The new Brawn Grand Prix team will be the revelation of the Formula One season if the heirs to Honda are as fast on their race debut in Melbourne as they have been in testing.
Staring into the abyss only weeks ago, with the Japanese automaker pulling out in December and no serious buyers in sight other than the existing management, Brawn are suddenly looking like the team to beat.
“I think their lap time is just much quicker than everybody else can do,” said Ferrari’s Felipe Massa, the Brazilian who missed out on the title by a single point last year and whose own car has looked pretty quick. “They are really surprising.”
Led by new owner Ross Brawn, the Briton hailed as the tactical brains behind Michael Schumacher’s record seven world championships at Benetton and Ferrari, the Mercedes-powered team made their test debut last week.
The immediate effect was stunning, with some wondering whether they were really that quick or just running light to impress potential sponsors.
With the car lapping as if on rails, quick and reliable straight out of the box, British driver Jenson Button and Brazilian Rubens Barrichello were fastest on two of the four days in Barcelona.
They also started this week with the fastest time in Jerez.
Previously dismissed as has-beens and also-rans, the hugely experienced drivers head for Australia and next week’s season opener as potential winners.
“All I can say is that I’ve been waiting for this moment for a long time,” said Barrichello, who spent years as Schumacher’s sidekick at Ferrari. “It is a good car, it is a good engine, it is a good group and I think we will be the surprise of the year.”
There has been a buzz around the testing paddock and a rare sense of anticipation that the pecking order could be shaken up.
Individuals such as Lewis Hamilton in 2007, Jacques Villeneuve in 1996 and Mario Andretti in 1968 have made astonishing debuts before, but teams usually take time to bed in.
Big-spending Toyota, who arrived in 2002, have yet to win a race, while BMW-Sauber took their first only last year.
Brawn are benefiting from the legacy of Honda’s massive investment, with the Japanese manufacturer starting work on the new car more than a year ago.
Honda wrote off last year very early on when it became apparent that their car was uncompetitive and focused on catching up with the radically-revised regulations.
“The truth is that they have a car that Honda began working on in 2007, to use in 2009,” Renault’s double world champion Fernando Alonso said. “You can see that in its design because it is a very detailed car with a different look to the others.”
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