Monday, 19 October 2009

Webber wins at Interlagos while Button proves his worth with a stunning drive to clinch the World Championship

After the dramatic events during last year's race at Interlagos, when Ferrari's Felipe Massa won the World Championship after leading the race from lights out to Chequered Flag only to lose the title to McLaren's Lewis Hamilton a mere 15 seconds later, here we were one year on back at the same place for the 2009 Brazilian Grand Prix. Being the last race of the season, Interlagos has determined the World Championship since 2005. Renault's Fernando Alonso won the title that year before following it up a year later, then Ferrari's Kimi Raikkonen won at Interlagos in 2007 to clinch the title and McLaren's Lewis Hamilton came 5th here in 2008 to win the title as well. Coming into this year's race, Championship leader Jenson Button had every possibility to perform well and wrap up his title. However, his title contenders team-mate Rubens Barrichello and Red Bull driver Sebastian Vettel were not far behind in the standings, and the slightest of mistakes from Button could have played into either one of his rivals' hands. Put on top of that the wonderful circuit of Interlagos and the highly passionate Brazilian fans, and we had a prospect of a superb race weekend.

Everyone knew that there were strong chances of rain anytime during the weekend, but just like always at Interlagos, no one really knew when the rain would come. The Friday practice sessions were ran mostly in the dry although there were some minor rain interruptions. On Saturday morning, the weather gods really opened up the tap and it just was not raining, it was hammering down! The FIA Race Director Charlie Whiting delayed the start of 3rd Free Practice due to lots of standing water on the track. As the FIA medical car kept going around the wet track to try and judge if the conditions would be safe enough for Formula 1 cars, the session started almost 40 minutes late with less than 20 minutes left on the clock.

These 20 minutes were very crucial for the teams. They knew that the prospect for Sunday was dry weather, but if Qualifying was to be wet, do the teams opt for a dry weather setup for their cars or a wet weather setup? The FIA Sporting Regulations state that once a car is out into Qualifying, it cannot have any more extensive changes done throughout the rest of the weekend - the car goes into parc ferme conditions. So the teams had to choose their setup during this 20 odd minutes of 3rd Free Practice. However, this practice session had to be cut short and was red flagged with about 10 minutes left on the clock as Renault's Romain Grosjean aquaplaned off the track and had a massive crash.

Although the first part of Qualifying Q1 started on time, the remaining part of the session was delayed and red flagged so many times, that it ended up being the longest Qualifying session ever in the history of Formula 1. While the cars were struggling for grip on the wet track, and with lots of standing water and the continuous downpour, aquaplaning was proving to be a big problem. Ferrari's Giancarlo Fisichella spun and stalled the engine, prompting a red flag. Later on, Force India's Vitantonio Liuzzi aquaplaned off the track and slammed into the tyre barriers prompting another red flag and it went on. This marathon Qualifying session lasted for a total of 160 minutes, almost three times as long as a normal Qualifying. Besides, with continuously changing track conditions, it was very difficult for the cars to get a good lap time in. So both the McLarens and Championship contender Sebastian Vettel failed to get past Q1. Championship leader Jenson Button failed to get past Q2 as he attempted to do his final two hot laps on the extreme wet tyres, at a time when most of the other cars out on the track were on the intermediate tyres.

With the rain easing a bit, all the cars did the final part of Qualifying on the intermediate tyres. While Button had to be content with 14th on the grid, his team mate Rubens Barrichello was putting in some great laps in Q3 to try and get pole position. Although Red Bull's Mark Webber was also challenging for pole with a car that was faster than the BrawnGP, Barrichello was lighter on fuel and eventually managed to hold on to his pole position. Webber, with a heavier fuel load, qualified 2nd on the grid. Force India's Adrian Sutil, surprisingly qualified in 3rd ahead of Jarno Trulli, Kimi Raikkonen and Sebastian Buemi. Out on his Formula 1 debut, Toyota's Kamui Kobayashi (standing in for the injured Timo Glock) qualified an impressive 11th.

After all the debacle on Saturday, race day was bright and sunny. When Barrichello took pole position at the end of Qualifying on Saturday, the local crowds went ballistic. The Brazilian's chances for the title were looking good since his team mate, Championship leader Button, was starting so far back. On the flip side, if Button had to prevent the World Championship from going down to the wire at the season finale in Abu Dhabi, the Briton had to do something very special. His task however, was made all the more difficult as he had his closest rival Sebastian Vettel starting alongside him in 15th, as Liuzzi took a grid penalty for changing his gearbox thus promoting Vettel up from 16th to 15th.

As the five red lights went out to signal the start of the race, Barrichello pulled away quickly to maintain his lead going into the first corner. Ferrari's Kimi Raikkonen, thanks to KERS, had a tremendous start and was immediately up in 3rd. While attempting to make a move on 2nd placed Webber, the Red Bull closed up on Raikkonen on the inside of turn 2, taking away part of the Ferrari's front wing. Further back up the field, there was a huge crash involving Sutil, Trulli and Alonso. As Sutil and Trulli exchanged a few words blaming each other for the crash, the Safety Car was brought out. By then, Button had already moved up to 9th place, with Vettel just behind him, as both the cars negotiated through the chaos safely. While the safety car was out, Raikkonen came into the pits to change his front wing. Ferrari also took this chance to fuel him to the brim and put him on a long stint. Just ahead, his fellow Finn Kovalainen also pitted at the same time for McLaren. However, Kovalainen pulled away prematurely with the fuel hose still attached, and ended up spraying a good bit of fuel on the pit lane and on Raikkonen's car just behind, causing a momentary fire. However, the fire was nothing serious and Raikkonen was safe and running. With the help of the BrawnGP mechanics, Kovalainen was also on his way before long.

As the track was cleared out of debris, the Safety Car came back in at the end of lap 5. This is when BrawnGP's Jenson Button gave it the beans. At the re-start, he was immediately all over on the back of Grosjean's Renault just in front. Although Grosjean was defending heavily, Button made an aggressive move at the Senna Esses and overtook Grosjean. On the next lap, he pulled off another impressive overtaking move on Nakajima going into turn 1. Over the next few laps, Button was constantly pushing Kobayashi trying to get past, but the Japanese rookie was defending ferociously. After trying for several laps, Button finally made it past the Toyota into the entry of turn 1.

Meanwhile in front, although Barrichello set a new fastest lap of the race, he had Webber following him closely behind. When Barrichello pitted on lap 21, that released Webber who then drove some scintillating laps to build up a good advantage. Barrichello rejoined the race in 8th place and right in the middle of traffic, when what he needed was a clear piece of track to put in some fast laps. Almost as soon as he was out of the pits, he was overtaken by the lighter and faster car of Vettel to move back another place. At the same time, race leader Mark Webber set a new fastest lap. Barrichello's main contender Jenson Button was now up in 2nd but yet to make his first pit stop.

After driving some stunning laps and setting several personal best times, Button pitted on lap 29 to come out in 10th behind Buemi. On lap 33, Button got into Buemi's slipstream on the main straight, then pulled out and outbraked him, went on the inside of turn 1 and got good traction to come out in front of Buemi going into turn 2. This overtaking move was risky, as at one point Button was very close to hitting Buemi, but the Briton kept his calm and made it stick, resulting in perhaps one of the most brilliant overtaking moves of the season.

Button, who started the race with a heavier fuel load than Barrichello, was running longer in the second stint as well. So when Barrichello pitted on lap 50, he rejoined the race in 6th place while Button was up in 4th. Button made his second and last pit stop on lap 55 and rejoined the race in 6th, but was straight away overtaken by the lighter car of Heikki Kovalainen. Although when Kovalainen pitted 4 laps later, it released Button again to move up to 5th.

Barrichello was in 3rd at this stage and if the race was to finish like that, with himself in 3rd and Button in 5th, Button would seal the title. Unfortunately, the Brazilian's situation was not getting any better. He was suffering from graining on his right front tyre, and was told by his race engineer Jock Clear to look after the tyre. Then on lap 61, as Lewis Hamilton got into Barrichello's slipstream and overtook him going into turn 1, the McLaren's front wing briefly touched the BrawnGP's left rear tyre causing a puncture. This forced the Brazilian to go back into the pits to change his tyres just 8 laps before the Chequered Flag. He rejoined the race in 8th and as far as the Championship goes, it was surely all over for him.

Meanwhile out in front, Red Bull's Mark Webber had been driving beautifully throughout the race. After Barrichello made his first pit stop, Webber took the lead and maintained that lead for the remaining duration of the race. It was eventually a cruise to the finish line for him as he comfortably took the win, his second ever Grand Prix victory. At times however, Webber was slightly troubled by BMW's Robert Kubica, and although the BMW did not quite have the pace to win, Kubica drove out of his skin to get a more than deserved 2nd place. McLaren's Lewis Hamilton, starting way back in 17th, made his long first stint work and drove a fantastic race to finish in 3rd, his first podium in Brazil. Red Bull's Sebastian Vettel also did all he could after starting from 15th on the grid and ended up finishing 4th thanks to his one-stop strategy. However, at the end of the race, a hugely disappointed Vettel conceded that it was his poor qualifying that meant that he could not challenge for a win. Vettel's Championship dreams were also over as he needed a minimum of 2nd place finish to keep the title open. Ferrari's Kimi Raikkonen, after having to make an early pit stop to change his front wing, did well to recover and eventually finish in 6th place.

As Felipe Massa waved the Chequered Flag on lap 71, he saw history in the making in front of his very eyes. As BrawnGP's Jenson Button crossed the finish line to claim 5th position, a flood of emotions and relief overtook the Briton as he clinched the Drivers' World Championship with one race to spare. Whatever any of his critics say about his driving abilities or his commitment to racing, the fact is that here in Interlagos, Button drove perhaps the best race of his life and with four phenomenal overtaking moves, thoroughly proved his champion's pedigree. After 9 years of struggle in Formula 1, Jenson Button becomes the 2009 World Champion. His team BrawnGP, formed from the ashes of Honda, becomes the first team ever in the history of the sport to win the Constructors' World Championship in its debut year.

Button becomes the 10th ever Briton to win the World Championship. His name goes down in history with previous greats such as Mike Hawthorn, Graham Hill, Jim Clark, Jackie Stewart, John Surtees, James Hunt, Nigel Mansell, Damon Hill and Lewis Hamilton. After the race at Interlagos, Button told the media that he now wants to create history by being the first ever Briton to win back to back World Championships. Some of the Britons before had won multiple titles, but no one has been able to successfully defend a World Championship. Jenson Button wants to shut all his critics up and prove that he is not a one-hit wonder by being the first Briton to have successfully defended the World Championship.

It is equally important not to forget the contributions of the rest of the BrawnGP team, starting from the team boss Ross Brawn to chief executive Nick Fry down to all the guys at the factory in Brackley, England. Last winter, they were all going through a very tough time and after Honda announced their withdrawal from Formula 1, all the 600 or so employees were left stranded. However, Ross Brawn and Nick Fry held the team together and with the help of Honda, the FIA, engine partner Mercedes-Benz and the whole of FOTA, they made it on to the grid for the season opener in Australia as the re-branded BrawnGP. They had to let go of some staff since then as the team continued to work through a limited budget most of this year, but amidst all the highs and lows, they pulled through together as a team and as a family and now, they have a double World Championship to celebrate. So congratulations Jenson and congratulations Ross and the team!

With the World Championship wrapped up, Formula 1 now leaves the hustle and bustle of Sao Paolo and heads off to the wonderful new Yas Island built in the middle of the Abu Dhabi desert for the season finale. The Yas Marina circuit will host the inaugural Abu Dhabi Grand Prix, Round 17 of 17 of the 2009 FIA Formula One World Championship. As a brand new venue and scheduled to host Formula 1's first ever twilight race, it should be an exciting event. Until then, drive safely everyone!

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