‘When the flag drops, the bullshit stops.’ True when Jack Brabham first uttered it, true now. Thank heavens. We’ve had two Grands Prix with more than enough politics, followed by two excellent races.
I couldn’t believe the Bahrain Grand Prix. After 20 laps, it seemed as crazy as on the first lap. There was contact here and there, bits of car flying off everywhere, drivers on every type of tyre available (well, apart from wets) and yet two drivers hadn’t even taken the start, including Sebastian Vettel, obviously one of the favourites.
In my last column, I questioned this year’s situation whereby there are three different tyre compounds available, and I wondered if this wasn’t making Formula One too tyre-centric. It is up to us commentators to keep spectators – either at the circuit or at home – up to speed on who is on what tyre, although frequently a savvy spectator will be able to judge for his or herself just by looking at the colour of the sidewalls. But even then that is not the whole story because they may be used or new tyres.
Then you have the situation whereby choice of the number of different compound tyres per team is made several months before, that is, three medium, for instance, or two soft or four supersoft. Remember that teams are going to need those supersofts for qualifying (yes, yes, we’ll come to that later), probably at least four sets for the top teams, and they are then going to start on a set and look to the other compounds available for the rest of the race. Making that tyre choice several months ago seriously compromised Williams in Bahrain. Massa and Ericsson were the only two stoppers; the Brazilian had only one set of softs for the weekend and they’d already been used.
In Sunday’s race, nine different strategies were employed, with only the first two on the same strategy within the top ten. Even then, they had changed from a two stop strategy to a three stop during the race, Mercedes and Ferrari literally shadowing one another.
It was interesting to note one aspect of the race when it came to the pit stops. Nico Rosberg built up a lead of 14s in the first 11 laps only for Kimi Raikkonen to pit first, Rosberg stopping a lap later having lost three seconds to the undercutting Raikkonen. The next stint was 17 laps, Rosberg now 15s ahead when Raikkonen stopped and when Rosberg emerged from the pits a lap later, his lead had again dropped, this time to nine seconds.
The third stint was just nine laps, the gap having pretty much stabilised at just under ten seconds, but this time Rosberg pitted two laps later than Raikkonen and this time the gap was down to just 4.6s after a slowish pit stop from Mercedes. The point I’m making is that Mercedes lost time to Ferrari on each of the pit stops. I’m not saying it would be more if it was Sebastian Vettel in second place – it might be – but Kimi is a bit of a Sakhir specialist; this was the fifth time he’d finished second and his eighth podium there.
It’s interesting that Mercedes haven’t been good off the line in either of the two races so far and we’re not just talking about Lewis Hamilton. Rosberg set off on the final parade lap in second gear but got it right in the race; Hamilton was slow away for the second race running and therefore was a target for an optimistic Valtteri Bottas in the first corner, both Williamses scorching off the line in much the same away the Ferraris did in Melbourne.
However, Nico Rosberg pretty much did everything right thereafter while Lewis Hamilton was handicapped by a partially damaged car following the Bottas assault. He was adamant that Nico was taking things easily at the end of the race, but the margin was still 10s from Rosberg to Raikkonen, and 30s from Rosberg to his teammate. Hamilton wasn’t the only one with car damage. There were several others with modified aeros in what had turned out to be a pretty physical opening stint.
The rest, I’m afraid, were left far behind. It was great to see Daniel Ricciardo up there and Romain Grosjean too but there was a fairly healthy gap from the leaders back to them. Having said that, in my opinion this is surely as competitive as Formula One has ever been. Every single team, including Manor and Haas, is competitive as witnessed by Grosjean’s race performance and Wehrlein’s 16th place on the grid. There don’t seem to be too many passengers. Look back and see if you can find a season with every team quite so competitive.
That’s just as well because the bullshit factor – from the sport’s administrators, no less – is high. Jean Todt held a 90 minute press conference in Bahrain from which very little emerged. After remarkable success as a co-driver and running the competition department at Peugeot, Todt achieved great glory at Ferrari in putting together a winning team. His record at the FIA has been the reverse. After a modest approach elsewhere, he is apparently obsessed with his own achievements at the FIA, which centre on road safety. All very laudable but overseeing the downturn of F1 isn’t going to earn him much of legacy. He has many detractors although sadly not those who count on the various FIA commissions. Are they blind to his limitations?
Many wonder if Bernie Ecclestone wants to take F1 with him when he goes. One member of officialdom thinks that he’s worried about his decreasing powers. He berated the team principals in Sunday afternoon’s qualifying meeting, having already called the drivers ‘windbags’. What can it all mean?
His intransigence regarding qualifying comes from an apparent call from the promoters – who put on Grands Prix – to liven up the show. He needs to keep the promoters on side; no promoters means no events and they have to pay a substantial amount to host a Grand Prix. Bernie listens to their demands. Although those promoters hire their own commentators to explain such complications as qualifying and strategy to their spectators – including me! – they rely on TV commentators to build up the excitement before their events. It is up to these guys to put over the message that F1 is exciting, come to our Grand Prix.
I feel sorry, therefore, for some of the commentators who are struggling with the technologies of the sport. Sky TV, for instance, have at least three people in the box and more in the pits to build up the excitement and more importantly, build up the picture and explain the complexities. But spare a thought for Gaetan Vigneron, for instance. He is RTBF’s (Belgian TV) long-standing and experienced commentator. He’s often on his own, but latterly has had the benefit of the experience of Stoffel Vandoorne. Only this time he lost his co-commentator and gained several million viewers.
As a commentator, you have to weigh up what is happening on track, what tyres the competitors are on, when they changed to them, how old they are (the tyres), and what tyres those around them are on. That’s during the race. Much of it is there on the screen, you’ve just got to know it’s there, look for it and evaluate it.
But we’re also concerned with qualifying. Interestingly, I have found that the new elimination system tends to concentrate one more on who is about to be eliminated, which is what is intended. Before, we used to talk about who was quick, which was not important, it was who was slow that mattered. Now we talk about that, noting who is in the pits and who hasn’t got a chance of getting out.
But for Q3, we need the struggle for pole to go right to the chequered flag and if drivers, cars and teams don’t have tyres to battle for pole, then we’re not going to get that last minute shoot-out. Bernie can rant all he likes, but it ain’t going to happen! And any engineer will tell him that. They know how they run the cars, what the priorities are, and it’s all quite simple.
Similarly, I can tell him how easy it is for my co-commentators to explain the action. In most cases, as a track commentator, I am working with people who only see one race a year. I can guide them if I can. I can point out what they can see on the TV graphics (which are pretty good) but they have to grab it from there. I am already fearing Monaco, for instance. We are four commentators, four different languages and I already question the competence and understanding of two of them… It’s going to be murder.
But Bernie knows best, it seems. No one has asked me about understanding these rules, which we are meant to get across to the spectator. The administrators, the team owners etc, they all know better than us. Listening to team owners explaining (or not) the governance and legislative path of rule changes, I’m not awfully sure they know themselves.
And it makes me furious that this sport that has given a lot to me, a sport that I love, that I have dedicated my life to, is now so mismanaged. I have two sons, both have been involved in motor sport and I would love to work with them, but I’m not sure that I ever shall. It would be better that they stay away from Formula One – at least until Sunday.
By Bob Constanduros