Monday, May 25, 2009

A Few Conclusions From The Monaco GP

Sunday 24th May 2009

We Might As Crown Him The Champ Now...
As the PF1 homepage declared in the immediate aftermath of Sunday's race, it is increasingly difficult to believe that Button will not end the season as World Champion. F1 has been turned on its head to the extent that it's difficult just to find a single trenchant reason to suppose he will not succeed Lewis Hamilton.

If Bernie had got his way before the campaign and introduced his winner-takes-all system to decide the title then Button could already take the risk of putting his feet up. The five wins Button has claimed from the opening six races of the season is as many as Hamilton secured in the whole of 2008 and only one less than Kimi Raikkonen registered in 2007.

Fortunately, Bernie's persuasions and protestations were in vain, but Button's position is already so secure that he has been reduced to 1/6 favourite by F1 bookmakers for the crown. Such odds are the betting equivalent of a racing certainty; the only step lower is to close the book entirely. Facing a mammoth loss if Button does triumph - there was a glut of clever money placed on the Englishman immediately after the Brawn's jaw-dropping first run in winter testing at Barcelona - his status as champion-of-waiting is a living nightmare for the bookies.

What made Sunday's result especially critical was not Monaco's status as the first among equals on the calendar but the retirement of Seb Vettel ensuring that Button gained the maximum-possible ten-point gain on his principal challenge. Mathematically, Rubens Barrichello is Button's closest challenger, but from the position of trying to find reason why Button will not win the title, it's precisely the Brazilian's proximity to Button that is the major stumbling block. Barrichello may be in the same car and the same garage, but in racing terms, he's a world apart from the next world champion.

Another Champion Drive From A Champion-In-Waiting
The all-round superiority of the Brawn - after the 1-2 in Monte Carlo, it can be safely concluded that their charger suits all types of circuit - and the absence of a truly competitive team-mate will no doubt be used as reasons to discredit Button whenever his coronation takes place. But the rebuttal ought to be emphatic: Button has matched a champion car by driving like a champion ever since Honda became Brawn.

On a circuit that takes full toll on most mistakes, and claimed a number of victims this weekend, Button succeeded in setting the fastest laps of any driver on display without ever putting a single wheel off line. The pressure of leading the championship has been his making and he looks to be relishing the experience. He has also - as previously remarked - demonstrated a special capacity to deliver something special when it really matters and there was another such exhibition on Saturday when he produced a last-gasp, best-of-the-weekend lap to grab pole position having only snuck into the final round of qualy in seventh place. Button is proving a lot of doubters wrong this season - and proving that he has the genuine pedigree of a champion.

Pace Means Nothing At The Back
As Lewis Hamilton discovered the hard way on Saturday afternoon, Monaco is no place to make an error. And as Lewis continued to discover twenty-four hours later, it's no place to recover from an error either.

On a track that disguised the aerodynamic shortfall of his McLaren, Hamilton had the pace of a front-runner. But it made no difference. Unable to translate that speed into overtaking maneuvers on such a tight circuit, a back-runner is stuck as a back-runner around Monaco. Barring a miracle, in the form of a Safety Car or an Artic storm washing in on the Mediterranean, recovery is impossible.

McLaren's gamble was to resist the logic of starting a heavily-fueled Hamilton from the pitlane in the hope of an early deployment of the Safety Car. Either strategy would most probably have come to naught, but the flaw of their choice was the ultra-efficiency of the stewards and the suspicion, facilitated by their implicit request for an aggressive start from their driver, that any accident requiring the assistance of a Safety Car deployment would involve Hamilton anyhow.

Ferrari Make Their On-Track Statement
Better late than never for Ferrari. Their revival in Monaco will have generated a huge amount of relief in Maranello and the reminder of their own pedigree could not have been more timely. It's one thing to depict yourselves as bigger than the sport itself, quite another when you're struggling to finish in the top ten. For more reasons than just sporting, Ferrari urgently required their restoration of reputation in Monaco.

Raikkonen And Massa Beware: Alonso Is Coming Soon
And so did their drivers.

This weekend also marked a significant development in the seemingly-inevitable journey that will take Fernando Alonso to Ferrari with the savvy Spaniard, fully aware of how his words would be read, opening up to Gazzetta dello Sport, Italy's leading sports newspaper. "As a Spaniard I feel more at ease with Italians," he said. "We have a lot of shared culture and character. We have identical feelings." This column had the vague recollection that one or both of Alonso's parents was of Italian descent but as that link isn't mentioned then we'll have to assume we were mistaken.

It has, though, been noticeable in recent days how vehement Alonso has been in his argument that F1 couldn't afford to lose its marque names. "If the big teams and the big manufacturers leave F1 then I don't want to race with small teams, because it is not any more F1 and there are many other categories," he was quoted as saying on Friday just when the FIA were being threatened with the doomsday scenario of the sport's biggest names leaving if they didn't get their onw way.

Alonso's remarks must have been music to Ferrari's ears during their on-going battle for supremacy with the governing body but also an unsubtle warning to Kimi Raikkonen and Felipe Massa. The Ice Cream Man finally woke up this weekend but Massa's pace was every bit as impressive and had he not been caught in the Vettel train before making a split-second misjudgment that enabled Nico Rosberg to sneak past, then he would have finished ahead of his team-mate and on the podium.

Toyota Have Missed Their Chance
Ferrari's revival is particularly bad news for Toyota because the Scuderia's promotion has been made at their expense. The position Ferrari occupied in Monaco when jousting with Brawn and Red Bull was the one that Toyota had filled from the season's start and their return to the back of the grid most probably marks the end of their F1 dream.

The opportunity to make a headline-grabbing breakthrough has been missed and, given the resources available to Ferrari and McLaren, it is unlikely to be presented again. They won't drop the F1 ball again and Toyota are thought unlikely to stick around in hope.

When Max Mosley spoke on Saturday of "one or two" teams having to "stop" at the end of the season and then mentioned "major manufacturers" in the next breath it was impossible not to conclude that the FIA president had Toyota in mind. Theirs has been an undistinguished and expensive foray into F1 that, by any definition, has failed to deliver value for money.

The sight, on F1's showpiece event, of their two cars crawling around at the back of the field like a couple of spare parts in someone else's film may have been the final straw when the Cologne hierarchy decides whether to continue inject goodness-only-knows-how-many-millions into the sport in exchange for the privilege of making their humiliation public on the world's biggest stage. The real surprise will be if they opt to stay.

BMW's Decline Began A Year Ago With A Bad Decision
First Toyota and then BMW? The team's participation in 2010 is also in doubt after Mario Theissen refused to confirmed they would meet the May 29 deadline for applications. Even that hesitation represents a loud-and-clear change in tune from March when Theissen described Formula One as a "valuable tool for BMW".

"Alongside the savings already being made, which will be backed up by further economising in the future, we have started to enjoy success on the track," he continued. "F1 remains the core of our motor sport programme. Nowhere else will you find such charisma exuded on a global level on such a frequent basis. From a cost-benefit point of view, Formula One is very positive for us."

The difference between then and now is that 'sporting success', with the expectation of more to follow, has been replaced by 'sporting failure'. F1 is an expensive business when it's at the back of the grid.

For Theissen, BMW's decline will be especially painful for his decision last year to switch focus towards 2009 last summer rather than keep sole attention on Robert Kubica's title tilt. With the benefit of hindsight, it was an error of gargantuan proportions that may have sewed the seeds of the team's exit from the sport.

Even if they remain, their regression this season is made damning because it lacks the mitigation of Ferrari and McLaren being distracted from noticing the smallprint of the regulation due to their fully-committed participation in the 2008 championship until November.

One Rule For Ferrari, One Rule For...
What offence did Felipe Massa commit, not once but at least twice, during the Monaco GP? Cutting the chicane to gain an advantage. And what was the exact crime laid against Lewis Hamilton by race stewards at last year's Belgian GP? 'Cutting the chicane to gain an advantage'.

That Massa escaped with a second warning was, regardless of the Hamilton comparison, somewhat baffling. When telling him to stop cutting the corner, Massa's race engineer expressly framed the directive from the stewards as "another warning". In that case, what exactly what was the first warning. 'Do it again and we'll tell you not to do it again?'. Hard-hitting stuff, to be sure.

Pete Gill

Source : Planet F1

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