An unlikely champion

The hero of Jenson Button’s 2009 title triumph, apart from Ross Brawn, who completed a 100 per cent buy-out of the Honda team to take ownership of what he imaginatively named Brawn GP, and Button himself, was an aerodynamic device located under the rear wing of his BGP 001 chassis — the split-level diffuser. Over to Karthik Krishnaswamy.

Weeks before the start of the 2007 season, former British Formula One champion Damon Hill had words of advice for his compatriot Jenson Button, who in a seven-season career had won only one race.

“If Jenson is serious about becoming world champion then he has to get himself in a car that is a championship contender.”

Honda, whom Button was driving for at the time, clearly wasn’t a contender in Hill’s estimation. Two years later, when Honda withdrew from Formula One in the midst of a global economic crisis, Button might have wondered if he’d ever win the title. It turned out he would. Very soon, in fact.

The hero of Button’s 2009 title triumph, apart from Ross Brawn, who completed a 100 per cent buy-out of the Honda team to take ownership of what he imaginatively named Brawn GP, and Button himself, was an aerodynamic device located under the rear wing of his BGP 001 chassis — the split-level diffuser. Experts reckoned that this double-decker diffuser, whose design cleverly exploited a loophole in F1 regulations, gave Brawn a five per cent increase in down-force and consequently saved up to half a second off its lap timings.

Three teams — Brawn, Toyota and Williams — sported the new diffuser at the start of the season. The seven other teams protested that it contravened regulations, until the FIA ruled that it was legal. By this time, Button had already won the first two races of the season in Australia and Malaysia. The Englishman would win four of the next five, before the inevitable levelling happened, with more or less every team installing the component. In the last ten races of the season, Button made the podium only twice.

But it would be churlish to attribute all of Button’s success — and that of team-mate Rubens Barrichello, who finished third in the standings — to the diffuser’s cunning manipulation of airflow, for the BGP 001 was both quick and reliable. Button and Barrichello retired only once each over the course of the season. In contrast, Red Bull’s Sebastian Vettel, who ended the season sandwiched between the two Brawn drivers, finished only 12 of his 17 races.

McLaren’s Lewis Hamilton, the 2008 champion and the driver who had eclipsed Button as Britain’s number one driver, endured a strangely mixed season. It began with a disqualification, when he and McLaren were found guilty of lying to race officials about whether or not he was following team orders when he let Toyota’s Jarno Trulli pass him during a safety car interlude in the Australian GP, an incident that earned Trulli a 25 second penalty. Patchy initially, McLaren’s form picked up to the extent that Hamilton was the most successful driver over the second half of the season, with five podium finishes, of which two were wins, in the last eight races.

The end-of-season announcement that Jenson Button will partner Hamilton next year at McLaren should enthuse anyone who’s expressed an opinion on the best British driver debate. What will really whet the appetites of Formula One fans next season, though, is the news of who will replace Button at Brawn, which becomes Mercedes next year — Michael Schumacher. Can the German, at 41, recreate the invincible aura that enveloped him for much of the last decade and a half? Whatever the case, it should be fun to watch, especially since Ross Brawn, the Mercedes team principal, was technical director at Benetton and Ferrari when Schumacher won his seven titles.

Schumacher might have made his comeback a few months earlier, had he not sustained a neck injury from a bike accident. Ferrari had pencilled him in to replace Felipe Massa, who was seriously injured during qualifying for the Hungarian Grand Prix. A spring from the rear suspension damper came loose from Barrichello’s car and hit Massa, who was travelling at over 160 km/hr, knocking him unconscious with his foot still on the accelerator, causing his car to crash into a tyre barrier.

Massa, whose condition doctors initially described as ’life-threatening but stable’, recovered fully, and after a series of neurological tests was passed fit by the FIA’s medical team to take to the wheel again. He has since driven laps in a 2007 Ferrari, and looks set to return to racing action and start next season alongside new teammate Fernando Alonso, who has joined from Renault to replace Kimi Raikkonen, who has taken a sabbatical from Formula One.

And who would blame the Finn? If Mclaren’s conduct in the Australian GP gave motorsport-haters a stick to beat Formula One with, revelations that emerged later in the season about the means Renault employed last season to ensure a win for its lead driver Fernando Alonso handed them a spiked club.

Following the Hungarian Grand Prix, Renault dropped its young driver Nelson Piquet Jr., who hadn’t scored a point in the season. Weeks later, the FIA ordered an investigation into the 2008 Singapore Grand Prix, in which the safety car that came onto the track after Piquet crashed into a wall put his team-mate Alonso in a position to win. In Renault’s post-race Press release, managing director Flavio Briatore had said, “Today the car was extremely quick, stronger than Ferrari and McLaren, and although we had some luck when the safety car came out, we deserved this victory.”

It turned out that luck wasn’t a factor at all, and that Briatore and Pat Symonds, Renault’s executive director of engineering, had ordered Piquet to crash deliberately, in effect putting a driver’s life in risk to further the points-winning cause of another. The FIA banned Briatore (for life) and Symonds (five years) and imposed a two-year suspended disqualification on Renault.

This effectively means Renault will be banned from Formula One if it commits a similar offence within the next two years — a sentence many have deemed too lenient.