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.

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.