F1 Paddock Insights

June 3, 2009

With another performance that warrants a more impressive acronym than 3 Bs, Brawn’s Button and Barrichello once again occupied the top two steps of the ‘podium’ – this time in Monaco. An imperious drive through the streets of the principality gave the Briton his first taste of victory at Monte-Carlo. As he whooped down the team radio on his parade lap, a surprised pair of red Ferraris crossed in third and fourth to claim their strongest finish yet. From the tight turns of Monaco’s harbour-front circuit, the Formula One circus flies off to Istanbul, Turkey to embrace the 40 degree heat, undulating straights and the longest single turn on the F1 calendar (left-handed turn 8). This is what’s happening in the paddock:

Toyota’s up and down season continued at Monaco where both cars locked out the back row of the grid. President, John Howett put this down to a lack of low-speed grip, saying: “We were not good enough on slow-speed sectors and we have worked tirelessly to understand the reason for this. It tends to be influenced by traction and this was magnified by Monaco.” With the poor result two weeks ago and the ever-increasing rumour of quitting F1, it’s been a testing time for Toyota both on the track and back at the factory. Howett recently told F1 Insiders that, “Clearly we want – and expect – to deliver a significantly better performance in Turkey than we did in Monaco, which was unacceptable. Turkey is a very different circuit to Monaco and I am very optimistic we will be strong.” In addition to this, Jarno Trulli and Timo Glock are clearly looking forward to this weekend, too. They recently spoke to an F1 Insider, saying that they: “can’t wait to start practice and find out where we are because we are fired up to bounce back this weekend.”

FOTA suspended Williams this week for submitting their entry to next year’s F1 season without the remainder of the teams on the grid. In going against the rest of the teams, their only reaction was to suspend the team for not complying with FOTA regulations. With their entry lodged for next year, though, the support of FOTA is surely redundant anyway. Sir Frank Williams, team principal, told F1 Insiders at the time that: “As a racing team and a company whose only business is Formula One, with obligations to our partners and our employees, submitting our entry to next year’s Championship was unquestionable. In addition, we are legally obliged under our contract with FOM and the FIA to participate in the World Championship until the end of 2012”. A recent Williams employee told me that he expected the ‘Max and Bernie double-act’ to pull a rabbit out of their hat at the eleventh hour and for all the teams to be delighted with that option and accept the terms. Seeing as this didn’t happen, however, do we think that the deafening silence from the FIA since the deadline is to resist any temptation to negotiate with the teams? The decision on who will be entered into the F1 Championship for 2010 will be announced on the 12th June.

Istanbul Park is another of the Hermann Tilke-designed circuits on the calendar and is a new track that differs to the majority that he has recently designed. The open, expansive feeling of the Park often gives spectators and drivers the initial impression that the circuit is another simple one. The main and obvious difference is that the circuit is driven anti-clockwise, giving drivers more than just a pain in the neck, but a technical conundrum on the balance of the car. One man who might be worrying about the temperature in Turkey is actually one of the fittest men on the grid. Jenson Button managed to burn his left buttock in Bahrain as the cooling mechanisms inside the Brawn BGP001 failed. With the undulations of the track taking the cars up to 125m above sea level, the air pressure at Istanbul is much lower than in Monaco and therefore the cooling in the cars is much less efficient. He will have to make sure it is working properly before he sits inside his 60° cockpit on Friday morning.

It is usually about this time in the Formula One season that the driver roulette starts and seats and drivers are being thrown up in the air. Brawn GP insiders told me that Jenson is in line for a huge pay-rise at the end of this year, to keep him from the clutching hands of some of the ‘bigger’ teams. Young Nelsinho Piquet, currently with no Championship points, is one driver whose seat at Renault looks like it could be up for grabs and add to that the place of Kazuki Nakajima who has failed to score a single point either and embarrassingly dropped his Williams into the wall on the last lap at Monaco two weeks ago. With Nakajima comes a Toyota engine deal, however, so his place may be saved for one more year, but others are definitely on the market. Expect Bruno Senna to announce his determination to return to the F1 grid and Giorgio Pantano to make his last attempt at an F1 seat.

The Formula One paddock is playing a waiting game with the FIA. Both sides have submitted their demands and we will see on 12th June who will win which battles. For now, though, it’s off to Turkey where the 20 cars are lining up on the grid, ready to tackle one of the fastest circuits on the calendar

Enjoy the racing from the Eastern edge of Europe.

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’.