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The Way It Is/ Alonso leads Ferrari sweep

by Gordon Kirby
Has the Alonso Age arrived in Formula One? That's what Sunday's F1 season-opener in Bahrain suggested as Fernando Alonso led Felipe Massa to a one-two sweep for Ferrari. It's taken a few years for Ferrari to get the Spaniard in place at Maranello but now that he's there it looks like Ferrari is going to be very hard to beat with Alonso leading the team's charge much like Michael Schumacher used to do. Sebastien Vettel confirmed in Bahrain that he and Red Bull-Renault will be very quick in many races this year but there's no doubt that Alonso, Massa and Ferrari will be the combination to beat.

The past year amply demonstrated that Formula One is the world's most powerful and resilient form of motor racing. During most of the first decade of the 21st century F1 rode the biggest wave of direct manufacturer involvement in its history. Six car manufacturers--Ferrari, Mercedes-Benz, Renault, BMW, Honda and Toyota--owned or operated their own teams or supplied engines. It was a golden age of riches for Formula One.

But near the end of 2008 Honda pulled out. The Japanese manufacturer has spent a lot of money on F1 over the years with its own teams and as an engine supplier. Honda has won four world championships as an engine supplier but hasn't come close with its own team and as its results with the former BAR team got worse rather than better Honda took the decision to quit F1 near the end of 2008. Then the global economic crisis struck and Toyota and BMW followed suit pulling out at the end of last year. Motor companies around the world struggled to sell cars and F1's most recent golden age came to an end.

During this time we also witnessed Max Mosley's very public flogging in the mainstream media followed by the changeover of power from Mosley to new FIA president Jean Todt. Many people believed Mosley's private prevarications had created an image problem for motor racing as a whole and Formula One in particular, that wouldn't be good for the sponsorship business in today's tough economic climate.

But to F1's credit the off-season has been jammed with news and speculation about the new season. Michael Schumacher's comeback led the headlines of course, but the stage was set by the remarkable Ross Brawn selling a 75% stake in his team to Mercedes-Benz and renaming the team Mercedes-Benz Grand Prix. Mercedes-Benz now has its own team after years of playing second fiddle at McLaren and F1 enjoys the power of its two most iconic brands--Ferrari and Mercedes--with the German manufacturer promoting its 'Return of the Silver Arrows' theme. Mercedes-Benz's return to F1 as a team for the first time since 1955 provided the perfect platform for Schumacher to make his return. The seven-times world champion has signed a three-year contract with Mercedes and his re-entry to F1 has created huge interest.

In the UK, at least, there's been an equal amount of interest in defending world champion Jenson Button's move to McLaren after winning the title last year with Brawn GP. Most fans and pundits believe Button will struggle to match 2008 champion Lewis Hamilton's speed and the Bahrain season-opener suggests they're right.

But in the end the biggest off-season move surely was Alonso's arrival at Ferrari. Alonso's speed and dedication to the job are renowned and there's no doubt that he's already providing Ferrari with the kind of inspired, motivated leadership that was lacking from the departed Kimi Raikkonen. Alonso drove an excellent race in Bahrain--exactly as expected--and it was good to see Felipe Massa do a first-rate job in his return to action after last year's nasty accident.

Meanwhile, Red Bull and Adrian Newey are pushing the envelope, as ever, and Vettel will be very strong this year. Whether or not the young German and his team can be serious championship contenders remains to be seen, witness what occured in Bahrain. Still, the kid is extremely quick and looks like putting his journeyman teammate Mark Webber in the shade once again.

A first turn incident meant we saw little from Robert Kubica and Renault in Bahrain other than the fact that both Renault and Sauber were conspicuous for their unpainted flanks without any major sponsors. It's also worth noting that Bridgestone's decision to pull out of F1 at the end of this year means the company's ads no longer adorn SpeedTV's F1 shows.

F1 is left this year with four engine manufacturers--Ferrari, Mercedes-Benz, Renault and Cosworth. Ferrari supliies three teams and six cars--its own, Toro Rosso and Sauber. Mercedes-Benz also supplies three teams and six cars--M-B Grand Prix, McLaren and Force India, the latter said to have many unpaid bills. Renault supplies two teams--itself and Red Bull--and Cosworth provides four teams with engines--Williams, Lotus, Virgin and HRT.

There are quite a few rule changes in F1 this year, most notably no refuelling, and the cars must also start the race on the tires on which they qualify. Nor is there any in-season testing this year and that will put a premium on the teams' abilities to operate well under pressure during race weekends. After the race in Bahrain Lewis Hamilton commented on the new rules and his battle with Nico Rosberg.

"It's a different challenge," Hamilton said. "I don't think it made the racing more exciting in tems of being able to overtake. Through the first half of the circuit I could follow Nico but as soon as we got to the fast sectors it was impossible to stay behind and there just wasn't enough grip from the tires to be able to stay with him.

"But I think it's an interesting season ahead of us. Bit by bit, everyone is learning how to use the tires more. I think trying to understand the tires is probably the most interesting part, trying to conserve your fuel load and know when to attack and when not to attack. I think this is a real challenge."

Alonso downplayed Ferrari's sweep in Bahrain and emphasized his nose-to-the-grindstone attitude.

"The first race of the championship, or the first three or four races of the championship, are not in my opinion crucial for anything," Alonso said. "You just need to take some solid points for the team, to get used to the new regulations, to understand a little better the tires and the races themselves. From a driver's point of view I don't think this first part is a crucial part to the championship. It's nice to be here in first position, but to be honest, that's because of a fantastic car that we have.

"We were better than the others on race pace so we managed to finish first and second. But I think the key to being World Champion will be to develop using the system. We have a very good base but we need to keep working. This is only the start so I'm happy for the team. But now is the time to push."

There are also a few words to report about the stillborn USF1 team. None of USF1's workforce was paid for January and February and many of them have received bills for hotel rooms or temporary housing that were supposed to have been paid by USF1. The company's failure has been a sad and costly episode for many hard-working, committed people. There's also a long list of unpaid vendors through the Charlotte area who built components like exhaust systems, shock absorbers, gears and other machined pieces. A lot of parts that USF1 was capable of manufacturing in-house were subcontracted to nearby vendors in recent months because there wasn't any money for USF1 to purchase raw materials.

I'm told Peter Windsor spent a lot of time at USF1 through January, but he and Ken Anderson argued and Windsor wasn't seen around the place in February. Windsor is said to be back in the UK and he's been quoted as stating that the FIA has requested he remain silent on USF1 for the time being. One thing you have to say about Windsor is his enthusiasm and deep knowledge of F1 was sadly lacking from SpeedTV's coverage from Bahrain. Here's hoping Will Buxton will bring some added life and knowledge to Speed's F1 shows. The Alonso era deserves it.

Auto Racing ~ Gordon Kirby
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