Thursday, 7 April 2011

Reflections on Melbourne

Well I don’t know if I’ll do this all the time, but I really wanted to outline some reflections on the first race. Had enough time to think about it now! Well the first thing I have to say is that most of my thoughts since, have been along the lines of ‘when’s the next one? Hurry up! When’s the next one...’ ad nasueam, and this can’t be a bad sign! Certainly as I found last year, I always look forward to the next race, each one feels like a real big event again, and there is plenty to think about with the strength in depth of teams and drivers, and lots of stories to look at. And I think, on balance, this was a good race, and for some reason seems to be being somewhat talked down by the consegetti, for reasons I don’t quite understand. Is this just a function of the internet era, where if it is not the greatest first race ever, all manner of chaos breaks loose? Possibly (says blogger!). But for me, this race was deeply encouraging. Yes it was not the greatest race of all time, but I think this is not important (this time). I think a key problem with Formula One is that for a long time the ‘base standard’ races have been very weak. What I would term a ‘base standard’ race is one where it is dry, no one does anything exceptionally stupid (which of course can bring out a safety car) and there is no other big point of interest, for example a championship showdown. I mean Formula One is monumentally good at producing exciting races in the wet, outside of Barcelona 1996 (half the field off in the first few laps, zzzz!). I can’t really remember many dull ones. But unless we go down to the level of Bernie operating the sprinklers (thank goodness there is not support for such a lunatic idea from within high echelons of the sport!) then we won’t have them every week. Formula One got away with it for years with the weak base standard. Take Monza 1999. Everyone remembers it for the crash of Mika Hakkinen under the pressure of the title fight, with him then going on for a cry in the bushes (which was amazingly all caught by the usually incompetent and chaotic Italian host broadcaster, thankfully the days of hosts have gone...). Dramatic, exciting, passionate, what a race you’d say? Was it f**k! The truth was, the base standard of that race was awful, little passing, no variety in strategy, cars on rails, but like much of late 1990’s Formula One it was about getting your 30 seconds of dramatic footage, so we all could pretend that dull races in dull cars with maybe the weakest crop of drivers ever to contest a World Championship was the best thing since sliced bread...well bo**ocks to that! And I could get away with such uncouth verbiage then because at the same time Champ Car was churning out races with an excellent base standard, and you never had long to wait. Yes, each race was not necessarily up to the standard of the classic three wide finish, or Zanardi passing the whole field to win, but you could sit down in the safe knowledge that it would be interesting, and a real ‘tortilla chips’ race. Tortilla chips, are you crazy, I hear you say? Well yes, but I was already, and I will explain. I am a naturally fidgety person, whose attention span isn’t brilliant, but it is breakable, as a good book, magazine or programme will testify. A tortilla chips race for me is a race where you could just sit in front of the screen, and (this is a terrible habit of mine) be so interested in what was going on in the race, that you would sit there putting everything else on auto pilot, and just mechanically keep reaching for a crisp, until the packet was done, not noticing you had eaten far too many. But if the race wasn’t this good, you would notice, or either you would get up and do something else. If it was not wet, or there wasn’t a big pile up, no problem, Champ Car would right royally enthral you. NASCAR and touring cars are past masters at this as well. But the shocking base standard of Formula One meant they couldn’t consistently play the same role. For another example, let’s go back to Monza 2002 (a place remember with lots of straights and chicanes, necessitating low downforce. Any racing series worth its salt should be able to reel off half decent races there!).That race really depressed me at the time, and still does! There was history made on the Saturday, with Montoya taking his Williams round to the fastest average speed ever. Great stuff from a driver and team of racers, lovely to hear. Race day dawned with Jim Rosenthal, probably Mark ‘DI’ Blundell, and especially James Allen, getting to my mind quite hysterical about the ‘excitement’ of the organisers building a new podium hanging over the start finish straight so the Tifosi could stand under it. Not as interesting as hearing from er, teams and drivers, with intelligent argumentative debate then...but hey, can’t argue that the podium is good for the fans, let’s hope they give them a race to remember, let’s go racing.....and so the lights go out, on a lovely sunny day, and....nothing happens. Nothing. No passing. About halfway through James Allen talks about the ‘excitement’ and passion we have waiting for us on the podium. And then he gets excited about the ‘strategy’ element of the race which seems to be most cars on a one stop, the odd person on two, all stopping on pre determined laps, tyre wear not an issue, and trying to drive a really fast in and out lap, although this isn’t really radical, because in those days, they just went flat out from stop to stop. It seemed to me that the ‘pre-strategy’ era, before Formula One turned into a ‘game of chess’ (copyright M.Mosley), with drivers conserving tyres, making snap decisions to pit, different cars gaining or losing speed as fuel was substantially burnt off, and so on, contained far more...strategy?! Anyway, James Allen seems to like it. After the fascinating 'strategy battle’ (by this stage I would have closed the bag of crisps and probably have been mentally focused on the paint drying...) James tees us up for the big moment in the closing laps with more talk of the ‘passion’ of the podium, before we then have the flag, James talks about the new podium and then...hail be! The drivers WALK ON THE PODIUM! THERE ARE FANS STANDING UNDERNEATH IT! THE DRIVERS ARE WAVING TO THEM! WOW! HALLEYUAH! ADELAIDE 1986 HAD NOTHING ON THIS! Not knowing how I was coping with all this primal excitement in one day by now, I watched the drivers move onto the press conference, where Michael ‘is Magny Cours 1998 Ferrari’s first one-two’ Schumacher was asked about what the ‘passion’ of the fans and the podium meant. Then we returned to the ITV ‘analysis’ team, with more original theory and insight great the podium was. Look, I wasn’t against the podium idea at all, but my point is, in tirelessly pedalling this ‘moment’, and ‘passion’ of the podium, they had all forgotten that, quite frankly, these ‘moments’ should be spontaneous, and earnt! And the race had done nothing to earn that at all, in fact for all they talked about it, they may as well have gone from the five minute board to the bloody podium ceremony! There has to be something good in between the talk of the podium and the damn podium itself! And to make it worse, many of the assertions of the James Allen line that the ‘passion’ and the ‘devotion’ and ‘fanaticism’ of the Tifosi were being shown off rested on sandy ground. Thanks to the always questioning, assertive and wonderful journalism of Nigel Roebuck, I knew for long before a waning enthusiasm (although not respect) for the dry Schumacher ‘League of Nations’ Ferrari, even though their results were a world away from the all-Italian circus that Ferrari had been in the early 1990’s. This was not just a hunch, but backed by declining television and attendance figures in Italy, from the ‘fanatical’ Tifosi. So the ‘ITV’ take on events was made up of a lot of utter bulls**t! Of course one hopes that the said effluent wouldn’t be such a problem these days and you might have messers Couthard, Jordan and Brundle, ably compared by Jake Humphrey, chewing the fat, dissecting these issues and speaking out frankly about the lack of excitement. But what even those talented broadcasters would not have been able to do was to make the MOST IMPORTANT thing know the race? It’s the bit they do before the podium just for future reference.

But you would have known little from the small amount most people saw of it on the news broadcasts of these Monza races. All the tedium would be tightly edited into a package of all the ‘emotion and drama’ – start, pitstops, Hakkinen crying, chequered flag, people round the blasted podium, bang bang, bang. Formula One as a sport was truly ‘phoning it in’, and yet most of the population would not have had the clue. Indeed until a few years ago Mr Ecclestone had the temetry to label these news watchers as active viewers of the sport! But if they were flying over the radar with a substandard base product in those days, today, bizarrely, the opposite is happening, and now I would say Formula One is unduly suffering, being pushed under the radar. I reference you to the BBC News report on the night of the Australian Grand Prix. The reporter (Kevin Geary) pilloried the race for being dull, and mocked the DRS system. For me this is a simplistic, wrong analysis from someone who should realise he may be wrongly influencing options. When we look at the Australian race what I call the ‘base standard’ was shown to be in good, solid form. The race on first inspection had all the ingredients for a dullathon – it was dry as a bone, there was no strange goings on in qualifying that would have mixed up the grid, Melbourne was apparently easier on the new tyres and the Red Bull seemed so much faster, and it looked impossible to believe anything but Vettel blowing everyone away Mansell/FW14B style. And of course we had high expectations for the season to match up to, so things could have taken a fall. But they really didn’t, and in my opinion built on the ‘base standard’ of Formula One 2010 and moved it on in some areas. So Mr Geary, did you really find the whole race boring? Hamilton pushing Vettel seriously hard in the first stint, even looking like he might take the lead at the first stop? Boring? Rubens Barrichello going to the back, passing over ten people (very browned off the usually excellent FOM direction missed this, hope this won’t be regular) then throwing it away with a mad manoeuvre on Rosberg? Boring? Jenson Button’s escapades with Massa and the cut corner? Boring? Buemi passing Sutil, and Sutil eventually sneaking in front of Di Resta? Boring? Kobayshi getting passed, yes, passed, by other drivers? Boring? The tension as Alonso was catching Petrov towards the end? Boring? The Perez/ Pirelli miracle (will he start feeding the five thousand next?!) of the one tyre stop? Boring? And of course we have the centrepiece of the report, the alleged ‘lacklustre’ debut of the DRS. Here we have to really question the entire premise of this, and I will have to go out on a limb. Firstly, I have to say I am a big opponent of the DRS, as I will outline in a future post, because it is inheritantly artificial. Yes, overtaking is a problem, but we need less ‘dirty air’ to fix that. ‘Push to pass’ KERS is a ‘good ‘push’ as it is fair to both drivers, and creates fascination in how both drivers will use it. When it is not (a la Raikkonen/Fisichella at Spa two years ago, when only Raikkonen had it) it is not very exciting. The DRS isn’t, and leads to a danger with the inheritant ‘unfairness' of only giving it to the attacking driver, that it will lead to boring passes. Thankfully, this was mostly averted by quite sensible setting of the system, and our good friend KERS. During the Button/Massa fight, Massa was actually able to use his KERS to override Jenson’s DRS in a high speed game of top trumps, before having to then defend against Jenson’s KERS deployment elsewhere around the lap. This created a fascinating contest for a few laps, which could have lasted longer, but only ended as Jenson left out a corner from his itenary. Still great fun though. There were still many other passes in the race though. So did Mr Geary want more dull passes a la Raikkonen/Fisichella, or the fascinating action we did get? My sense is that he doesn’t know, and he doesn’t care, and probably would be satisfied with a new podium and some ‘emotion’ shots. But it is a pity he outlines this at a time when the ‘base standard’ of Formula One is better than for 20 years, and improving all the time. Having unfairly pedalled the impression they had an amazing series for years, Formula One is now, unfairly, suffering from the exact opposite in the mainstream media! And what I really fear is it will lead to panic in the top echelons of the sport to appease people like Geary. I don’t want DRS but if it has to be here, it should be Melbourne style, or less, but what I fear is they might lengthen the distance it can be deployed, and then....welcome to a race of a billion passing manoeuvres, all utterly dull! They must hold their nerve and be sensible (or even better, turn the damn thing off, or....have it on PERMANENTLY! Now that would be real fun. No downforce sir.....)

One thing I also haven’t heard enunciated is that Vettel took pole, led the entire race bar when he pitted, won the race by over 20 seconds and...I think he should be thourougly disappointed. They always say winning a title again is harder than the first time, but I’m sure somewhere there is a very small legal disclaimer saying if you have a dominant car and a demoralised team mate, it isn’t really, you know? Well, given that this was the first time Red Bull had a full testing programme coming in, and looked seriously fast, well....Vettel had a serious chance of having this. And one aspect of the plan worked out well – Ferrari were well, well beaten (although they say warmer climes will help them) but there was a shock in the pace of the McLarens. Remember Vettel was challenged by Hamilton very hard in the first stint, Lewis firstly stopped him pulling away and then got the gap down to two seconds, and at one point I was convinced that he was going to take the lead at the first stop. He didn’t. But it would have been interesting to see how things would have turned out, if his undertray hadn’t broken, To challenge Vettel that closely in the first stint with a car that didn’t have a full test programme, was dog slow in testing, and had a series of last minute revisions which took away some of which was unique about the car and were deliberately simple (Martin Brundle saying on the grid that they didn’t even have time to make some of the new bits carbon fibre!) was just a fantastic achievement, and I’m sure there is more to come. The scales partially dropped here, Red Bull are quick, really quick. But not dominant. Sebastian Vettel, you are a wonderful young driver and World Champion, but you are in a fight for it again!

Well at least Mr Geary could then inject some of the ‘emotion’ of a good points race into his reports. I’m off to now kidnap him, make him watch some late 1990’s Formula One races from Monza, and then make him re-watch Australia and challenge him to broadcast the same piece about how dull it all was. But before that, after all this writing, I think I deserve a big munch on a packet of tortilla chips – they are not just for motor sport watching you know......