Monday, 25 May 2009

The fairytale of BrawnGP continues in Monaco, while the team of the Prancing Horse finally return to form

It is the most prestigious and most glamorous race on the Formula 1 calendar, and first started in 1929, the tiny and narrow streets of Monte Carlo have always been home to the Monaco Grand Prix. The qualifying session in Monaco is known to be one of the most important qualifying sessions of the year purely because Monaco is notoriously difficult for overtaking. The street circuit of the small principality is one of the slowest and one of the shortest race tracks on the Formula 1 calendar, but the narrow streets have always meant that overtaking here is virtually impossible. Which is why the driver who qualifies on pole can almost guarantee to win the race if nothing unexpected goes wrong.

But that does not mean that once a driver has bagged the pole position on Saturday, he can start celebrating his victory. It's far from it. Despite the slow speed of the circuit, Monaco has always been very hard on both the drivers and the cars. It is hard on the drivers because there is almost no run-off area on either side of the track, which means that the slightest mistake can result in the car crashing into the barriers. It is hard on the cars because of the sheer number of gear changes made on a lap of the Monaco circuit. Although not even half the circuit is taken at full throttle by these Formula 1 cars, which means that this race is not particularly hard on the engines, it really punishes the gearbox. Besides that, the slow speed nature of this track also mean that having good mechanical grip is a lot more important here rather than aerodynamic downforce, in order to achieve good lap times.

Because of these factors, Monaco has always been a very highly anticipated race. The first and second free practice sessions, which take place on a Thursday here instead of the usual Friday, showed the Ferraris and the McLarens posting some promising lap times along with king of practice, Nico Rosberg of Williams. During the Qualifying on Saturday, one of the biggest incidents was Lewis Hamilton making a serious driver error which caused him to crash and out for the rest of the qualifying sessions. During one of his flying laps in Q1, Hamilton outbraked himself coming into the tight Mirabeau hairpin, lost the rear end of his car and slammed into the tyre barriers, completely destroying the rear suspension. Although at the time he had the 7th fastest lap time, by the end of Q1 Hamilton had dropped down to 16th. To make matters worse, because of that crash McLaren had to change the gearbox in his car which carries an automatic grid penalty of 5 places. So starting right at the back of the grid on Sunday pretty much meant race over for the reigning World Champion before it had even started.

The rest of the qualifying went without much more surprises. The two Toyotas were really struggling for grip throughout the weekend, just like BMW Sauber. So they qualified near the back of the pack as well. The real surprise was the lack of pace in the Red Bulls, who up until the last race in Barcelona seemed to be the team to beat after BrawnGP, but here in Monaco the Milton-Keynes based team barely kept up with the mid-field. But the real promise of a return to form was shown by Scuderia Ferrari. The reigning Constructors' World Champion, after introducing a host of new upgrades in Barcelona, failed to get some good results back in Spain apart from Massa's 6th place finish. Although the two Ferraris had good pace back in Barcelona, reliability was their biggest problem that cost them a better result. But that would not be the case here in Monaco. Both the Ferraris constantly kept up with the pace-setters BrawnGP, and in Q3 Kimi Raikkonen even managed to get provisional pole before being pipped by Jenson Button, who did a superb flying lap at the death of the qualifying session to snatch pole. Although Ferrari were happy that Raikkonen got them their first front row of the season, and his team mate Felipe Massa qualified in fourth just behind BrawnGP's Barrichello.

At the start of the race, both the BrawnGP cars started on the super-soft tyres, whereas both the Ferraris and most of the other front-runners started on the harder soft tyres. This meant that the Brawns had a very good start off the line, and going into turn 1 in the opening lap, Barrichello had already gone past Raikkonen to take 2nd place behind race leader Button. From then on, there wasn't much either of the Ferraris could do to gain places. Although in the middle stint of the race, both Raikkonen and Massa were posting impressive lap times, the confines of the Monte Carlo circuit meant that they couldn't finish any higher up the order. In fact Felipe Massa even set the fastest lap of the race, lapping in the 1:15.1s, and this fastest lap was about one-hundredths of a second faster than the fastest lap set by eventual race winner Jenson Button. One thing that is now confirmed is that Ferrari have really made some remarkable progress over the last four or five weeks, and in a more free flowing circuit can now push for victories.

The only other incident worth mentioning from the race is Sebastian Vettel's retirement sometime around lap 20. Although his Australian team mate Mark Webber was still doing pretty good, Vettel's RB5 was particularly struggling for grip. He started the race on the softer option tyres, which gives better performance than the prime tyres at the start but degrade a lot faster than the prime tyres. So by lap 10, Vettel's tyres were already gone and that forced him to pit earlier than originally scheduled. This was quite surprising because the two Brawns have also started the race on the options, but they were able to run quite a bit longer than Vettel. After the first pit stop, Vettel changed to the harder prime tyres but his lap times continued to suffer. This probably magnified the fact that the Red Bull cars struggle for grip in the slow speed corners, although they are very quick through the high speed corners and have good straight line speed as well. This, coupled with the fact that Red Bull have introduced their own interpretation of the double-deck diffuser in Monaco, means that at the next race in Turkey we should be seeing Red Bull back up the order. Although now apart from BrawnGP, they have a new competitor in the form of the Prancing Horse!

So overall, a very exciting race weekend in Monaco ends with yet another one-two finish for the Brawn-Mercedes team. Jenson Button is now by far in the lead in the Driver's Championship, just as his team is in the Constructor's Championship. They do seem all set to win the Championships this year, if any miracles don't happen between now and the end of the season on the 1st of November in Abu Dhabi.

Off the track, the budget cap row is finally coming to a solution. After last Friday's meeting between the FIA and FOTA in London, the FOTA members met again this Friday in Monaco on Flavio Briatore's yacht, to discuss possible solutions to this crisis. After that meeting, they all met with Max Mosley, the President of the FIA and Bernie Ecclestone, the chief of commercial rights holder Formula One Management (FOM). It now seems like a possible solution is on the cards, where most of the current teams will enter next year's championship, but under the condition that the technical and sporting regulations remain as they are this year and the introduction of any budget cap is delayed at least until 2011. FOTA realises the need for cost cutting in Formula 1, but it has to come in a sensible manner and within a reasonable time frame. So negotiations are still ongoing between FOTA and the FIA about possible cost-cutting measures, but it is clear that the FOTA wants a greater say on where and how to lower costs, rather than being imposed with a fixed and unreasonable budget cap.

So next Friday the 29th of May is the last date for lodging entries for the 2010 Formula One World Championship. This is why FOTA is eager to get a concrete solution before then, although Max Mosley has indicated that any teams that have not entered within that deadline, will still be able to lodge an entry after that date given that there are empty grid places available, which is very likely will be the case.

But for us fans, the good news is that teams like Ferrari and Renault are not going to leave this sport we all love so much, and thanks to the unity of all the teams and particularly FOTA's chairman Luca di Montezemolo (also President of Ferrari), Formula 1 will not be effectively downgraded into a lower category racing just for the sake of cost cutting. So that's it for now. Round 7 of the 2009 FIA Formula 1 World Championship will take us to the Istanbul Park Circuit in Turkey in just under two weeks' time. Stay tuned for that, but until then drive safely!

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