Button's F1 fairytale threatens to be derailed
Wednesday 08 April 2009
Next week, Formula One powers could spoil the season by ruling that the Jenson Button fairytale is too good to be true and that his back-from-the-dead Brawn GP team has cheated its way to the top of the grid.
If they do, we should protest by switching off our televisions for the next race, the Chinese Grand Prix. The first two races, both won by Button, were too fun for a sudden overturning of the results to be palatable now.
The matter that motorsport's International Court of Appeal will hear next Tuesday is this: do Brawn, Williams and Toyota have illegal aerodynamic technology on their cars?
Some slowcoaches - who this season, remarkably, include Ferrari - contend that they do and that their lack of the same go-fast bodywork is a main reason why they're eating Button's dust.
At worst, the Paris tribunal could annul the British driver's wins and the placings of his teammate, Rubens Barrichello, of Jarno Trulli and Timo Glock at Toyota and of Williams' Nico Rosberg.
What a mess that would be.
Even by F1's drama-queen standards, this has been a tiresome saga.
Without it, we could have been rejoicing that Brawn, Toyota and Williams have up-ended the established hierarchies of F1, breaking the Ferrari-McLaren duopoly and providing new and inspiring storylines when the cash-crunched sport needs them most.
But no. F1's unfailing ability to undermine itself with controversies is again obscuring the picture.
At both the season-opening Australian GP and again, in soggy Malaysia last weekend, race stewards - six separate individuals in all - looked into the rear ends of the Brawn, Williams and Toyota cars and declared their aerodynamic features compliant with F1 regulations.
Brawn, Williams and Toyota have cleverly exploited gray areas in the rules for rear diffusers, vents that channel how air exits from beneath F1 cars. Parts of their diffusers are slightly taller than those of their rivals. That and other innovative diffuser features are thought to be giving their cars more downforce, the downward aerodynamic pressure that sticks cars to tracks, making them faster by giving them more grip.
The diffusers were also inspected before the season by Charlie Whiting, race director for F1's governing body. FIA says he also approved them.
Ideally, this whole issue should have been put to rest there.
But Ferrari, Red Bull, Renault and BMW haven't been as smart with their aerodynamics, so they've appealed, landing the issue in the appeals court.
Its ruling "will have an enormous impact on the championship," notes Ferrari driver Kimi Raikkonen on the team's Web site.
Anyone smell sour grapes?
All this is a shame because we've been treated to some gripping action in this new season. Sweeping rule-changes designed to encourage overtaking seem to be having their intended effect. In Malaysia, for instance, there was fascinating yo-yoing between Mark Webber's fast-cornering Red Bull and the McLaren of defending world champion Lewis Hamilton, who was speedier on straights.
For the court to now rewrite results earned on the track would be hard for many fans to understand.
"It would be terribly bad," former F1 team boss Paul Stoddart says. "We need some stability."
Another reason the court should dismiss the case is that FIA knew about the diffusers long ago and chose to do nothing.
FIA president Max Mosley said nearly two months before the season started that the designs were "clever" but did not appear illegal. Voiding Brawn, Williams and Toyota's results now would not only be unfair on them but also point to mismanagement by FIA.
Brawn's owner, Ross Brawn, has also been quoted as saying that the diffusers could have been outlawed last year had other F1 teams heeded his warnings back then that the rules had loopholes which his team, Toyota and Williams have subsequently exploited. In short, according to Brawn, Ferrari and others passed on the opportunity to avoid this mess.
"Nobody was interested," Brawn told Autosport.com. "They're interested now."
A final reason for a dismissal is more emotive.
Brawn's squad looked doomed when its previous owner, Japanese manufacturer Honda, announced last December that it was quitting the expensive sport. Button spent much of the offseason wondering if he still had a job.
Honda had invested hundreds of millions of dollars but got just one race win. Its 2008 car was so slow — Button called it "a beast" — that it decided early last season to stop wasting time and money on trying to improve it and focus instead on developing a car for 2009.
Brawn, the new owner, inherited that car that is now proving so good. Over at Honda, executives must be sick that they withdrew on the cusp of success.
The diffusers are just one of several clever features on the Brawns that are giving them the edge. That Brawn and his engineers have not only survived Honda's withdrawal but also outfoxed Ferrari and others should be rewarded, not punished.
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