With all the kerfuffle surrounding entry deadlines, suspensions, two-tier rules and budget caps, F1 fans might be forgiven for forgetting the progress of the season. But on the track 2009 is already a third through; so who is looking good and who bad?
On the good side, Brawn have effectively dominated the sport. A fantastic, complex and innovative piece of machinery, the BGP 001 has been the class of the field at nearly all the tracks the circus has visited – with the only difference being the size of its advantage. Jenson Button has guided the machine to five superb victories, during all of which he has not made a single mistake. It would take an extremely brave or prescient person now to bet against the Englishman for the world championship. Rubens Barrichello has ably assisted in the development and set-up of the car – although doubtless he would wish it were he at the top of the leaderboard.
Red Bull have also been near the front. A combination of Adrian Newey’s chassis – without a double diffuser, let us remember – and Sebastian Vettel’s near-flawless racing has propelled the Milton Keynes team into contention at nearly every race. Mark Webber has pushed the young German and will continue to do so; whether he can match Vettel in talent is another question.
With these exceptions, 2009 has so far been a year of gross underperformance. This has nevertheless given fans the particular privilege of watching top-level drivers in poor cars, where they consistently still manage to display their talent. Fernando Alonso is the obvious example of this – he often fights valiantly for points in a car with which Nelson Piquet Jr, perhaps because of a lack of support in the team, can do nothing. A similar situation is in progress at McLaren – Lewis Hamilton is doing a great job worthy of a defending world champion and the fact that he is not in contention should not de-motivate the Stevenage man. Heikki Kovalainen, meanwhile, has been ordinary, and speculation surrounds his future at the team.
So Renault and McLaren have not produced good cars this year, and by their own high standards, neither have Ferrari. Felipe Massa has shown occasional signs that he will not go back to his bad old days despite not having top-level machinery. All credit to the most-improved driver in recent F1 history, who may well end up closer to the front in 2009 than seems possible at the moment. Meanwhile, in the other side of the garage, Kimi Raikkonen occasionally shows frustrating glimpses of the talent he still possesses. For all the talk and the conjecture, one cannot avoid the conclusion that the Finn is not trying as hard as once he would have.
BMW Sauber are having a disastrous year, despite having been pencilled in as potential champions before the season started. The ball has been dropped by Hinwil and it will take a substantial effort for them to recover anything from the season. Bafflingly, Kubica was destined for second or third in Australia – but somewhere along the development line something has been missed and they are yet to replicate that form. Toyota have shown a similarly fluctuating level of performance, but will probably be in contention for podiums or wins if the pieces fall into place.
2010 and its budget cap cannot come quickly enough for Williams and the other runners. The Grove squad produced a decent car that threatens fifth or sixth at any grand prix, but that, for such an illustrious team, is not good enough. They and Force India need a level playing field as soon as possible.
Revised championship prediction:
1. Jenson Button
2. Sebastian Vettel
3. Rubens Barrichello
4. Felipe Massa
5. Jarno Trulli
1. Brawn GP
3. Red Bull