23 March 2015
Race Summary: Lewis Hamilton took a lights-to-flag victory at Albert Park with team-mate Nico Rosberg second. Sebastian Vettel finished third on his Ferrari debut, albeit over half a minute behind the Mercedes drivers. Felipe Massa came home fourth for Williams with Fellow Brazilian Felipe Nasr an impressive fifth for Sauber on his debut. Daniel Ricciardo could only manage sixth for Red Bull while McLaren-Honda endured a torrid race with Jenson Button finishing last after being lapped twice.
The slow death of Formula 1
I’m an Angry F1 fan.
The return of F1 was supposed to satiate my winter withdrawal symptoms. However, what I saw and heard during and after the race did nothing of the sort. Tuning in at 5am, I found myself watching a relatively small number of cars go racing, interspersed with shots of empty bits of track. This time last season, 22 cars launched off the start-line in Melbourne. In 2015, only 15 cars started and both Lotuses retired on Lap 1. Sky’s commentators did a masterful job of pulling out stats for the lowest number of finishers in Melbourne in past years, but they missed a key point. Back in 2002, when only eight cars finished in Melbourne, F1 was on free-to-air TV rather than pay-per-view. We were not paying to watch a small field complete a race distance. Ordinary F1 fans like me are being asked to shell out £47/month from June to watch the whole F1 season live on Sky. Moreover, I have just paid £225 for a grandstand seat for the British Grand Prix, not counting the extortionate car parking fee. I expect to see a race for my money. And the product, in Round 1 at least, barely delivered that.
The reason, in my view, has little to do with the dominance of Mercedes. Their stranglehold will not kill the sport as some F1 insiders and fans have claimed, though it will probably contribute to a fall in viewing figures. F1 has been through far longer periods of single-team domination than now. In 2010-13, we had to sit the through single-driver, single-car domination of Red Bull and Vettel, in spite of Fernando Alonso’s superhuman efforts in 2010 and 2012. From 2000-04, Ferrari and Michael Schumacher ruled supreme. And in 1998-99, McLaren and Mika Hakkinen cleaned up. The sport recovered each time.
However, this time it’s different. Mercedes’ dominance will be the excuse used to ‘equalise’ F1, but the inescapable conclusion is that F1’s commercial model is no longer working for the sport’s best interests.
F1’s commercial rights’ holders’ short-termist attitude to making cash in addition to stalled plans to introduce cost controls have combined to affect the quality of the racing you and I are being asked to pay more and more to watch live every year. It is a curious thing to be charged more to purchase a product that’s seemingly declining in value. The warning signs have been there for a while now. The most obvious one being Marussia and Caterham’s failure to show for the 2014 US Grand Prix as well as rumours of teams’ inability to pay salaries on time or afford to pay for their engines. The titanic title battle in 2014 papered over these cracks for the most part. But in Australia, Manor could not start their engines due to a software glitch and Sauber were in the courts sorting out which of their three pay drivers would line-up in Melbourne. Ridiculous. If small teams could actually still afford to compete in F1 then this scenario would not have arisen. Moreover, at the same time, officials at the Nurburgring admitted that they could no longer afford to stage the German Grand Prix. So when F1 is increasingly going behind a TV pay wall as pay-per-view channels only can now afford the cost of the broadcast rights, F1 is also being taken away from its core fan base in Europe. The commercial rights holders’ have succeeded in making F1 more difficult to access for new and existing viewers while the bar to competing as a team is ever rising.
The business is killing the sport.
It gives me no pleasure to take aim at the sport I love, but some things just need to be said…
Red Bull: Knuckle down and catch Mercedes
I have little sympathy for Red Bull-Renault’s current plight. And their cheap ‘quit threat’ in the wake of Australia just made me angry. It smacks of sour grapes. Red Bull are angry at Renault. They feel aggrieved that when they were at the apex of F1 they had their wings clipped. They know they will not catch Mercedes unless the German marque’s advantage is reduced by a change in the technical regulations. Hence the calls to ‘equalise’ F1. However, what no-one seems to have pointed out is that Red Bull itself has benefited from the banning of certain technologies. The ban on the double diffuser for the 2010 season onwards removed Mercedes as a competitor; Mercedes’ forerunner Brawn-Mercedes had maximised this technical loophole (which Red Bull missed) to win the 2009 championship. Moreover, the FIA was exactly right to impose stricter tests on Red Bull’s flexible front wing in 2010 as movable aerodynamic pieces are banned in F1. This is a team that collects $70m in bonuses per season before prizes are given out, having committed to F1 until 2020 to obtain this special deal. This agreement, which included Ferrari, broke the power of the teams to collectively bargain with the commercial rights’ holders and enabled Mr E to divide and conquer once again. Furthermore, Red Bull has proven itself willing to launch hostile PR attacks on F1 when it suits them, which damage the sport’s image. They should knuckle down and catch Mercedes – like Ferrari is doing – or make good on their threat.
Why should Mercedes be held back because they have done a much better job than everyone else? Mercedes AMG High Performance Powertrains invested more resources earlier than everyone else to build a competitive engine. And the Mercedes aero department upped its game too. Mercedes are getting what they deserve.
Early Season Indicators
It’s easy to forget that there was actually a race on in Melbourne.
What was significant about the lead battle between the Mercedes was the manner in which Hamilton achieved pole position and victory. It appeared as if the Briton’s off-track distractions over the winter – his split with his girlfriend and his unresolved contract negotiations – as well as the departure of his performance engineer and Rosberg’s extra 600 miles in pre-season testing were insignificant to Hamilton’s on-track performance. Though, the real test will come when the pressure is full on. However, in Australia, Rosberg never looked like challenging Hamilton. The German is still to prove that he can out-race his team-mate.
If I was a Williams team member or fan, I’d feel a little disappointed with Massa’s fourth place in Melbourne. True, Ferrari probably had fractionally the faster car, but Williams were out-strategised by the Scuderia. Massa pitted on Lap 21 but this released Vettel to put in three slightly quicker laps, which gave him the required buffer to pit and get out in front of Massa. Ferrari won the race for third in F1 this time round, but I don’t think we’ve seen the best of Williams yet.
Round 1 did not give us an entirely clear picture of the competitive order. We don’t yet know how Lotus stacks up, for example. However, it’s clear that Sauber is a big mover up the competitive order, most likely due to Ferrari’s much-improved powertrain. What is also certain is that Renault and Honda are in trouble. Renault’s power unit is reported to be about 100bhp down on the Mercedes and is less reliable than the Mercedes. The French manufacturer has been overtaken by Ferrari too. The obvious implication is that Red Bull has now fallen back into the midfield. But, as bad as the situation is for Renault, it’s nothing compared to the mire Honda is in. I’m amazed that after three pre-season tests, Honda are still having to run on less than full power to protect the engine. @andrewbensonf1 reported that Honda are giving away at least 200bhp to Mercedes as a result. If Honda does not have a steep development curve in place then McLaren are going to be in for a painful next few races.
Read my Malaysian Grand Prix Forecast in a few days’ time.