Formula One - two down, fifteen to go

Formula One - two down, fifteen to go

The Australian GP was without a doubt sensational and the new Formula One season couldn't have had a better start. All ingredients were there, both "straight out of the box" Brawn-Mercedes cars on first and second place during qualifying, and...

The Australian GP was without a doubt sensational and the new Formula One season couldn't have had a better start. All ingredients were there, both "straight out of the box" Brawn-Mercedes cars on first and second place during qualifying, and again, albeit with some luck, on first and second place at the end of Sunday's race.

Australian GP race winner Jenson Button celebrates with second placed Brawn GP teammate Rubens Barrichello. Brawn GP and Button have now claimed two wins out of two starts in the team's debut season.
Photo by xpb.cc.

The weekend incuded official protests from Ferrari, Renault and Red Bull questioning the legality of the Willams, Toyota and Brawn diffusers, McLaren and Ferrari in trouble during qualifying, Toyota disqualified over a flexing rear wing, the new KERS system in action, Sebastian Vettel and Robert Kubica eliminating themselves while on third and second place during the race, Trulli being robbed of his third place (and getting it back again). Yes indeed, Formula One is back and for Ross Brawn and his team it was truly a dream start.

After the FIA disqualified Lewis Hamilton from the Australian race for not telling the truth about what really happened between him and Jarno Trulli during the safety car period after Vettel's and Kubica's crash, and handed third place back again to Jarno Trulli, the Australian podium is now also officially populated by the diffuser clan.

In Malaysia things were not really different, again protests about the diffusers, this time by BMW-Sauber, but it didn't help, the diffuser again passed the FIA scruteneering and the diffuser clan again dominated qualifying. During the race, Jenson Button made four pit stops, and he was still in first place, if he hadn't messed up his start, he probably could have made five pit stops without losing his leading position. A real surprise, because the Brawns had never been tested in the rain, Jenson Button even begged the weather Gods "Please no rain, please no rain". But his prayers were not answered, the rain came poring down. And it doesn't matter, rain or sunshine, the Brawn-Mercedes cars go like greased lightning.

After the race was red-flagged while Jenson was in first place, there was some confusion about what the race officials would decide. After half an hour waiting and hoping for better race conditions, the officials wisely decided to abandon the race, and Jenson Button and his Brawn team were once again directed to the winners podium.

Diffuser confusion

Many people believe it is no coincidence that the diffuser clan - Williams, Toyota and Brawn-Mercedes - did very well during practice and qualifying and dominated both races. But I don't think it is only the diffuser that gives these teams the extra speed, after Barrichello damaged his diffuser and his front wing during his first corner encounter with Heidfeld, Webber and Kovalainen in Melbourne, he was still able to maintain the same pace as Button. In Malaysia we saw the Brawn-Mercedes was quick in the rain as well, it seems Ross Brawn has done an excellent job in designing the 2009 car.

Last year, while McLaren and Ferrari had to use all their resources to fight for the championship until the very last race, these three diffuser teams stopped working on their 2008 car many months before the last race and concentrated on building the 2009 spec car. It seems their approach of sacrificing the 2008 season in favor of developing the new car has paid off. Ross Brawn (Honda employee at the time) already started designing and building the 2009 car fifteen months ago, and with the results we have seen so far, I guess a few guys in Japan will be scratching behind their ears at this very moment, wondering whether they made the right decision to abandon Formula One.

Williams F1 Team diffusor.
Photo by xpb.cc.

And there is more to come from the Brawn-Mercedes team, many people believe the team didn't show their real potential yet. The Brawn team is not resting on their laurels and are, of course, busy with further development of their car. Other teams possibly have to design a new diffuser, however, it is not just the diffuser that does the trick and therefore they also have to change the aerodynamics of the front of the car. That will keep them busy for a while, and the diffuser clan will stay a few steps ahead.

On Tuesday April 14, just a few days before the Chinese GP, the FIA Court of Appeal will decide whether the diffusers are legal or not. On three previous occasions the FIA declared the diffuser design was within the rules, and the FIA would loose a lot of its credibility if they - for whatever reason - now all of a sudden would draw the conclusion the diffuser is not legal. As far as I can see the FIA has three options: the first option is to ban the diffuser and strip the diffuser clan of the points they have scored so far. The second option is to declare the diffuser is legal and no further action will be taken. Finally, the third option is to ban the diffuser, but because the diffuser was declared legal by the FIA on previous occasions, the diffuser clan will keep their points.

Some people argue that if the FIA would rule the diffuser is legal, other teams have to waste a lot of money on the development of a new diffuser and that would be, with the economic crisis in mind, not a good idea. Well, the diffuser clan also has spent a lot of money on the development of their diffuser, that money would be wasted as well. This is not about money, this is about the interpretation of the FIA technical regulations, and the economic crises should never be an argument to ban the diffusers.

Some teams are already working on their own version of the "illegal" diffuser, perhaps they foresee the outcome of the appeal and don't want to waste anymore time and therefore decided to become an active member of the diffuser clan. If you can't beat them, you join them, right? Even Ferrari and BMW-Sauber are working on a new diffuser, and they are two of the teams who lodged an official protest, all in all a bit confusing isn't it?

The twilight zone

Twilight races start at 5pm local time to boost the number of TV spectators in Europe (and to satisfy FOM 's insatiable hunger for even more money). FOM convinced the Melbourne and Sepang circuit officials to delay the start time, but both circuits saw the number of spectators dropping dramatically and are not so sure they will start the race at 5pm again next year. And in the end, the European spectators got to see a Malaysian Grand Prix that was red-flagged after 32 laps. If the race had started at 2pm local time, there would have been more time to wait until the weather conditions had improved, however, the race started at 5pm and with daylight quickly fading, this was not an option and the race had to be abandoned. Bernie Ecclestone shot himself in the foot once again, but Ecclestone wouldn't be Ecclestone without saying he still doesn't think there is anything wrong with the late start times for the Asian races.

Unfortunately it is not the FIA who decides at what time a race should be started, the decision is made by the FOM. Another example of "conflict of interests" is when we talk about the FOM organization. If the FIA had to make the decision about when to start those races, I'm sure they would have taken the safety of the drivers and the public into consideration, rather then the number of TV spectators in Europe.

Fernando Alonso, Renault F1 Team, Nelson A. Piquet, Renault F1 Team, after the race was red flagged due to rain.
Photo by xpb.cc.

Williams driver Nico Rosberg and BMW-Sauber driver Robert Kubica expressed their concerns and said twilight races are dangerous and hope FOM and circuit officials will reconsider planning more of these races. Fortunately there were no incidents that could be associated with the delayed start time. But Rosberg and Kubica have a valid argument; it is a statistically proven fact that all over the world more road car accidents occur at the end of the day when the light is fading, and during the winter when the sun is at her lowest point at the horizon.

With the sun low at the horizon and casting long shadows it doesn't make the job easier for a Formula One driver. The low position of the sun can blind the driver, the shadows are confusing, add a few rain showers which will make the tarmac shine like a mirror, and we indeed could have a recipe for disaster. The TV images from Australia clearly showed even the cameras sometimes had problems capturing images of the race with the sun low at the horizon.

KERS and overtaking

KERS works very well at the start according to Kimi Raikkonen and Felipe Massa, they used their KERS power to propel their Ferraris into third and fifth place during the start in Melbourne. Nick Heidfeld said the KERS power definitely helped him to defend his position, but he ended up on 11th place, KERS alone doesn't make a car quicker. We also saw Lewis Hamilton using his KERS power to overtake Trulli, but it didn't help him that much, he got closer to Trulli, but he still couldn't overtake him, it seems KERS isn't really suitable for tracks without long straights like the Melbourne circuit. More was expected at the Sepang circuit, a circuit with long straits, but the rain and the premature end of the race makes it impossible to say whether KERS was useful or not.

Nick Heidfeld, BMW Sauber F1 Team and the steering wheel with KERS BOOST Button and Wings adjustment button.
Photo by xpb.cc.

Many drivers still believe that the advantage of the KERS system is undone by the extra weight of the system. Ferrari's Stefano Domenicali even suggested that KERS and the redistribution of weight that comes with the use of the system, was responsible for the extra rear tyre wear Ferrari had to deal with.

We definitely saw more overtaking during the Australian Grand Prix, and we saw drivers overtake in places where we thought it was impossible to overtake. Sepang is a circuit where overtaking is relatively easy, and we saw drivers passing and re-passing each other, it certainly made the race a lot more attractive. However, it is not clear whether this is the result of the extra power provided by the KERS system (only seven cars were equipped with the system), or the result of the new 2009 technical regulations (including the adjustable front wing flaps) based upon the findings of the FIA Overtaking Working Group.

A lot of Formula One fans are now very positive about the rule changes, the same rules they opposed so strongly at the beginning of this year. It certainly seems Formula One has become more attractive to watch, most teams, drivers and fans are happy with the changes, the future of Formula One looks a lot brighter now, but the big question is of course: will it stay that way?

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About this article
Series General , Formula 1
Drivers Jarno Trulli , Jenson Button , Rubens Barrichello , Nick Heidfeld , Kimi Raikkonen , Fernando Alonso , Ross Brawn , Lewis Hamilton , Nico Rosberg , Robert Kubica , Sebastian Vettel
Teams Sauber , Williams , Renault F1 Team , Brawn GP