(by the Associated Press 4-8-09)
KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia -- The Formula One season has lurched to a chaotic start after two races.
The sport's power teams are in crisis, one of the races finished prematurely due to contentious scheduling, and there is still no decision on whether results from the races in Australia and Malaysia will stand.
The Malaysian Grand Prix was cut short just past the halfway point on Sunday, when a tropical storm hit the Sepang circuit, making conditions undriveable.
It was predictable that starting the race at 5 p.m. local time - to suit European television audiences - would increase the likelihood of it being hit by a torrential downpour, which generally arrive in the late afternoon or early evening in Malaysia.
The late start also meant that once the storm had largely passed after almost an hour's wait, encroaching darkness made a restart unfeasible.
Malaysian's new prime minister said immediately after the race that he would look at moving the event back to its regular afternoon start. Whether that happens remains to be seen. Generally, races that suggest changes that run counter to the wishes of F1 authorities don't tend to stay on the schedule for long.
Still, political pressure may yet work where driver demands have failed. Even before the season-opening Australian Grand Prix and the Malaysian GP were switched to twilight starts, drivers had voiced their concern at being forced to drive in deteriorating light and tropical rain to suit European TV viewers.
Brawn GP's Jenson Button won both races, making Brawn the first new team to win its opening two GPs since Alfa Romeo won the sport's first two races in 1950.
However, Button, Brawn and other top finishers only received half the usual points for Malaysia, as stipulated under F1 rules, because the race went less than three quarters of the scheduled distance.
And that is if those points count at all.
The results from Australia and Malaysia remain provisional pending a ruling of the FIA's International Court of Appeal in Paris on Tuesday.
Ferrari, BMW, Renault and Red Bull have lodged appeals against stewards' decisions in Australia and Malaysia to allow Brawn, Toyota and Williams to race with what the four teams claim are rear diffuser designs that breach new aerodynamic regulations.
The three teams have dominated the time sheets in the opening two races because the diffusers, an undercar device that channels the flow of air from the front to rear, help create greater downforce in the corners.
Brawn GP and Toyota have capitalized on their speed advantage to break away at the top of the points standings, while Williams has been largely unable to convert its speed in practice sessions into performance on race day.
At the other end of the standings are the power teams: McLaren, with a single point, and Ferrari, which has gone through the opening two races of the season without earning a point for the first time since 1992.
McLaren's struggles on the track have translated into turmoil off it. Sporting director Dave Ryan, a team employee for 35 years, was fired on Tuesday for deliberately misleading race stewards at a postrace hearing in Australia.
Ryan and world champion Lewis Hamilton told stewards that the English driver had received no instruction from his team to move over late in the race and let Toyota's Jarno Trulli through to the third spot.
The stewards' hearing was reopened in Malaysia and heard audio evidence of pit-to-car communication in which McLaren did indeed tell Hamilton to allow Trulli through, having wrongly thought the world champion's earlier passing maneuver on the Italian was illegal because it was done behind the safety car.
McLaren was officially excluded from the results, negating what would have been a third-place finish, and Ryan was made the immediate fall guy. But McLaren was mistaken if it thought Ryan's ouster, and an emotional apology from Hamilton, would prevent more fallout.
Team principal Martin Whitmarsh has said he is considering his future, and the team's shareholders have the power to dismiss him. Engine supplier Mercedes, whose reputation in the sport rides largely on McLaren's performance, said it would consider the issue.
The FIA may also refer McLaren's deceptive behavior to the World Motor Sports Council, which has the power to ban Hamilton and McLaren from a number of races, or even from the 2009 championship altogether.
The only bright spot for McLaren is that the situation at archrival Ferrari is similarly dire. Both teams have paid the price for pouring all their development dollars into the 2007 and 2008 cars as they battled out those championships, while rivals turned far earlier to designing cars for the very different specifications required for 2009.
Long gone is the absolute Ferrari dominance under the triumvirate of peerless driver Michael Schumacher and now departed team bosses Jean Todt and Ross Brawn. While Schumacher remains a brooding and frustrated figure in the pits as a team adviser, Brawn is at the other end of pit lane with his new team - which he took over when Honda withdrew from the sport - and getting race wins on a fraction of the budget.
Although only two races have been run, it already seems Ferrari and McLaren's best hope of getting back into the championship picture is if the FIA wipes out the results of the three teams using the diffuser. In which case the title race will take on a very different hue when it resumes in China on April 19.