Monday, October 5, 2009

Formula One circus rolls on unabated

Sacramento, California – When I was following Formula One racing as a child – seemingly the only human in my age group doing so – I remember being mystified that the world racing tour was routinely called “a traveling circus.”

Today, circus seems entirely appropriate.

After all, what other endeavor can offer simultaneous acts that are exciting, bizarre and downright strange?

This year’s circus has been particularly entertaining.

You have a longtime middle-of-the-pack racer, England’s Jenson Button, winning six of the first seven races for a team, Brawn, that did not even exist a year ago. Ordinarily, one would have expected Button to have wrapped up the Formula One driving title weeks ago.

But no. Instead, Button has spent the last three months struggling to get onto the podium. At last weekend’s Japanese Grand Prix in Suzuka, Button had to scratch and claw his way to an eighth-place finish that paid one lousy point.

Button leads his Brawn teammate, Rubens Barrichello of Brazil, by 14 points with just two races to go; he leads Japan GP race winner Sebastian Vettel, the German driving for Red Bull, by 16 points. Button is sitting pretty to win the championship, but he’s also one wrong dive into a turn from losing it – which would be an epic loss given his incredible start.

Folks who follow Formula One closely might remember that Brawn’s use of a double diffuser was cited by rival race teams as an “unfair” advantage that sent Button on his way to begin the year. F1 powers ultimately decided that Brawn was within the rules. Naturally, rival teams copied Brawn and threw huge money at improving their own cutting-edge technology. Now, it’s like Brawn never had an advantage.

It’s a tale of two seasons: Brawn dominating in the first half, then semi-disappearing in the second. Can you imagine, say, a Penske racing team in the IndyCar Series just dropping off the map after winning almost all the races in the first half of a campaign? That’s what you have in Formula One.

And speaking of money, thrown into the middle of this Formula One season was a palace revolt over F1’s proposed cap on the funds teams could spend on their wonderfully complex racing cars. How dare you tell us how much money we can spend?

Teams threatened to quit, to leave the sport, maybe even form their own traveling circus. Formula One finally blinked and backed off, figuring maybe it wouldn’t be such a good idea to continue on with teams like Ferrari racing in another series.

Had enough? Wait, there’s more under the big top.

Renault just lost its sponsor and saw its team principal, Flavio Briatore, banned for life in connection with the team ordering driver Nelson Piquet Jr. to crash deliberately at the 2008 Singapore Grand Prix so his teammate, Fernando Alonso, could win the race.

Want some irony? Right after Briatore was banned, Alonso announced that he was leaving Renault and had signed a three-year contract to drive for Ferrari, starting next year. Alonso will replace Kimi Raikkonen, who won an F1 world championship for Ferrari just two years ago.

You can’t make this stuff up.

Throw in the fact that Federation Internationale de l’Automobile President Max Mosley has somehow managed to hold on to his job despite a controversy over his involvement in a Nazi-style sex orgy, and you really cannot call this anything but a circus. Actually, you could call it something else, but circus works.

The thing is, I have long enjoyed the edginess and technology blast of Formula One racing. Its rich history and supremely talented drivers have long commanded the attention of millions worldwide. My problem with the current F1 world is that it is overly immersed in legal wrangling, Byzantine management and, well, over-the-top outrageousness.

Here’s hoping for an F1 future with more racing, less circus.

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