Sitting in my slightly dark kitchen in my little apartment at St Kilda Beach, 30 minutes walk from Albert Park, two days to go to the start of official practice. The weather, at least, is lovely. I’m not filled with euphoria nor gloom at the coming season, just a little underwhelmed. Even my colleagues are refraining from using that cliché ‘one of the best seasons…’ You see, there’s not a lot to get excited about.
I look forward to every new season for a variety of reasons: new regulations, new driver pairings, new technology, new events, new drivers, new teams, new managements, new technical stars . The championship keeps moving and that’s the way it should be. OK, I get fed up with my bank/energy supplier/mortgage company/ etc endlessly changing things – usually for their own profit, with no input from the clients and sometimes I get annoyed that Formula One changes things for the sake of changing things (tyres and qualifying this year, for instance, but maybe in desperation…) But in a way we need those changes to keep things alive, but this year?
What have we got: one new Grand Prix, not a particular popular move and flying in the face of FIA’s decree that a Grand Prix shouldn’t clash with Le Mans – which is exactly what it does. (It’s costing me money, even worse!) One new Grand Prix team; very exciting, but they’re not exactly going to set the world alight are they? I mean no new team ever does, although it will be interesting to see how much the Ferrari connection helps their instant progress. But welcome, all the same, Haas F1 even if I already have proof that your press relations team sucks.
New qualifying regulations; this is up to commentators to explain and we always used to explain how it works to the punters. This actually isn’t all that different to the old qualifying regulations, just a slight change for change’s sake, maybe. Same with tyres, I feel. Maybe I haven’t understood the new tyre regs but the addition of a very soft tyre (which will be used as a qualifier) surely doesn’t make that much of a difference. Another disappointment, although I do feel I may be missing the point here.
Having said that – and in particular this applies to this Grand Prix – occasionally the softest tyre becomes almost the primary tyre, so that the most competitive tyre in qualifying and race could be the supersoft this weekend.
What I do like is the restriction on radio traffic. I think this is a real slap in the face for some drivers and we shall see who it affects more than others. It’s basically saying ‘you’ve got to remember these procedures on your own, and adapt to them as they arise. There’s no stage management, you’ve got to you use your own little grey cells and do it on your own, no hand holding.’
Drivers can be warned of critical situations but lap times and sector details of their competitors is now on the black list. Information on pit stops can only be communicated on the lap the driver is coming in. Positioning of cars in qualifying isn’t allowed, nor is tyre choice. The number of laps a car has done on a set of tyres won’t be allowed, nor the tyre spec of other cars. Competitors’ likely strategy isn’t permitted, nor the safety car window, even the change of front wing position nor even the number of laps remaining.
I’m not alone in thinking drivers are utterly mollycoddled; they are treated with kid gloves, given massive comfort (and salaries), privileges and a very comfortable way of life. Sure, they are very talented and do deserve what they are given but at the same time they have to show a little nous, and here’s their opportunity. Who will show it, who won’t? Now that I’m looking forward to in a schadenfreude sort of way!
There are changes, of course, but you can’t say they are massive. Toro Rosso revert to Ferrari power, in this instance the late-2015 version and they adopted this solution quite late too which will make thing difficult for them. Red Bull stay with Renault or TAG Heuer as it is known, so that if they slag off the power unit, they slag off their sponsor. Neat move.
Renault as a team is back and needs to be encouraged; that’s a brave and courageous move in the light of current Formula One and the company’s background in the sport. Of course, here we have the major changes: Grosjean off to Haas, Palmer steps up to a fulltime seat at Renault with the returning Kevin Magnussen, back in F1 as is Esteban Gutierriez who joins Grosjean at Haas. The really new drivers are Rio Haryanto at Manor with Germany’s Pascal Wehrlein, and Palmer, so two returnees, three newcomers. Otherwise all status quo.
What can we expect of the newcomers? What can we ever expect of newcomers? Not a lot. I think the last exciting newcomer was Lewis Hamilton; can that ever happen again? So it’s going to be tough for them. Palmer has quite extensive Friday experience, Wehrlein has tested for both Force India and Mercedes and has certainly shown talent in winning the 2015 DTM series; he’s a perennial winner in other formulae. The toughest move will be Haryanto’s, the Indonesian driver but he won three sprint races in GP2 last year after some lacklustre seasons with the Caterham team.
I really want to see some surprises in mid-field: Force India has done so well with so little, partially thanks to the move to Toyota’s wind tunnel in Cologne, but they still have the instability of Vijay Mallya’s bank account to contend with. Sauber have recently lost Mark Smith from their design team, while Red Bull will be eager to fight back although still with Renault power; Renault themselves have the same problem.
Williams say they have addressed both their wet weather performance and slow corner pace; we shall see if they have been successful. McLaren would still seem to be struggling; Toro Rosso will have to contend with that late season power choice but the 2015 Ferrari power unit will be reliable.
At the front, Mercedes have accomplished a phenomenal number of laps on mainly medium compound tyres – which is why they managed that mileage. Ferrari have spread their laps across the full range of Pirelli tyres; have they done enough to catch up? And so the questions come. The answers aren’t far away, although the Australian Grand Prix is by no means the definitive race, particularly with rain forecast on Friday, easing on Saturday. And remember, we lost about five cars even before the lights turned green last year.
It’s only the start of a long season and there is plenty of development to come on all sides. Bring on the surprises.
By Bob Constanduros