Since Lotus won the world championship in 1978, Formula 1 has been dominated by four teams: McLaren, Williams, Ferrari or Benetton/Renault (Renault took over Benetton in 2002). These are the only teams to win the Constructor's Title.
However, the dominance from these four teams looks very likely to end in 2009. Brawn GP and Red Bull have rocked F1 and have become the top two teams, while everyone else playing catch up.
So what are the main factors behind the pecking order being turned on its head?
The main reason is undoubtedly 2009’s regulation changes which have been the biggest set of technical changes during the last 20 years.
The aerodynamics has changed drastically, slick tires have been re-introduced, KERs has been introduced and in—season testing banned, among other changes.
Basically these changes meant that Formula 1 pressed the reset button, and all the teams have to start from scratch on the same level.
Adapting to the new rules has been a massive learning curve, and a huge undertaking for all the teams. With such a big change, there were many different routes and directions teams could take with their 2009 challenger.
And whenever the rules are altered, there are always grey areas that clever engineers try to exploit. We have seen this in the past with the double diffuser saga.
“With such a big regulation change, it is quite interesting the different approaches that the teams have taken.” Red Bull boss Christian Horner explained before the season started.
He also spoke about his team’s different approach.
“His (Newey's) interpretation of the regulations has been slightly different to the other teams. The car looks fantastic, but the bottom line is how it runs on the track. We've got a good basis”
Many teams early on saw the changes as an important opportunity. As a result, a number of teams in 2008 opted to shift more of their focus onto the 2009 car.
For example, Honda (now Brawn GP) decided to focus solely on 2009 very early in 2008. As soon as Ross Brawn joined Honda in November 2007 he recognized 2009 as a massive opportunity. He knew the 2008 car would never be competitive.
“What is very important is 2009, because in 2009 there are new regulations," Ross Brawn said. "And that gives Honda a very strong opportunity to start with a blank sheet of paper. The difficulty during each season is that if you have a bad year then you have to do twice as much to catch up, because all the other teams are moving away from you. But in 2009 everyone is starting with new regulations.”
McLaren and Ferrari didn’t have the luxury of shifting most of their focus on 2009 because they spent their time involved in a tight championship battle down to the wire.
“We were fighting with McLaren until the end [in 2008] and we were fully concentrated on the fact that we wanted to win the title,” admits Ferrari boss Stefano Domenicali, talking to the BBC.
Domenicali added, “For me it is very clear that the teams that had the most time to develop the project have an advantage.”
Another aspect that has contributed towards the shape of the grid is the introduction of KERs. Teams who invested a lot of time and money on adapting the car to the system, making it reliable and gaining performance from it have lost out.
There has been more time to be won by ignoring KERs, concentrating on the aero and adapting to slicks.
The fact that BMW Sauber has ditched KERs for good is quite telling of the failure that KERs has been. BMW Sauber was the team that was most keen on its introduction to Formula 1.
“We have taken a decision just a few days ago to no more run KERS this year because we see a more promising alley in developing the aero," explained Mario Theissen.
Ferrari says the performance advantage of their KERs is only about 0.2 seconds a lap. For a system that is rumored to have cost 40 to 50 million pounds to develop (plus more costs to run), with the amount of time and work required to develop it 0.2 seconds is a poor return.
It has to be wondered how different the outcome would have been had Ferrari, McLaren, Renault, and BMW opted against KERs. What would the difference have been if all that time and money was invested on the new aero rules?
Chances are they could have been much closer to Red Bull and Brawn than they are now.
“I know that if you put that amount of money into the development of the car, then you would have been fast like Red Bull today!" Domenicali exclaimed at Silverstone. "It was millions of Euros."
KERs has turned out to be a bit of a white elephant.
A major problem for the teams who have dropped down the order this season has been the ban on in-season testing in 2009. The big teams may have state of the art wind tunnels and very accurate simulators, but there is nothing quite like testing new parts on the track.
The teams are now having to wait till Friday practice to see if their new developments are giving them any benefits.
Ferrari used to test extensively thanks to having their own private test track at their factory. Rubens Barrichello was recently quoted as saying that he used to be driving around the track at 9:30pm as it was getting dark. Ferrari can’t do that anymore.
The testing ban has prevented the likes of Ferrari and McLaren from catching up. The pecking order has stayed fairly stable as a result.
Finally let’s not forget the talent factor, which is crucial with such sweeping technical changes.
Considered by many as the two most talented engineers in F1, Ross Brawn and Adrian Newey have played a critical role in their team’s glory so far this season. They are both F1 legends!
Brawn played a major role in Ferrari’s dominant era of the 2000s and Benetton’s success in the mid—90s.
Adrian Newey dominated the 90s with Williams, and then with McLaren at the end of the decade.
Now, in 2009’s new look Formula 1 it is these two men that have come into their own and are competing against each other for the world title yet again!
In 2009, talent, knowledge, and experience has been far more important than having access to a large budget.
Brawn and Newey moved to teams that were a long way from being race winners, but they have used their magic touch and proven the brilliant talents they are, beating the teams that they previously won multiple championships with.
They saw how huge of an opportunity 2009 was and chose to make full use of it. When the Brawn and Red Bull cars were first launched, they looked the most impressive of the new look cars, and that has been reflected on the track. The influence of Brawn and Newey has been very clear to see.
On his BBC blog Webber had nothing but praise for Newey. “Adrian has an incredible knack of doing things that are before their time. That is what geniuses are like—they can see things that other people cannot see”
“He is very good at bringing the troops together and making sure we are working together as one,” said Button when talking to AUTOSPORT about Ross Brawn.
In conclusion, Brawn GP and Red Bull are at the front this year because they have simply adapted better than everyone else to the new regulations. It also helps that they have the best people in Ross Brawn and Adrian Newey. They have done a great job of understanding the new rules, and have chosen the right design paths.
Focusing efforts on the 2009 car early in 2008 was definitely a very shrewd move, particularly on Ross Brawn’s part. These rules have required an awful amount of time and hard work in order to get to grips with them.
The decision not to use KERs has also proved the correct one, as the teams that have used the system have got so little out of it.
When all of these factors are taken into consideration maybe it isn’t such a big surprise after all that Brawn and Red Bull are the pacesetters.
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