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Troubled times for F1 grandees

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F1 Mole | 06:42 UK time, Saturday, 18 April 2009

One of the biggest topics of conversation in the paddock at the Chinese Grand Prix is how swiftly the Formula 1 wheel of fortune has cast McLaren and Ferrari on a downward spiral.

The historical rivals and F1's potent forces over the last two seasons are struggling following the major rule changes for the 2009 season.

The paddock is asking - are these famous teams really unravelling?

In the opening two races of this season in Australia and Malaysia, Ferrari have failed to win a single point. It is their worse start to a season since 1992 - which turned into one of the weakest seasons in their history.

McLaren have just one point, thanks to Lewis Hamilton claiming half points with his seventh-place finish in the red-flagged Malaysian GP.

At the opposite end of the table, former Ferrari technical director Ross Brawn is making hay with his eponymous team.

hamilton_massa_535.jpg

Brawn, the former Honda outfit, are sitting pretty at the top of the table with 25 points, thanks to double race-winner Jenson Button and team-mate Rubens Barrichello's contributions.

So dramatic is Ferrari's slide that people are wondering whether they are panicking, even asking whether they need help to improve a car that looks close to undriveable.

Struggling with grip, Kimi Raikkonen and Felipe Massa have been more than a second off the pace of the Brawns in Shanghai.

The team have taken the Kers power-boost and energy-recovery systems out of both cars but do not seem to have gained any pace, while their aerodynamic package is not really working either.

Following some dubious Ferrari strategy calls, team manager Luca Baldisserri has also handed his track duties to engineer Chris Dyer and further personnel changes may follow.

If the team fail to score again in China, team principal Stefano Domenicali will certainly have more questions to answer.

Martin Whitmarsh, his counterpart at McLaren, may know just how Domenicali feels after stepping into Ron Dennis's enormous shoes as the new McLaren team boss.

Dennis was a real racer, working his way up from being a mechanic in the 1960s to becoming one of the most influential people in the sport, while Whitmarsh - who has been with McLaren since 1989 - came from an engineering and management background at British Aerospace.

Experienced heads in the paddock are waiting to see whether Whitmarsh has what it takes to replace Dennis. Has he got the experience and dynamism to lift McLaren out of the hole they have found themselves in?

Hamilton also issued a classic footballer's response in China when he was asked if he would see out his five-year contract at McLaren which expires in 2012.

The world champion simply said he was "contracted to the team".

In Malaysia, the 24-year-old privately considered quitting F1 in the wake of being found guilty of misleading race stewards at the Australian GP - and again at another hearing a week later in Malaysia.

What part will Hamilton play in reviving his team?

One thing is sure, their rivals are keen to find out whether the decline of the big guns is going to develop further or if it can be arrested.

Either way, it will take them some time to catch up with the Brawns - and that team's dominance has not exactly been making them the new darlings of the paddock.

Ferrari's lawyer, Nigel Tozzi QC, called Brawn a "person of supreme arrogance" at this week's Court of Appeal hearing into the legality of the diffusers on the Brawn, Toyota and Williams cars.

And now Renault team boss Flavio Briatore says he will forward an idea to the Formula One Teams' Association (Fota) to stop Brawn GP receiving their share of the cash from television rights this season.

Despite morphing from the Honda team into Brawn GP, Brawn's team is not necessarily guaranteed to inherit Honda's TV bounty because it was entered as a new team for 2009.

Instead, Briatore is proposing the money gets split between the seven teams who need to spend extra cash updating their diffusers after the advantageous split-level design - used by Brawn - was declared legal this week.

Changing times indeed.

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