F1 Paddock Insights

August 21, 2009

After nearly a month since the last race, the F1 drivers are strapped back in their seats and ready to hit the Valencia harbour. The teams have had to take a two week break from anything F1 related, but don’t be surprised if you see a raft of new changes – development happens very quickly in F1, it’s our job to try and keep up with it. Find out what’s happening in the paddock in sunny America’s Cup Harbour.

– When Fernando Alonso’s tyre went bouncing down the circuit to end his chances of a good finish in Hungary, the F1 world was taken back to the tragic accident that killed Henry Surtees only a week prior and the freak accident that injured Felipe in qualifying the previous day. Perhaps that is why the FIA took the accident so seriously and immediately banned them from the European GP. Crowd favourite Alonso was in disbelief and the race organisers were starting to count their ticket losses. In the end, though, it was four of the major teams in F1 who came to Renault’s rescue (Red Bull Racing, Vodafone McLaren Mercedes, Panasonic Toyota Racing and Ferrari), by submitting letters to the court in support of the French team. Either way, the Spaniard and his French team are racing in Valencia, but Nelson Piquet is not. The unsuccessful Brazilian has been dropped by the uncompromising Flavio Briatore for his lack of points this season. Then flew a tirade of abuse towards the Italian and the whole team, saying that Flav on the radio is “like listening to something my sister would say about the car. Pat Symonds is the guy who really understands what is going on with the team” and that “he makes comments that don’t make any sense”. As Romain Grosjean takes the seat still left warm by the young Brazilian, one can only hope that he has more luck than its previous inhabitant.

– There was a time where all F1 fans’ hearts were lifted prior to the Valencia GP – Michael Schumacher had climbed back into a Ferrari Formula One car with the hope of filling the injured Felipe Massa’s boots for the rest of the season. Unfortunately for the great man, the neck injury he sustained in February on his bike was too severe for his F1 racing career to get back on track and the F1 world could breathe again. No worries for the bookies – his replacement is none other than Luca Badoer…Who? I hear you ask. Luca Badoer – the man who has started more Grands Prix than any other man in F1 (48) without scoring a single point. Now that’s a replacement to a seven-time world champion who has won a record 91 Grands Prix, scored a record 1,369 points and finished on the podium 154 times. So who is Luca Badoer? He is an Italian man through and through. Born in 1971 and a graduate of the Italian karting system. He has raced for only Italian teams and is the first Italian to drive for Ferrari since 1992, when Ivan Capelli scored a total of 3 points. He has been a test driver at Ferrari since 1997 and according to his engineers has completed “over 150,000km in F1 cars since he joined Ferrari – nearly 5 times the amount covered by an F1 driver in that time”. The decision to chose him over Marc Gené, Ferrari’s other test driver is one that confuses a number of people. Luca di Montezemolo told insiders that “In agreement with Stefano Domenicali, we have therefore decided to give Luca Badoer the chance to race for the Scuderia after he has put in so many years of hard work as a test driver”. Sounds to me like he has been given the drive as they are already testing for 2010 and Luca is the best person to test the new parts.

– Felipe Massa has recently told insiders that he is expecting to be back in time for the Brazilian GP from the 16-18 October. This, given the Brazilian suffered a double-fractured skull and eye injuries as well as injuries to his brain. The comeback would be remarkable and, of course, subject to an FIA medical. Having spoken to insiders close to Felipe, they say he “is confident that he can make it back with some karting laps before the weekend.” Suspicions across the paddock suggest that Felipe’s encouraging words ahead of his home Grand Prix have been used in an attempt to bolster ticket sales as without Piquet Jr and Massa, Rubens Barrichello remains the only Brazilian interest on the grid. Even then he might be on his way out of a Brawn team that he has fallen out with on more than one occasion this year already.

– The man to watch this weekend will be Lewis Hamilton. Not only has he been tucking into pancakes, care of his Pussy Cat Doll, in LA but he is coming to the Harbour circuit off the back of his first victory all season. He promised his fans one when the MP4-24 was a second off the pace in Australia, but few believed it was possible. Speaking to McLaren engineers in their Woking factory, it seems that the two week break came at just the wrong moment this season. They have been working “19 hour days, 6 days a week” to get the car up to speed and the break in August could “potentially de-rail their plans to take another victory in Valencia”. It’s not only the engineers under pressure at McLaren at the moment, though, as Heikki Kovalainen is fighting to retain his seat into 2010. With Nico Rosberg apparently “ready to relish the opportunity to drive for McLaren”. He added that he “would like a competitive team mate, that’s for sure” – is he saying that Kazuki Nakajima isn’t doing well this season?!

– And finally, with Luca Badoer returning to race in F1 for the first time since Japan 1999, I tried to think of anyone who had made a comeback after so long. The only man that beats Luca’s 9 years and 10 months is Jan Lammers, who retired in 1982 and returned a full 10 years and 3 months later at the 1992 Japanese GP. Lammers failed to finish that race, by the way…

After 4 more weeks of off-track news, F1 finally returns to the tarmac. Expect Valencia to be hot, tight and close, with at least half the grid looking to take podium finishes. With only a week to wait until the next round in Spa, the next fortnight could make big steps towards the destination of the Championship trophy. Or it could make it all the more confusing.

Enjoy the racing.

Much has been eulogised about the Brackley-based outfit since the re-birth of the Honda F1 team as Brawn GP. The most surprising recent historical reference centred on Jenson Button’s confident driving style. His smooth, almost effortless negotiation of the tight corners of Monaco showed the Formula One world that his status of champion in waiting is not an exaggeration of his talent.

Ross Brawn, the man nicknamed the ‘Big Bear’, is now the Briton’s mentor at Brawn GP but has had a history of successful drivers beneath him. Not least Michael Schumacher, the man who is attributed with changing the face of modern F1. Brawn’s influence on the German’s career is often understated in the media, but his tactical nous, technical intelligence and his desire to win propelled Schumacher’s career to the arguably unreachable heights of any other driver in the future.

With veteran Rubens Barrichello by his side, or at least slightly behind him, Button has the perfect launch pad to attack his final assault on the F1 Drivers’ title. Take Monaco for example where Kimi Räikkönen was Jenson Button’s primary competition. Barrichello leapt off the line to squeeze past Räikkönen into Ste Devote and protect his team mate from the charging Prancing Horse. Not only this, but he drove his car so wide that when his rear tyres degraded and his lap times pushed 1m 20s, the Finn could not slip past to launch his attack on Button, now 9 seconds ahead of the chasing pair.

Throughout the race, Button delivered 80% of his lap times within 0.4 seconds of each other until he needed to push on and gain an advantage ahead of his second pit stop, where he shaved 0.8 seconds off his fastest lap and kept it there for the next 5 laps. With the very best car on the grid, the best team alongside him and arguably the most inspirational man on the pit wall with him, is there any reason why Jenson Button cannot claim his first Drivers’ World Title?

The answer to this is still up for debate and will presumably only be answered after the chequered flag falls at the Yas Marina circuit in November. The facts, however, remain that Herr Schumacher claimed 7 World Titles, set numerous records and remains one of the most iconic F1 personalities even 3 years after his departure from the grid.

There is little doubt that Button has the qualities of a World Champion – his driving style is easy on his tyres, smooth to watch and supremely consistent, but Schumacher had something else. He had the aura of a Champion that lifted his entire team as he strode purposefully through his garage. He had the ability to deliver quick lap after quick lap that simultaneously lifted and educated his team.

Perhaps Button can be likened to Schumacher in his driving style and the team around him, but the aura of a Champion that comes with pole positions and victories still eludes the Briton. The paddock can see it, however, and it is growing with every lap he drives as Championship leader, owing in no small part to the Midas touch of F1’s ‘Big Bear’.