F1's Diffuser Row: What's Going on Back There?

Ross MessingerCorrespondent IApril 1, 2009

MELBOURNE, AUSTRALIA - MARCH 29:  Jenson Button of Great Britain and Brawn GP drives during the Australian Formula One Grand Prix at the Albert Park Circuit on March 29, 2009 in Melbourne, Australia.  (Photo by Robert Cianflone/Getty Images)

It's interesting: back in 2005 when there were rule changes*, primarily to technical regulations, we saw Ferrari—a team that had just won the last five world championships and Michael Schumacher—a driver who had won half of all the seasons he had entered in the sport—stuck relatively low-down in the pecking order with a car that Toyota was giving a run for its money.

But being Ferrari, they pulled it back, and when compared to the 25 year wait they had to endure the last time they found themselves uncompetitive, in impressive time. By the next year they were back winning race after race, and pushing reigning world champion Fernando Alonso to his limit.

Meanwhile, Alonso's Renault team was having their own problems. After bringing the title to the youngest ever world champion at the time, the Enstone-based squad were arms-in-air protesting against the FIA's decision to ban their unique mass dampers.

What was interesting was that when, after the 2006 Canadian Grand Prix, the appeal was finally deemed inadmissible and the dampers were no more, it became clear that they held the key to Renault's advantage.

It appeared that the team, whilst still having what would become the second best car, held out a lot of hope in their invention before the season began, and quite rightly—they weren't to win another race until Japan that year, thanks only to Michael Schumacher's spectacular engine failure.

Back to the present, and as we know, even after Alonso's return to the team last year, they haven't quite been as speedy since.

This leads me to believe that since such a small element to the car can effect performance to such an extent (David Coulthard once said that if 99 percent of an F1 car was set-up correctly, there would still be 80 things wrong with it, but that's a story for another day), it's perfectly conceivable that a fairly big element, such as a rear diffuser, can bless a team with sheer domination.

So there were Ferrari, with what is pretty much a standard rear diffuser nailed to the back of their car, along with McLaren who are stuck with one of the slowest cars in the field, and everyone else, whose jaws dropped in awe as Toyota, Williams and Brawn GP all exceeded expectations when the 2009 season officially got underway last weekend. These were three teams that in building their '09 cars opted to swap the norm for a completely different take on things.

That isn't me pointing the finger to the rear of their cars, that's just a rational observation; they have shocked everyone with their upturn in performance. If we look at Williams for example, this time last year they were impressing after a podium in Australia, but, as became evident throughout the season, it is fair to say that at times they were as good as chasing the mid-field pack.

It really was surprising then, that when they turned up for the new season and crushed everybody else in all three practice sessions courtesy of Nico Rosberg, the only drivers in touch of them were Timo Glock, Jarno Trulli, Rubens Barrichello and Jenson Button. These were the entire diffuser gang.

The rest is history—Brawn GP dominated and Toyota jumped from the back of the grid to third and fifth.

It's hard not to make presumptions, but it could be over a month until we find out the true situation and pecking order—it's impossible to tell what's really going on until teams and drivers have a familiar circuit in a not-so-far-away location to tackle, namely Barcelona in Spain.

There's a long wait until then, and so much will develop in the meantime that there is a high possibility that we could get a clearer picture of the situation much sooner. BMW, Red Bull and Ferrari are leading a protest against the legality of the aerodynamic aids, a hearing for which will be held at the FIA headquarters in Paris on April 14th.

If the appeal is thrown out of the court, expect McLaren to introduce the rear diffuser they have already started working on by Spain, and without any shadow of a doubt, all of the big-money teams will have their own take of the device that they will plan to use should they not get the outcome that they wanted.

If it emerges that the diffusers are actually in breach of the regulations, and it's perfectly feasible that the rules could even be changed if Brawn dominate in Malaysia this weekend as well  we will see some very interesting events unfold over the coming races.

What will be interesting is to see how big—if any of an advantage the rear diffusers gained Brawn, Williams and Toyota. Losing them could plummet the teams right to the back of the grid, which is unlikely, or it could send them into the mix of the midfield with BMW, Red Bull, Renault and Ferrari.

It is absolutely impossible to know, and the FIA will find themselves stuck between a rock and a hard place in a fortnight's time. If they ban the diffusers, three teams are, perhaps justifiably, very unhappy, even though it's almost guaranteed they won't lose any previous race results. However it appears that the worst case scenario would be the opposite.

If the cars are deemed perfectly within the rules, we could see domination throughout the season, which could lose the FIA the championship showdowns they try so much to get. Worse still, they will have to answer to seven very angry and very influential Formula 1 teams.

Even worse than that though, and this is a far-out thought: if Brawn GP does dominate the season, and Ferrari and McLaren—two teams with a combined 102 years in Formula One are left in their wake, we could see a separation within the Formula One Teams' Association.

That will be on Max Mosley's mind, because he knows just how powerful FOTA is, and that even though it is Max that gives the final nod for change, he is fully under the influence of FOTA—they have taken the sport back.

So it is not just the teams in question that must tread lightly in what is this ever-hostile technical world of Formula One, it is those who own it, and those who run it from day-to-day.

It will be fascinating to see what the outcome of all of this is in a couple of weeks time, but even more interesting will be the statements afterwards, and finding out just who it will that backs off with their tail between their legs.

*I say rule changes, let's be honest, after what we've seen recently, they are nothing!