Tuesday, 9 June 2009

It's Button and BrawnGP all over again to make the headlines at Istanbul, while the FIA/FOTA crisis gathers pace

So Round 7 of the 2009 FIA Formula 1 World Championship took us to the Istanbul Park circuit in Turkey, where one of the most modern circuits on the Formula 1 calendar only hosted its 5th race ever. The inaugural Turkish Grand Prix in 2005 saw Kimi Raikkonen as the winner in his McLaren-Mercedes. Since then, every race on this track has seen the scarlet car of Felipe Massa take the Chequered Flag, making it three out of three wins for the Brazilian on this anti-clockwise circuit. Coming into this weekend, everyone knew that Ferrari are bringing in their first full version of the double-deck diffuser for the F60, and given Massa's great record on this track, it was not a surprise to see many people expecting the Ferrari driver to take pole and possibly victory as well. But that would mean that the runaway Championship leader Jenson Button would need to be stopped first, which in the end would not be the case.

In the practice sessions, it was anything but a surprise to see Williams' Nico Rosberg top the timesheets in Free Practice 1, for the umpteenth time this season. Although McLaren's Heikki Kovalainen did catch everyone's attention by setting the fastest time in Free Practice 2, as did Ferrari's Felipe Massa by posting the best lap time in Free Practice 3. So will we finally get to see a slightly different result in the qualifying sessions, with no Brawn and Red Bull leading the grid? Not really, because reigning World Champion Lewis Hamilton could not even go through Q1, and this time it was not due to any crashes or any other mistake, but was purely down to a lack of pace from the MP-4/24. Both the Ferraris did make it through to Q3, but at the death of the qualifying, Jenson Button did another storming lap to take provisional pole, but the Briton was surprised to see himself moved down to 2nd after Red Bull's Sebastian Vettel came home a tenth of a second quicker. So the front two rows for Sunday's starting grid was Vettel from Button from Barrichello from Webber, a Red Bull and BrawnGP lockout. Ferrari's Massa managed P6, while his team mate Raikkonen was just behind him.

So even before the race had started, Massa's chances of making it four out of four at Istanbul were looking increasingly slim. Although to realistically challenge at least for a podium finish, it all depended on getting a clean getaway off the start line, make good use of the KERS, and after that Massa could still have his hopes up because it would be 58 laps round the Istanbul Park circuit, which always offers plenty of overtaking opportunities.

How did the beginning of the race actually go? It went like this - starting from third, BrawnGP's Barrichello once again had a terrible start as his car went into anti-stall and it took him a good couple of seconds to really get going; meanwhile Vettel, Button, Webber, Trulli and Rosberg from 9th all had a great start. Williams's Rosberg particularly had a flying start and within the first few corners, the German driver had managed to overtake both the Ferraris and Renault's Fernando Alonso as well. At the front, Red Bull's Sebastian Vettel had a clean getaway, but going through turn 10 on the first lap, he almost lost the rear end of his car a little bit and went wide on the exit. This opportunity was taken up by BrawnGP's Button with both hands as the Briton then took the race lead, and then never looked back for the rest of the afternoon.

Ferrari's Felipe Massa had a decent start, but his Finnish team mate Raikkonen had a pretty poor start. As Raikkonen was then pushing hard over the first few laps to try and make up some of the lost ground, his front wing touched the rear-left tyre of Alonso's Renault while attempting an overtaking move. This meant that Raikkonen had to change his front wing on his first pit stop, and the time it took put him pretty far back when he rejoined the race. Overall, the Ferraris still looked to be lacking a little bit of downforce when compared to the Brawns, the Red Bulls and the Williams.

Most of the cars on the track were on a two-stop strategy for the race, the only exception being Red Bull's Vettel who was on a three-stopper. This was surprising given that once he made that mistake on the first lap, Red Bull could have changed him to a two-stop strategy to try and overtake Button on the pit-stops. Because he started lighter than the Brawn, he made his first pit-stop before Button, so if his team had then put him on a long middle stint, he could have made his last pit-stop after Button's last stop and that would have given the German a chance of victory. But for some reason, Red Bull stuck with his original three-stop strategy, which meant that Mark Webber in the other Red Bull overtook Vettel on strategy and finished one place higher.

While BrawnGP's Jenson Button was in a class of his own up front, his team mate Barrichello was struggling at the back after the poor start. Although Ferrari and McLaren were the only team running KERS this weekend, Barrichello found it really hard to overtake Kovalainen's McLaren, thanks to the wonderful Mercedes KERS system. In the end though, Barrichello could not finish the race because he was also facing a gearbox problem, because of which he could not select 7th gear and was hitting the rev limiter early (Formula 1 cars are limited to 18000rpm this season). So BrawnGP had its first retirement of the season in Turkey.

Another fight in the midfield worth mentioning is the brilliant overtaking manoeuvre by Renault's Piquet on McLaren's Hamilton. Nelson Piquet Jr. had anything but impressed his team boss Flavio Briatore this season, but his overtaking move on defending World Champion Lewis Hamilton was really impressive indeed. It happened just about three laps after Piquet made his pit-stop, so was on fresh tyres that were already up to temperature. Hamilton on the other hand, was on his outlap having made his one and only pit-stop for the race (the McLaren driver was on a one-stop strategy). So the McLaren was fuelled quite heavy and was on new tyres that were not quite up to their operating temperatures yet. So Piquet understandably had more grip and could push harder than Hamilton. Although Hamilton tried to defend aggressively, and held off well all the way until turn 10, but then trying to cover the inside line, Hamilton forced Piquet to go wide over the chicane. The two of them then went almost wheel to wheel before Piquet managed to sneak past on the exit of turn 12. It was a brilliant piece of driving from the young Brazilian.

Apart from these, there wasn't much of a challenge for Button who simply cruised to victory. Red Bull's Webber and Vettel came home in 2nd and 3rd respectively, followed by Jarno Trulli for Toyota. That was a very welcome result for the Stuttgart based Panasonic Toyota Racing, who had a dismal weekend at Monaco. Williams' Nico Rosberg finished in 5th, once again some very crucial points for the legendary marque. Ferrari's Felipe Massa finished in 6th while his team mate Kimi Raikkonen could only manage 9th. So unlike in Barcelona and Monte Carlo, where the Ferraris looked to have some good race-pace, here in Istanbul it was the story of BrawnGP and Red Bull all over again. What was particularly stark in contrast though was the fact that how little overtaking we got to see on a track that is known to provide ample overtaking opportunities. I mean Formula 1 never had lots of overtaking unlike in MotoGP for instance, and its because the cars are designed in such a way that in terms of performance they are very close to each other, and on top of that the aerodynamics of a Formula 1 car makes it stick to the ground due to high downforce and that in turn makes it difficult for the cars behind to overtake due to the turbulent air. But the drastic changes in this year's aerodynamic regulations, coupled with the KERS system, were meant to increase overtaking, or so thought by Max Mosley (President of the FIA) anyway. So if we cannot see cars overtaking in places like Istanbul, what on earth was the point of all that changes in regulations? What was the point of making the teams spend all this money to design the cars conforming to the new regulations - at a time when Mosley keeps talking about cost-cutting - when it would have been much cheaper for the teams to just develop on last year's cars and not have so much of a drastic change in regulations? Only Max Mosley himself can answer that question.

Talking about Mosley, apparently he has written to the eight FOTA teams this weekend asking them to sign up for next year's championship unconditionally, and then the FIA can sit down with all the teams and discuss a possible re-writing of the rules published for next year. Basically the FIA President is saying to the FOTA that 'sign up for next year, and we will change the rules to your liking'. So does that mean we will not see that dreaded budget cap after all? Only time will tell. By the way, I say eight FOTA teams because Force-India have been suspended from the FOTA because of the team breaking ranks and joining Williams in lodging an unconditional entry for next year. FOTA is supposed to reply to Mosley's letter by today, and it will be interesting to see which are the teams that will be on the Formula 1 grid next year, as the FIA will publish the list of accepted entrants for next year on this Friday, the 12th of June.

Meanwhile, it has been rumoured that FOTA is now actively contemplating a breakaway championship if their row with the FIA is not resolved. Some of the media are even saying that FOTA representatives have been in discussion with Dorna Sports, which holds the commercial rights of MotoGP. So next year, will we see Formula 1 as we know it? Or will it be full of teams hardly anyone has ever heard of (apart from Williams and Force-India of course), while our favourite teams with the likes of Ferrari, McLaren, Renault, BMW, Toyota, BrawnGP and Red Bull arrange and run their own championship? The answer will probably be known on the 12th of June. Until then, it is going to be a very crucial few days for Formula 1. And after that of course, the following weekend Formula 1 returns to Britain for the last ever race at the historic Silverstone circuit in Northamptonshire. From next year, the British Grand Prix will be staged at the Donington Park circuit, which is currently being refurbished. Given that the Silverstone race has always been a very special one for British Formula 1 fans, and on top of that this year the Championship is being led by a Briton so far driving for a British team, it is anyone's bet that we will see a sell-out crowd. Guess which supporters we will mostly see among that crowd? It's going to be Jenson Button's fans, cheering for him and his Brackley based team. Until next time, safe driving everyone!

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