Monday, July 27, 2009

Have the wheels fallen off Brawn GP?

For the first seven races of the 2009 F1 season, Brawn (and Jenson Button in particular) could do no wrong. They thumped everyone in all but the torrential rain-affected race in China, even when others looked to have the car to beat (namely Vettel at Turkey). As the circus hit the summer months, most people expected that form to continue, despite the recent updates to their closest challenger; Red Bull Renault.

However, that hasn't eventuated. Ok, so the Silverstone and Nurburgring domination by RBR can be explained away by the colder temperatures while the Brawn chassis seems to be like Jack Lemon and likes it hot...please note I said 'like Jack Lemon', not 'the car is a lemon'. However, the last race at Hungary can only be explained by one thing; they no longer have the best car on the grid.

RBR, Williams, Ferrari and, now, McLaren as well as Renault have seemed to, at the very least caught up if not surpassed the Brawn in performance. In a race where the Brawns were hoping to turn the tables on RBR, it didn't happen. Not only did one of their cars miss Q3 for the first time, the championship leader could only manage the eighth best time, giving him a few KERS cars in front of him as well as the dirty side of the grid...not the best place to start. Then in the race, things didn't get much better and the second best thing for Button (the best being Vettel having to retire obviously) was he was able to find a bit of speed in the second stint which allowed him to leapfrog Trulli for seventh while Barrichello could do no better than tenth.

The demonstration that was Australia now seems so very far away.

So what's going on?

Once a shoe-in for both titles, Brawn suddenly find themselves looking over their shoulder as RBR have come on strong and another couple of races like Hungary will see that lead reduced to nothing. As it stands, Button has 18.5 points over Webber while it's 15.5 between the two Constructors...still healthy, but not exactly the dead-certs it was before Silverstone.

This is starting to remind me a little of 1998 when McLaren bolted out of the gates, yet Ferrari were able to close the gap as the season went on, taking the title race to the final round in Japan. The only difference is that, unlike McLaren back then, it's doubtful that Brawn have the resources and/or money necessary to fight off RBR.

There is one saving grace....and that is RBR haven't yet thrown their weight behind just one of their drivers so Webber and Vettel have been taking points off each other. However, it might not matter as the title fight may be between those two now anyway.

We'll find out soon enough once their month hiatus is done.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

If at first you don't succeed...

Mark Webber entered F1 in 2002 with a bang, netting fifth place (worth two points back then) in his first race driving a Minardi. Yes he was helped by a first corner accident which, basically, took out 8 of the 22 cars but he still had to fend off a hard charging Mika Salo for the final ten laps. The rest of the year didn't quite continue that incredible result (that was Minardi's first points since Marc Gene's sixth place effort at the Nurburgring in 1999) but the platform was set and Jaguar snapped him up for the next season.

Mark produced one of his finest drives in his debut race; 5th at the Aussie GP in '02.

After producing the qualifying lap of his, then short, F1 career in Brazil (third), he then equalled it at Hungary later in the season, causing most people to believe he was just a 'one lap specialist'. That form continued on in 2004, where he hauled the underperforming 'big cat' onto the front row for the first time. Such was his ability to get more out of the car than was thought, Williams wasted no time in signing him to fill the shoes of McLaren bound, Juan Montoya.

At Jaguar, Mark proved that given the right car, he could match it at the front.

2005 also saw the first year Mark was up against some seriously good opposition in the other team car; namely Nick Heidfeld...who, as most of you already know, I say is the most underrated driver on the grid. It was a frustrating year all in all, given how well Williams finished 2004. Monaco was the highlight when he outmuscled the Champion elect, Fernando Alonso, a few laps after watching his teammate do the same, to score his first podium, following Nick home in third. The lowlight came, ironically, the next race where, having started on the second row, he collided with Montoya at turn one, and then watched as Heidfeld finished second.

Mark finished that year with his "must beat your teammate" record still intact, scoring 36 points to Nick's 28 but 2006 saw the BMW powerplant leave Williams and follow Heidfeld to Sauber, meaning yet another new teammate for Webber. Nico Rosberg was the man and, with Cosworth power, both drivers started the year with a hiss and a roar. They were helped that Williams were the next best Bridgestone shod team, behind Ferrari, so any weekend when the Bridgies were the tyre to have, the Williams' were able to hang near the front. A point proved at Monaco where Mark was in a position to win the race, being as close as he was to both Alonso and Kimi Raikkonen...but it wasn't to be as, not for the first time that year, mechanical issues sidelined the Australian.

Sadly a common sight during his time at Williams; another breakdown.

He was touted as the driver to replace Alonso (who had signed for McLaren) at the all-conquering Renault team, but instead chose to join Red Bull as teammate to David Coulthard...a move that, until this year, one couldn't really figure out why he went as he passed up the same seat in favour of the Williams in 2005. Mark said he was a little awed at going to "Fernando's team" and possibly felt he wouldn't be able to produce his best. 2007 saw him get his second podium finish, again a third, and his second chance of a potential win. This time, it was the youthful exuberance of Sebastian Vettel who ruined that opportunity as he clouted Mark while under safety car conditions. It wouldn't be the the last he heard the name 'Vettel' either.

The Red Bull 'B' team, Toro Rosso, had Ferrari power for 2008 while Red Bull had Renault. While Vettel flourished in the second half of the year, Webber began to struggle as the Renault's lack of horsepower started to make things difficult to make progress with the car. Indeed, some pundits were curious as to why Vettel was picked as Coulthard's replacement at Red Bull when his current car was faster.

Enter Adrian Newey; design genius.

The man behind the Williams' of the early 1990's and the McLaren's of the late 1990' other words, whenever tricky rules were put in place, Newey tended to find the best design...2009 saw a lot of rule changes.

Finally, Mark gets his paws on a competitive car.

It also saw what most people expected to be Webber's downfall, a catch 22 situation as, for the first time, he had a fast car capable of producing the results but the guy he had to beat was being hailed as the next big thing in racing. And oh yeah, he suffered a broken leg and shoulder from a bike crash during the offseason so the first half of 2009 he's driven with a metal rod in his leg.

He watched as Sebastian scored Red Bull's first win in China, with Mark coming home second. But he wasn't about to go quietly into the night and, while Vettel had the upper hand in qualfying, Webber started to turn the tide during the races. Going into last weekends' race at the Nurburgring, Vettel had just 3.5 points on Webber...not bad for a bloke who no one gave much of a chance to match the young German.

It was Mark who got the pole on Vettel's home turf, and it was Mark who drove away from everyone during the race. Such was his performance, that had he not backed off at the end or been hit with a drivethrough penalty for 'rough driving' at the start, Webber would have gone close to beating Vettel by 30 seconds...or half a second a lap. Either way you want to put it, Mark thumped everyone at Germany and it was a very popular win for a guy who is pretty well liked. Webber has a knack for getting the most, sometimes more, out of the car and that kind of driver usually doesn't have to wait seven years to be given the equipment his talent deserves...but that just made it all the more special.

It took 8 years for Mark and 28 years for Australia, but the Aussie anthem got dusted off at last!

Hearing his emotion over the radio on the cool down lap, hearing that Australian anthem being played on the podium and the flag hoisted high above for the first time since 1981 made this Aussie very, very proud.

I think BBC commentator and ex-F1 driver, Martin Brundle, summed it up best; he's been a nearly-man, and now he's turned it into a really-man. And here's an interesting stat to finish off with - until last weekend, there had been only two Aussies to have won a Grand Prix; Sir Jack Brabham and Alan Jones...and both of them went on to win F1 championships.

Sunday, July 5, 2009

The Milwaukee Mile - birth of a legend

I just heard on 'Windtunnel' that Milwaukee may be losing its Indycar race from next year. If that is the case, seeing as though NASCAR don't visit there (for the Cup boys anyway), I must say that will be a horrible day in motorsport to lose, in my mind anyway, the real 'magic mile' (sorry, Loudon, but you're far too boring to have such a title).

The mile is the oldest racing facility in the USA and was also the place where my racing idol scored his first win in CART...yes, I know I said I'd wait until later in the year to do my tribute to him and I think I still will anyway but this was too good an opportunity to pass up on.

So who was it and why did they become my idol? Well, if the 'gm99' in my username doesn't give you the answer, allow me to explain; it all began on March 3, 1996. Being an F1 fan, I was curious to see the series that Jacques Villeneuve did so well in before moving to F1. Now, the free-to-air TV coverage showed all the CART races Monday at midnight...which was rather poor timing given I was still at high school so the VCR got a work out that year with all those races as well as the F1 ones *laugh*

Anyway, the first race of 1996 was also the first race of the CART/IRL split but that wasn't the only change. Firing up the race after school on the Tuesday and I saw the telltale light blue/dark blue/white livery of, what I thought, was Villeneuve's replacement. I was wrong as Team Green was using a yellow and red scheme with the number 1 signifying them as the defending years champion...the guy I was watching turned out to be a 20 year old debutant Canadian by the name of Greg Moore.

Moore strapped into his #99 Forsthye Racing Mercedes Benz Reynard.

Greg rallied from a lap down to finish lucky dog in CART and eventual race winner, Jimmy Vasser, said after the race that he was happy they didn't do another 30 laps or so since Greg's #99 Reynard was easily the fastest car on the track. He followed that up with third place at 'my track' a few weeks later at Surfers Paradise on the Gold Coast. That race marked my first ever visit to an openwheel race and after that I was pretty much hooked.

However, I digress...the Milwaukee Mile. Yes, that was the place Greg took his first win in 1997 becoming, at the time, the youngest ever winner of a major race series at the tender age of 21. I must confess to not recalling much of the race but I do remember that pitstops were crucial as was fuel mileage.

Michael Andretti had the best car but it was the #99 who pushed their fuel all the way and Greg somehow was able to keep Michael behind him. Greg managed to go back-to-back, winning the next race at Belle Isle, again on fuel mileage...the guys running 1-2 both ran out on the last lap gifting him the win.

Greg may have only had 5 wins and 72 starts in his career but that only told part of the story for he was set to get the equipment his talent so richly deserved when he joined Penske for the 2000 season...unfortunately, we'll never know how that would have panned out.

I attribute Greg as being the reason I became interested in oval racing in the first place so if Milwaukee does go, I will most certainly be rasing a glass to toast it...and to remember that day in 1997.

The Ambrose Angle - Halftime hooter

Ok, first things first; my usual panther avatar (for the 'follow' thingy) has taken a backseat on this website so far as it is a bitmap which isn't an 'allowed' file on here. Once I find the right program on the laptop to change it, I shall have Diego back and roaring.

On to business then. As the season is now 50% done, Ambrose has the following stats; 2 top fives, 5 top tens, 18th in the points and still ahead of past race winners McMurray, Harvick, Truex Jr and Earnhardt Jr...not bad for a bloke who is a rookie in all but the Raybestos eyes. Had things gone differently at Infineon, Marcos may very well have walked away with the win and had his team decided to 'do a Rueti' and gamble more, he may have even pipped Joey Logano to the line a week later at Loudon.

Not sure about making many saves, but he's certainly been getting a fair few shots on goal this season.

But neither happened. Ambrose had to make his way from the back at the first road course of the year and opted for the safety of a fuel stop at Loudon so his win column still remains blank...but for how much longer?

The Australian has been the surprise of the year, surpassing his semi-teammate, David Reutimann, as he continues to punch well above his weight, particularly on the tracks I fully expected him to struggle at. His top tens include places like Bristol, Daytona and Talladega...he never showed that kind of performance in the Trucks or Nationwide series but it seems he was either bluffing or the Cup car suits his driving style. I think the latter given the resemblence between the 2009 Cup car and the 2005 V8 Supercar (his last year before heading Stateside).

After Richmond, his crew chief believed Marcos could win on an oval before a road course. Now I had my doubts about that, even after his 4th place at Talladega at that time, but now I just don't know. The only tracks he seems to be struggling with are the 2 mile ones but I am having a tough time thinking of many left in the season (Fontana has one as does Michigan but is that it?) so that leaves him a good dozen places in which to spring a...well, it probably wouldn't be a surprise anymore as Marcos has shown he does belong in the highest level of the sport. Even his pitcrew have picked up their performance as was evidenced at Pocono, Sonoma and Daytona.

For what's it's worth, I still believe Watkins Glen will provide him his best shot at a win but Pocono is before that and who knows what can happen at that track...but overall, I'd rate JTG Daugherty's first half of 2009 a solid B+, pushing into an A- at times.