Another interesting season on the cards

Reigning champion Lewis Hamilton (above) and Heikki Kovalainen have admitted that their cars aren't running as fast as they should. The problem, according to the team head Martin Whitmarsh, has to do with its aerodynamics package, which McLaren hopes to sort out before the Australian GP.-AP Reigning champion Lewis Hamilton (above) and Heikki Kovalainen have admitted that their cars aren't running as fast as they should. The problem, according to the team head Martin Whitmarsh, has to do with its aerodynamics package, which McLaren hopes to sort out before the Australian GP.

The slew of technical changes wrought by the FIA is what makes the 2009 season unpredictable but interesting. The introduction of KERS, re-entry of slicks and the new aerodynamic regulations present a whole new challenge to the teams. Formula One can’t get anymore interesting, writes G. Raghunath.

Strange things have happened in Formula One in the past, but what happened this year, in the days leading up to the 2009 season, was simply bizarre. One FIA ruling went out of currency just four days after it was decreed, while another, though scheduled to come into force only in 2010, had already blown the leading teams off their firmament. And yet another regulation, a technical one, is threatening to explode into a major controversy during the opening race of the 2009 s eason, the Australian Grand Prix in Melbourne (March 29).

There’s never a dull moment in Formula One, they say. How true!

In attempting to flog the ‘winner takes all’ system on the Formula One drivers, the FIA was only overreaching itself. The teams, no doubt, were demanding that more emphasis be given to victories than is being done now. They even suggested increasing the points difference between the first and second place to three (currently it’s two), but FIA went the other way to come up with the amendment whereby the driver with most wins would be crowned F1 champion irrespective of the points he has scored.

Most teams and drivers deemed the move to be iniquitous, even as the FIA tried to explain that the winner takes all system would make racing more competitive. Jenson Button of Brawn Grand Prix (formerly Honda Racing) was one of the fiercest critics of the FIA’s new system of deciding the F1 champion. Speaking to the Italian newspaper, Gazzetta dello Sport, the Brit driver pulled no punches: “For sure it’s an incentive to always go for the win, but it seems risky too — after nine races, we could find ourselves with a driver that has already won the title and can stand still eating ice cream, while the guy in second in the standings is just 18 points behind.”

However, after the FOTA (Formula One Teams Association) lodged an official protest, the FIA, wary of a head-on collision with the teams, decided to put the system on hold until the next season.

The FIA’s decision to introduce a voluntary budget cap of £30 million in the 2010 season as part of its cost-cutting measures too has not gone down well with the teams. They are of the view that having to opt for either the freedom to spend but work within the boundaries of existing controls or take the budget cap which permits a team to have a reasonable degree of technical freedom is far worse than Hobson’s choice. And teams such as Ferrari and McLaren have also raised the bogey of a two-tier competition — between teams that are affluent and those that aren’t — in the event of the budget cap coming into force.

Two clusters of teams running under two different sets of rules can prove to be counter-productive especially at a time when Formula One is going through a critical phase. But the Formula One supremo, Bernie Ecclestone, has been defending the FIA decision as if his life depended on it. And he is steadfast on having this regulation implemented next year.

However, Formula One’s immediate predicament is the diffuser row that pits Williams, Toyota and Brawn GP against a few other teams, notably Renault. The French GP team has questioned the legitimacy of diffusers used in cars from the pits of Williams, Toyota and Brawn GP. The rear diffusers of these cars, as the Renault head, Flavio Briatore, has gone on record as saying, have been designed in such a manner that they help create significant downforce, which violates the sport’s new aerodynamic rules.

Since Formula One rules permit teams to lodge their protest against rivals’ design only on race weekends, chances are that Melbourne could turn into a mighty cauldron of conflicting teams, each trying to interpret rules in its own way, between March 27 and 29.

Amidst such a sombre atmosphere, the promise shown by Brawn GP during pre-season testing comes like a whiff of fresh air. The team that rose hesitantly from the ashes of a not so successful Honda Racing — which pulled out of Formula One in December 2008 following the downturn in the fortunes of its parent company — has not only clocked impressive timings in testing but also gained a good measure of respect in the circuit. With Jenson Button and Rubens Barrichello, the two drivers who have taken a pay cut in view of their team’s limited budget, in the cockpit of the pacy, Mercedes-powered BGP001, Brawn GP is already being seen as a serious contender this season. And why not? After all, Ross Brawn, the brain behind Brawn GP, was the man responsible for scripting that glorious run of Michael Schumacher and Ferrari from 2000 to 2004.

Force India, the only team to go without a point last season, is a bit upbeat this time. Running on Mercedes engine, both Giancarlo Fisichella and Adrian Sutil are positive about scoring some points this season. Perhaps, Force India could take a cue from Brawn GP.

Though it would be unwise to measure the strength of a team based on its performance in pre-season testing, cars from the pits of Ferrari, Williams and Toyota have all set a blistering pace which goes to prove how well prepared they are for the 2009 season. Both Felipe Massa and Kimi Raikkonen trust their chances this year, but all depends upon the reliability of the cars that the Ferrari crew rolls out of the pits.

McLaren, much to the consternation of its supporters, has been off the pace in testing. Both Lewis Hamilton and Heikki Kovalainen have admitted that their cars aren’t running as fast as they should.

The problem, according to the team head Martin Whitmarsh, has to do with the aerodynamics package, which McLaren hopes to sort out before the Australian GP.

The slew of technical changes wrought by the FIA is what makes the 2009 season unpredictable but interesting. The introduction of KERS, re-entry of slicks and the new aerodynamic regulations present a whole new challenge to the teams. Formula One can’t get anymore interesting.