A quarter of the way through the new season, Formula One has been turned upside down. Those who were first are, if not exactly last, now struggling.
Formula One’s governing body hoped radical new rules would shake up the sport this year and, more emphatically than anyone could imagine, it has got what it wished for.
The season-ending 2008 Brazilian Grand Prix, with the two Ferrari drivers standing on the podium and McLaren’s Lewis Hamilton crowned world champion, looks like something from another era.
A quarter of the way through the new season, Formula One has been turned upside down.
Those who were first are, if not exactly last, now struggling while last year’s no-hopers have been transformed into pace-setters, race winners and championship contenders.
It has been six months since Ferrari’s Brazilian Felipe Massa, winner at his home Interlagos circuit last November, scored a point.
Britain’s Jenson Button heads for Sunday’s Spanish Grand Prix, first round of the European season, with three wins from four races and a 12-point lead over his Brawn GP team mate Rubens Barrichello.
Last year, both drivers turned up in Barcelona without a point to their names for the now-departed Honda team.
Button and Barrichello, two drivers whose careers looked to be behind them only a few months ago, scored more points in this year’s Australian opener than champions Ferrari and McLaren have so far managed between them.
In Brazil last year, Massa banked more points in a single race than Button collected from all his starts in 2007 and 2008. Neither Ferrari nor McLaren have appeared on the podium or the front row of the starting grid since then.
Barcelona may see another shift, with teams bringing out their first big upgrades of the season, but the current standings make depressing reading for the leaders of old.
Of last year’s four top drivers, Massa and BMW-Sauber’s Robert Kubica still have no points, Ferrari’s 2007 champion Kimi Raikkonen has only three and Hamilton has yet to enter double figures.
Button has 31, Barrichello 19 and Red Bull’s Sebastian Vettel 18.
Perennial under-performers Toyota are another measure of the changed landscape, dismayed to emerge with “only” a third place for Jarno Trulli in Bahrain after locking out the front row.
The Japanese team have already had as many podiums this year as they had managed in the past three seasons.
Ferrari president Luca di Montezemolo has no doubt as to why his team, winners of eight of the past 10 constructors’ titles, are in such an unexpected mess.
It has nothing to do with the changes at Maranello since the departures of seven-times champion Michael Schumacher, former principal Jean Todt and ex-technical director Ross Brawn, now owner of Button’s team.
For Montezemolo, it amounts to a triple whammy: the radically revised 2009 regulations, the fact that Ferrari and McLaren were fighting for both titles down to the wire last season while others had long given up and begun planning for 2009, and a dash of complacency.
McLaren boss Martin Whitmarsh would certainly agree with the first two reasons, if not the last, in relation to his own team’s difficult start.
“I want to understand why we are bad, why we are in the middle of a black tunnel,” Montezemolo told reporters on a visit to last month’s Bahrain Grand Prix, before Raikkonen scored the team’s first points. “And there are three main reasons.”
First of all, he said, were “very bad written rules, what I call grey rules, with different interpretations”.
The main grey area has been the rear diffuser, with three teams—Brawn, Toyota and Williams—having a completely different interpretation to the other seven and using it to their advantage.
The Brawn was streaks ahead of the rest in pre-season testing and in Melbourne in March, leaving teams without the controversial split-level aero development rushing to modify their cars after race stewards and an appeal court upheld the legality of the so-called “diffuser three”.
While Red Bull have been competitive anyway, with Vettel leading a one-two in China, they can thank former Williams and McLaren title-winning designer Adrian Newey for that. The others, whatever their arguments, missed a trick.
The optional Kers energy recovery system, which gives a driver a brief boost at the push of a button, has also proved a distraction.
While Ferrari, McLaren, BMW-Sauber and Renault devoted considerable time and resources to their systems, and are still waiting for the benefits, Brawn have no plans to use Kers.
Ferrari and McLaren are also simply paying the price of their past success and for assuming that they would once again be top dogs.
They could have got away with it in the past, with new cars hitherto an evolutionary process, but the 2009 regulations were the biggest change the sport had seen in decades and required a clean sheet of paper.
Honda started work on the car that, with a Mercedes engine, would be a Brawn a year before they pulled out.
“It is a reflection of what has gone on in the last year or two,” said Ross Brawn after his team won the first two races.
“McLaren and Ferrari had a championship to fight over and I can understand it was very difficult for them to say ‘Look, we’ll stop pushing this year and put our effort into next year’.
“For us, it was a very easy decision…we didn’t have a very good car so why waste time on it?”—Reuters