Brawn, Button ... and Crashgate
The 2009 season will be as much remembered for what happened off the track as for Jenson Button and Brawn's remarkable return from oblivion to storm to the drivers' and constructors' titles. Ultimately, what became known as the Crashgate scandal overshadowed everything else.
In July, Renault sacked Nelson Piquet Jnr and a few weeks later he claimed he had crashed during the Singapore Grand Prix in 2008 under orders from team bosses. Few initially believed a story that seemed far fetched, while Renault chief Flavio Briatore angrily told reporters he would sue Piquet for slander.
But the story wouldn't go away and by early September, with the FIA investigating the matter and the net closing, Briatore and technical director Pat Symonds resigned from Renault. Soon after, the FIA slapped the pair with bans for their part in the affair.
A few months before the start of the 17-race season in March, Button appeared to be without a drive as his team, Honda, withdrew from the sport. But a budget takeover, spearheaded by Ross Brawn, rescued the team and brilliantly exploited new regulations to allow Button to win six of the first seven races. As rivals caught up, Button's massive lead was slowly clawed back he managed only two top-three finishes in the remaining ten rounds. The drivers' title went down to the penultimate race when Button drove so brilliantly in Brazil almost all his critics were silenced. He was the tenth Briton to win the drivers' championship, with Brawn the first team to win the Constructors' Championship in their debut season.
Ten teams took part after several rule changes were implemented by the FIA to cut costs in response to the global financial downturn. Slick tyres returned, aerodynamics were tweaked and Kinetic Energy Recovery Systems (KERS) were introduced, soon becoming a much-discussed feature. A far-fetched proposal by Bernie Ecclestone to decide the championship on an Olympic style medal system rewarding races won was given a positively freezing reception and quickly shelved.
The build up to the season was dogged by a row over rear diffusers used by Toyota, Williams and Brawn GP to increase downforce which culminated in official protests on the eve of the opening round in Australia. The dispute rumbled on but the race was overshadowed by an admission from defending champion Lewis Hamilton that he had lied to stewards, leading to his disqualification. So intense was the pressure on him that rumours circulated he may quit. He looked a shadow of his 2008 self until the second half of the season when his old form and confidence returned.
Button, team-mate Rubens Barrichello and Brawn were unbeatable in the early rounds, with only the impressive Sebastian Vettel, after a shaky start, threatening their domination. In fact, had the season started at the third race in China, Vettel, who finished the year with four wins, would have won the title.
Button's dream start ended on home turf when he failed to make the podium for the first time, the Red Bulls of Vettel and Mark Webber taking the lead. Ferrari also started to feature after a dismal start, but in Hungary Felipe Massa's season ended when he was struck on the head by a flying spring while going at 160mph. Briefly, former champion Michael Schumacher was set to replace him only for a neck injury to end the plan. Massa's replacement, test driver Luca Badoer, proved a huge flop and he was soon himself replaced by Giancarlo Fisichella.
Barrichello and Kimi Raikkonen recorded wins in the European and Belgian Grand Prix as Button continued to struggle, while Webber's outside challenge ended when he crashed under lights in Singapore.
Vettel took the title race to the penultimate grand prix in Brazil only for Button to turn in a brilliant display, storming through the field from 14th to fifth to give him enough points to clinch the title. Hamilton finished in the top three, and with Vettel rounding off the year with a win in Abu Dhabi, the stage was set for an epic 2010. The return of Schumacher at the age of 41, announced in late December, was almost enough to make it easy to forget the withdrawal of BMW and Toyota at the end of the season.