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Former F1 star enjoying 2009's "big shake up"

Sebastian Vettel is getting better and better, and he's in a car designed by perhaps the best aerodynamic engineer in Formula One. That's the verdict of former F1 ace Heinz-Harald Frentzen.

Germany's Heinz-Harald Frentzen of Williams BMW smiles during a press conference in Budapest, before the Hungarian Grand Prix 2001.

Heinz-Harald Frentzen is pleased to see an upside-down F1 grid this year

It's been a year of surprises and shake-ups in the world of Formula One racing.

A team that looked on the verge of extinction a couple of months ago has a commanding lead in the Formula One Championship after three Grands Prix. Brawn GP have gone from rank outsiders to hot favorites in what seems like the blink of an eye.

Red Bull and Toyota - both of whom have been also-rans throughout their histories in the sport - are the closest competition for the former Honda works team.

The only traditionally big name anywhere near the top is McLaren Mercedes. World Champion Lewis Hamilton's team are currently fourth in the constructor's championship, but their future is in serious doubt due to off-track controversy.

Meanwhile, Ferrari, F1's top team in eight of the last ten seasons, are dead last in the championship with no points from three races.

Formula One has been turned on its head this season, and Germany's former F1 superstar Heinz-Harald Frentzen told Deutsche Welle that he thinks it's a breath of fresh air.

"It's mixed up Formula One completely," Frentzen says. "I mean, before the season started, could you imagine the top teams spending a lot of money and effort and finding themselves in the midfield? No one expected that!"

Initial testing results for the fourth race of the season in Bahrain this weekend don't suggest that normality is going to be restored just yet, if at all.

Surprising, but not inexplicable

Mechanics of the new Formular One team Brawn GP work in the garage at the Albert Park Circuit in Melbourne, Australia, 24 March 2009. The Australian Formula One Grand Prix will take place on Sunday 29 March.

Brawn GP and other 'underdogs' are dominating F1

However, while Frentzen said this new order in Formula One is unexpected, he also pointed to rules, a hard fought 2008 season, and the introduction of new technoloiges as explanations for this surprising turn of events.

"There has been a big modification from one year to the other, in terms of regulations, chassis layout and with the introduction of KERS (Kinetic Energy Recovery System). Everything's been mixed up," he says.

He said the last time there was a similar comprehensive change was between 1997 and 1998.

"Just like it was back then, the teams who made the best decisions and found the best strategy for the new regulations over the winter have earned the glory," he said.

Little wonder Frentzen is so conscious of how rule changes can affect F1. He was one of the losers after the rule changes a decade ago. Then driving for Williams, Frentzen watched his team morph from the quickest in the sport into a relatively mediocre outfit in a matter of months.

It was during this same shakeup that McLaren and Ferrari re-established themselves as major players in the sport, a position neither team ever really relinquished, until this year, perhaps.

Getting better and better

German Formula One driver Sebastian Vettel of Red Bull leads the pack after the start of the Grand Prix of China at the Shanghai International Circuit during the Formula 1 Grand Prix at the Shanghai International Circuit, 19 April 2009.

Vettel has won both his races in wet conditions

One major winner in the new-look F1 is Sebastian Vettel. The 21-year-old German won round three of the season in China from pole position, taking the second race win of his fledgling career. In Friday testing in Bahrain, his Red Bull car looked quick again and the young German is optimistic about the season.

"I don't want to talk about the title, but we have the potential to drive for victory in the next races," Vettel told reporters trackside in Bahrain.

Frentzen - who was 29 years old when he won his first Grand Prix with Williams - is impressed that Vettel has grabbed two wins so early in his career.

"I am a big fan of Vettel because he developed himself steadily, starting in the sport at a very young age," he says.

"But now, he's already a very experienced driver. He still makes some mistakes, but what really impresses me is that he is able to improve the development of his car, to help the mechanics make his car faster. He's getting better and better and better."

The Newey factor

Red Bull Racing's chief technical officer Adrian Newey in the pit lane during 2009 pre season testing in Jerez.

Adrian Newey's latest F1 masterpiece may be the 2009 Red Bull

However, Frentzen says that there's more to Red Bull's success than the talented young German behind the wheel.

Adrian Newey, Red Bull's chief technical officer and designer, is a legend in Formula One circles. He has designed a slew of blisteringly quick F1 cars for Williams and then McLaren Mercedes over the years.

"I have also driven an Adrian Newey car in 1997," Frentzen points out. "For me, when I was closely involved in F1, he was the best aerodynamic engineer in the sport, and the cars he built were always fantastic."

"And remember that if Vettel hadn't won that race [in China], then his teammate Mark Webber would have won instead. Also, rookie Sebastien Buemi was up there fighting with double world champion Fernando Alonso, also in an Adrian Newey car. So I have to give the credit to the team as well, they've built a fantstic car this season."

Heinz Harald Frentzen behind the wheel of the 1997 Williams Renault F1 car - designed by Adrian Newey.

Frentzen knows first hand that an Adrian Newey car is usually a fast car

F1's drastic rule changes meant that designers couldn't simply improve on the foundation of their 2008 models in 2009. Innovation was the order of the day, as design teams all along the pitlane went back to the drawing board.

Taking this into account, the success of Red Bull with Adrian Newey's involvement, and of championship leaders Brawn GP with a car developed by Ross Brawn, the mastermind of Michael Schumacher's dominant years with Benetton and Ferrari, seems a little less shocking.

However, these relatively small teams may yet struggle to maintain their early season advantage. There are bigger, richer outfits working round the clock to close the gap on Formula One's unlikely front-runners.

Author: Mark Hallam

Editor: Kyle James

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