By Bob Constanduros
So the first of three doubleheaders is over and a pretty wearing one it was. After two lack-lustre races in Monaco and Montreal, Nico Rosberg bounced back with a dominant victory on the streets of Baku, but the question my near neighbour Nelly will be asking – maybe Lewis’s oldest fan at 98 – is why are the radio rules so draconian that he was unable to re-adjust his settings to make him competitive again?
This, it seems, is the big debate, at least for Formula One motorsport fans. Why can’t teams tell their drivers what to do when the settings are quite clearly wrong? Remember that Nico suffered the same problem at the start in Spain. If he had been told on the grid that he was in the wrong setting, the collision between he and Lewis on lap one might have been avoided.
There are many within Formula One who say that the radio ban rule is just too tough, that it could even be dangerous. Lewis reckoned it was because he was spending so much time looking at the on-board computer which also doubles as his steering wheel. Is this just scaremongering? Other drivers back up this view. But I would like to know how many other drivers have suffered similar problems? We certainly haven’t heard of others, have we?
I can’t believe that teams don’t tell their drivers what adjustments they can or can’t make and what they can do in these instances. I can believe that some drivers more than others will take this on board, that some have the mental capacity to remember what they have to do. Nico, I’m sure, has a sufficiently technical mind – he almost went to Imperial College in London instead of becoming a racing driver – to understand this, but not everyone has that technical mind. Some are more seat-of-the-pants and I think Lewis would be in this category.
So should the rules be changed or should the drivers just do their homework? Maybe when they put on their headphones they should replace whatever they’re listening to with a tutorial about how they can make their cars faster and how to adapt to the right settings at any given time.
So the championship lead has opened up, but remember this is only the first of the three doubleheaders before the summer break, and lots more can happen before then. We’re seeing that Mercedes can be caught, but we’re not seeing that they can be beaten – yet. Sure, Ferrari are closer but keep shooting themselves in the foot with errant tactics. Red Bull are clearly closer too in spite of the claimed power deficit while part-timers in the mix are Williams, Force India and even Toro Rosso.
But after the street circuits of Monaco and Baku – despite its length and speed – plus Montreal with its straight and minimal run-offs, we are back to more conventional circuits with the Red Bull-ring followed by Silverstone, then Hungaroring followed by Hockenheim. Might we then see a change in the hierarchy?
Personally, I don’t see why we should for the moment. Interestingly, some of the recent engine modifications which have borne such fruit in performance terms have only taken up a few tokens, but more needs to be done. We’ve had new fuel, new turbos etc and mods from Renault but we need more if they are going to catch Mercedes. This is a tall ask and not one easily fulfilled.
We have to admit that Baku wasn’t the race we thought we were going to see. After various off-track brushes with the wall and the various excursions down narrow escape roads, we thought that we were going to see a crashfest – indeed, drivers after qualifying suggestion exactly that. Brakes were also at a premium around this circuit and braking from over 360kph (I think the top speed in the race was 364kph/226mph) to half that for the first corner was inevitably going to be tough. But we saw precious few signs of unreliability which was impressive.
The predictions of the incident-packed race came partly from the GP2 races where we saw several safety cars and virtual safety cars. There were incidents even behind the safety car, to such an extent that Japanese front runner Nobuharu Matsushita has been banned altogether from the next round in Austria for his stop-start tactics as he controlled the field, and caused chaos behind him. But then GP2 is often like this; it was still surprising that the drivers seemed to have difficulty doing spin turns in the run-offs, unlike their Formula One counterparts, and this caused lots of yellow flags.
The general reflection post-Baku was one of surprise. I don’t think we were expecting such a pleasant country, with lovely – if fairly new – architecture, a charming and helpful population who spoke remarkably good English, a long and challenging circuit in spite of the number of 90 degree corners. The organisers had tried hard to ensure that the population knew about the race: every bridge from the airport to the city told us that Formula One was coming to town but the crowd was poor, sadly. Yet after the race, the pleasantly relaxed downtown pedestrian area – with few policemen in sight – was thronging with locals, even at 11pm on Sunday night. Few had been to the circuit, one suspected. It was a case of more education, one felt.
Finally, it was good to hear Sebastian Vettel, after the unilateral TV interviews, immediately asking who had won Le Mans. F1 is often seen as fairly insular, that its head is firmly rammed up its backside to the exclusion of all else and indeed, in some cases this is true. But racing people enjoy racing, and specialists enjoy all forms of the sport. In the old days, Sauber used to stick up hourly bulletins on their containers in the Montreal paddock but it’s not so necessary these days. But there were plenty in the paddock and press room taking an interest in what was going on in France – not just on football pitches either.
And so to Austria in a week’s time – with a quick weekend at Goodwood in the meantime. It’s a very busy time right now and being well-prepared – if cautious – for the opening pair in this trio of doubleheaders should have been part of the plan. The handbrake may now be off for more conventional circuits. We shall see, next week.