F1: The Season Begins, Is Brawn GP for Real?

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F1: The Season Begins, Is Brawn GP for Real?
(Photo by Clive Mason/Getty Images)

The 2009 Formula One season kicks off this weekend at Melbourne’s Albert Park, promising a potentially turbulent, yet  fascinating year.

Sitting down? Jenson Button, with the reformulated Brawn GP team, is considered a contender to win the Australian Grand Prix this Sunday. While last year’s winner and season champ, McLaren's Lewis Hamilton, will be happy if he’s competitive.

Sweeping rule changes have been implemented in 2009 to reduce costs and increase across-the-board competitiveness. They affect primarily aerodynamics, tires, and engine usage.

Extraneous aero devices (flip-ups, barge boards) have been largely banned, making for a cleaner design. To allow cars to follow one another more cleanly and closely and increase passing opportunities; front wings are wider, rear wings higher and half as wide, meaning a decrease in downforce.

Reverting to full slick tires will address this in part, increasing grip, although teams have to refine, as usual, the elusive ideal running temperature, and manage wear of their Bridgestones.

Revs are reduced to 18,000 rpm from last year’s 19,000. Each driver is allotted eight engines per season, plus four for testing. The engine used on Saturday morning’s practice must be used throughout the race. An engine change can be made after qualifying with no grid penalty, but only if there’s a proven failure.

A new option is the “kinetic energy recovery system” (KERS)—voluntary this year, mandatory next—in which energy from the cars’ wicked braking is stored by flywheel or battery to be re-used by the driver in small bursts to overtake—to the tune of up to 80 horsepower.

The tradeoff is added weight and possible engine wear. Mario Theissen of BMW says their system is ready; he’ll decide to use it race by race. Teams who use KERS early on may have an advantage that could play in the title challenge.

Drivers will also be able to control front wing angle—optimally for entering and exiting corners—up to two changes per lap, with a six degree range.

Melbourne is a street/circuit hybrid—fast, tough on brakes, with rhythmically spaced corners. It’s not especially conducive to passing, but the new rules may change that. The past three winners of Melbourne have gone on to win the season’s championship—Hamilton, Raikkonen, and Alonso. Coincidence?

The big news team-wise is the seemingly alchemical change (albeit over 15 months of development) from Honda into Brawn GP, led by Ross Brawn. The dissolution of Team Honda ended a particularly painful chapter for the manufacturer, which despite significant success in the street car market, struggled mightily.

Brawn, running Mercedes engines in its BGP 001 chassis, made a spectacular splash in preseason testing in Spain with some of the quickest times. Jenson Button has never had the equipment to show that he belongs in the top tier of drivers, but that may have changed.

Teammate Rubens Barrichello may be in the latter stages of a storied career, but he knows how to win. It’s certain that Brawn, after his disheartening chapter with Honda, is eager to reclaim some of the glory of his Ferrari years.

Perhaps just as surprising were Team McLaren’s slow times in testing, reportedly due to aerodynamics. But test driver Pedro de la Rosa offered some explanation, saying the team was working on specs for 2010, including no tire blankets and a set-up for a race with no refueling.

Still, the team sounds cautious about the early 2009 season, lowering any expectations.

Lewis Hamilton snatched the ’08 title from Ferrari’s Felipe Massa, but he also made some boneheaded, very human maneuvers along the way. Teammate Heikki Kovalainen has shown flashes of real speed, and won once last year, but is consistently behind Hamilton.

At Ferrari, Massa finally shook off the mantle of second driver last season, winning six races, the most among drivers. The real pressure is on teammate Kimi Raikkonen, who by all rights and reputation should have consistently bested Massa.

Ironically, a proposed rule change that has been shouted down by the team collective (at least for this year) would have given the championship to the driver with the most wins, not the most accumulated points. Meaning Massa would have won last year’s title, had the rule applied then.

Empowering the drivers in the cockpit and a shift toward driver skill may enhance a title chance for Fernando Alonso, who won it all in 2005 and 2006. Renault alone has been allowed to make performance modifications to make up for a loophole that other teams had exploited. He and manager Flavio Briatore know success and miss it dearly.

Don't be surprised if BMW’s Robert Kubica storms out of the gate, even though after his one win at Montreal last season, he seemed to fade a few shades. He and teammate Nick Heidfeld bracketed Alonso in the points last season, showing a consistency that rewards in the end—at least this year!

There are now three “Sebs” in the field: Vettel, now at Red Bull; Bourdais, and rookie Buemi, both at Toro Rosso. Vettel replaced Kubica in the “Cinderella” role last season with an impressive, if lucky win, wowing crowds with his skill and affability. Mark Webber remains at Red Bull, likely hoping that some of Vettel’s luck rubs off on him to combine with his driving skill for a win.

Toyota was tempted to follow Honda’s lead and walk away, but they’re back. Jarno Trulli qualifyies well; he and mate Timo Glock, also impressive in qualifying at times, ended a fairly respectable 9th and 10th in points last year.

Slightly behind them were Williams-Toyota teammates Nico Rosberg and Kazuki Nakajima. Rounding out the field are Giancarlo Fisichella and Adrian Sutil at Merc-powered Force India.

The many wild cards this season should make it entertaining, and if drivers’ skill plays a bigger role, we should reap the rewards.

Who do you think will come out ahead?

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