Monday, March 17, 2008

Known Unknowns

That was a breath of fresh air, wasn't it? Whether it was the sight of Fernando Alonso ragging his ill-handling Renault in hot pursuit of Sebastien Bourdais in the closing laps, the rear end hanging out over the kerbs, or Heikki Kovalainen's inspired move on Alonso into turn 13, two laps from the finish, this felt like a race.

Sometimes you can end up feeling jaded, and wonder if the magic has gone. After too many line-astern processions last year, and talk of Ferrari domination this year, I was not as keyed up about the new F1 season as I have been in the past. Hell, I didn't even stay up to watch the race live (though in my defence, I'd just come in from best-man duties at a friend's wedding at 2am, and collapsed straight into bed). What I saw in Melbourne this weekend helped to reawaken my interest, though.

I'm not talking about the accidents. Jonathan Meades may once have opined that the unspoken appeal of all motorsport was gratification of the appetite for crashes, but it ain't so. Rather, what gripped me was that this was a race which was hard fought all the way down the field. Maybe not at the front, but elsewhere down the order, the Ferraris of Massa and Raikkonen had to force their way up through the pack - though both made themselves look rather foolish in the process. Fernando Alonso showed why, whatever you may think of his behaviour last year, he is still a very formidable force, throwing the Renault around like a man born to it. In keeping a double world champion behind him in the closing stages, Sebastien Bourdais demonstrated that, while he may lack the outright pace of young team mate Sebastien Vettel, he's picked up considerable racecraft in his time in Champ Car. So Lewis Hamilton ran away with it serenely at the front? Well, we'll see if he can do it again in Malaysia. I wouldn't put too much money on it.

What the weekend didn't do, however, is answer the many questions all race fans have been asking over the winter. Let's start with the big one. Is Mclaren going to be a match for Ferrari?
It's hard to know, as Ferrari and their drivers made such a dog's breakfast of the Melbourne weekend. First there was Raikkonen's fuel pressure problem in qualifying, which relegated him to 15th on the grid. Then Massa became the first victim of the traction control ban, losing the back end of his Ferrari at the first corner on the opening lap and falling behind even Raikkonen.
Raikkonen made steady progress up the field, only to throw it away by going off at turn 3 not once but twice. And to cap it all, both Ferraris went out with engine failure. Mclaren must feel their chances of stealing back the constructors championship are off to a good start. So we're left with two contradictory fragments. On the one hand, Raikkonen's mid-race pace, and the way he was all over the back of Kovalainen, suggests that had he qualified at the front, he might have disappeared off into the distance. On the other hand, Massa, in the other Ferrari, qualified behind both Mclarens and a BMW. A sign that the new F2008 isn't the car to beat after all? Or that the Brazilian is lost without traction control?

Talking of traction control, is the standard ECU and the loss of traction control and intelligent 'engine braking' going to make a difference to the racing? The initial evidence appears to be positive - there were more mistakes from drivers, and the cars appeared to visibly slide around rather more than they did last year. Appearances may be deceptive, however. Cars may have lacked grip more because of an unusually 'green' track than because of fundamental changes to the cars' electronics. And the driver errors might have had more to do with the intense heat in Melbourne over the weekend and a degree of race-rustiness from the winter break than anything else. The jury, I think, is still out.

If the loss of driver aids appeared to make some guys look rather foolish, then few looked more out of their depth than Nelson Piquet Junior. Is this a sign that the scion of the Piquet family has just been found out - that he isn't really up to F1 standards? Well maybe. But maybe not. He did, of course, qualify only 21st, but even Fernando Alonso could not get the difficult Renault any higher than 13th on the grid. Piquet had the lion's share of the team's problems in practice and got little running in on a track he had never been to before. And let's not forget that Piquet is a man who gave Lewis Hamilton a run for his money in GP2 a couple of years back - which you can't imagine Ricardo Rosset or Gaston Mazzacane having been able to do. It's early days. That said, few really great drivers look so hopelessly out of their depth on their debut...

There's a couple of other newcomers, or near-newcomers over whom question marks still hang. Sebastien Vettel looked mighty in second qualifying, but that was about the last we saw of him. His Toro Rosso never took to the track in Q3, and then he was eliminated on the opening lap in the race. Testing has tended to suggest that he has the measure of the Red Bulls, but then testing tended to suggest that BMW were in trouble. Vettel's pace rather put Sebastien Bourdais in the shade. A shame for the 4 times Champ Car champion who has waited so long for his F1 chance - who looks like he might just have been paired up with the next big thing. Thing is, though, that Bourdais is convinced that he could have been through into Q2 had he not been caught out by the yellow flags during his qualifying run. An excuse, or an explanation? Time will tell, though if Bourdais doesn't want to be written off as a nearly-man, he will have to make an impression quickly.

Where do Williams stand in the scheme of things? Pre-season, the talk had been that they would be leading the chasing pack behind Mclaren and Ferrari, but in Melbourne Rosberg found himself outqualified by both Sauber BMWs and a Toyota. He dealt with the Toyota easily enough in the race, but never quite looked the equal of the BMWs on pace. Was this the result of a Friday practice session lost to car problems, or a sign that the Williams just isn't quite on the pace of the BMWs? Maybe Malaysia will give us a clearer idea.

Then, perhaps most intriguing of all, there's the question of quite where BMW stand in the pecking order. Robert Kubica surprised us all by grabbing a front row slot at Albert Park. It probably would have been pole had he not gone off onto the grass at turn 12 on his fast lap, too. Ah, we nodded sagely...the effect of a light fuel load. Well, sort of. But not that light. Kubica came in for fuel a few laps before pole-man Hamilton did, but then but for his error, he would have been a couple of tenths quicker than him in qualifying too. It does rather point to the possibility that, over a single lap if not over a race distance, the BMW might be right on the pace of Mclaren and Ferrari. Which will certainly make things interesting at some of the tracks where overtaking is more difficult.

I'm left with the impression that Melbourne gave us pointers. We learned what the questions are, but we have not found out what the answers will be. We are in the terrain of Donald Rumsfeld's known unknowns. A good thing we've only a week until Malaysia and a chance to find out more.

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Blogger Mark said...

I think Bourdais is going to have more good runs. He has never been an overly aggressive driver, and I think that's why he does not always qualify well. What has won him 4 CCWS championships is consistent driving. He tends to make very few mistakes during a race and has an amazing talent for avoiding trouble. But then again.. this is not CCWS.

5:30 PM  

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