Motor Racing: Formula to end the gridlock: David Tremayne looks ahead to a contest in which driving skill will be at a premium

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The Independent Online
THERE is a moment in every grand prix when, with the cars on the starting grid and the lights about to change to green, the sense of anticipation is almost tangible. As a new season gets under way in Brazil next weekend, that same feeling pervades the whole sport. Drivers have come and gone, rules and regulations have been changed, the old order is threatened, and rarely has the opening of a Formula One campaign been so keenly awaited.

But with all the promising portents, the big question remains: will the racing be better? The indications from winter testing are encouraging. At Imola in Italy recently, Michael Schumacher let Ayrton Senna know that he is ready to challenge the Brazilian's domination when he set a time that the title favourite was unable to match. Senna versus Schumacher; Williams-Renault versus Benetton-Ford. In these contests lie the best prospect for the sort of excitement the sport desperately needs.

With Alain Prost now in retirement, the German is the man Senna would most like to keep in his rear-view mirror. But there are others equipped to press claims, not least Senna's team-mate, Britain's Damon Hill, who is eager to build on his first season's advances. At Ferrari, who are long overdue for a revival to justify their multi-million budget, Gerhard Berger is a proven race winner and Jean Alesi deserves to be. It may be mid-season, however, before Ferrari gets fully up to speed.

Having admitted defeat in the battle to tempt Prost out of retirement, McLaren-Peugeot must forego their requirement that at least one of their drivers be a grand prix winner, and rely on Mika Hakkinen and, in all probability, Martin Brundle as Peugeot enter the arena in an effort to challenge Renault.

We also wait to see if the Finnish driver J J Lehto can recover sufficiently from the neck injuries he sustained in a crash in January to support Schumacher as Benetton's number two driver. In Lehto's absence, the young Dutchman Jos Verstappen - already being hailed in some circles as a nascent Schumacher - will face a grand prix debut in only his 50th race of any kind.

Thanks to the diktat of the FIA, the sport's governing body, several computer-controlled driving aids have been banned: 'active' suspension, which governed the ride-height (and therefore the aerodynamic properties) of the car; anti-lock braking systems; and electronic 'fly-by-wire' throttle control. All these devices reduced the need for a driver's judgement and finesse. Controversially, refuelling has been reintroduced - and, this time, made compulsory.

The FIA president Max Mosley's aim has been straightforward. He was growing increasingly worried that the technical aids which teams were spending huge amounts on developing took control away from the drivers, and diminished what should still, primarily, be seen as a human battle, mano a mano.

The issue has been complicated by the manner in which the FIA deliberately allowed the new rules to be vague for a long time, as they manoeuvred into a stronger position in order to withstand potential legal action from disgruntled teams. Mosley's anxiety is no doubt prompted by memories of the acrimonious battle with the French fuel giant Elf in 1992.

Pessimists are predicting much aggravation when the teams arrive in the scrutineering bay in Brazil later this week. Others, however, are more sanguine. Harvey Postlethwaite, the Tyrrell designer, said bluntly at the launch of his team's new car: 'In my opinion, the rules are perfectly clear.' Mosley himself is no less unequivocal. 'All of the teams know what the rules are, and on all the grey areas they know what our view is,' he said.

Others talk of the question of 'interpretation' (for which read a desire to bend the rules to their own ends), almost as if they are discussing the judging system for ice skating. The FIA have taken on the best brains in the business but have cleverly turned matters round so that the onus is now on the teams to prove that their cars are legal, rather than on the FIA to prove that they are not.

We will probably see fewer disputes than the pessimists expect, as the FIA's technical delegate, Charlie Whiting, has already examined all of the leading cars, and the teams are now sufficiently aware of what will and what will not be accepted at Interlagos.

Just in case, Mosley has spelled out his intention to impose Draconian penalties on any miscreants. 'If somebody was found to be cheating,' he said, 'if you could demonstrate that they deliberately cheated, then I think such penalties are completely correct. They could expect to be out of the World Championship, which would mean that they didn't take part in any more races that year, and lost any points they'd gained.'

But will the racing be better? With luck, the gap between the top four teams - Williams, McLaren, Benetton and Ferrari - and the rest will close, and the gaps between individual teams will also diminish. But it may be optimistic to expect too much more. Money still talks.

Flavio Briatore, the colourful managing director of Benetton and the man who stole Verstappen from beneath the McLaren chief Ron Dennis's nose, believes that the 'new' Formula One will be brighter, and cites the need for a better show. 'You need to give it more emotion for the 150 million people watching it. People don't come to see our technology, they come to see the fight between Senna and Schumacher. At the moment Formula One is operating at only 20 per cent of its potential.'

He wants to see the Concorde Agreement - by which all Formula One teams are bound - modified so that changes can be implemented without the need for unanimous agreement. The inability of the teams to agree among themselves has been one of the main obstacles to progress in recent years. 'Every time the teams sit down and talk, it's very emotional. It's like school; everybody is screaming and then the teacher arrives and says, 'Everybody, shut up]' This is what Max does.'

Recently Briatore suggested improving the spectacle by starting races with reverse grids, with the faster cars lining up at the back. Formula One can probably get by without such gimmicks, but few enthusiasts would deny that better promotion, and some cut-and-thrust racing would not go amiss this year. Perhaps there will even be some overtaking. After all, it happens in IndyCars where the technology has been limited and where Nigel Mansell begins the defence of his 1993 title at Surfers Paradise, in Australia, today.

Speaking of which, I wonder if it has come to the FIA's notice that there are three times as many former world champions racing in the American series as there are left now in Formula One.

(Photographs and table omitted)