The 2009 Motorsport Review Part Four: New Leaders, New(ish) Champions

James BroomheadAnalyst IJanuary 1, 2010

LAS VEGAS - DECEMBER 04:  Four time NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Champion Jimmie Johnson (R) and crew chief Chad Knaus pose before the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series awards banquet during the final day of the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Champions Week on December 4, 2009 in Las Vegas, Nevada.  (Photo by Rusty Jarrett/Getty Images for NASCAR)
Rusty Jarrett/Getty Images

The end of the season had come; it was time for champions to be decided. Some would be familiar with the trophies they were holding, some would be new to the experience.

And there was also a change in leadership that action on the track couldn't decide (which is a shame).

Todt-ting up the votes

As part of the deal that had re-sealed the chasm in F1 during the summer, Max Mosely had agreed not to stand for re-election as FIA president.

Forward came two men, Jean Todt, diminutive former Ferrari man and Mosely’s favoured successor; and Ari Vatanen, a former WRC champion and former member of the European Parliament.

Though Vatanen was (very arguably) the fans’ favourite candidate, mainly because he never worked for Ferrari, the campaign was, as with most political races the kind where by the end of it everyone hates at least one of the candidates, and you don’t really care who wins.

Vatanen appeared to have Pork Barrelled his way into the affections of the Middle Eastern countries by naming several men from the area in the cabinet he would form if he won.

However, he also managed to annoy low-lying nations, by suggesting that carbon emissions (and so global warming) were sign of affluence and progress.

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Not to be outdone, Todt set his sites on the relatively innocent nation of South Africa, home country of 1979 World Champion Jody Scheckter and host of some 30-plus Grand Prix.

So, he decides to ask “do you think people in South Africa care about what’s happening in F1?” Yes, by the way, was the answer.

As voting day neared, it emerged that instead of a closed ballot (one where you don’t know how any one person voted) ballot papers would be sent in envelopes with the voters name on them.

Vatanen, spying the possibility of intimidation and corruption (and mistaking the FIA for some kind of democracy) cried foul and the anonymous voting was restored.

Not that it helped, Todt cruised to victory.

 

The Tortoise and the Hare

It was time for Indycar to go away for another year, like the gaudy Christmas decoration no-one likes, but still gets put out to appease a visiting relative (that’s a apt reference for the time of writing, and more than a little odd if you’ve happened across this article through the wonder of Google in mid-July).

The series went down to the final race at Homestead with three drivers in contention, unsurprisingly representing Ganassi and Penske as Dario Franchitti and Scott Dixon took on Penske’s Ryan Briscoe.

Briscoe had only missed all but clinching the title in the previous race by regressing to his student days and trying to steal a traffic cone and hide upon his car.

The race at Homestead was, depending on how you wanted, either 200 laps of close, often side-by-side racing between the three best drivers in the series, or the most boring few hours of your life you will never, ever, get back.

I suppose the best thing about it was (and remember here that Indycar fans are among the depressed people on the planet...even their annual telethon a.k.a. May had been cut by a week by this point) it was only a few hours, so they could all get back to drowning their sorrows just like NASCAR has drowned open-wheel racing for a decade and planning an uprising next time Stock Cars visit Indianapolis.

Yes, the race went caution free, and while Dixon and Briscoe went pounding round at full speed, inhaling backmarkers (and just about everyone else) behind them, Dario Franchitti was scrimping and saving on fuel, trying to make the end of the race on one less pitstop. It may actually be too easy to make a stereotypical ‘tight Scotsman’ remark here, so I’m not going to. Oops.

For lap after lap, the three, including a distant Dario, chased each other round, when even lapping the other drivers was no longer simple with the speed difference.

Ed Carpenter (once more reduced to the role of “that bright yellow car” after his Kentucky near-heroics) came close to taking out Scott Dixon and Briscoe, all but riding the wall to get round Rahal and Scheckter.

As the race laps ran down, both Dixon and Briscoe came to the pits for a splash of fuel (Briscoe this time managing to get back on the track without endangering track furniture (even Milka Duno was out of his way).   

But Franchitti had still gone past, plodding on like the motorist who never leaves the middle lane on the motorway, frugally and prudently (these, as far as I know, are Scottish people’s favourite words) sipping his ethanol, but still moaning it costs too much. Oops again, sorry, Scotland.

Even with the Antipodeans chasing him down at full speed, the Scotsman won the race, jumping from third in the standings to take the title in his first year back after trying out NASCAR.

But the fact that the race, the day, the title, and Ashley Judd (who played an unsung part in the Indycar season, with her special brand of complete nonsense post-race interviews) belong to Dario didn’t stop Danica from grabbing the limelight, as she crashed into Dan Wheldon in the pits, sacrificing her car to get Boost Mobile some crucial TV time (it may not have been entirely here fault, but why let facts get in the way of a good Danica moment?).

Button Pushes Through

By the penultimate race in Brazil, Jenson Button had all but secured the F1 championship, all he needed to do was stay close behind Rubens Barrichello and the title was his, on a track where Honda bowed out of F1 and the Briton’s car burnt.

Of course, he had to qualify first. Actually the whole field had to qualify, but Mother Nature and her ability to make water fall from the sky in biblical proportions had other ideas, and called for the maritime references to be dragged out again.

Despite fears the session got underway on time, but it didn’t take long for the red flag to be hoisted as Giancarlo Fisichella (continuing his ‘dream’ of driving a Ferrari) floated round in the first few corners and couldn’t restart the engine.

That caused the first major stoppage, with almost ten minutes passing until the next flying laps were set, some 12 seconds faster than the initial attempts.

That was too fast for Sebastien Vettel, who struggled to get to grips (no pun intended, for once) with the wet conditions and fell out in the first part of qualifying, abandoning his car askew in the pitlane in a piece of parking that would disgrace even the most stereotypical woman driver in the most misogynistic-minded man (or Jim Davidson).

The delays persisted, but when Q2 got underway (about the time the pole winner is normally celebrating) it was still sodden. And it didn’t take long for the inevitable crash, as Tonio Liuzzi slammed hard a-starboard (that’s right, right) into the pit wall.

Another red flag, and another round of calls for the session to be stopped and the grid to be formed from the Q1 standings.

But the session did restart. An hour and ten minutes later, as we once more entered NASCAR delay territory.

Frankly it was a relief when, nearly three hours after it started, Rubens Barrichello won the pole.

Race day was dry (hallelujah!), but the safety car was still needed, as track workers cleared up the mess after Jarno Trulli, Adrian Sutil, and Fernando Alonso combined on lap one, while Kimi Raikkonen got lightly flambéed in a small fire when Heikki Kovalainen left his pits with the fuel hose still attached.

Button was back in the pack, but fighting his way through, past the, erm, determined, drive of Kamui Kobayashi, in his first race for Toyota. 

Once past the erratic debutant Button forged ahead in search of his teammate, who had lost the lead to Mark Webber after the first scheduled pitstops.

As the race neared its end it was close of the title, Button just inside the four-point cordon he needed to avoid the title race dragging on to Abu Dhabi.

Then Interlagos showed that (once more) it hates successful Brazilians.

Twelve months after wiping the smiles of Team Massa with a localised rain shower over Timo Glock, it decided to hand Rubens Barrichello a flat tyre by way of Lewis Hamilton front wing.

Rubens dutifully made it back to the pits, got new tyres and returned to the track to pick up a single point, but Button was champion.

The Briton was welcomed home in fifth position, the same finish recorded by Lewis Hamilton when he took his title.

He was welcomed home by the man Hamilton beat, Felipe Massa, returning to the F1 paddock for the first time since his Hungary accident, a man who must have been repressing fits of rage and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder as officials told him to wave the flag extra hard for the man coming in fifth.

Welcome to the future?  

That saw the final race of the year, the first F1 race at the new Yas Marina circuit become a dead rubber, with the battle between Sebastian Vettel and Rubens Barrichello being the most high profile thing that was still undecided.

It is fair to say that everyone except the most myopic F1 fan (or Bernie Ecclestone) would admit that the race wasn’t a classic.

Vettel won (taking second place in the championship) after a dominant Lewis Hamilton was flawed with technical problems.

Behind Mark Webber and the new champion battled for the final laps in what was pretty much the only on track excitement during the entire race.

But while had Magny-Cours (or Mangy-Corpse...you decide), the new Hockenheim, or (dare I say it without being beheaded for treason) Silverstone delivered such a snoozer you may have been tempted to switch off, Abu Dhabi had one bit distraction.

The track.

No, sorry. The ‘Facility.’

It was a place that would not have looked out of place in racing computer games, set in some far-off century where everyone races rockets.

It had a pitlane exit that tunnelled beneath the main track (the potential for someone to crash in there was never realised, nor was the potential for buskers to move in). It had electronic advertising in the gantries over the track (these many not sound like much, but they look really nice).

It had a hotel, seemingly modelled after a jellyfish, which was lit in different colours throughout the race as the drivers drove under it.

Bernie had even found a toy which allowed him to model the entire field as they entered the first corner and the pan the camera over them...the end result being the feeling of having an out of body experience eight foot above an F1 field.

The only thing that was missing was a neon coloured loop-the-loop.

It was a fantastic ‘facility.’

And that was the problem.

‘Facilities’ are fantastic places, but are too clean, too clinical, too precise. They are sinister, unnerving places where you have to glance over your shoulder every so often.

‘Facilities’ are places you take crazed axe murderers when they’re too unstable for prison. Foreign prisoners Amnesty International are trying to get released are held in ‘facilities’. Area 51 is a ‘facility’.

It was not a race track. Race Tracks are organic places, morphing and changing with not only the race but the people who watch the races.

Not a place where the banned items include any flag longer than 1 metre, golf buggies, bugles, helium-filled balloons and Frisbees (because you wouldn’t want any fun or laughter at a ‘facility’) yet the track has a 24/7 hotline you can phone should you wish to arrive by helicopter.

NASCAR makes The Beast with Four Backs

No, it’s not the latest scandal to hit NASCAR after Mayfield’s (apparently unsurprising) failed drug test, its Jimmie Johnson’s fourth consecutive title, an unprecedented back-to-back-to-back-to back reign of supremacy.

Once more Johnson, the monkey to organ-grinder Chad Knaus, waited until the final ten races, NASCAR ‘post-season’ to come good, winning three of the first five races, so doubling his win tally for the entire season.

The only thing that kept it interesting was Talladega. Some drivers (Johnson mostly) refused to talk about it, some drivers were referring to it as a lottery; some would have called it Russian Roulette if NASCAR wasn’t so averse to international involvement.

But then the NASCAR big wigs and their shifting like the sands rule book stepped in. In the aftermath of Carl Edwards first flight and a similar crash in July’s Daytona race any bump drafting was now banned, and drivers would be watched like, well the rest of us, to make sure there was always daylight between bumpers.

It was, as Dale Earnhardt Jr. said, like the NFL deciding to shift to two-hand-touch football (he may not be much good at driving, but there may be a job in commentary for him yet).

NASCAR had moved the goalposts, while the game was being actually being played, several teams setting up to run the bump drafting that had dominated Restrictor Plate races since the COT appeared.

That seemed to push the race in two directions. The first was an enormous single file snake of every car running (which of course didn’t include Dave Blaney or Joe Nemechek) where overtaking was impossible.

The second was the normal three- or four-wide racing.

“But how do you race like that without bump drafting?” I hear you ask.

You don’t, there was still plenty of bump drafting, and the penalty box (sorry, mixing my sports again) remained empty as more and more drivers joined in as the racing descended into the realms of “I’m Spartacus.”   

That didn’t stop the accidents, Ryan Newman’s rather graceful forward roll giving everyone a scare as safety crews cut the roof his car to allow the driver to haul himself out of the car, unaided.

But Johnson’s title was sealed by another crash on the last lap, when his main title rival, Mark Martin, was tipped into a barrel roll during a typical Talladega melee, dropping the veteran to 28th and handing Johnson a 70-point boost.

Some hope was restored at Texas as Sam Hornish made himself useful by taking out Johnson in the early laps, the combination of Dodge and two walls managing to damage just about every panel on the Lowe’s car.

For any other team, with anyone other than Chad Knaus as a crew chief, that probably would have been the end of the day, but the team rebuilt the car, allowing Johnson back out on the track to pick up the places vacated by drivers with problems and without some sort of cyborg at the helm.

But this wasn’t the tank tape and spare parts job any other team would do, but entire sections of the car emerging in unpainted black form and bolted on.

It was a stellar achievement, if an incredibly annoying a heartbreaking one for anyone who wanted to see anyone other than Johnson win the title.

Two more just about faultless races, including a win at Phoenix sealed the title. That’s enough praise of Jimmie Johnson for one year.  

Just when you thought it was safe......

Mercedes, seeing something shiny they didn’t have yet and wanting it, had brought Brawn.

Jenson Button, also seeing something shiny (a very large pile of money and a chrome liveried car) had gone to McLaren to join Lewis Hamilton and unite a pair of annoying (oh, I mean proud) parents that wouldn’t look out of place on the touchline at an under-12s football match.

Now under German control, Mercedes nee Brawn, had brought in Nico Rosberg, and were now looking to fill the seat, with rumours being they were looking similarly Teutonic.

Out of the gloom came a chin, not Jimmy Hill, but Michael Schumacher. His Ferrari-comeback ending neck injury healed miraculously with a dab of “come to us Michael, our car isn’t rubbish” from Ross Brawn.

But just as soon as the comeback appeared to on, it looked off again, everyone who worked for Mercedes being fantastically non-committal and Eddie Jordan stepping into the breach to say the Schumacher would indeed be racing for Brawn.

If you ever want a potential news story to lose credibility, get Eddie Jordan to voice his opinion on it. Works every time.

Schumacher resigned from his ambassadorial position at Ferrari, a position that allows him to show up in a red shirt and drive fast, impersonate Ben Collins, and eat Ferrero Rocher. Was this clearing the way for him to go Mercedes?

In short, yes.

A few days before Christmas, Schumacher was unveiled in front of a Christmas tree and a huge Mercedes logo, answering questions from anyone. Any hope Nico Rosberg had of winning a race in 2010 was gone.

And high profile, will-they-won’t-they moves were not exclusive to Europe as North America got increasingly bored with what, where and when Danica Patrick would be driving in 2010 (other than everyone up the wall).

She meant most of the latter part of the year visiting every NASCAR shop that would let her in, and was consequently linked 2010 drives with most of them.

Amid all the excitement there came news of an important announcement from Ms. Patrick about her 2010 plans. Right, this is it, you may have been excused for thinking, her NASCAR plans made lifted from the tourist like to the formal.

But, no.

All it was to confirm her three-year contract with Andretti Autosport (the new, stupider sounding name for Andretti Green Racing) and GoDaddy.com as here new primary sponsor.

However, there was something else. Visitors to her webpage (you can look, don’t worry, you can always delete your browsing history) were greeted by a head-and-shoulder shot of Danica, emblazoned with NASCAR Nationwide Series and Chevrolet logos (yes, that’s right, a picture of Danica with clothes on...she does it occasionally).

The cat was out of the bag, the picture was soon changed for one with Indycar logos on it, and the work experience guy at Danica Patrick PLC (come on, there’s no way she can’t be a publically traded company) was fired.

That stole the thunder of the announcement a week later that she would be joining JR Motorsport for a limited schedule, stitching in NASCAR races around her Indycar campaign.

That upset the owners of some the tracks that she, therefore, wouldn’t racing at. For them it was like seeing an enormous pot of money, only behind bulletproof glass and being forced to watch while everyone else stuffed their pockets.

And what’s best for getting through bulletproof glass?

Lobsters.

That’s what Jerry Gappens, general manager of New Hampshire Motor Speedway brought with him when he visited Danica in her new NASCAR base.

Unfortunately, he caught Danica on an off-day, one where several pounds of shellfish just aren’t what she needs.

“I am like ultra-wuss sensitive to animals dying right now,” she revealed. “And a lobster is an animal to me. “

What does she think a lobster is to the rest of us?

2009 Roll of Honour – Selected 2009 champions (because there is only so much space)

Formula One World Drivers’ Champion : Jenson Button (Brawn GP)

Formula One World Constructors’ Champion : Brawn GP

GP2 Series Champion : Nico Hulkenburg (ART Grand Prix)

Formula Two Champion : Andy Soucek

Formula Three Euroseries Champion : Jules Bianchi (ART Grand Prix)

NASCAR Nextel Cup Champion : Jimmie Johnson (#48 Chevrolet, Hendrick Motorsport)

NASCAR Nextel Cup Rookie of the Year : Joey Logano (#20 Toyota, Joe Gibbs Racing)

Daytona 500 Champion : Matt Kenseth (#17 Ford, Roush Racing)

NASCAR Nationwide Series Champion : Kyle Busch

NASCAR Camping World Truck Series Champion : Ron Hornaday Jr.

Indycar Car Series Champion : Dario Franchitti (Target Chip Ganassi Racing)

Indy 500 Champion : Helio Castroneves (Penske Racing)

Le Mans 24 Hours Champions:

LMP1 : David Brabham/Marc Gene/Alexander Wurz (Peugeot Sport Total)

LMP2 : Casper Elgaard/Kristen Poulsen/Emmanuel Collard (Team Essex/Poulsen Motorsport)

LMGT1 : Johnny O’Connell/Jan Magnussen/Antonio Garcia (Corvette Racing)

LMGT2 : Mika Salo/Jaime Melo/Pierre Kaffer (Risi Competizione)

American Le Mans Series Champions:

P1 : David Brabham/Scott Sharp (Patron Highcroft Racing)

P2 : Adrian Fernandez/Luis Diaz (Lowe’s Fernandez Racing)

GT2 : Patrick Long/Jorg Bergmeister (Flying Lizard Motorsport)

Challenge : Martin Snow/Melanie Snow (Snow Racing)

Le Mans Series Champions:

P1 : Jan Charouz/Stefan Mucke/Tomas Enge (Aston Martin Racing)

P2 : Miguel Amaral/Olivier Pla (Quifel ASM Team)

GT1 : Patrice Goueslard/Yann Clairay (Luc Alphand Aventures)

GT2 : Mark Lieb/Richard Lietz (Team Felbermayr-Proton)

World Touring Car Champion : Gabriele Tarquini (SEAT Sport)

DTM Champion : Timo Scheider (Audi)

V8 Supercar Champion : Jamie Whincup (Triple Eight Race Engineering, Ford Falcon)

Dakar Rally Champions:

Bike : Marc Coma

Quad : Josef Machanek

Car : Giniel de Villiers/Dirk von Zitzewitz

Truck : Firdaus Kabirov/Aydar Belyaev/Andrey Mokeev

World Rally Champion : Sebastien Loeb/Daniel Elena (Citroen Total World Rally Team)

Intercontinental Rally Challenge Champion : Kris Meeke/Paul Nagle (Peugeot UK)

 

MotoGP Champion : Valentino Rossi (Yamaha)

World Superbike Champion : Ben Spies (Yamaha)

Roll on 2010!! (Oh, it’s already here)

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Missed parts one, two and three?? No you haven't!

Part One is here .

Part Two is here .

Part Three in here .