The soap opera returns. It is hard to remember a Formula One season starting in quite the same circumstances as this one. The sport’s greatest champion, Michael Schumacher, lies comatose in a hospital bed, its chief executive, Bernie Ecclestone, is fighting for his professional life in a German court, the champion of the past four years, Sebastian Vettel, is strapped to a Red Bull emasculated by radical changes; oh, and Ron Dennis is back.
The convergence of Vettel and Red Bull by increments squeezed the life out of the sport. Last season’s procession to a fourth consecutive world championship left even the diehards screaming for mercy. Suddenly great drivers rendered impotent by the steely brilliance of Vettel and the automotive genius of Adrian Newey have an opportunity to resurrect careers.
Who would have thought Fernando Alonso would spend eight years potless when Dennis swooped audaciously behind the garages in Brazil to make the young Spaniard an offer he couldn’t refuse in the post-race frenzy of his maiden world championship?
That was nine years ago. Having ended the unprecedented reign of the mighty Schumacher, Alonso was seen as a Fangio-like figure, a driver of preternatural gifts who would define the post-Schumi epoch. Dennis, demonstrating the same instinctive nerve presently blowing through McLaren, was in like a flash to outmanoeuvre a player of Flavio Briatore’s slippery class.
It quickly turned to mush for both in one of the most compelling episodes in recent F1 history. Dennis has many qualities, stubborness being one, but on that occasion his inflexible adherence to some high-minded principle preserving competitive integrity killed the dream. That and Lewis Hamilton turning up.
The “who’d have thought” game applies equally powerfully to Hamilton. Here was a kid who did what no other had, a boy from a Stevenage council estate smashing Formula One stereotypes left, right and centre. By race and background Hamilton should have been nowhere near the F1 paddock, yet here he was giving a double world champion the hurry-up in his rookie year.
With two races of the 2007 season remaining Hamilton had a 17-point lead over Ferrari’s Kimi Raikkonen. What happened in China, where McLaren left him out on dead rubber for half a dozen laps, defies F1 convention. At the last race, in Brazil, he was visited by a mysterious glitch that came and went at a point on the circuit that would present least danger to cars rushing by and, crucially as it turned out, allowed Raikkonen to put enough space between his car and Hamilton’s to win the title. Most convenient.
Hamilton would rise again a year later only to see his McLaren career crushed under the aegis of Martin Whitmarsh. Had Dennis reached for the guillotine and lopped the well-meaning technocrat sooner, Hamilton might still be a McLaren driver. Mad as it sounds he might yet be again. So might Alonso. They might even be paired together.
No? I refer you to the opening paragraph. Anything is possible in this sport.
Hamilton’s move to an uncertain Mercedes a year ago looks inspired now. Perhaps the team’s biggest challenge will be keeping Hamilton and Nico Rosberg from each other’s throats. Rosberg, who showed in draining the romance from Schumacher’s return how hard he is to shift, is a dangerously measured counterpoint to the extravagant speed of Hamilton.
The potentially explosive dynamic at Ferrari is no less fascinating, with the re-signing of 2007 champion Raikkonen to race alongside Alonso. You would not have bet two bob on that happening when Il Presidente, Luca di Montezemolo, gave him the flick to accommodate Alonso in 2010.
Raikkonen was a revelation in his early days at McLaren, lightning quick and gloriously uncomplicated. He is no less dismissive of the “bullshit” that swirls around the paddock today, just more mature and better equipped to deal with it, which he will need to be if the competition with Alonso gets close.
How marvellous it is to see Williams looking like a team again, and with the blood line represented impressively by Claire Williams. The old man is no doubt proud of her quiet resolve and savvy marshalling of resources. With that Mercedes machinery underneath him, Felipe Massa has peppered the right end of the time sheets in testing, suggesting there is more to that retro Martini livery than nostalgia.
So the pieces that have been up in the air all winter are about to fall on Melbourne. The big teams will adjust fastest to the new environment and order shall eventually emerge from the chaos. Will it be Hamilton or Rosberg, Alonso or Raikkonen, Jenson Button or Kevin Magnussen – or will fate hand Massa the trophy it stole from him at Interlagos in 2008? In a sense none of it matters. One word from Schumacher that tells the world there is a way out of that tragic and unfathomable silence trumps any outcome on the track.