Tuesday, March 16, 2010


I've said before that the secret of happiness, or at least contentment, is low expectations. So perhaps that's why I found the opening round of the 2010 Formula 1 Championship last weekend such a disappointment. I had been expecting a close battle between four world champions, with Red Bull, Ferrari, Mclaren and Mercedes all in the hunt for victory. I had expected Renault, Williams and Sauber to surprise. There was the return of Michael Schumacher after three years away. And I had hoped that the ban on refueling might finally force drivers to fight it out on the track.

As it was, the opening race was pretty dreary. There was, to be fair, the threat of a battle for the lead between Alonso's Ferrari and Vettel's Red Bull, but Vettel's Renault engine gave out before battle was really joined, and the experiences of others, further down the field, suggests that even if Alonso's Ferrari was considerably quicker, he almost certainly wouldn't have been able to find a way past.

To be fair, there have not been many close fought races with plenty overtaking between the leading drivers at Bahrain. With the exception of the first turn, there isn't really anywhere on the Sakhir circuit where a modern F1 car is going to find a way past a healthy rival able to lap within a second or two of the chasing car. It's a problem with the design of modern F1 cars (there was plenty of passing in the supporting GP2 Asia race) and I'm not sure there's an obvious solution to it. Those who talk of banning wings or similar such ideas miss the point that, no matter how you write the rulebook, designers and engineers will always find another way of clawing back the downforce, and quite possibly that new way will involve even more turbulence and dirty air than the current one (although James Allen has an interesting article on his blog questioning whether aerodynamic downforce is the problem anyway). The solution is a rule-set which forces teams to run cars much like the first-generation GP2 cars, but for the reasons above, that's far easier said than done.

All that said, I'm not convinced the new rules, or at least the combination of the new rules and the tyres Bridgedstone provided at Bahrain, have exactly helped matters. The tyres appear durable enough to cope with a one-stop strategy, but only provided the driver is pretty careful with them, doesn't push the rubber too hard, doesn't run too close to the car ahead and, certainly only provided the driver doesn't risk flat-spotting them with a late-braking passing move.

Predictably, there have been calls to address this by adding yet more artifice to the rules - a mandatory two pit-stop rule (as if that had added in any way to the DTM where it has been tried) or even, heaven forfend, introducing wacky-races style short-cuts to the circuit which a driver may use a certain number of times a race to overtake (because such moves would really rank alongside Hakkinen vs Schumacher at Spa in 2000 or Mansell on Senna at Hungary in 1989 as great overtaking manoeuvres...) It strikes me that the answer lies in the other direction - fewer rules rather than more. In particular, let's get rid of the rule that a driver has to stop to change tyres at least once. Imagine how Bahrain might have turned out if Hamilton or Rosberg, mindful of the difficulty of overtaking, decided to gamble on running the whole race on one set of tyres. And imagine how determined a freshly-tyred Alonso might have been to find a way past in the closing laps, after his stop. The one rule change which has really produced closer racing in recent years was the one-set-of-tyres-a-race rule of 2005, where we even had passing at Monaco.

Unfortunately, the new rules were not the only thing that left me feeling a little downheartened, watching the GP on Iplayer on Sunday evening (having just returned from spending the afternoon in A&E, but that needn't detain us here). There were disturbing signs that, far from being the eight-way title fight we might have hoped for, we could be looking at a Ferrari runaway on the scale of 2004. Yes, Vettel got pole, perhaps because Red Bull had mastered the art of running a car on empty tanks for a banzai qualifying run while set up to run on a full tank of fuel at the start, but Alonso's fastest race lap was a whole second quicker than anyone else's.

Certainly, it doesn't appear that Alonso will be under any immediate threat from the man behind nearly half of all Maranello's race victories, Michael Schumacher. His return was another minor disappointment. Dieter Rencken this week ran an article on how age should be no barrier to the German, but something, either age or race-rustiness, must be behind his inability to match team mate Nico Rosberg last weekend. In Martin Brundle's words, he appeared a tenth of a second behind the car, and while he put a brave face on when talking to the press, he must surely be wondering whether, at 41, he isn't getting a bit old for all this now. Perhaps it will be completely different in Australia, but if it isn't, I wonder how long he'll stick around. He didn't come back to F1 to be No. 2 to Nico Rosberg, after all.

More generally, qualifying demonstrated that, after several years in which the gap between the fastest and slowest cars has been steadily narrowing, it appears to have opened right back out again this year. Not only the new teams, which we all knew would be miles from the pace, but the midfield appear to have slipped back. There were no surprises from Williams or Renault, while the only thing that was unexpected about Sauber's performance was how woefully slow they were, after showing promising form in winter testing. Shades of Prost in 2001, one wonders whether they were running light to attract sponsors.

Down at the back, it was amateur hour. The new teams are vastly professional organisations when compared to such past embarassments as Life, Forti and Andrea Moda but nonetheless Karun Chandhok's experience with the new HRT brought back memories of such past disastrous efforts. Turning up to the first race with a car which had literally never turned a wheel, and having Chandhok use qualifying to shake down the second car was desperate, and bordering on dangerous.

As was Virgin's seeming inability to bolt all four wheels to their wagon. To be fair, it's something which has afflicted a number of teams down the years, but it doesn't exactly bode well for a new team. The CFD-designed car did at least appear to be the quickest of the new machines, but it remains every bit as fragile as it looked in testing, and by one-third distance, both Di Grassi and Glock were done for the day.

Mike Gascoygne's Litespeed, sorry, Proton, cough, Lotus, was the best put together and most professionally run of the new cars. That said, it is going to require some serious development work if Tony Fernandes' new team is to do anything more than trundle around at the back of the field, getting lapped a couple of times an afternoon. Certainly, if these three new teams are the brave new face of F1, then I find myself in the rather strange position of feeling nostalgic for Toyota, who may have been soulless but could at least build a half-way competitive F1 car.

So, Australia next. A circuit where overtaking was always something of a rarity anyway....

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