Gentlemen, start your engines. The first grand prix of the season is almost upon us, the gateway to spring, a time of great excitement and anticipation in Formula One. Just don’t look at the time sheets from winter testing.
Little wonder Bernie Ecclestone is pulling his hair out. He has plenty of it, which is just as well because no one is listening. Who thought they might pine for the days when Bernie and Max ran the show?
With Max Mosley at the helm of F1’s governing body, the FIA, Ecclestone had not only a collaborative ear, but a forensic thinker with an intuitive grasp of the requirement. What Bernie wanted he got. Not a bad rule of thumb, since he dragged the sport from the margins into a commercial powerhouse of global significance.
What Ecclestone sees now he doesn’t like: teams at the bottom of the food chain that would not be in Australia without his handouts, and a contest at the top that lacks competitive drama. Unable to control the chessboard as he once did, he is stuck with what he has.
A rules meeting last month decided against immediate changes that might have introduced the 1000bhp engine, fatter rubber and radical design concepts that would change the look of the vehicles. That disaster was followed by a final test at Barcelona that blew a hole in the idea that parity might be gained in the season ahead.
On soft rubber, and not even super-soft at that, Mercedes blazed their supremacy all over the Circuit de Catalunya. Pat Symonds, who has overseen the resurgence of Williams these past couple of years, thought the gap might be narrowing but left Spain shaking his head.
On pace, on long runs, on miles completed, by any measure you like, the numbers point to another year of one-team hegemony, the internecine duelling between Lewis Hamilton and Nico Rosberg the season’s saving grace.
Those two will not disappoint. Their epic arm wrestle in 2014 made compelling viewing but while that kind of competition is a necessary component it is not sufficient to grow or sustain wider interest.
Who can forget the drama that engulfed that Brazilian finale in 2008 when Felipe Massa was three turns into his lap of honour before his world championship dreams were dashed over the radio? Hamilton had ripped past the fading tyres of Timo Glock’s Toyota to claim the fifth place he needed to enter nirvana.
We were denied that fundamental competitive dynamic last year and the spectacle suffered massively as a result. Sport is predicated on the unpredictable. When outcomes are known before the first lap is done, it’s akin to watching Chelsea defend a one-goal lead. Cue boiling kettles.
Predictability is not so easily undone in F1 once technical dominance is established. The science that underpins the game is tethered to heavy regulations denying teams the innovative leap that might shake up the order. Only when the FIA rips up the technical rulebook on one premise or another is there hope of redress.
The regulatory shifts that thrust the 1600cc sewing-machine engine upon us and Mercedes to the front were effectively a measure to break Red Bull’s crushing hegemony.
A decade or more ago, when Ferrari and Michael Schumacher were rewriting records and the cost of trying to keep up was killing the sport, the introduction of new engine and aero regulations were ultimately the tool that brought them back to the field, and some madcap revisions to qualifying did little for the integrity of the sport.
F1 desperately needs to reconnect with its essence, which is rooted in the contest between drivers, not aerodynamicists and engineers. When machinery plays such a fundamental role in the endeavour, the balance is necessarily delicate. Somewhere along the line F1 went too far down the lab route at the expense of theatre.
None of this will get in the way of the party in Melbourne, a city made to host the opening round of the season. And, this being the maiden race of the year for what are essentially prototype rockets, the random variable is in play to a greater degree – witness the gremlin strike that stalled Hamilton’s challenge a year ago.
There is interest at Ferrari, where four-time champion Sebastian Vettel seeks to re-establish his credentials after a poor final year at Red Bull. The car appears infinitely better than the one left behind by Fernando Alonso, whose move to McLaren will also draw the eye when he recovers full fitness.
But all too soon Mercedes will be the only story. Can Hamilton continue to hold off Rosberg, the better qualifier last year? Hardened by the experience of losing, Rosberg will be tougher to catch if he gets away a second time, even for a man with Hamilton’s appetite for derring-do.
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