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A Disastrous Season?

Posted on 2nd October 2009. No Comment

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Tom Foley analyzes the ramifications of Formula 1’s season of rule changes and scandals

Before the season had even begun, it was shrouded in controversy and confusion as talk of financial restrictions reigned.

If it ain’t broke…

ferrari-f1-15Firstly, the much maligned KERS (Kinetic Energy Reduction System) was introduced in an attempt to save on energy output by storing some of the car’s energy to use for a later power surge. However, fast-forward four races and all but two teams (Ferrari and McClaren) had abandoned the idea, somewhat ironically citing a lack of end product given the investment required. Consequentially, the Formula One Teams Association, FOTA has now agreed to scrap the idea entirely for the 2009/10 season, which will do little to silence those who criticise the sport’s sky high expenditures.

In the early stages of the season, there were rumblings from the F1 powers that be of a £40 million budget cap, which the teams strongly opposed. Economic crisis there may be, but for a Formula 1 outfit to run a global operation, develop cutting edge technology and transport its entire entourage across circuits in five different continents for half the transfer fee of one Cristiano Ronaldo is perhaps a little too ambitious.

FIA President Max Mosely refused to give way on the issue, and a bitter protest against such tight budget restrictions involved the teams threatening a breakaway league, spearheaded by Ferrari. The future of Formula 1 was plunged into chaos: surely it would not survive without its biggest name and star attraction, and I’m not talking about Mosely’s ego…
Mosely has riled FOTA on many an occasion, with some quarters accusing him of wanting too much control. Fortunately, a compromise has been agreed for next year: the budget cap will not be set so low, the president will stand down as previously agreed and the competition will continue in its current format.

Yet Mosely does have a point since the economic crisis has indeed taken its toll: Honda’s departure resulted in a miraculous rise from the ashes for the Brawn GP team, but Robert Kubica and Nick Heidfeld will be searching for new employers after BMW announced it would not pursue activities in Formula 1 next year. At the time of writing it appears that Kubica will succeed Ferrari-bound Fernando Alonso in the Renault hotseat, and Raikkonen will return to former employers McClaren.

Scarred by scandals

ferrari-f1-15For McClaren, who were keen to get back into the FIA’s good books after being found guilty of spying, the season started catastrophically when Lewis Hamilton was penalised at the Australian Grand Prix for lying to race stewards. For the world champion to be caught and convicted in such dramatic fashion was a serious blemish on a sport not reputed for its moral and ethical values, and this would prove itself again.

Indeed, Formula 1 is a sport long associated with scandals. The figureheads at the top of Formula 1 have often caused public embarrassment and this year is no exception. Even after the well documented affair of Mosely’s Nazi-themed orgy, F1 chief Bernie Ecclestone unfortunately told The Times on July 4th that he admired Adolf Hitler for his ability to “get things done” and praised Mosley’s preference for authoritarianism when the 79 year old suggested he may renegade on his decision to stand down.

The season was not going well: teams in financial trouble, structural and political uncertainties and the traditional heavyweights and former world champions unusually languishing at the back of the grid. But the next revelation dwarfed any other and rocked Formula 1 to its very core.

Formula One’s “darkest hour”

When former Renault F1 driver Nelson Piquet Jnr alleged he was ordered byferrari-f1-15 team boss Flavio Briatore and chief engineer Pat Symmonds to crash his car in the 2008 Singapore Grand Prix, the team quickly denied claims by saying they would launch a lawsuit against the “blackmail attempt”.

Then the FIA announced they would investigate the incident, of which Max Mosley claimed to have previous knowledge, and Flavio Briatore and Pat Symmonds both promptly stepped down. Some have denounced it the worst case of cheating in the motor-racing history, Formula 1’s “darkest hour”.

Renault received a lenient two year suspended sentence, while Briatore was handed a lifetime ban from all F1 events and Symmonds is excluded for 5 years. The ramifications of this verdict must be considered: the outcome seems much less harsh than McClaren’s sentence for taking information from its rivals, when it was immediately thrown out of the championship and fined a record £49 million. All Renault has to do is ensure that no such orders are followed again for 24 months.

Not only does the action of crashing a car contradict the spirit and essence of motor-racing, but it also puts its driver in danger and those of other drivers, so it surely merited a heavier punishment. Some may suggest that F1 could not afford to let another manufacturer leave and the duo took the bullet for the team. But as Renault’s stand-in chief Bob Bell concurred, it was certainly a lenient verdict.

All publicity is good publicity..

ferrari-f1-15Despite such negative press, the upside is that it generates attention for perhaps the greatest show on earth. Formula 1 has rarely enjoyed such media prominence, even in such an exciting season. It has the whole world gripped on tenterhooks: can Button last out the fight to stave off his challengers after a decade of unfulfilled potential, could Michael Schumacher make a sensational return to race against the daring Lewis Hamilton, and just how will Renault cope with the shell shock impact of the race fixing allegation?

Compare the last two seasons to Schumacher’s years of domination. Remember Lewis Hamilton taking the title from Felipe Massa on the very last corner of Sao Paolo?. Formula 1 has undeniably become more interesting.

For the time being, France’s Magny Cours circuit has been replaced, as may be the case with Silverstone if Donnington can hurry its preparations, and global excitement was evident as the night time race made its debut in Singapore.

The future of Formula 1..

The new rules and regulations have also served their part. The key to success was who could adapt to the changes the quickest, hence Brawn’s flying start. In Ross Brawn and Red Bull, Formula 1 has a new avant-garde and it will be interesting to see how long it takes the traditional giants of Ferrari, McClaren and Renault to catch up.

Furthermore, no one driver is currently dominating and results are unpredictable. Winners could come from all over the field: Button, Barrichello, Alonso, Hamilton, Webber, Vettel, Raikkonen and Massa before his accident. This year six different drivers have won races and with three still to go, the championship is still a three way battle. That arguably makes for more interesting viewing than last year when, although the championship went right down to the wire, Hamilton and Massa shared 13 of 17 available victories.

Coupled with three new constructors (Lotus, Manor and Campos) taking to the grid next year, which will only serve to add to the competition, Formula 1 does not need to worry greatly about its future and very much has things going for it. I’ll certainly be there!

Tom Mosely

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