Following a couple of torrid seasons and with the global economic downturn taking hold, Honda withdrew from Formula 1 at the end of 2008. The Brackley-based team was reborn as Brawn Grand Prix and with a supply of Mercedes-Benz engines, confirming its participation just 23 days before the start of the new season. Designed around the controversial “double diffuser” concept, the Brawn BGP001 immediately proved to be a class apart.
Jenson Button won six of the first seven races to take a stranglehold on the title. He survived a mid-season dip in form to storm through the field in Brazil to clinch the World Championship with a round to spare. Rubens Barrichello was originally outpaced by his team-mate but he grew stronger as the year unfolded and won at both Valencia and Monza as he finished third overall.
This was the year that Sebastian Vettel and Red Bull truly came of age. Once pronounced legal by the FIA, Adrian Newey introduced his own interpretation of the “double diffuser” and the RB5 was more than a match for Brawn by the British GP. Vettel won four times as he finished as runner-up to Button. Team-mate Mark Webber’s year began with a broken leg sustained in a Tasmanian charity cycle ride. That curtailed his pre-season testing but he scored first GP victories in Germany (despite a drive through penalty) and Brazil.
Lewis Hamilton’s title defence began with disqualification from third place in the Australian GP after he was found to have lied to the stewards. The McLaren MP4-24 was a difficult car so it is to Hamilton’s credit that he won twice to finish fifth in the standings. In contrast, Heikki Kovalainen was a disappointing 12th overall in his second and final season with the team.
Ferrari only won once (Kimi Raikkonen in Belgium) and Felipe Massa suffered serious head injuries during qualifying for the Hungarian GP. A spring from Barrichello’s Brawn hit Massa on the helmet and he was sidelined for the rest of the year. Luca Badoer and then Giancarlo Fisichella both proved uncompetitive while deputising for the Brazilian. Fisichella was briefly a sought after driver once more after converting a surprise pole position at Spa-Francorchamps into second place at the finish for Force India. Adrian Sutil showed the team’s genuine improvement by qualifying on the front row next time out in Italy.
Controversy enveloped Renault after the disappointing Nelson Piquet jr was replaced mid-season. It soon emerged that the disaffected Brazilian had deliberately crashed during the 2008 Singapore GP, thus handing a winning advantage to team-mate Fernando Alonso. Both Flavio Briatore and Pat Symonds were banned from F1 as a consequence. Alonso, who was formally cleared of all knowledge of the incident, finished third in Singapore and did enough to earn a Ferrari contract for 2010.
Nick Heidfeld and Robert Kubica scored a second place finish apiece for BMW Sauber, as did Toyota’s Jarno Trulli and Timo Glock. However, but both manufacturers quit F1 at the end of the season. Jaime Alguersuari became F1’s youngest driver to date when he made his debut for Toro Rosso in Hungary.
Max Mosley was succeeded as President of the FIA by former Ferrari Team Principal Jean Todt after 18 years in power.