From the publishers of THE HINDU

VOL.32 :: NO.32 :: Aug. 08, 2009

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COVER STORY

A time for F1 to catch its breath

The season so far has been tumultuous. Replete with thrills and spills, masterstrokes and goof-ups, shock and awe. It’s like Formula One has been hurtling down a series of chicanes. Now it’s time to take stock as the circus pauses mid-season, writes G. Raghunath.

AP

This November 25, 2007 file picture shows Felipe Massa and Michael Schumacher taking a go-kart ride in Brazil. Now Schumacher has made a comeback at age 40 to replace an injured Massa in the Ferrari team.

The mandatory two-week break, without doubt, should help cut costs in Formula One, but how much the teams and the drivers stand to gain from the shutdown is debatable. As in the cult movie ‘Le Mans’, where yesteryear star Steve McQueen, playing the role of a top 24-hour race driver Michael Delaney, says, “A lot of people go through life doing things badly. Racing’s important to men who do it well. When you’re racing, it’s life. Anything that happens before or after is just waiting.”

Waiting, that too in the middle of a cut-throat season, and not being allowed to do anything related to racing is something the Formula One drivers, at least the top ones, detest. Championship leader Jenson Button’s derision was quite understandable when he took a pot shot at the FIA regulation saying, “At least, we’re still allowed to think about F1.”

Even after the completion of 10 races, the teams are left with loads of work to do that could, in many ways, determine how well they perform in the next stage of the season. Assignments such as collating information and data and making the necessary changes to the cars and squeezing in additional testing hours to optimise their performance have all been hit by the summer shutdown.

The break, nevertheless, will help teams/drivers take stock of their performances so far in the season, their collective thoughts providing for a rewarding session when they resume testing during the European Grand Prix weekend (August 21-23) in Valencia.

The season so far has been tumultuous. Replete with thrills and spills, masterstrokes and goof-ups, shock and awe. It’s like Formula One has been hurtling down a series of chicanes.

Let’s take a look at the factors that contributed to the high voltage drama.

FIA proposes, FOTA disposes

Perhaps the mother of all FIA follies was the international governing body’s dogged attempts to push through the ‘winner takes all’ system. The Formula One Teams Association (FOTA) had demanded that more emphasis be given to victories. They even suggested increasing the points difference between the first and second place to three (currently it’s two). But the FIA’s response was simply wacky — it took a completely different path to come up with an amendment whereby the driver with most wins, irrespective of the points he has scored, would be crowned the F1 champion.

This really got FOTA’s dander up. It lodged a protest immediately and the FIA, wary of a head-on collision with the teams, decided to put the system on hold until the next season.

The diffuser row

It seemed strange that a small contraption like the extended floor at the tail end of a Formula One car could kick up so much heat and dust. A diffuser is used to handle the air flow under the floor of a car, thereby increasing its downforce, speed and stability. Most teams, notably Renault, lodged a protest against the diffusers used by the cars of Brawn GP, Williams and Toyota.

Brawn, Williams and Toyota, unlike their rivals, had cleverly interpreted the rules concerning aerodynamics by increasing the size of the diffuser and fusing it with the rear crash structure.

Formula One’s international court of appeals, though, found nothing wrong with the diffusers and ruled them legal.

Blistering Button

“A monster of a car, perfect, outrageous, the best I have ever driven,” was how Button described his BGP001 after winning six of the first seven races. So, who or what was the force behind the amazing performance of Brawn GP, the team that rose from the ashes of Honda Racing? Was it Button’s skill behind the wheel? Was it the ‘perfect, outrageous’ car? Or simply Ross Brawn’s brain? Brawn GP would like to believe it’s teamwork, and the hours and hours of hard work put in by the crew at its headquarters in Brackley, Northamptonshire, United Kingdom.

But Button, the man who posted his first Grand Prix victory (the Hungarian GP in 2006) after 113 races and won his next race — the Australian GP this year — after another 40 starts was simply fantastic early in the season. “He’s really showing that he’s the driver I was told he was,” said Ross Brawn, the man who owns Brawn GP.

And his downturn

The car that Button sang paeans to suddenly turned into a mournful jalopy at the British Grand Prix. And it hasn’t ceased to disappoint Brawn GP. Eminently forgettable runs in three successive races at Silverstone (British Grand Prix), Nurburgring (German Grand Prix) and Hungaroring (Hungarian Grand Prix) have hurt the Brit real bad. (Button leads with 70 points; Mark Webber of Red Bull is second with 51.5 points, followed by his team-mate Sebastian Vettel on 47 points.)

“I’ve lost an average of five points a race to Mark Webber in the last three. At that rate he’ll be in front of me in another four races — and there are seven still to go,” Button lamented while speaking to BBC.

The problem putatively is with the BGP001, which is unable to work up the required temperatures to its tyres in order to be competitive. And when the track temperature soars, the tyres develop grains slowing down the car considerably.

The team will have to wait until the third week of August, when the Formula One caravan heads for Valencia after the break, to rectify the problem.

FOTA-FIA row

This time the bone of contention was the budget cap. Though the two sides agreed to a series of cost-cutting measures in the wake of the economic downturn and fears of teams moving out of Formula One, what queered the pitch was the £30m budget cap that FIA planned to introduce from 2010. The teams adhering to the cap would enjoy technical freedom, while those opting for financial freedom would have to run with the current technical restrictions.

FOTA remonstrated that the ruling would create a two-tier system which would be detrimental to Formula One. Teams headed by Ferrari refused to enter the 2010 championship unless the two-tier budget cap system was amended. FOTA’s appeal against the FIA regulations was rejected by the French court. And a day before the deadline for submitting entries for the 2010 season FOTA decided to form a breakaway series.

A few weeks later, a truce was brokered and the two warring sides agreed to smoke the peace pipe. And as part of the deal, FIA president Max Mosley agreed to not contest another term.

The Massa incident

During qualifying for the Hungarian Grand Prix, the Ferrari driver, Felipe Massa, was struck on the head by a flying spring from a damper in Rubens Barrichello’s car. Disoriented by the blow, the Brazilian slammed into a tyre wall. A surgery to rectify his fractured skull, several hours of induced coma and a couple of brain scans later, Massa was confirmed as doing well. And on August 3, he was discharged from hospital and was homeward bound.

The accident, coming close on the heels of the death of Henry Surtees — the Formula Two driver and son of former F1 champion John Surtees — at Brands Hatch after being struck by a flying wheel brought back those horrid visions of Ayrton Senna’s death in a fatal crash at Imola in 1994.

The incident has once again thrown open the debate — how safe is Formula One?

People connected with the sport are already talking of more protection to the drivers — like having windscreens on Formula One cars or a canopy as in a fighter plane.

Another one bites the dust

Just days before the signing of the Concorde Agreement, BMW Sauber confirmed its decision to pull out of Formula One at the end of the 2009 season. Poor performance by the team, which at the start of the season had promised to be among the front runners, was the reason attributed to the pullout. Meanwhile, the FIA believes that a few more teams could go the Honda and BMW way. It’s now pointing its fingers at FOTA, saying “we told you so”.

Enter Michael Schumacher

The seven-time world champion’s decision to come out of retirement and take the place of the injured Massa should clearly be one of the defining moments of this season. Though Schumacher has made it clear that he is stepping in only to help his team in its quest for the top place in the Constructors’ Championship, the Formula One circuit is already abuzz with talks of the German’s chances of winning a race this season. While some think he is too old to be racing now — Schumacher is 40 — others are of the view that he can recreate the magic of the early 2000s.

Ferrari has written to the FIA and other FOTA members to allow Schumacher to test drive the F60 sometime during the summer break. The former champion test drove a 2007 Ferrari at the Mugello track recently, but wants to get a few hours in the cockpit of the F60 before he returns to the track at Valencia on August 23.

* * *

AP

SCHUMACHER’S CAREER-GRAPH

Current team: Ferrari

Races: 250 (249 starts)

Championships: 7 (1994, 1995, 2000, 2001, 2002, 2003, 2004)

Wins: 91

Podiums: 154

Career points: 1,369

Pole positions: 68

Fastest laps: 76

1991: Formula One debut for Jordan in Belgium, qualifies seventh before retiring.

1992: First Grand Prix victory in Belgium.

1994: Wins his first World Championship with victories in eight races.

1995: Retains his World Championship title; wins nine races.

1996: Moves to Ferrari — moderate success with just three victories in the season.

1997: Finishes second but is later stripped of all points for attempting to run Jacques Villeneuve, the championship winner, off the track in the last race at Jerez.

1998: Wins six races, finishes second behind Mika Hakkinen.

1999: Fractures his leg during the British Grand Prix (Silverstone) while leading the championship.

2000: Wins the world title — Ferrari’s first since 1979.

2001: Wins his fourth world title with nine victories in the season.

2002: Wins a record 11 races; equals Juan Manuel Fangio’s record of five world championship titles.

2003: Goes past Fangio with his sixth world title.

2004: Title No. 7. Sets a new record with 13 victories.

2005: A very poor season — picks up just a solitary win at Indianapolis (U.S. GP) where majority of the teams boycotted the race on the issue of tyres.

2006: Retires at the end of the season.

2009, July 29: Returns to Formula One, stepping in for the injured Felipe Massa.



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