pieces from their cavernous archives.  Readers in the United Kingdom can watch re-runs of their Grand Prix highlights package from the Spanish Grands Prix of 1981 and 1986 online. Watching even a processional dirge from those grainy turbo days is always a joy, so these two outstanding races have much more to offer.  They are especially noteworthy for two virtuoso, sleight-of-hand victories, under extreme pressure and in inferior equipment, by two of the sport’s greatest ever drivers. Commentary, of course, comes from Murray Walker and the delightfully thrummy James Hunt. Here’s hoping that the BBC – who have been presenting such online treats all season in the week before races – continue in the same vein throughout the 2009 season, particularly in the historically rich European season.

Date with destiny

April 29, 2009

This morning could have a significant effect on the destiny of the 2009 Formula 1 World Championship, as an increasingly competitive McLaren team face the World Motorsport Council on charges of  deliberately misleading the race stewards of the Australian Grand Prix.  Their guilt, of course, is already established.  The role of the WMC sitting today is to decide on what punishment, if any, this warrants.  McLaren International’s actions thus far – sacking team manager Dave Ryan, a series of public apologies including one from Lewis Hamilton plus a private letter sent to the FIA, chairman Ron Dennis standing down from his Formula 1 responsibilities and the team’s decision to stand silent at the hearing – all point, in my mind, to a team who has a nasty suspicion that it will not merely be a slap on the wrist.

The tendency of such hearings is for their outcomes to be representative of a team’s general conduct over a longer period than just for the incident alone.  With the cannily-named Spygate saga still fresh in people’s minds, this could have come at a better time for McLaren.  However, it must also be remembered that the team paid an astronomical fine for that transgression – $100 million – plus countless more millions in lost prize money for their disqualification from that year’s constructor’s championship.

Given all of this, plus the novel nature of the infringement, has left most commentators and experts very much in the dark as to what will happen this time.  The WMC has almost limitless powers for censure.  McLaren could escape with a warning, but just as easily could find themselves with a blanket ban from this year’s championship, or longer.

My own feeling has mellowed somewhat since my piece written on the 3rd of this month, with the subject still fresh in my mind.  I ended that article with the words: “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.”  I maintain the view that the team deserved to be punished.  However, I now question the value of too swingeing a judgement.  McLaren’s actions were indefensible, but they have been caught and the wrong it caused – in terms of the results of the Australian race – has been righted.  They have also subsequently admitted their culpability and apologised – although I can’t help but feel that their scarcely-credible second denial of any wrongdoing to the Malaysian Grand Prix stewards a week later may well come back to haunt them.

Toto Roche’s Flag being a completely anal project, it would be remiss of me to not look back at previous similar incidences and their outcomes, before speculating on what McLaren’s fate might be and what I think it should be.

1984: Tyrrell

The accusation: Tyrrell Grand Prix were caught with traces of lead in their water tank after Martin Brundle’s car finished second in the Detroit Grand Prix.  It transpired that the team – hampered by the weight limit of the time, being the sole non-turbo engined car in the field – had been topping up their water tank late on in races with water filled with lead pellets to bring the car up to weight, having run the majority of the way under the limit.  The FIA charged the team with virtually everything it could throw at it.  The hydrocarbon traces in the water tank could be interpreted as the illegal use of an additional fuel cell, we were told.  No matter that the team – who as the sole remaining Cosworth outfit were a perpetual thorn in the side of the turbocharged remainder, in terms of Ken Tyrrell’s veto in Formula One Constructors’ Association meetings – scarcely needed their full fuel quota to finish the races with their frugal normally-aspirated engines.  Particularly as the team could also be charged with illegally running underweight, or using unsecured ballast.

The outcome: It was very much considered a fait accompli by many, an act of vengeance following pressure by the FOCA hoardes against a plucky outsider.  Nevertheless, the fact remained that Tyrrell had broken the rules.  Whether or not the punishment fitted the crime, however, is another matter.  Tyrrell, found guilty, were banned from competing in the balance of that season’s World Championship – three races – plus had all of the results they had gained up to that point in 1984 rescinded.

1994: Benetton and McLaren

The accusation: Benetton Ford and McLaren Peugeot were both accused of using banned electronic aids at that year’s  ill-fated San Marino Grand Prix.  Such gadgets, which had been banned at the end of 1993 with a promise of “mindblowing” sanctions for those caught using them in 1994, would have given any team a significant advantage as the rest of the teams got back to grips with passive suspension and no traction control.  Benetton and McLaren were specifically accused of using fully automated launch control devices at the start, but rumours darkly circulated about automatic gearboxes and traction control as well, particularly in light of Benetton’s stellar start to the 1994 season.

The outcome: Both Benetton and McLaren were acquitted due to insufficient evidence.  Both teams later received stern penalties for their drivers after trangressions in the races.  Both Michael Schumacher and Mika Häkkinen served race suspensions, with Schumacher sitting out both the Italian and Portuguese races for ignoring a black flag at the British Grand Prix.  This was interpreted by some as a disproportionate response, a way to punish them for both offences via the back door.

2005: BAR

The accusation: BAR Honda were caught using a supplementary fuel tank at the San Marino Grand Prix.  Once this tank was drained by scrutineers after the race, the car was found to be underweight.  The team were accused of illegally using fuel as ballast.

The outcome: BAR were found guilty of the charge.  Jenson Button was disqualified from his 3rd place at Imola, plus the team were suspended from the subsequent Spanish and Monaco Grands Prix.

Where, then, does this leave McLaren?  The BAR verdict in 2005 shows that the powers that be have no compunction in depleting a 20-car field to just 18 runners, if they think the crime warrants it.  Such sporting concerns as ‘the show’ are secondary, in other words, to sporting concerns such as probity of conduct.  Like Tyrrell in 1984, there is also no technological argument to be made, no potential loopholes to be explored, no questions of guilt or innocence.

In such circumstances, it’s hard to not see some sort of stiff penalty being handed down.  However, with the $100 million fine probably still not yet even entirely spent, McLaren’s conduct since should – and probably will – be some mitigation.  If it were my decision, I would ban the team for the next race, plus make them run for the next 2 years with a further suspended ban which made it clear that any further similar infraction would result in a total disqualification from that year’s World Championship.  What I suspect will happen is a two race ban and another substantial fine.  Let’s see.

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.

Bahrain and the BBC

April 23, 2009

Sakhir is the next venue for the Formula 1 circus, for the fifth year in a row.  A pioneer race for the Middle East in Grand Prix racing, Bahrain will be joined by Abu Dhabi this season as F1 looks to find any available money teat which is still producing.  Bahrain has, nevertheless, been a fine venue for the sport and tends to produce interesting – if not necessarily thrilling – Grands Prix.

To be completely trite and obvious about it, this race marks a line in the sand for all the teams, the last event before the European season kicks off in Barcelona next month.  This, then, probably represents the last race for the current order in the sport.  From May 10th onward, expect to see some more established names make inroads as their car developments come thick and fast whilst the diffuser gang plateau.

Still, they will have it all to do to catch Brawn GP.  Regardless of last week’s result, the BGP001 car is still the class of the field.  Tripped up in strategic terms by the rain in Shanghai, the team are much less likely to be so afflicted in the desert and go into the race as favourites.  Their chief competition, I expect, will come from Toyota and Red Bull.  I also have a sneaking feeling that Ferrari will return to the points at this race, or at the very least be running there when their car breaks.  Felipe Massa is a Bahrain specialist, whilst the team spent significant time testing at Sakhir during the winter break.

Williams will also be looking to show well and make their practice pace come alive in official sessions for the first time in 2009.  Of the three double diffuser teams, they are perhaps the outfit with the most to gain from the return to Europe and the factories after the flyaway beginning to the season.

Of the teams making inroads, I expect McLaren to be the best of the rest.  The team seem to be making steady progress, rather than a fuss about how unfair it all is, the chosen method of some of their rivals.  Bahrain also features a few decent length straights where their KERS system should do serious damage to their competition come race day.

I don’t see much else in the way of change on the horizon until Spain.  It will, however, be interesting to see what progress Renault – on the front row in Shanghai’s dry qualifying, remember, albeit with a light car – have made.  On the driver front, I’ll have a gimlet eye on Nelsinho Piquet again… he really needs to make it into the same qualifying session as Alonso and quickly… and will also be watching out for the nascent Sebastien Buemi to see if he can continue his good work so far.

My rubbish and useless prediction:

Pole position: Jenson Button (Brawn Mercedes)

Race result: 1. Jenson Button (Brawn Mercedes); 2. Sebastian Vettel (red Bull Renault); 3. Timo Glock (Toyota)

The BBC

Bahrain will also be the fourth round for the BBC’s new coverage of the Grand Prix racing.  I still find myself instinctively looking at the ITV listings to see what time programmes start, which in itself says a lot for the majority of the Beeb’s coverage.  This is not to denigrate it at all, however.  ITV did an excellent job in its 11 years with the sport.  The greatest tribute that they can be paid is that Auntie have seen little reason to change much of the presentational format.  Personnel-wise, the BBC seem to have chosen wisely.  I never subscribed to the James Allen hate-in, feeling he was just experiencing the fallout for the terrible if unavoidable crime of not being Murray Walker.  Jonathan Legard is no better or worse than Allen, but he’s still not Murray Walker, so I expect to start to hear the rumblings of discontent soon.  Martin Brundle and Ted Kravitz came over from the commercial darkside, and are both excellent aquisitions.  The last of the mainstream commentary team, Lee McKenzie, has also slotted in seamlessly, which, I say again, is all you could really ask from them.

On the presentation side, Jake Humphrey still looks like a bizarrely stretched 12-year old boy, but it’s fairly obvious that he isn’t just there for his yoof appeal and that he has a passion for the subject.  He seems to be the chief concession to a more DYNAMIC approach that the BBC have taken – he walks up and down the pitlane whilst talking, where Steve Rider used to stand still.  Alongside him, David Coulthard is yet to really cut loose as a pundit, but I reckon it’ll be worth the wait.  Eddie Jordan is more of a question mark.  His ex-team owner and I-used-to-run-that-driver schtick is already wearing a little thin.  However, there’s no denying Jordan – who has huge experience as both a driver and an owner – has the potential to make a significant contribution.  Even if he doesn’t, he at least knows how to speak English properly, which makes him a step forward from Mark Blundell.

So, the big change’s biggest service to the viewer has been to remain the same.  What is noteworthy, though, is the vast amount of additional coverage the BBC has been able to provide, through its interactive TV and online streaming.  Every minute of the weekend’s action is now covered, the majority of it at inhospitable times on Friday mornings.  However, if you can sneak away and have yet to do so, watching one of the 90-minute free practice sessions is well worth it.  Not for the on-track action, which is as relevant to the TV viewer as an exotic screensaver, but for the soundtrack.  The BBC’s second-string – i.e. Radio Five – commentary team sit in and are doing a really exceptional job.  David Croft is a wily one, knowledgable but with a nice line in mischievous devil’s advocacy.  He is usually joined by the outstanding Anthony Davidson, truly the heir apparent to Martin Brundle’s mic.  Also on hand will be the vastly knowledgable Maurice Hamilton, recently joined by another seasoned figure from the paddock, Ian Phillips – formerly the editor of Autosport magazine and of Jordan Grand Prix, now employed by Force India.  All four bring their years of experience to bear with considerable aplomb – entertaining, controversial, wry, observant and educational.  Highly recommended and, as with so much of the BBC coverage so far, available later on on the BBC Sport website.

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.

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).

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.

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.