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In chaotic season, also-rans find recipe for success in Formula One

Once-struggling teams take advantage of rules changes to surge ahead with use of unique 'diffuser.' Long-time driver Jenson Button climbs to top of the pack after new group acquires his team.

July 08, 2009|Jim Peltz

Jenson Button, a capable British driver, often was overshadowed in Formula One as he toiled for years in noncompetitive race cars behind the leaders.

And then Button's world, along with all of Formula One, was turned upside down this year.

Button, 29, has gone from being a back marker behind the likes of McLaren Mercedes' Lewis Hamilton and Ferrari's Felipe Massa to an odds-on favorite to capture the series' championship.

Button has won six of the season's eight races so far, including the Monaco Grand Prix, and holds a dominant 23-point lead over his teammate, Rubens Barrichello, in the title chase heading into the next race Sunday in Germany.

It's a reversal of fortune that has stunned the sport, one of the most widely followed in the world, and that came to Button seemingly as manna from heaven.

And if that wasn't enough to roil Formula One this year, Button surged at the same time the series was threatened with a civil war among its teams that only recently was averted.

"Pretty amazing," Button told AutoWeek magazine. "It's just a great story, and it will be a great movie. I'm going to keep the rights to that one."

None of this was envisioned when the 2008 season ended with Hamilton nipping Massa by one point to become the youngest Formula One champion in history, at age 23.

Indeed, McLaren and Ferrari were the dominant teams, winning a combined 14 of last year's 18 races.

One of the weakest teams, Honda Racing -- for which Button and Barrichello drove -- then pulled out of the series, citing the sport's high cost and the weak global economy.

Button -- who had won only once before, in 2006, and who finished 2008 with a paltry three championship points -- and Barrichello suddenly didn't know where they would be competing this year.

But Ross Brawn, a former Ferrari technical director, led a group that acquired Honda Racing. They renamed the team Brawn GP and then advantageously exploited some of the many rules changes that Formula One's governing body, the Federation Internationale de l'Automobile, issued for the 2009 season.

In particular, Brawn and two other teams, Toyota and Williams, designed their cars with a "diffuser," an aerodynamic and intricate piece of bodywork at the rear of the cars that gave the cars more speed and better handling than many of their rivals.

Their rivals, in fact, appealed the legality of the diffusers to Formula One officials but to no avail. Now, those teams have the task of redesigning their race cars to catch up, with some -- notably the Red Bull team -- making faster progress than others.

Red Bull's Sebastian Vettel has won the other two races this year, including the most recent race, the British Grand Prix, on June 21, in which his teammate Mark Webber finished second.

Red Bull, which also had been a weak competitor to McLaren and Ferrari, "hasn't had a very easy time over the last few years," Vettel said after his win at Britain's Silverstone track. "So now it's our time."

Only three days after Vettel's win, the potential split in Formula One was avoided.

Red Bull, Brawn, Ferrari, McLaren and four other Formula One teams that had threatened to form a breakaway series reached an agreement to stay put -- one that that included FIA President Max Mosley agreeing not to seek a fifth term this fall.

The teams had bristled at Mosley's push for spending caps on their racing operations next year, spending that currently can reach $200 million or more annually at some top-flight teams.

With Honda's departure still fresh, Mosley wanted to sharply lower costs. But the teams -- together known as Formula One Teams Assn., or FOTA -- said that while they backed voluntary cost reductions, they still wanted the freedom to invest in new technology without strict limits.

Back on the track, the McLaren and Ferrari drivers that were so strong last year have all but surrendered their 2009 title hopes.

Button has 64 championship points, Massa has 16 and Hamilton, Massa teammate and 2007 champion Kimi Raikkonen and two-time champ Fernando Alonso of Renault all have fewer than 12.

"It is the down-force that we are lacking" to keep their cars' speed and handling at pace with the Brawn and Red Bull teams, Heikki Kovalainen, Hamilton's McLaren teammate, recently told Autosport.com.

That's throwing off the entire "aerodynamic balance" of the McLarens, he said, and "it just takes time to fix the problem."

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james.peltz@latimes.com

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