Fans are drawn to F1 by the technology, the skill, the pageantry, and sometimes even the competition.
But, face it, in past recent seasons, races could be boring—as predictable as yesterday's leftovers.
But since the days of Senna/Prost, there hasn’t been a season as fascinating as this, even if it sometimes feels like the plot of a tawdry thriller.
In recent seasons, championships have been fought to the last moment, but it's been between juggernauts Ferrari and McLaren.
Changes in dynasties usually take seasons.
This year, it’s taken just a few races to see a complete inversion of power. Goliath has fallen and David has risen.
For certain, some of it has been downright ugly, marked by chaos, rulebook parsing, and penalties.
In an attempt to reduce budgets and increase competitiveness this season, FIA threw the rules in the air and let them fall.
Atop those rules lie historic legacies in heaps of scarlet and pewter carbon fiber shards.
A new regime of predictability has set in. Ferrari can’t buy a point. Uncharacteristic failures, both technical and strategic, have haunted drivers Felipe Massa and Kimi Raikkonen.
Some progress is expected when the season moves to Europe soon, but for Bahrain, they appear to be behind the curve.
Rumors float that Ferrari is concentrating efforts on 2010’s car, much like Honda did last year. And we’ve seen the results of that, with Brawn taking two wins this season.
There are also whisperings that two-time champion Fernando Alonso may be tapped next year for one of its cars, finally consummating what many see as inevitable.
Meanwhile McLaren, faring somewhat quicker on-track than Ferrari, has a veritable lock on the gates. That is, Stepneygate. Liargate. Lewisgate.
The team always seems persecuted, whether self-inflicted or not. It’s remarkable that they’ve continued in the wake of 2007’s espionage snafu and $100 million fine.
Lewis Hamilton facing accusations of lying to officials during Melbourne’s race might be the sneeze that topples the first domino. It’s not just his glossy reputation in peril. (Teammate Heikki Kovalainen is competitive with Hamilton, trying to keep clean and log laps.)
Hamilton publicly apologized, saying he misled on since-suspended racing director Dave Ryan’s orders.
Another rumor flew (since quashed, at least for now) that Hamilton and his omnipresent father, Anthony, were thinking of abandoning McLaren, maybe even F1 altogether—especially since mentor Ron Dennis cut his daily responsibilities with the race team.
Now, McLaren faces additional FIA hearings on April 29. Talk of suspensions hover, and if this happens, what path Hamilton might pursue this season assuming he’s not personally punished.
That includes the remote possibility of taking veteran Rubens Barrichello’s seat at Brawn, if Barrichello would accept a buyout.
Which brings us to the positive intrigue—the emergence of previously slow teams. Brawn GP, the phoenix risen from near-dead Honda, plus Toyota and Red Bull, have topped the podium thus far.
One more non-McLaren-specific gate must be mentioned: diffusergate. Brawn, Toyota, and Williams began the season with a rear double diffuser, thought by the other teams to be illegal.
They helped Brawn GP win two races, and were subsequently ruled legal.
The other teams’ engineers are playing catch-up, but with no track testing permitted during the season, real situation progress may be elusive.
Brawn drivers Jenson Button and Rubens Barrichello have both been around a long time—Button constantly on the ascent, Barrichello winding down a storied career. It’s a pleasure to watch their newfound success after climbing from the recycling bin.
Perhaps most worrisome is Sebastian Vettel’s victory in rainy China even without a double diffuser—unless you’re on his team, Red Bull. Uber-designer Adrian Newey skipped the race in China to work on a diffuser design.
Red Bull’s Mark Webber finished second, even after suffering off-season broken bones. As one of the veteran drivers in F1, he must smell his first victory.
Toyota is quick after years in the basement. Drivers Jarno Trulli and Timo Glock are proven strong qualifiers with lesser equipment, but this year’s car makes them certified win threats.
Renault seems to have made some progress, with Alonso qualifying third in Shanghai. He certainly maximizes the car’s capability by working well with his engineers on tweaks and setup, and is a sharp qualifier.
Nico Rosberg, in a Williams Toyota, is showing quick times at Bahrain. BMW Sauber’s Nick Heidfeld is piloting a steady season thus far, although high hopes for his mate, Robert Kubica, have continually fallen short.
At this rate, the safest bet for world champion has got to belong to Brawn, a team that nearly went extinct a couple months ago.
After the outcome of McLaren’s next official hearing is determined, the risk of boredom, ironically, may be that Brawn, Red Bull, and Toyota continue to take the podium.
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