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Sunday, April 19, 2009

With new contenders, Formula 1 a whole new ballgame this year

For years, it’s been the same story: Ferrari and McLaren.

From 1998 to 2008, all but two Formula 1 championships (won by Fernando Alonso at Renault) were won by a driver from one of these two teams.

2009 is a different story. After three races, the new Brawn Racing team has stormed the gates and sits 1-2 in points with Jenson Button and Rubens Barichello, both drivers many people thought were past their prime in F1. Prior to 2009, Barichello was the longtime second fiddle to Michael Schumacher, and Button had yet to materialize as the star he was once predicted to be.

Behind the Brawn duo in points are the following drivers: Sebastian Vettel, Timo Glock, Mark Webber, Jarno Trulli, Nick Heidfeld and Fernando Alonso.

Sightings of a McLaren driver are not seen until 9th and 10th positions, where defending champ Lewis Hamilton and Heikki Kovalainen are tied with 4 points each. Both Ferrari drivers, Kimi Raikkonen and Felipe Massa, has failed to score a single point this year.

In a sport that’s been so predictable for much of the past decade, this is a welcome change. There was a time when the only thing you wondered was how far Michael Schumacher would finish ahead of the competition, not whether he would win. While that was great for the Ferrari fans, it stunk for everyone else.

Now, it’s truly a joy to watch F1 racing because you don’t know what will happen. The Red Bull team, with Vettel and Webber, might dominate as they did this weekend in China. Or the Brawn team might have another strong weekend like they did the first two race weekends this year. But there’s no guarantee who will win the pole or race up front.

Of course, you can never count out Ferrari or McLaren from figuring out what’s wrong with them and getting back into competiveness. If that happens we could have a handful of teams legitimately competing for wins each week. I can’t remember the last time that was even a remote possibility in F1.

As a NASCAR fan, I’ve always looked at F1 as a sport where the drivers may be more skilled (seriously, the rain was so bad in China you couldn’t even see, but many of them got through the day without going off track), but the racing was always less exciting and more predictable.

That is not the case this year. The Brawn team is clearly the best right now, but I can’t guarantee they will claim the championship, and that’s not something I would have said in past years. For the first time in a while, it’s not an exclusively McLaren-Ferrari show (in fact, they’re not even players right now), and that’s something to cheer about.


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