F1 review of 2009
A look back at the season which saw Jenson Button and Brawn GP come back from the brink.
By Michael Wise
Last Updated: 22/12/09 6:48pm
When Honda announced its withdrawal from Formula One on December 5th last year, Skybet offered odds of 80-1 on Jenson Button becoming 2009 World Champion. The Englishman spent the winter not knowing whether he would be on the grid at all; assuming Ross Brawn could not save the team, there was also the question of whether, with just one race victory in nine seasons, he would be able to salvage any kind of F1 future.
Twelve months on, Button is the World Champion and if any further proof of an enhanced - even rehabilitated - reputation is needed, the fact he now has a McLaren contract in his back pocket says it all. Not only does he have the Brawn GP team to thank for such a remarkable turnaround in fortunes, Button must also be grateful of the technical changes - mainly governing aerodynamics - introduced by the FIA that the team exploited.
Of course, the degree to which they exploited them was a crucial (but by no means the only) factor in their early-season dominance but is the fact the order was shuffled and the 2009 season consequently given such a refreshing zest not something to be welcomed? Aside from Brawn (now Mercedes) GP, Red Bull were the year's other main protagonists - a team without a win before the season started but now, like their 2009 rivals, poised to carry on where they left off.
That they will be joined by McLaren and Ferrari there can be little doubt - F1's more usual hegemony having been so absorbed in their 2008 title battle they took their eye off the ball at the start of the season and spent the rest of the year catching up. In fact, the eye-catching success of Brawn GP and Button aside, this season's main legacy could be the 2010 season it tees up: perhaps four teams in title contention? Fernando Alonso joining Felipe Massa at Ferrari? Michael Schumacher potentially joining Nico Rosberg at Mercedes GP and taking on an all-British line-up at McLaren? Bring it on...
Team of the season - Brawn GP
Only officially coming into existence three weeks prior to the first race of the 2009 season, the Brawn GP name disappeared from view in November to leave the team as the first in the history of the Formula One Constructors' Championship to achieve a perfect record. Being a contender was probably not at the forefront of Ross Brawn's thoughts as he fought to save the team formerly known as BAR and then Honda, but once their future was secured and the team gave the newly rechristened BGP001 its first run at Silverstone on March 6, its performance out of the box would have confirmed what Brawn and company suspected before their business was so rudely interrupted in December: that they had a winner on their hands. A total of eight wins in 1% races followed - a level of success that wasn't entirely down to the 'double diffuser' the team ran. The car had a strong all-round aerodynamic package and although its most glaring weakness - the tyre warming problem that so hampered Button mid-season - helped rivals to catch and pass Brawn, the strengths clearly more than compensated. Add Brawn's tactical nous into the mix and the fairytale result was two championships for a team that might not have existed at the start of the year.
Driver of the season - Jenson Button
Button teams up with Lewis Hamilton in a Brit-centric World Championhip-winning McLaren super-duper dream team next year and, given that they were the standout performers of 2009, one hopes McLaren gives them a car with which to do the job. What gives Button the edge here though is the fact that, having finally been given the necessary tools, he made the most of what was his first title shot in a decade at the top. 'Six wins in seven races' are words enough to justify Button's success and while he undoubtedly had the quickest car for the first half of the season, he still regularly scored points when this was no longer the case. He enjoyed some luck, in that not one of his title rivals was able to pick up the baton and run with it for any length of time, but such fortune was never anywhere near outrageous and let's not forget his only retirement of the season - a lap one crash in Belgium - was not his fault. Button finally sealed the title at the Brazilian Grand Prix, a race which encapsulated both his biggest frailty during the season - the overly cautious mindset which left him 14th on the grid in a wet qualifying session - and the reason why he is deserving of his World Championship: a rousing drive to fifth place in the race, right when it mattered most.
Most improved driver of the season - Lewis Hamilton
Hamilton's performance was the biggest improvement over the course of the season but that was mostly due to McLaren making his car about 2.8 seconds per lap quicker between the first and last race. Fresh from his World Championship success and yet handed a recalcitrant MP4-24 car with a woeful lack of grip, Hamilton knuckled down and gave it his all, with the result that he put the car in positions it had no right in being. Matters worsened before they improved, however, and even he was unable to score during the early summer. But the team made a breakthrough in Germany and that much was clearly apparent in Hungary, where Hamilton duly scored his first win of the season. Another followed in Singapore and he ended the year the quickest driver on the grid. Quite a turnaround in other words, although any plaudits handed to Hamilton must also be placed in the context of events at the start of the season - his third place in the Australian Grand Prix subsequently being stripped after he and (soon to depart) McLaren sporting director David Ryan were found to have deliberately misled race stewards. All in all a character-building season, and one that will serve him well.
Moment of the season - Button waxing lyrical in TurkeyButton's Austin Powers-style "Yeah baby" trills over the radio became a feature of the 2009 season but one he made at Istanbul Park at the start of June almost came back to haunt him. It came in the immediate aftermath of Button's sixth - and, as it transpired, his last - win of the year and at a time when it seemed as though he would have the title wrapped before summer was out. Of course, that was not to be and yet if it wasn't for the fact he did eventually become World Champion there would appear something rather poignant about his purring to the pitwall: "You've built me a monster of a car. You guys are absolute legends." Sure enough, his car was no longer quite such a monster next time out at Silverstone but the 26-point lead Button had built by then ultimately proved enough. Phew.
Lowlight - Felipe Massa's accident in Hungary
Formula One has made giant strides in terms of safety since its black weekend at Imola in 1994 and yet the question remains: how can strapping men into 200 mph projectiles ever be a truly safe vocation? Both thoughts were to the fore when Massa suffered his eerie accident at the Hungaroring at the end of July: mercifully the advances made spared the Brazilian even more grievous injuries although it was sheer bad luck that a suspension spring hit him in the first place. The accident represented the obvious nadir of the 2009 season; however, the sport and its governing body - in particular former FIA president Max Mosley - can take satisfaction in Massa's speedy recovery.
Best race of the season - Brazilian Grand Prix
New rules designed to pep up 'the show' did their job in the sense that they shook up the established order and yet the notion that the actual racing might be significantly improved was soon found wanting. As it was, bad weather once more proved the saviour - for the armchair fan at least - with the vagaries of the Sao Paulo climate producing the second cracker in a row at Interlagos. Unlike in 2008, the rain fell in qualifying rather than the race and produced the sort of mixed up grid those in power might consider mandating if they want guaranteed action. The race duly started with a spectacular shunt which left two drivers almost coming to blows trackside, the excitement then ratcheting itself up a notch with chaos in the pitlane before we were treated to the sight of Jenson Button sticking it to his critics.
Year to remember - Red Bull and Force India
Red Bull Racing rather had their thunder stolen when Sebastian Vettel won the 2008 Italian Grand Prix for Toro Rosso - essentially a team set up by energy drinks magnate Dietrich Mateschitz to blood his youngsters before they moved to the big brother outfit. The German did just that this season and proceeded to do pretty much what everyone expected he would do, given a decent car. Adrian Newey more than delivered in that regard with the RB5 - easily the best-looking car on the grid this season - and Vettel responded with four victories and a title campaign. Further evidence the team are here to stay came as team-mate Mark Webber finally broke his duck and claimed two more wins for the Milton Keynes outfit. Based just up the M1 at Silverstone, meanwhile, Force India scored their first ever points in Belgium - and it could have been even better had polesitter Giancarlo Fisichella not been passed by KERS-assisted Kimi Raikkonen at a restart.
Year to forget - Fernando Alonso
The Spaniard finally gets his Ferrari move in 2010 and it doubtless cannot come a moment too soon after a year which brought little in the way of competitiveness on the track and more aspersions cast about the double World Champion's character off it. Alonso and Renault rounded out the 2008 season in fine style but, like McLaren, they struggled during pre-season testing. Unlike them though, they never made a breakthrough and Alonso's pole position and early lead in Hungary - before a wheel fell off - remained his most prominent showing of the season. His best result came with a third-place finish in Singapore, 12 months after the victory which ultimately proved bogus and which had, just days earlier, brought Renault quite the wrong sort of publicity. Was Alonso genuinely unaware team bosses had asked Nelson Piquet Jr. to deliberately crash for his own benefit? The FIA was satisfied he was - although that will probably not bring an end to the inevitable rumours. Reputed to be the best driver of the current crop, a measure of Alonso's worth is that he still netted the team 26 points; neither Piquet nor replacement Romain Grosjean managed a solitary point between them.
Gone but not forgotten - KERS
The energy recovery system was much vaunted by the FIA as a way of presenting the sport as both greener and a platform for technical innovation, with the side effect of offering the possibility of more overtaking. In the event, only McLaren, Ferrari, Renault and BMW made any real attempt to use KERS in races, with the latter pair ditching their systems sooner rather than later. Both McLaren and Ferrari won races with it - the latter arguably owing their solitary victory of 2009 to it - but it seems as though the disadvantages (issues of weight and packaging limiting set-up options, not to mention high development costs at a time when teams have agreed to reduce budgets) have outweighed the advantages, with teams agreeing amongst themselves to give KERS a sidestep for next season at least.
Scandal - the 'Crashgate' saga
Another year, another scandal...another 'gate' suffix. That the crime in question was actually perpetrated in 2008 matters not one jot because the fallout spewed itself all over the sport during the summer, starting from the moment Nelson Piquet Jr. and Renault parted ways. The team were eventually handed a permanent ban, suspended for two years - a symbolic gesture given the damage already done in terms of corporate image - while team principal Flavio Briatore received a life ban and engineering chief Pat Symonds in turn received a five-year ban (both are currently appealing the sanctions). All in all a tawdry affair then, with real cynicism and contempt for the sport displayed on the part of all the main players - although talk of a 'race fix' was perhaps a little too strong - while there was also the revelation, surprising to some, that beneficiary Fernando Alonso, a double World Champion, simply accepts race strategies without questioning them. Renault will continue to be seen in F1, although the team themselves will now be majority owned by investment firm Genii Capital.
Man of the decade - Michael Schumacher
Enough said. After all, he won the first five World Championships of the noughties in succession and could well have retired at the end of 2006 with another. Schumacher already had two titles under his belt when he joined Ferrari from Benetton in 1996, but the process of dragging the Scuderia back up to past glories - not to mention a broken leg sustained in the 1999 British Grand Prix - by and large left the German as bridesmaid over the next four seasons. But once the Ferrari jigsaw (Schumacher, designer Rory Byrne, technical director Ross Brawn, the development skills of team-mate/rear-gunner Rubens Barrichello, all overseen by team principal Jean Todt) was complete there was no stopping him. Such successes brought joy to Schumacher's many fans but they also fuelled the ire of critics: the 2002 season encapsulated the situation, with Schumacher dominating to the extent that he had the title wrapped with six races remaining. But there was also the sight of Barrichello meekly moving over to allow his team-mate to sweep past and take victory in the Austrian Grand Prix, not to mention the botched attempt to dead heat that year's race at Indiananpolis. Such was his success, they said, the sport was also becoming tedious and predictable - an accusation the FIA seemed to take to heart when it altered the points system in 2003 to be less win-centric. Regardless, Schumacher took the title again, and did so once more the year after. He is easy to criticise - and has certainly done himself no favours over the years - but conclusive proof of his genius did not come in the years when it appeared all too easy. It came when Ferrari struggled in 2005 and Schumacher was often to be found in the minor placings - and yet still scrapping as though his life depended on it. It could well be seen again next year if he makes his much-rumoured comeback for Mercedes-Benz.
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