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Second life

It was only his second career Formula 1 win, but Jenson Button‘s victory yesterday in the season-opening Australian Grand Prix not only signalled his arrival as a genuine title contender, but also heralded the start of his second life as an F1 driver.

For it was barely three months ago that Honda sent shockwaves through the ivory-towered, supposedly recession-proof world of motor sport’s premier competition by withdrawing from F1 with immediate effect, leaving the team’s preparations for 2009 in disarray. And it was barely three weeks ago that team principal Ross Brawn completed a management buyout of the team which now bears his name.

With Button and teammate Rubens Barrichello locking out the front row in qualifying for the fledgling team and then going on to finish one-two, it completed the kind of rags-to-riches story which will have had F1’s two power brokers, Bernie Ecclestone and Max Mosley, grinning from ear to ear at a time when they are seeking to impose huge cost-cutting measures for 2010 and beyond. (Although, this being F1, the result remains provisional until the FIA’s Court of Appeal resolves a protest against Brawn and two other teams which will not be held until after next week’s Malaysian GP.)

How the bosses at Honda must have been cursing their hasty exit, not least because they are honourably but quietly funding Brawn GP to the tune of $100 million this season while the great self-publicist who is Richard Branson comes gallivanting into Melbourne on the back of his freshly-signed sponsorship deal trumpeting about the victory of ‘the Virgin car’.

Button certainly had the appearance of a man reborn all weekend, translating the Brawn’s potential into tangible results with his smooth driving style, and always appeared to have just enough to spare throughout the race. Funny how a brush with ‘death’ – without Brawn, Button would probably have been without a drive in 2009 and could even have been facing an abrupt end to his career – so often provides a major and beneficial kick up the backside.

Nice one, Jenson. With McLaren likely to be struggling for aero performance for at least the next few races – Lewis Hamilton‘s third place was the product of an outstanding charging drive, but also owed much to the misfortune of others – Button represents possibly the best hope of a British champion this year.

Who else stood out on this opening weekend of the season? Swiss driver Sebastien Buemi, a 20-year old in his debut F1 race, showed a nice combination of speed, consistency and maturity – at one stage seriously challenging the Ferrari of former world champion Kimi Raikkonen – which allowed him to bring his Toro Rosso home an impressive seventh while others conspired to remove themselves from contention.

Conversely, Jarno Trulli, making his 200th GP start from the pitlane, ruined a drive every bit as impressive as Hamilton’s by overtaking the Briton under safety car conditions, losing the five points he would have gained for the fourth position he had fought his way into – a costly error you would not expect from a driver of his experience.

Also, I would be remiss if I did not mention Red Bull Racing‘s Mark Webber, who managed to finish the race in 13th only four months after breaking his leg in a road accident at a charity event (actually, his own charity event); this, on a street circuit which is possibly the bumpiest on the F1 calendar. They breed them tough down under, and Webber is no exception. (Makes you think twice about all those mortally-wounded footballers you see rolling around in agony on an average Premier League weekend, doesn’t it?)

Finally, a comment about the cars produced under the dramatically revised 2009 regulations. While I applaud the real world principle behind it, the purist in me dislikes the idea of KERS (Kinetic Energy Recovery System) in F1, which effectively provides a temporary but significant power boost for race starts and overtaking – to me, it’s an artificial distortion of car performance. Aesthetically, I dislike the wider front wings (too clunky and primitive) almost as much as I hate the higher, narrower rear wings (still big enough to carry sponsors’ logos, I note). The loss of bargeboards, turning vanes and other odd protrusions on the cars’ (smaller) sidepods is definitely a change for the better though, as is the return of – ahh, bliss – slick tyres.

The overall intention of all these changes is to promote closer racing and revive the dying art of overtaking, and while the Australian GP wasn’t a classic it did appear that cars were able to follow each other more easily than in previous years. We’ll get a better idea on the faster, permanent tracks – starting with Sepang this weekend – where the higher speeds will increase the importance of aero grip, and its disruption when cars are running at close quarters.

Oh, and of course F1 coming back to the BBC meant the return of Fleetwood Mac’s iconic ‘The Chain’. It was like seeing an old friend again after a separation of many years.

All in all, a decent start, and the narrative thread for (at least) the first part of the season is already in place: the plucky underdogs from Brawn trying to keep one step ahead of the bigger, better funded teams like McLaren and Ferrari, who trail now but can’t be kept at bay forever, and will employ all the technological and legal means at their disposal to claw them back into the pack.

The smell of petrol, burning rubber and political intrigue is in the air again. It could only be Formula 1, couldn’t it?

EDIT: Thursday 2nd April (4 days later) – Lewis Hamilton disqualified, meaning Jarno Trulli regains third place. Only in Formula 1 …

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About Tim
Father of three. Bit of a geek. That's all, folks.

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