Sunday, 23 August 2009

The final push to the Championship is on as Rubens Barrichello wins in Valencia

After a four-week long summer break, Formula 1 returned to the track this weekend with the European Grand Prix at the Valencia street circuit. This was touted to be a crucial race for Championship leader Jenson Button who has lost a big part of his lead over the last few races to the Red Bull duo of Mark Webber and Sebastian Vettel. Since winning the Turkish Grand Prix, Red Bull has dominated most of the races while Button has struggled to even get a podium finish. That means that most of the mammoth lead he had in the Driver's Championship standings after Turkey had been wiped out by Webber and Vettel.

The main problem with the BrawnGP car of Button seemed to be with tyres and grip. Over the last few races, Button had been struggling to get his tyres up to the optimum working temperature, which meant that he was not getting proper grip and was thus lacking in pace. His Championship rival Red Bull meanwhile continued their progress with car development and was clearly dominating on the track. Lately, McLaren-Mercedes and Ferrari have also made significant progress and although the title bid for these two teams are technically over, they can surely help in deciding this year's title winner by winning some 0f the remaining races themselves. So it was very important for Button to turn around his fortunes at this race to set himself up for the final push to the Championship.

In spite of the swelteringly hot weather in Valencia, Button only managed to qualify 5th on Saturday. Given that overtaking is nigh on impossible on this street circuit, the Briton could only finish the race in 7th place after making a bad start. Getting caught up in traffic, Button was down to 9th by turn 1 in the opening lap. Red Bull's Mark Webber managed to get ahead of him by then and the two of them fought for positions for most of the race. Button finally managed to leapfrog Webber during the second and last round of pitstops. As Webber pitted before Button, the Briton drove some fast laps before making his own pit stop. On top of that, the fact that Webber was caught up in traffic on his own in-lap meant that he had already lost a bit of his advantage even before coming in to the pits. So after the pit stops, Button came out in front of Webber and finally finished in 7th.

At the front, McLaren-Mercedes qualified one-two on the grid for the first time this season with World Champion Lewis Hamilton on pole and his team-mate Heikki Kovalainen in 2nd. Behind them was the BrawnGP of Rubens Barrichello with a slightly heavier fuel load than the McLarens. Behind them Vettel, Button, Raikkonen, Rosberg, Alonso, Webber and Kubica completed the top ten. Ferrari's test driver Luca Badoer, who is temporarily replacing the injured Felipe Massa, struggled for pace throughout the weekend in spite of having an identical car as Raikkonen who was much faster. Badoer qualified last on the grid, and I am ashamed to say, that this is the first time in the history of Ferrari that a Prancing Horse has qualified last on the grid on merit, without any car problems. Although Badoer made up quite a few places at the start of the race thanks to KERS, he eventually came home last as he was clearly lacking true race pace. In spite of having the same car as Raikkonen had, Badoer was lapping about 1.5 to 2 seconds a lap slower than his team mate. It just goes to show, that you can have all the experience in the world in testing a Formula 1 car, but the actual racing itself is a completely different nut to crack.

Kimi Raikkonen in the other Ferrari had a brilliant start and used his KERS well to overtake Button and Vettel off the line. So at the end of the first lap, the leading four were Hamilton from Kovalainen from Barrichello from Raikkonen. This order remained unchanged until about the first round of pit stops. Rubens Barrichello started with a heavier fuel load than both the McLarens and had slightly better race pace as well. Because of that, he was able to leapfrog Kovalainen at the first round of pit stops and then leapfrogged Hamilton at the second round of pit stops. This put Raikkonen back in 4th but the Finn was pushing very hard, and because of that was able to overtake compatriot Kovalainen at the second round of pit stops. The finishing order was thus Barrichello from Hamilton from Raikkonen from Kovalainen from Rosberg from Alonso from Button from Kubica to complete the top eight.

BrawnGP's veteran Brazilian driver Rubens Barrichello wins his first race of the season, and given that he had a championship winning car it had been a long time coming. The Brazilian was very emotional after the race and dedicated the victory to his compatriot Felipe Massa, wishing him a speedy recovery and seeing him back on the track soon. This was Barrichello's first Grand Prix victory in five years, the last one being Shanghai 2004 for Ferrari.

Championship contender Sebastian Vettel had a dismal weekend all throughout. During Friday Practice, his Renault engine let go in spectacular fashion which meant that Red Bull had to fit a new engine for him for the rest of the weekend. During the race, just after his first pit stop, this new engine failed as well forcing the young German to retire. Red Bull's engine supply contract with Renault runs out at the end of this year, and after this double engine failure, they have said that they could be switching to Mercedes-Benz for 2010. A change in the FIA regulations mean that all engine makers can supply engines to up to four teams from next year onwards. BrawnGP and Force-India already have customer engine supply deals with Mercedes-Benz. McLaren, who are 40% owned by Mercedes, are treated as the works Mercedes powered team.

For Ferrari, Kimi Raikkonen drove brilliantly throughout the race to get a deserved 3rd place and his second podium in a row. On top of that, it was Raikkonen's third podium this season and Ferrari's fourth overall. That is a stark contrast given the terrible start to the season for the Scuderia. As for Badoer, I personally hope that he either ups his game by a big margin at the next race, or that Ferrari bring in a real replacement until Massa returns. This is just humiliating stuff for the Scuderia and is doing terrible injustice to Felipe Massa's car number 3.

The Driver's World Championship, as it now stands, still has Jenson Button on top with 72 points, but his team mate Rubens Barrichello is close behind him in second with 54 points. The Red Bull duo of Webber and Vettel are third and fourth with 51.5 and 47 points respectively. With six races to go, there is a maximum of 60 points up for grabs. So in theory, any one of these four drivers can win the Championship.

The next race, which is Round 12 of the 2009 FIA Formula One World Championship, takes us to the wonderful Spa-Francorchamps circuit for the Belgian Grand Prix in just under a week's time. Spa always provides superb racing and this year, any one of Brawn, Red Bull, Ferrari or McLaren could potentially win. Whatever you do, do not miss it. Until then, drive safely everyone!

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