There's your proof positive, conspiracy fans. As clouds descend on the 2009 Formula One season, the offtrack wrangles promising to eclipse those of the ontrack variety, runners from three teams -- Williams, Toyota and Brawn GP -- hung at the top of timesheets as everyone else perhaps seethed through second Friday practice for Sunday's Formula One Grand Prix of Australia.
Williams F1 runner Nico Rosberg and teammate Kazuki Nakajima jumped to the top times in first practice, bumping Ferrari's Kimi Raikkonen at the last minute. Rosberg finished top in second practice, too, setting a fast lap in the FW31 of 1 minute, 26.058 seconds on the 3.29-mile Albert Park course. The German knocked more than a half-second off his quick lap from first practice.
"In both sessions, Sector 2 was working particularly well," Rosberg said. "There are only two 'real' corners in the sector, but it's really interesting and it feels good in the car. The FW31 is well-balanced all round the track but seems even more so there than in any other places. After a winter of testing, it's good to get out on a new, fresh track and we seem to be in a better position than we thought."
"Sector 2 is my favorite here at Albert Park," Nakajima said. "It includes a complete variety of corners, from the medium speed in Turn 6 to the slow speed corners like 9, while 11 and 12 are the quickest. It makes it hard to establish a rhythm, but Sector 2 certainly keeps your attention."
After Rosberg came Rubens Barrichello of Brawn GP, ahead of Jarno Trulli of Toyota, Mark Webber of Red Bull, Jenson Button of Brawn GP, Timo Glock of Toyota, and Kazuki Nakajima of Williams F1.
Barrichello and Button pushed home expectations of the newest team on the grid, the privatized Honda outfit, born of brief but quick preseason testing. Barrichello, the oldest and most experienced driver in the field, picked up his outperformance of Button from last season, when he outscored the Englishman 11-3. Button was installed as race favorite by UK bookmakers.
"To be here in Melbourne is a real achievement for the team, and it feels good to be back in the car and working towards a race weekend strategy again," Barrichello said. "Despite the limited testing time that we were able to do before this race, we have proved that we have a competitive car and we achieved some good work today. We evaluated both tires and are happy with the overall performance, so I think we have a good chance of a strong qualifying performance tomorrow."
Those three teams' diffusers -- rear underbody pieces instrumental to roadholding in the face of new rules halving aerodynamic downforce -- were protested Thursday by Red Bull, Renault and Ferrari. Scrutineers cleared the questioned cars for racing, leaving the disgruntled to file an appeal. The appeals process means the first two race results are subject to change by the time sanctioning body the FIA can hear an appeal, which has been scheduled to take place in Paris after the second race, in Malaysia on April 5.
The gist of the matter could be nothing more than that engineers from Williams, Toyota and Brawn GP missed the meeting notes on how to interpret new rules for 2009. The evidence seems to indicate that teams working from the new tech specs came to more effective diffuser designs than teams who put their heads together on how to proceed.
To prove Red Bull's RB5 might be on track for improved results, Sebastian Vettel came next on time charts. Vettel toured the track periphery as his day progressed, no doubt researching the grip of slicks on grass. Findings: no stick on slicks. Vettel and Webber completed only 11 laps between them in first practice.
"We had a bad session in this morning's practice and didn't get too much running, due to a hydraulics problem," Vettel said. "In the afternoon, we were able to get some laps in, but, unfortunately, I made a stupid mistake towards the end of the practice, so we couldn't run through our program. Nevertheless, it's looking all right with what we've done compared to the time we had on the circuit, so let's see how we go tomorrow. Like always on Fridays, it's a bit difficult to interpret everyone's lap times, but I think we can be happy."
The only Australian in the field, Webber made a strong impression as his recovery from a broken right leg continued. Webber broke his leg while on his mountain bike during his eponymous charity endurance competition in Tasmania in November. He collided with a car. Webber's agenda after arriving to race included visiting areas in Victoria state near Melbourne that were devastated by wildfires -- or bush fires -- last month. The fires killed 210 people and displaced thousands. Melbourne was hit by a 4.7 magnitude earthquake earlier this month.
"My day today was a bit hit-and-miss to be honest, as we had a few technical problems with the car," Webber said. "I didn't get many laps in during the first session, but the second was a lot better. We completed more laps and tried both types of tires, so we've got some good stuff to go through tonight. It was quite interesting to see how low the sun was through the trees towards the end of the second session, it was good to run with that to get used to it for Sunday."
The race, per television preference for European audiences, will be run at sunset, which you all remember from drivers' training is the most difficult time of day to see to drive. Proving himself a diplomatic team principal, Brawn GP's Ross Brawn said, "Track conditions improved considerably in the second session, however, we are clearly not alone in finding the experience of running slightly later in the day less favorable than anticipated."
Vettel was followed by Force India's Adrian Sutil, who at one moment in second practice complained to his pit via radio that the VJM02 was "undriveable." He was told tires causing his complaint "are just like that" and he would have to deal with it.
After Sutil, in 10th place, came the Ferraris of Felipe Massa and Kimi Raikkonen. Massa was just over a second off the pace and Raikkonen a tenth-and-a-half off. They were followed by Fernando Alonso for Renault, Giancarlo Fisichella for Force India, Nick Heidfeld and Robert Kubica for BMW Sauber, Sebastien Bourdais for Scuderia Toro Rosso, Heikki Kovalainen and world champion Lewis Hamilton for McLaren Mercedes, Nelson Piquet for Renault, and the only rookie in the field, Sebastien Buemi for Toro Rosso.
"I hope this is representative of where we are, but it is still very early on in the weekend," Sutil said. "We had a good session in the afternoon and could do some quite promising runs. I was pleased with the car, we had no real problems. The balance depended on the tires. In the second session, we did some race runs and struggled a lot with the softer tire, but I think once the track rubbers in the tires will grip better. But, overall, it was OK and a good position in the end. I think we can be happy with where we are right now."
The Ferraris were the fastest cars carrying the optional kinetic energy recovery systems (KERS), which stand to be a source of controversy and consternation all season. Renault and McLaren were the other teams that installed KERS on both cars. BMW Sauber affixed the unit to Heidfeld's car only. The units represent a weight disadvantage made worse for tall drivers who carry more weight. Heidfeld is slighter than his teammate Kubica, who famously lost more than 15 pounds before last season. The Pole told BBC Radio he did not lose weight this year. Many drivers arrived in Australia looking leaner than ever. Fernando Alonso told BBC Radio he has lost nearly 10 pounds.
Kubica complained the F1.09 was "sliding everywhere."
In a brewing storm away from racing proper, Formula One Administration Ltd., the commercial rights holder of the sport better known as Bernie Ecclestone, released a statement to correct a statement issued the day before by Formula One Teams Association. The teams had asserted they were owed monies from 2006, 2007 and 2008 by CVC, FOA's controlling shareholder. Ecclestone begged to differ, maintaining all "prize fund entitlements" owing as part of the Concorde Agreement had been paid in full. The business arrangement Ecclestone keeps with teams is called the Concorde Agreement in a nod to the Paris location, Place de la Concorde, of the sanctioning body FIA offices. The most recent such agreement expired in 2007. Without a new Concorde Agreement in place, the FOA has entered into individual contracts with some teams. Ecclestone's statement said due payments had been made to these teams and substantial payments have been made to teams not having signed agreements with FOA. The statement added that a new Concorde Agreement is sought.
In plainer terms, Ecclestone and CVC keep 50 percent of F1's commercial revenues and pays the rest to teams. The teams want more. A report in The Times newspaper this week depicted a meeting in which Ron Dennis, former team principal at McLaren Mercedes, John Howett of Toyota, and Renault's Flavio Briatore demanded of Ecclestone a change in revenue shares or teams would boycott the Australian race. The teams didn't get the money and the race is on.