Drama on, off track as season set to go

Lewis Hamilton, front, and his McLaren Mercedes team are defending champions, but everybody's wary of the Brawn GP team -- formerly Honda -- cars. This one trailing Hamilton is piloted by veteran Rubens Barrichello. AP Photo/Oliver Multhaup

MELBOURNE, Australia -- On the flight from Sydney to Melbourne, one can see hundreds of acres of landscape scorched by the bush fires that devastated vast areas of the Australian state of Victoria last month.

Australian Formula One driver Mark Webber toured the St. Andrews and Kinglake areas, which had been particularly hard hit, prior to this weekend's Australian Grand Prix.

"It was unbelievable," Webber told ESPN.com. "I have seen a lot of bush fires in the past when I was a youngster growing up in the rural areas. But if you see the condition of the soil, just how hot it must have been, the soil looks like it has been blowtorched.

"You see how random the fire was, what it chose to burn and not burn. There would be five or six houses in a row gone and then one unburned. And the pace the fire moved, and the decisions people had to make -- that is what hit me.

"You try and get an appreciation, but until you actually go there and talk to the people who were literally running from it -- it was a phenomenal experience for me to get an appreciation of what they went through."

More than 200 people lost their lives in the more than 400 fires that blazed through 1,500 square miles of forests, farms, towns and countryside. More than 1,800 homes were destroyed, and some 10,000 people were left homeless. Livestock, property and wildlife also suffered in what were the worst wildfires in Australian history.

"I have never seen a grown Australian man struggling so much emotionally so long after a tragedy like that," Webber said. "Which just goes to show you how tough it was.

"On the flip side of that, it was great to see how tight the people have stuck together since they lost a lot of their close friends and lost everything. Their whole world was turned upside down.

"As an Australian living abroad, I have been humbled by the amazing response of the Australian people to the Bushfire Appeal [charity], and I suppose like most others just wanted to do something to help these people in a small way."

Webber will donate all profits from sales of his personal merchandise to the Bushfire Appeal.

The BMW Sauber team and former F1 team owner Paul Stoddart also made an effort to cheer up the victims of the fire. They headed to Kinglake, where BMW Sauber's reserve driver Christian Klien did some demonstration runs in an F1 car for the townspeople.

"We saw on the news back in Europe what happened with the fires, and I flew there by helicopter, and you could see what happened to the land there," Klein told reporters. "It was nice to bring the people up there a bit of happiness and to run our F1 car there. You really could see the smiles on the faces of the kids, and it was a really nice thing to do."

Race driver Zsolt Baumgartner gave rides in Stoddart's two-seater Minardi F1 car to two children. Kobi Davis, 10, whose house burned down, and Aiden Buchanan, 13, who lost family members in the fire, were thrilled.

Back in Melbourne, McLaren Mercedes drivers Lewis Hamilton and Heikki Kovalainen visited the adult casualty ward at Alfred Hospital.

"Back home in Europe, we saw the fires on TV," Hamilton told ESPN.com. "We saw the catastrophe. You can try to imagine what it was like, but you can't get anywhere near how scared these people must have been, the feelings of losing people, of houses burned down. It was tragic. All you can do is wish their families well, and pray and hope that they get through it.

"The victims were in high spirits, which was quite encouraging to see. And it was inspirational to see how the employees at the hospital, and also the firefighters, how much dedication they have to making these people's lives that much better while they are recovering. It was a really good experience."

Meanwhile, out at the track, F1 was setting up to serve up another type of drama over the course of the first grand prix of the season.

Reports that teams had threatened to boycott the race and not even make the trip to Australia were overblown.

The Times of London had reported that F1 czar and commercial boss Bernie Ecclestone had a showdown back in Europe with McLaren and Renault team bosses Ron Dennis and Flavio Briatore, respectively, who were demanding money owed to the teams by Ecclestone's Formula One Management company.

"Flavio said, 'We're not going to put our cars on the plane, we're not going to Melbourne,'" the newspaper quoted Ecclestone as saying. "He -- Flavio -- started it, aided and abetted by Ron Dennis."

Ecclestone told the newspaper he then called their bluff by picking up the phone to tell the chartered freight planes not to make the flight to Australia with the F1 cars and equipment.

"If they come in here with a gun and hold it to my head, they had better be sure they can … pull the trigger," Ecclestone told the newspaper. "And they should make sure it's got bullets in it because, if they miss, they better look out."

Dennis painted a different picture of the meeting, telling an ESPN.com source that McLaren never threatened a boycott and adding, "We got half the money."

There is a lot of tension between Ecclestone and the teams at the moment. Ecclestone's FOM company pays the teams 50 percent of F1's commercial and TV income.

"A lot of teams are owed a lot of money," McLaren team principal Martin Whitmarsh said.

Ecclestone wants the teams to agree to and sign a new edition of the Concorde Agreement, the document and contract that lays out the basics of how F1 is run and how the money is distributed. The teams are resisting because they want better terms.

Another brewing controversy surrounds the legality of the rear diffusers used by the Brawn, Toyota and Williams cars. The rear diffuser is the area of the floor at the rear of the car that flips up between the rear wheels. It creates a considerable amount of the car's downforce.

Nick Heidfeld It is very difficult this year to predict where your team stands and where the other teams stand. I think Brawn is clearly ahead, followed by a second group of Ferrari, Toyota, Red Bull, possibly Renault. We are somewhere in that second group.

-- BMW Sauber driver Nick Heidfeld

New rules this year limit the dimensions and design of the rear diffuser, but these three teams have read the rule book differently and come up with a "double deck" version.

Is it legal? Yes, say Brawn, Toyota and Williams. No, say many of the other teams.

"We will lodge a protest against all three teams," BMW motorsport director Mario Theissen told reporters at the track Thursday. "It is not for me to decide what is right or wrong. But to me there are definitely different interpretations of the rules, and we need clarity as quickly as possible."

Because of a paperwork mixup, BMW's protest was not filed. But Ferrari, Renault and Red Bull all filed protests against Brawn, Toyota and Williams. The race stewards deliberated late into the night Thursday, as each team's diffuser had to be considered on an individual basis.

After more than four hours of hearings, the race stewards declared the diffusers legal.

However, the rival teams say that they will file motions to the FIA Court of Appeals. Those hearings would not happen for several weeks, so the results of the races in Australia and Malaysia could be overturned.

Nico Rosberg is sure his Williams is legal.

"When there are new rules, it is completely normal that when you get to the first race that there are discussions," he told ESPN.com. "Because when you get new rules, what you need to do is to be clever and to look for places where you can do things better than other teams but staying fully legal. Every team does that."

The Brawn cars, formerly Honda, were extremely quick in the two preseason tests they ran before heading to Australia.

"Brawn is better than all of us this year," Ferrari driver Felipe Massa said before the first day of practice in Australia, repeating a forecast he had made several weeks earlier. "So maybe we will be fighting for third place behind them."

How do the teams stack up against each other at the start of the season?

"It is very difficult this year to predict where your team stands and where the other teams stand," BMW Sauber driver Nick Heidfeld said. "I think Brawn is clearly ahead, followed by a second group of Ferrari, Toyota, Red Bull, possibly Renault. We are somewhere in that second group. And then a bit of a gap to Williams, McLaren. Toro Rosso I cannot really judge because they did not do a lot of testing with the new car. And at the back is Force India."

Heidfeld said the double-deck diffuser has given Brawn a distinct advantage.

"It could actually be a season-decider if they are allowed to use the diffuser or not," he said. "After speaking to some of the guys in our team and also from other teams, they believe the advantage they have is huge. More than half a second. By F1 standards, that is huge. It is the world. It could be a deciding factor for the whole season."

As reported earlier on ESPN.com, last year's Australian Grand Prix winning team, McLaren Mercedes, is way off the pace this year. McLaren put so much effort into Hamilton winning the drivers' world championship last year that development on the 2009 car suffered. This year's car does not have enough aerodynamic downforce.

Hamilton said McLaren won't win Sunday and he'd be happy with a point or two and a top-8 finish.

"If we think optimistically maybe we can get a point," he said, "but I don't think so. But we will stay positive. But in terms of true pace at the moment, we are not quick enough."

"My expectation is that we will get better," he added. "The car is a work in progress, but we have a long way to go."

Just prior to the first race of the season, to pay tribute to the firefighters who battled the bush fires, the drivers will ride on fire trucks for the prerace drivers' parade.

And, after the race, The Who will play a concert on the track grounds. A portion of each ticket sale will go to the Bushfire Appeal charity.

Dan Knutson covers Formula One for National Speed Sport News and ESPN.com.