Jenson Button and his Brawn GP team cast a dominating shadow over the start of this year's Formula One World Championship, taking the checkered flag at six out of the seven races this season to take a commanding lead for the title. But as Button and Brawn cast a dark shadow over the competition, the skies over the paddock at this past weekend's Hungarian Grand Prix were darkened even further, with the drivers getting a taste of their own mortality after Felipe Massa was hospitalized with severe injuries to his head after being hit by a spring during Saturday's qualifying session.
Driving an F1 car – in a grand prix no less – takes an extraordinarily focused person, ignoring the laws of physics and all that can go wrong in order to even get some heat into the tires, much less extract the car's true performance potential. Winning a grand prix takes an even more rarified breed of individual, outgunning the other exceptionally talented and driven drivers to claim victory. Only 102 people have managed that feat in the history of the sport. But it takes a champion to see a fallen comrade and still marshal the fortitude to reel in the win.
Flash back to Imola in 1994 when the San Marino Grand Prix was under way. Roland Ratzenberger was killed in a tragic qualifying accident, but if that weren't enough, the legendary Ayrton Senna died in a crash the following day during the race. Michael Schumacher went on to win that grand prix, and would later go on to win a record seven world championships.
Twelve years prior, Ricardo Paletti was killed at the 1982 Canadian Grand Prix, held in Montreal on the circuit named for Gilles Villeneuve who died just one month prior. Defending champion Nelson Piquet won the race, and would go on to add two more world titles to his trophy cabinet. In 1978 when Ronnie Peterson died at Monza, three-time world champion Niki Lauda took the checkered flag, just as he did the year before when race marshal Jansen Van Vuuren and driver Tom Pryce were killed at the South African Grand Prix. Fellow triple world champion Jackie Stewart did the same at the 1973 Dutch Grand Prix at Zandvoort which claimed the life that day of Roger Williamson.
Noticing a pattern here? Then it should come as no great surprise that defending world champion Lewis Hamilton took the checkered flag this weekend at the Hungarian Grand Prix while his chief rival from last season lay in a medically-induced coma. Fortunately, Massa's accident didn't claim his life, but nobody – Hamilton included – knew at the time if Felipe would recover.
In this context, it shouldn't come as any great surprise that Kimi Raikkonen – Massa's team-mate and Hamilton's predecessor world champion – came in second place at the race's end. Because it takes a champion to keep his foot planted while staring his own mortality in the face.
If this were any year prior, McLaren leading Ferrari to the finish line would be business as usual. But this season has been unlike any other, with erstwhile backmarkers Brawn GP and Red Bull – midfielders at best – claiming all the wins until now, while the former frontrunners and defending champions could scarcely put up a fight.
Intriguing as it is to see these champions regaining their form, however, it was the third place finish that stands to hold the most sway over the title race. Following his outright victory – the first in his career – at the German Grand Prix, three second-place finishes and another third, Mark Webber stood on the podium next to the champs, and in the process emerged as the frontrunner in the challenge to the aspirations of the aforementioned duo of Button and Brawn.
Speaking of whom, Button could manage no better than a seventh-place finish in Massa's shadow as well as his own, taking a couple of points to bring his tally up to 70 as Webber trails with 51.5, ahead of the rest of the pack. Toyota's Jarno Trulli, who started out the season with such promise, came in behind Button for the final point in eighth, his wingman Timo Glock sandwiching the leader in sixth. The race winner's McLaren team-mate Heikki Kovalainen supported with a respectable fifth, while Nico Rosberg – the German son of former champion Keke which some tip Mercedes executives to favor as Heikki's replacement at McLaren next season – impressed with a solid fourth place finish for the privateer Williams team.
His team-mate Kazuki Nakajima finished ninth and outside the points, ahead of Brawn's Rubens Barrichello, BMW's Nick Heidfeld, Renault's Nelsinho Piquet, BMW's Robert Kubica and Force India's Giancarlo Fisichella. Newcomer Jamie Alguersuari on his race debut edged out his Toro Rosso team-mate Sebastian Buemi, who finished last. Sebastian Vettel stuttered off the line and was clipped by Raikkonen in an incident now under investigation, forcing him to eventually retire on lap 30. The troubled Adrian Sutil retired on only the second lap with engine problems.
And what of the other world champion still on the grid? Fernando Alonso, who preceded Raikkonen's title with two of his own, was forced to retire when a loose nut sent his right front wheel flying off in an incident that caused quite a stir in the wake of Massa's accident, itself caused by a loose component bouncing across the track. So while it may take a champion to overcome the fear of mortality, in a world championship grand prix, a mechanical failure can change things as fast as an F1 car.