The on-track antics are more than matched by the stunts off it. David Booth looks at this year's F1 circus.
Off the track, F1's behind-the-scenes circus
Formula One. To some it is the very grandest of automotive spectacles, the cutting edge of internally combusted four-wheel design. Others see it as a wasteful (as in US$3 billion annually) exercise in engineering self-indulgence. At the very least, it is the pinnacle of motor racing, if not always in actual on-track competition then in technology, cost and universality of its appeal.
To me, however, an auto scribe who scrapes a paid-by-the-word living out of all things automotive, Formula One is the story that keeps on giving. When Formula One is on its game (a not-so-frequent occurrence in recent years), it's a motorised extravaganza like no other. Even when the racing is processional, there's always the As The Stomach Turns drama of who is dissing/cheating/firing who to keep the sport's legion fans glued to their TV sets.
A few years ago, for instance, I lamented the continued spectacle of Bernie Ecclestone and his video-vixen cohort, Max Mosley, as Nero and Caligula combining to hasten the decline of the empire that is F1. But now I see that they were really Laurel and Hardy, bumbling about providing comic relief so that the hoi polloi didn't catch on that there really is no plot (or, in the case of F1, no actual racing). Look, there's Bernie waving his middle digit at the assembled motor scribes. We, ever-vigilant motor scribes, are appropriately offended (when, in actual fact, a gnome-like 80-year-old giving anyone the finger is nothing if not pathetic).
Wait, here's Bernie describing the new F1 teams - Lotus, Virgin and Hispania - as cripples. "They do nothing for us," Ecclestone recently told the Financial Times. "They are an embarrassment." Of course, there was no mention in his diatribe that the grand revolution that saw these new teams get what many called preferential treatment was part of a scheme he and his odd-couple cohort, Mosley, cooked up to make Formula One more financially responsible (says the man who has twice tried to take F1 public to engrandise his already estimated $300 million portion of the racing series' parent company, Delta Topco).
Meanwhile, in the pits, there's even more contretemps. A near-constant war of words has erupted between Red Bull teammates Sebastian Vettel and Mark Webber, everyone's asking why Michael Schumacher bothered trying to make a comeback and will somebody please tell Jacques Villeneuve to stick to Nascar. In the last race alone, for instance, former champion Jenson Button was almost car-jacked by machine-gun-toting gangsters (thwarted only because he was being chauffered around by an off-duty cop) and Ferrari's second driver, Felipe Massa, was threatened with jail (for six years, no less) by Brazilian authorities if he acceded to a Ferrari call for "team orders" and slowed to allow the current championship leader, teammate Fernando Alonso, to pass him.
On the track, meanwhile, there have been some pleasant surprises, not the least of which has been some actual racing. Jenson Button's race last year at Interlagos from 14th to 5th to cement his first drivers' championship saw more daring pass manoeuvres by the once-passive Brit than in the rest of his rather somnolent career. And even if the on-track duels can't match the intensity of the backroom shenanigans, it's a damned sight better than the parade laps that have passed for racing in recent years.
Besides, even if 2010 didn't see a miraculous defence of Button's Formula One crown, isn't it nice to see him at least prove that he's more than a just a backmarker made lucky? Remember that this is a man so disrespected by his own team, Brawn GP, last year that, upon winning the title was told that if he wanted a congratulatory raise he was free to seek employment elsewhere.
As for Fernando Alonso, love him or hate him (even his many followers admit that their's is a prickly love affair), his rise to the top of the F1 standings this year is so completely unexpected that, should he hold on to his current lead, his will be a classic Cinderella motor racing fairy tale, Vettel and Webber conveniently stepping into the roles of the ugly stepsisters.
We should also congratulate both supporting actors for playing their roles to the hilt. Red Bull's Renault-powered RB6s have consistently been the fastest cars all season, dominating practice and pole alike. And, yes, Vettel's engine failure in the Korean round was tragic. But the Anointed One's torpedoing of he and his teammate's chances for a coveted one-two finish at Istanbul with an ill-advised pass (not to mention the run-in with Button in Belgium) speaks to a still-flawed genius, one that sees a little too much testosterone foiling what is obviously prodigious driving talent.
Even the supposedly mature Webber, who hinted that he might retire when it looked like he might finally win the driver's championship, has not been the model of maturity a nine-year F1 career should engender. The first Australian to ever claim a Formula One crown, Sir Jack Brabham, postulates that the Korean spin (while holding second place no less) has cost Webber the 2010 title, the second lap crash an almost rookie mistake of not getting enough heat in his tyres.
Former champion Lewis Hamilton seems equally adamant about scuttling his title chances. By times brilliant this year, Hamilton, too, has succumbed to the impetuousness of youth that many thought would have rubbed off after four years in F1. Hamilton admits that his all-or-nothing approach to the season "hasn't paid off too well for me recently".
Indeed, save for last week's race in Brazil, the 2010 Formula One season has been very much a case of all the contenders treating the supposedly coveted championship like a hot potato, each combatant seemingly eager to pass the title to one of their competitors at the very first hint of success. Of the five originally given a chance at the 2010 title - Alonso, Webber, Hamilton, Vettel and Button - only the normally hot-headed Spaniard seems truly eager to actually wear the crown.
With one race remaining - and a maximum of 25 points to be garnered - four drivers mathematically have a chance of winning. Realistically, though, Hamilton is out of the running and this year's fastest driver, Vettel, would have to win with Ferrari's Alonso finishing fifth or worse, an unlikely event considering that the Spaniard had been on the box for the last five races running. That leaves only Webber, RBR's unloved child, to challenge Ferrari's number one driver going into the final round in Abu Dhabi.
Unfortunately for the Australian, perhaps the biggest of this year's pit lane dramas is that the Red Bull team management has made it very clear that Webber can expect no support from his teammate (there's much contention in F1 circles right now that RBR would rather lose with Vettel than win with Webber). Indeed, had Vettel let Webber through in the last round, the Australian would be only one point adrift of Alonso going into the last round rather than eight. As it stands now, the internecine intrigues so common to Formula One could have already cost Red Bull and Webber the driver's championship.