Saturday, July 17, 2010

Midseason motorsports update: Formula One

By Rick Morris

The most dominant racer in Formula One over the past decade – and one of the greatest open-wheel drivers in history, for that matter – returned to the track this year after three seasons away and has not come close to living up to his former greatness (ninth place at present). Of all the intriguing storylines in F1 this year, that one must be at the top of the list.

In the absence of Michael Schumacher from 2007-09, a host of top young drivers filled the void in exciting style, with perhaps the most impressive being 2008 series champion and 2007 series runner-up Lewis Hamilton, who leads the standings thus far this year.

Here’s more of the landscape at the top:

^ Jenson Button, who never tallied higher than third during the Schumacher Era (in 2004), continued to progress the past few years en route to the 2009 title and a second-place spot thus far this year.

^ Mark Webber, a journeyman all throughout his career up until last year’s breakthrough fourth-pace finish, is in third this year.

^ Sebastian Vettel, who did not hit the big time until just after Schumacher’s retirement, came in second in 2009 and is fourth thus far this year.

^ Fernando Alonso, who beat out Schumacher for the title during his last two years in the sport in 2005-06, could have told the mighty German that he was in for a rough time against this enhanced competition. He finished fifth in ’08 and fell to ninth last year, although he has rebounded back to fifth thus far this year.

^ Like Alonso, Felipe Massa had his best season at the end of Schumacher’s run, placing third in 2006. He fell back slightly to fourth in ’07, bested both of those seasons with a second-place finish in ’08, plummeted to 11th last year and has come back slightly to eighth thus far in ’10.

^ After spending five consecutive years between second and fourth place in the series from 2000-04, Rubens Barrichello has also had a rougher time against this crop in recent year – and is currently in 11th place – although he did place third in 2009. That finish certainly looks like an outlier relative to his recent seasons, though.

Schumacher does have some legitimate excuses in terms of the Mercedes equipment he has had at his disposal – an amusing reversal, some would say, from his days of dominance at Ferrari. However, given his rust and the possible effects of age, the risks that he took to his legacy upon his return appear very real at this point.

The season began in the aftermath of a serious skirmish between many of the top teams and the sport’s governing body regarding a proposed budget cap and the fairness of how it would apply to both the top teams and the ones lower on the totem pole. The differences were ultimately papered over through 2012.

In big off-track news, F1 will be reestablishing its foothold in North America – such as it is – with the return of the Canadian Grand Prix in Montreal this year and the reestablished US Grand Prix, to be held for the first time since 2007 in Indianapolis. It comes to Austin, TX for the first time on a ten-year deal beginning in 2012.

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