Melbourne, the host city to the first race of the 2015 Formula 1 season: it’s full of light, energy, and passionate fans; a unique track, and one which is all about setting into the right groove. But while some struggled for rhythm, others fell out of time completely, and once again the tune of F1 as a whole was brought into question.
If the Australian Grand Prix is a sign of things to come, we could be in for a very long and perhaps even duller season than either 2011 or 2013. Mercedes absolutely walked this one: finishing a full 34 seconds ahead of third placed Ferrari, and even lapped the Quadruple World Champions, Red Bull. With Sebastian Vettel gracing his Scuderia debut with a podium finish, you could be forgiven for thinking this marked real improvement for Ferrari, but a sobering statistic is that Fernando Alonso finished 35 seconds behind the Mercedes this time round last year. There is no denying Ferrari have improved, but have their competition stagnated or declined?
It certainly seemed that way for the Renault powered teams: and things are only going to get worse when they face up to the two long straits at Malaysia in two weeks time.
Whether it is political manoeuvring or a genuine contemplation, this morning Red Bull made it known they will consider their position within the sport this summer, insisting the current regulations are hampering the talents of Adrian Newey and other designers. Some will say it’s a case of sour grapes, and others that the sight of Daniel Ricciardo being lapped at his home race is sufficient proof that change is needed.
Nico Rosberg said he hoped to be fighting with other cars soon, before being firmly shot down by Sebastian Vettel: but the reality is, the fight isn’t coming, and the true attitude at Mercedes is summed up by Toto Wolff, who told Horner that Red Bull should stop moaning and get their ‘f***ing heads down and try and work it out.’
Mercedes are too far ahead and they’re not going anywhere. The three-tier racing which Christian Horner said F1 is in danger of slipping into is already here, and I think that the problem, as usual, still resides in the financial structure of the sport.
Just look at the starting grid in Melbourne: Caterham have gone; Manor/Marussia failed to take part; and Sauber, who actually went on to have an impressive Grand Prix, could have been found in contempt of court had Giedo van der Garde followed through with his legal actions. This would have risked Sauber’s assets being seized and team principal Monisha Kaltenborn being arrested.
In a sport where the slimmest of fractions can make all the difference, I am amazed that the Sauber-chiefs are completely incapable of dividing 2 by 3. I mean how is it possible to sign three drivers? It’s baffling. But the motivation was based entirely upon how much money the three drivers could bring into the team. They were literally almost torn apart by greed.
Of course the depleted grid was not entirely due to financial issues: Valtteri Bottas sustained a back injury; the formation lap claimed Kevin Magnusson and Daniel Kvyat; while Pastor Maldonado inevitably crashed (though this time not his fault), Romain Grosjean suffered mechanical failure soon after; and Kimi Raikonnen’s plagued afternoon was finally ended after his mechanics failed to secure his rear left tyre during his final pit stop.
But, bar a few impressive rookie performances from the likes of Felipe Nasr, the race was pretty dull. Hamilton led, Rosberg followed. Once Vettel jumped Massa in the pits it was game over for third; and not even Jenson Button could prevent the McLaren coming home last.
Perhaps then this is why there were murmurs of discontent on the podium: it does not seem to have been picked up on in the mainstream media (perhaps as they don’t want to magnify the issue) but Lewis Hamilton was not only greeted with cheering, but also audible booing.
Now, I’m not keen on Hamilton, but it was completely unjustified. He had done nothing controversial across the entire weekend, and was endearingly star struck by Arnold Schwarzenegger on the podium: what then did he do wrong? Well, other than lapping Ricciardo, absolutely nothing. He put a difficult winter behind him and sent out a stark message to his teammate.
Like Christian Horner and Red Bull then, it is possible some F1 fans are already grumbling with discontent. They can see the three-tier racing. Hamilton leading Rosberg for most of the season: Ferrari, Williams, and Red Bull scrapping out for best-of-the-rest; and the other’s fighting for midfield supremacy or not to come last.
As time goes by it becomes more and more apparent that F1 is going in the wrong direction: it cannot afford to be what it is, both in terms of finance and entertainment. It has always been the way for Formula 1 to relentlessly keep pushing, but this isn’t the ‘70s and ‘80s anymore: the costs are astronomical and the sport needs to adapt.
By and large F1 got lucky in 2014, because most moments of real tumult coincided with entertaining races; but when the cracks are left exposed, it’s an ugly picture.
If F1 is to continue it needs competition, it needs stability – it needs to be healthy.
Smaller teams need the confidence that they can survive before entertaining any thoughts of climbing up the grid. And those chasing the leaders need to be confident that it is at least possible to catch up and win races: Red Bull’s threat to walk away should be taken seriously. And then we have the F1 calendar issue: with Germany only 50% likely of staging a race this year. Stop giving races to the highest bidder, in the flashiest location: absolute profit is not everything. Give it to a country who knows how to make a race track, with passionate fans, and are capable of putting on a weekend’s entertainment. Just look at the difference between Austin and Abu Dhabi.
Perhaps one day if these things are tackled, the ridiculous political mess that frequently dominates Formula 1 will subside. But then again, we won’t have had anything to talk about.
The show goes on.