Has Formula One lost its va-va-voom?
New rules promised more overtaking this year but ahead of the Australian Grand Prix, drivers are not convinced.
Friday 26 March 2010
The 2010 season had been billed as the "best ever" for Formula One. We have four world champions taking eachother on, all of them running in competetive, top teams – Lewis Hamilton and Jenson Button at McLaren, Fernando Alonso at Ferrari and Michael Schumacher at Mercedes.
The return of Schumacher's, a seven-times title winner trying to reforge his career at the age of 41 was just one of the reasons we were all meant to be excited. A ban on refuelling during each race was intended to stop races being won or lost in the pit lane. The need to conserve tyres more than before rather than burn rubber was meant to throw up more interesting scenarios through each race. We were promised more overtaking, more thrills on the track.
Then the opening race of the season in Bahrain arrived the weekend before last. Even Sebastian Vettel, who started in pole position, described is as "boring" – he was out in front until a faulty spark plug put his Red Bull Renault on to seven cylinders and allowed Alonso and Massa in their Ferraris to reel him in.
As Button and Mark Webber were condemned to an afternoon of frustration, playing follow-my-leader behind Schumacher. There was no sense of the high levels of excitement that had been expected. So has F1 got it wrong? Or will the season spring to life. For this sport, so much depends on the next rece, in Melbourne this weekend.
Was it a boring race because of the Bahrain circuit?
In all likelihood, yes. As Button pointed out, a new "Mickey Mouse" part of the track – mainly second- and third-gear stuff – was far too bumpy and made overtaking impossible. It broke up the flow of the lap, making overtaking harder than ever.
So will the racing be better this weekend because of the layout of Melbourne's Albert Park?
Hopefully, yes. This is a faster track which requires less downforce, so speeds will be higher, and there are one or two places where overtaking is possible because drivers can get a sound run on each other and squeak by under braking.
Will there be more overtaking this season than last?
Ferrari's Felipe Massa does not think so. The cars are now so aerodynamically efficient, and depend on clean air flow so much, that getting close to the car in front becomes tricky. "Whenever you follow another car you still lose a lot of grip," says Massa, "even with the adjustable front wing we got from last year which is supposed to give you more front-end grip but which can actually make the back end light so that in some situations, so you might be more likely to spin when following another car really closely.
"With the greater fuel load you also lose a lot of grip because it's very hard on the tyres. So I am not at all sure that we are going to see more overtaking in Formula One this season."
Will overtaking be more a matter of waiting for pit stops or hoping that other cars are unreliable?
Hamilton thinks there is still some scope for the bold opening-corner, moves such as the one with which he began his F1 career in Australia in 2007 by diving ahead of his McLaren team-mate Alonso. But the 2008 world champion acknowledges that he would need a bigger slice of luck to pull that off again because of the significantly heavier fuel loads at the start.
McLaren showed in Bahrain that you can still make up places with slick pit stops, their quick work getting Button ahead of Webber and Hamilton ahead of Rosberg.
Would making two tyre stops mandatory spice up the action?
There is talk of making two pit stops compulsory, but there are also serious doubts that such a rule would make the action more exciting.
"It's a difficult question to answer," Alonso says. "Personally I don't feel that two stops will make any difference. I think things would stay the same. Qualifying with no fuel puts the fastest car at the front, so there is likely to be less overtaking in the race, right? I think the difference would have to be being creative with your strategy to change the order determined by the grid."
Should F1's leaders be taking panic measures to make things better?
No. Bahrain was just one race, and though many drivers were frustrated by their inability to overtake there, few want to see immediate change.
"I don't agree with people who say the race was boring," Alonso says. "I watched the DVD of the race afterwards and it didn't look boring to me. You had the Red Bull fighting the two Ferraris, Lewis chasing Vettel. We have to wait and see how the new rules really impact on the racing, on all types of circuit. We need to be calm. To those people who want extra, I say either wait or else consider watching something other than F1."
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