After a spectacularly exciting season of Formula One, we have had a spectacularly exciting off-season; having endured many a year of processional racing in the early 2000s, I can’t help but feel it’s all going to come to an underwhelming end very soon.
But rationally you’d have to say that looks unlikely. Two big stories emerged from the Barcelona test: McLaren are astonishingly slow; and Brawn GP are astonishingly quick. Or are they?
Well, McLaren are slow: they’ve admitted it. They claim they have a fix on the way, and that’s not implausible: both BMW and, if you recall, Honda, found some significant pace with very late pre-season aero revisions last year. I feel sure I read a column by James Allen late last year in which he extolled McLaren’s engineering prowess and predicted Lewis Hamilton would be well-placed to defend his title. I can’t find it on his blog, however – perhaps he has sensibly removed it. Perhaps my searching skills are inadequate. Or perhaps I’m misremembering – if so, apologies to him.
James has undeniably, however, made an extremely bold prediction for Melbourne: the race victory, he suggests, will be between the two Brawn drivers, Jenson Button and Rubens Barrichello. And he gives a credible analysis of the test data to argue that the Brawn car is indeed faster over a race distance than the Ferrari – something that Felipe Massa seems also to have said, in an interesting bit of expectations-management.
Allen deserves credit for sticking his neck out so firmly: we will know in a few weeks whether this is a canny prediction by an authoritative watcher of the sport, or the kind of hyperbole that occasionally grated when he was a commentator. Either way, I maintain that his presence in the F1 blogosphere is an extremely welcome development. (And as an aside: Ross Brawn’s name will be indelibly etched into F1’s Hall of Fame if he turns up and blitzes the field with a team that was nowhere in the previous season – it would be an astounding astonishment, and justify Honda’s decision to hire him every bit as it would make their decision to give the team away for nothing deeply foolish.)
But let’s not get carried away (is it my imagination, or do I use that phrase on blog posts rather a lot?). We can attach several significant caveats to this apparent picture of Brawn dominance. The first one is that the field has nine other teams, and it looks tight. Ferrari, BMW and Toyota all evidently fancy a shot at race wins; Renault’s form remains enigmatic, but some commentators are tipping them to be close to the pace; and the two Red Bull teams have been quick too. It’s only Force India and McLaren that look like they should be ruled out of contention totally for Melbourne, and the former seem to be having a decent shot at sticking with the mid-field, which will itself be a fair achievement.
And, as Joe Saward has put it, “remember the Prost!” The former World Champion’s team showboated shamelessly prior to what turned out to be its last season in 2001: they had a tidy car that was much better than the previous year’s utter disaster, but underweight running in testing gave a false impression of its potential. But would a team helmed by Ross Brawn waste their time with that kind of antics, even if they do need to attract sponsors? Can any amount of underweight showboating account for the utter consistency of the car’s speed? Perhaps not.
And finally, as James Allen has also pointed out, most teams will have an update ready for Melbourne; Brawn’s package is already finalised. So if there is indeed a gap between Brawn and the rest of the field, one can expect it to shrink and perhaps close. But even with all of these caveats, it would be deeply surprising if Brawn do not at least take points away from Melbourne. And it would, after all, stand to reason, that the team that started working in earnest on its 2009 machinery at the earliest point last year would find the best solutions.
And before I go, a quick word on the BBC’s F1 website: rubbish.