2009 has been an interesting 12 months to be a motorsport fan, with more twists and turns that a lap of the Nordschleife and enough cliffhangers to keep everyone who thought Millennium Prayer was utter bilgewater happy through his reunion with The Shadows.
In this, the first of four articles to be published through December, we take a look and occasionally a light-hearted poke at the big stories in international motorsport this year.
We’ll start in January, as it’s the beginning and the foundations were already being laid for a strange year.
The Dakar Gets Lost
You could tell that 2009 would not be a normal year when the Dakar Rally started in South America.
That’s right, the 2009 Dakar Rally (that’s named after Dakar in Senagal (which is in Africa)) started the motorsports season by kicking off in Argentina (which is not). The real reason was the terrorist threats in Mauritania (Africa) that had forced the cancellation of the event the previous year, and organizers, the ASO, had taken the event to South America (a location they are due to return to next month).
However, the change in location (though not name) didn’t change the event. It still included the sand dunes that the Dakar is known for, and it still had the same level of danger.
Sadly it was only to be first of a number of tragedies of 2009, when Pascal Terry was found dead three days after failing to complete the rally’s opening stage. The chain of events that led to Terry’s death would be funny, if the end result wasn’t so awful.
Every Dakar competitor is given an emergency beacon to set off should they become stranded on the stage. Terry set his off, and awaited rescue only a handful of metres from his bike, sensibly taking shelter under a tree.
Unfortunately, rather than the distress signal going straight to the race’s bivouac in South America, it went to the ASO’s headquarters in France, taking nearly a day for those in Argentina to be informed and start searching, when even the helicopters couldn’t see him, despite soon finding his bike. The end result after that was, perhaps, inevitable.
Happily, Terry was the only fatality, though several other competitors were hospitalised. These included the co-driver to former WRC champion Carlos Sainz. Sainz was leading the rally in the final week (the Dakar last a fortnight, with a stage near enough every day) until he rolled his VW down a ravine.
Doctors were soon on the scene treating the co-driver, whose screams of pain were clearly audible—though apparently not to Sainz.
Doctors were saying things like “finish”, “broken” and “shoulder”, Michel Perin (hey, let’s give those screams a name) was in agony, Sainz was convinced he could continue, spending more time assessing the mechanical damage, salvaging something from the 27 minute lead he had before the tumble.
Even when he did come over to see his co-driver he was soon concerned by the far more important task of, erm, trying to fix the rubber seal that runs round the doorframe.
Sainz’s VW teammate Giniel De Villiers won the car class ahead of Americans Mark Miller and Robby Gordon the latter driving a 2-wheel-drive Hummer. Mitsubishi’s challenge, including Dakar Illuminati Stefan Peterhansel and Luc Alphand imploded. Mark Coma took the bike class.
NASCAR teams merge, Jr. doesn’t
The NASCAR season starts incredibly early, the 2009 Daytona 500 falling on Feb. 15, and like many forms of motorsport the winter economic frosts had not been kind to NASCAR.
Teams had merged, Petty Enterprises and Gillett-Evernham merging into Richard Petty Motorsports and an acronym you can only hope the planned for. Dale Earnhardt Incorporated and Chip Ganassi’s NASCAR outfit became Earnhardt-Ganassi (unfortunately not Chip ‘n’ Dale). Bill Davis Racing disappeared entirely, as well as several teams scaling back their operations.
The sudden drop in cars left the door open for a kind of racing vulture and put a new entry into the dictionary of NASCAR fans, especially the fans attracted during the sports dramatic upswing.
Start ‘n’ Park.
These teams became characterised during the year by two teams, and I have no problems with naming and shaming them. Joe Nemechek, driving for his own NEMCO team, and Dave Blaney for Prism Motorsports.
The situation got so bad that soon the commentators weren’t even mentioning when these two skulked back behind the wall to count their cash and my nearest and dearest began believing that Nemechek-Out was NASCAR’s first double-barrelled named driver.
The excuses they used to make their exit were varied, but not particularly original. Their cars seemed to vibrate a lot (hang on, that might explain why my nearest and dearest was so interested in them) and have more electrical and brake problems that a mechanic sees in his lifetime.
Perhaps the most baffling were the days they retired with ‘fuel system’ problems, the problem most likely being they didn’t want to pay for anymore fuel than it took to get the car round the track a few times in fear of disturbing the colony of rare moths that had moved into the wallets, believing them to be small, leathery caves.
Luckily, and predictably for the race where there’s the most gain to be made from sponsorship, the Start ‘n’ Parkers weren’t present at the Daytona 500 (one day I will understand the logic of having your biggest event when it means nothing).
However, there were other signs of the stories that were to dominate the 2009, yellow lines, huge accidents and Dale Earnhardt Jr. continuing to push most peoples fond memories of his father out, replacing them with mediocrity (and I’m being kind).
Jr.’s Daytona debacle was two fold. Firstly he managed to miss hit pit stall entirely, bemoaning that his dangly pit sign looked the same as everyone else’s dangly pit sign (there must be something in his contract banning his from holding a can of spray paint to change that). His second move was to pit outside of his pit box, though he didn’t complain that all the lines looked the same.
It was a move that, as Vickers suggested, anyone else (especially if your name was, say, Juan) would have been penalised for, putting before the court a similar accident in the Nationwide race the day before when Jason (you will note, not Juan) Leffler was parked for five laps.
However, conspiracy theorists will remember what Jr.’s punishment was.
The race was, of course, rained out before full distance, with Matt Kenseth (yes, a Ford won) taking the victory after the rain came one lap too late of Elliott Sadler, who welcomed his new crew chief to his ‘Elliott’s World’ of pessimism, where even rain doesn’t like Dodges. Fans bleated about the anti-climax, but seeing rain delays and cancellations was something just about every racing fan would see in 2009.
It seems hard to believe that it was all the way back in February when USF1 appeared, with an Internet page that simply consisted of the letters “U”, “S”, “F” and “1”, and a saga began.
It was, as we all soon found out, and have been getting progressive more sick of, Peter Windsor, a man who was once a manager at Williams but had moved to Speed TV and Ken Anderson a car designer who also happened to have the keys to a wind tunnel (a wind tunnel that, to date, the team seem not to have noticed).
All this would be based in North Carolina, an area of the US that stereotypes would have you believe think open-wheel racing is the work of the Devil.
It was a scheme that seemed to make sense. A Massive, largely untapped market for F1 sponsors and a potentially huge pool of talent to pick your drivers from, a poor economy allowing a team to be created from the ground up for a relatively low sum, and, most importantly a entry already granted by the 10 FOTA teams.
The team was launched on Speed TV, between NASCAR re-runs and vintage car auctions in an environment that could only have been less hostile if Bob Varsha had tripped out the studio with mood lighting and fluffy cushions.
That saw the start-up of the rumour mill of USF1, or as we know him, Peter Windsor. Seemingly within days everyone who was American and had driven a car was rumoured to be lined up fill the race seats, ranging from the plausible (Marco Andretti) to the, er, optimistic (Kyle Busch) via the cash cow (Danica Patrick).
Tax Doesn’t Have To Be Taxing
What do Helio Castroneves and Al Capone have in common?
They were both caught on tax evasion charges, well Helio was almost caught.
It all came down to money he was paid by Penske at the start of his contract in 1999, and where that money was being held and how that meant that Helio didn’t have to give money to the IRS. For the duration of the trial whether Helio, his sister and lawyer, would be found guilty of innocent seemed to change from day to day and depending on where you read it.
Some would say that tax law was so complicated he would be found innocent, some used the same reasoning for him being convicted and facing a jail term—something that would have presented completely new problems as the Department of Corrections dealt with someone known for scaling fences even before incarceration.
It was, perhaps, inevitable that all three would be found innocent, a justice system that relies on a “jury of your peers” falling foul of the complicated law and the fact that prosecutors failed to check how many of them voted for him on Dancing With The Stars.
F1 2009 Is Go(ld)!
The early months of the year are traditionally a hive of activity for F1 teams, unveiling their new designs and testing them ahead of the first race of the season.
2009 was no different, and maybe even more to with the testing ban during the season looming ahead of them. However, with the new aerodynamic regulations looking to improve overtaking (stop laughing, remember it’s January, they don’t know it doesn’t work yet) the launches became more about how ugly the car was compared its competitors.
Whether the Toyota was either the best looking or ugliest or whether the BMW really was incredibly short or if the PR company had fiddled with cameras to try and make it look somewhere in proportion.
But behind the scenes, all was not glitz and glamour. BMW had lost major sponsor Credit Suisse, Royal Bank of Scotland had told Williams it was going to stop using taxpayers money to prop up an uncompetitive venture (oh the irony!) and ING was leaving Renault after the season (little did they know that would be the least of their problems at that point).
But that was all made to look paltry in relation to the dilemma facing the old Honda team. The car maker had pulled of F1 after another dismal season in 2008, and despite several people, including a certain Mr. R. Branson, reportedly making offers for the team they entered March without an owner and without much hope of being in Melbourne.
Step forward Ross Brawn, and according to many a stack of Yen Honda had left lying around Brackley, balancing wonky tables or something. Brawn, along with Nick Fry led a management buyout of the team, and within a day the BGP001 was launched at Silverstone in a while and day-glo yellow paint scheme we’d all have to get used to.
The design was Honda’s, though there was not Honda badge on the car and the Mercedes engine throbbed in the back, it was a Honda, and unsurprisingly for a team that had spent much of 2008 preparing for 2009’s revolution the car was fast.
Only three days after being launched the car was topping pre-season testing timesheets, prompting many to cry foul and McLaren to test out the go-faster properties of day-glo yellow paint as they search for what made the Brawns so fast, seeing if they could improve their form after they spent the entire off-season making Youtube videos about a remote control car.
Apart from having several months development on everyone else one of the things that made the Brawn so fast was the diffuser.
Now, I’m not going to bore you with the technical regulations about the diffusers under the new rules (firstly because I realise this article is already very long, and you done a respectable amount of reading to get this far, and you families and lives and <snip> life expectancy of 76. Secondly I don’t understand them).
It basically boils down to designers not being allowed to put elements of diffuser in certain areas, but those areas were left open to other things, like car’s crash structure, which can be designed to be a diffuser in all but name.
Toyota and Williams both did exactly that, followed by late-comer Brawn. Other teams were up in arms, Red Bull promising the design would give the cars a half second advantage, Flavio Briatore complaining that other teams were able to take advantage of the rules (again, more problems to follow Flav). Several teams lined up with protest and counter protest for Melbourne.
At the same time teams were debating who should be allowed to win, Bernie was trying to dictate how they should win, trying to resurrect his medal idea, awarding the World Championship to the driver who wins the most races. This was with the hopes it would encourage drivers to race harder for the win and make the championship race closer, odd considering that the previous two season were decided by a single point.
What followed was this. Fans and teams were up in arms, press releases churned out what every World Championship would look like if these rules were applied retrospectively, and Keke Rosberg was elevated like a spinnaker to the pleas of those against the plan. But the right thinking people among the F1 community didn’t need Keke, they needed rules.
Rules like the one that stops a rule from being changed that close to the start of the season without the team’s unanimous approval. As quickly as the plan had appeared it was gone again, everyone being left clueless as to what had just gone on and how it affected the real world. Like the Crossroads comeback.
Note: Under the medal rules the season would have been decided in Italy.
Men At Work: Land Down Under
And so F1 reached Melbourne, the new world hosting a new would of Formula One. Funny looking cars, KERS, a new team.
All three made up a funny looking grid to start the season opener. Ferrari and McLaren – the powerhouses of modern F1 faltered even with the over-hyped big red KERS button, Brawn and Jenson Button (a man who previously would have struggled to beat an egg) were the class of the field as the protests all petered out, though Toyota still managed to get penalised for running an illegal rear wing (more troubles for them to come too).
Suddenly confronted with the success of the team he didn’t buy Richard Branson appeared in Australia with a clutch of Virgin logos in his hand luggage to slap on the Brawn car (how does a man get a flight at such short notice...?)
Rubens Barrichello continued Brawn’s rigorous testing, by bouncing off several cars on the way through the opening turns, leaving a debris trail behind him that included Adrian Sutil, Mark Webber and Heikki Kovalainen. Barrichello had plunged to ninth off the start line, and spent the rest of the race using the Brawn’s raw pace to claw his way back up the grid, a task made far easier when a late race between Robert Kubica and Sebastian Vettel elevated Rubens to second behind Button, who had led every lap, to give Brawn a 1-2 on their debut as the race all but ended behind the safety car.
Between the sleep deprivation necessary to watch the race live and the topsy-turvy you would have been forgiven to think you had slipped into some parallel dimension, or were having a dream (oh, we’re back to the Crossroads revival again), after all this was practically Honda dominating a race. The only thing reassuring you that you were conscious was that both Kazuki Nakajima and Nelson Piquet Jr. managed to crash by themselves.
And, in another sign of things to come the waving of the chequered flag in Melbourne marked barely the half way point in the race. Jarno Trulli had crossed the line third, but was slapped with a 25-second penalty for overtaking Hamilton under the post Vettel/Kubica safety car, so Lewis Hamilton was awarded third place.
It then emerged that Hamilton’s team had told him to let Trulli past after the Italian ran off the track, as McLaren were fearful of their own driver copping a penalty. And this would have been fine.
Had McLaren have thought to mention this to the FIA.
Suddenly on the heels of “Spy-gate” came this controversy, christened, unoriginally, “Lie-gate” and the worst possible punishments started to be mentioned, as Hamilton and McLaren denied there had ever been an order to let Trulli past, even when the FIA played a recording of the radio communications.
The result was Trulli’s penalty was repealed, the Toyota man re-claiming the final podium slot as Hamilton was disqualified, McLaren were given a three-race ban suspended for a year and the team’s Sporting Director Dave Ryan was sacked.
Motorsport in 2009 had begun.