Brawn’s rivals headed to Barcelona with high hopes of pegging back the flying BGP001s.
Instead Jenson Button and Rubens Barrichello motored serenely to a straightforward one-two.
Button now has four wins from five starts. But I don’t think we should give up hope of seeing a close battle for the championship just yet.
Vettel’s masked potential
So far we’ve seen a five-race snapshot of a 17-round championship. The one driver who looks most likely to challenge Button for the championship – Sebastian Vettel – has been constrained by a mixture of misfortunes that I don’t think will persist throughout the season.
At Melbourne he was on course for a podium before that collision with Robert Kubica. The stewards chose (harshly, in my view) to hand down a ten-place penalty that compromised him for the Malaysian Grand Prix. That single moment at turn three in Melbourne spoiled his first two races.
Vettel then won commandingly in the rain in China. At Bahrain he had 6.5kg more fuel on board than Button and still out-qualified the Brawn driver. But the opening lap worked out as badly for Vettel as it could have done – Button squeezed past at the start and succeeded in placing Lewis Hamilton’s KERS-equipped McLaren as a buffer between them.
Surprisingly, a similar turn of events unfolded at Barcelona. This time Vettel didn’t out-qualify Button but he still lapped within 0.1s of him despite carrying 5.5kg more fuel. However, once again, Vettel got stuck behind a KERS car – this time Felipe Massa’s Ferrari.
This might all sound like I’m making excuses for Vettel’s performance and, to an extent, that’s true. But the point is this: these small problems have masked Vettel’s potential. Button will be very fortunate if he gets through an entire season without suffering similar frustrations.
A few drops less fuel in qualifying, a stewards decision that could have gone either way, and this championship could be looking very different.
The development race
It remains to be seen how well the teams will develop their cars over the course of the season. But there’s no mistaking that Red Bull designer Adrian Newey has an exceptional pedigree for developing cars to meet new regulations. He talked about how he enjoys taking on to big rules changes in a recent interview:
Previous to this year the biggest change we had of any significance was 2005 when the front wing was raised and the diffusers were restricted more, which was a sort of medium size change. Before that, you really have to go back to 1998 before we had the last largest change.
In 1998 his McLaren MP4/13 stomped all over the opposition. And in 2005 his MP4/20 won more races than anything else, suffering only from unreliability that, more often than not, was traced back to the Mercedes engine.
The RB5 has got off to a strong start and it’s set to get stronger – Newey has been working on an implementation of the ‘double diffuser’ which could be ready as soon as the next race at Monte-Carlo. In the wet, the car is already untouchable.
Brawn says its next major upgrade is not due until the German Grand Prix in July. The team has started to attract sponsorship and has a budget for the rest of the season, but you have to wonder whether they will be able to develop their car as quickly as their rivals.
As Damon pointed out yesterday with four wins and a third Button is off to one of the best starts to an F1 campaign ever seen.
But with 120 points still to be won and Vettel only 18 behind, this one is a long way from being over.