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Formula One’s sceptics no longer have a leg to stand on.

Posted on 29th October 2009. No Comment

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Alex Dibble looks back on Jenson Button’s title-winning campaign and believes next season you should be watching Ferrari, McLaren and Brawn rather than United, Chelsea and Liverpool…

‘the next Jenson Button’, as opposed to ‘the next Lewis Hamilton’.

jenson_button1Jenson Button awoke on Monday as the Formula One World Champion – a morning he has longed for since the age of eight. And as surely as the 29 year old will suffocate under press commitments over the next few months, eight year old karters at the top of their own podiums will, as of Sunday, be referred to as ‘the next Jenson Button’, as opposed to ‘the next Lewis Hamilton’.

As the media divert all attention from one Englishman to another following the race in Sao Paolo, let us not have our eyes drawn with them so suddenly. As reporters and bloggers the world over begin to guess how many titles Button will win before retirement, let us look back at the men that have preceded him as World Champion, and ask whether Formula One as a spectacle is in decent shape or not.

Immediately we realise that Button’s name is the fifth to be inscribed on the World Championship trophy in the last six years. In order, we see Schumacher, Alonso, Raikkonen, Hamilton, Button. Moreover, in each of these years except 2004, Interlagos (as the final or penultimate race of the season) has seen the championship decided. In other words, the days of Schumacher winning title after title in August have become a distant memory.

Another feature of the list now reveals itself: four of the last five title winners have been driving different cars. Zooming in on the 2008 and 2009 championships, we see ten different race winners from seven different constructors. It has now become almost impossible to predict the winner of an individual race, let alone the championship.

But enough of the statistics. How has the racing actually developed? To begin with, the field has become more competitive, and in the last few seasons we have seen a marked decrease in the amount of cars being lapped by the frontrunners. As Button himself alluded to in a press conference on Tuesday, one second a lap now separates the entire field, whereas fifteen years ago, one second would span the top three. Practically, this has pros and cons for the viewing public. As a disadvantage, overtaking has become more difficult. Yet on the other hand, a rookie team such as Force India, who usually make up the rear of the grid, can turn up to the Belgian Grand Prix with a specialized aerodynamics package and be the fastest cars on the track.

The lack of overtaking was addressed by the new aerodynamic regulations that came in for the 2009 season. Unfortunately, the desired effect did not materialise. Indirectly however, the enforcements had a the result of completely shaking up the grid. ‘Why is Lewis Hamilton suddenly doing badly?’ was a question asked by many a sceptic, and none of them could see how a sport which has so much to do with the car could be worth watching.

The criticism only holds water though if Formula One is viewed as a sport of individual drivers. In reality, it is a team sport like any other, with the unfortunate illusion of being the opposite. As twenty drivers line up on the grid, we are really watching ten different teams do battle. Why was the World Champion at the back of the grid almost overnight? Because McLaren as a team did not perform as well as the others in designing and driving their car.

“For those who like their soap operas, Formula One has done its very best to please during the last couple of seasons.”

Returning to the issue of overtaking, which the regulations were brought in to deal with, it was clear that at the tracks jenson_button1which do provide passing opportunities, there was still plenty of overtaking in 2009, with the Nürburgring, Spa Francorchamps, and Interlagos giving us some of the best races of the year. And despite the problem in general over the last decade or so, we have still enjoyed some remarkable races recently, with Japan 2005, Hungary 2006, Brazil 2007, Monaco 2008, and Brazil 2009 being just some of the memorable weekends.

For those who like their soap operas, Formula One has done its very best to please during the last couple of seasons. In 2007 McLaren were thrown out of the constructors championship for possessing confidential Ferrari documents. In 2008, FIA president Max Mosley was revealed to have been regularly involved in ‘Nazi’ sex orgies. In 2009 we have had Lewis Hamilton’s ‘Liegate’ scandal, as well as the Renault ‘Crashgate’ affair, which between them have cost three of the sport’s longest servers their jobs. Formula One as been making every attempt to appear on both the front and back pages recently. 

But what about the future? Three new teams will be on the grid in 2010 – more cars, more action, more mayhem. Throw in huge scandal, a night race, some rain, and eight potential title winning drivers, and you have a season on your hands. Before all that though we have the inaugural Abu Dhabi Grand Prix in ten days time. It may be a dead rubber in championship terms, but the last time we had one of those (at Suzuka in 2005) Alonso, Schumacher, Raikkonen and co gave us one of the greatest Grand Prix of all time.

These days in Formula One velocity, stupidity, and unpredictability combine for one of the most enthralling spectacles in world sport. Forget football: Formula One is the place to be.

Alex Dibble

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