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.

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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.