Modern times

So now we know. All that endless speculation through the dark days of winter, all that sifting the conflicting scraps of information and gossip from the testing – Williams, Ferrari or McLaren? Goodyear or Bridgestone? Three seconds a lap slower under the new regulations, or six? – is now resolved.

Or, at least, it’s resolved as far as a low-grip, bumpy circuit with medium and slow corners and heavy brake wear is concerned. For the specific mix of conditions served up by the Albert Park circuit on a warm Australian summer’s day, what you need is a package that includes Mr Newey’s McLaren chassis, Mr Ilien’s Mercedes-badged Ilmor engine, Bridgestone-San’s tyres, and Messrs Häkkinen or Coulthard in the cockpit. Maybe when we get to the fast sweeps of Silverstone or the billiard-table surface of Magny-Cours it will be different, but in Melbourne if you didn’t have all that, chum, you got lapped.

But, if the Australian opener wasn’t one of the great Grands Prix in terms of pure racing, it still produced enough talking points to keep everyone going until Brazil. For starters, what was the true effect of all that enforced expenditure and investment in the name of safety, slowing the cars down by requiring teams to develop the much-hyped narrower cars, and tyre companies the controversial new generation of grooved rubber?

Well, the true effect was: it succeeded in slowing the cars down by precisely 64 hundredths of a second. That was the gap between Häkkinen’s pole position time and Villeneuve’s pole of a year ago. Even the best race lap when Häkkinen and Coulthard both acknowledged that they were never required to push really hard was only 1.1sec adrift of 1997. Those are probably the most expensive fractions of time in motor racing history.

And of course these cars are still very new and comparatively undeveloped. As the season goes on they will get quicker. As I pointed out last month, history has always shown that, in the battle between the rule-makers and the engineers, the racers always win in the end.

Nor, sadly, did the new regulations generate more overtaking. As is now all too usual, most changes on the lap chart were the result of pit stops rather than demon out-braking manoeuvres. In fact both the Goodyear-shod Williams-Mecachromes, which looked a real handful all weekend, were followed by frustrated queues throughout the race, and even the all-conquering McLarens had trouble lapping backmarkers – which they did a lot. Jacques Villeneuve has had very little practice in being lapped, and it showed in his obtuseness when Häkkinen caught him and spent a couple of laps trying to squeeze by.

But the main topic of discussion was the rightness, or otherwise, of the pre-race agreement between Mika Häkkinen and David Coulthard, which resulted in the Scot letting the Finn past three laps from the end of the race to take victory. With both their cars qualifying on the front row of the grid, McLaren and Mercedes bosses were very keen that their drivers should not tempt reliability this early in the season by racing each other at eleven-tenths, particularly if they were not under pressure from other teams. So David and Mika agreed between themselves that whoever led into the first corner would be allowed to win the race other things being equal, of course. David, renowned as a lightning starter, was happy with this because he felt confident he could beat Mika into Turn One, even though as second qualifier he was slightly behind his team-mate and on the dirty side of the road.

In the event, the red lights stayed on longer than usual and several drivers found their cars starting to overheat. David’s attention was diverted by wisps of steam curling up from his radiators and, as the lights went out, Mika was away and David was nearly overwhelmed by Michael Schumacher’s Ferrari from the third spot on the grid. By lap six the Ferrari was gone with a blown engine, the McLarens were dropping the rest of the field at more than two seconds a lap, and clearly the strategy was in place.

Then came a rare McLaren mistake, or more accurately a McLaren misunderstanding. Mika thought he heard the radio calling him in for his second routine stop, dived down the pitlane and to his horror saw his pit was empty: no waiting mechanics, no refuelling gear, no fresh tyres. So he accelerated on down the pitlane without stopping (fortunately in his frustration remembering to keep his finger on the rev-limiter button that prevents him from speeding in the pitlane and incurring a stop-go penalty). After he’d made his second stop correctly, and David had had his, he was 13 seconds behind his team-mate.

It was now that David behaved like a gentleman, a breed long thought to be extinct in Formula One. Over the radio, team manager Dave Ryan explained why Mika was behind him and, said David, “I wasn’t put under any pressure to do anything, but I thought about it for a few laps, and then told Dave I’d ease my pace by a further second a lap so that Mika could wind me in. Then we agreed where I’d let him come past me – on the start-finish straight – and that was that. I decided we had to stick to our agreement”

Over the next 15 laps or so Mika wound in David, whose lead ebbed away from 13.3sec to 1.5sec. The Australian crowd were going wild: not surprisingly, they believed that this was a no-holds-barred battle to the chequered flag. So they felt cheated of that battle when, with two laps to go, David eased his pace on the main straight just long enough for Häkkinen to go by. With Jerez so recent in everyone’s memory (when Villeneuve, content just to clinch the title, let both McLarens by, while Ron Dennis instructed Coulthard from the McLaren pit to let Häkkinen win the race), concerns about race fixing started to be voiced again.

But in the press conference after the race, David stoutly and eloquently defended his actions. His and Mika’s responsibility was to the team: they had to ensure they achieved the best possible result. And, by minimising the likelihood of a battle breaking their cars, their pre-race agreement was part of maximising their chances. Having made the agreement, Coulthard felt he had to stick to it. “We’re not here to think about your entertainment,” he told an aggrieved Australian journalist. “We’re here to think about our points.”

Harsh, but honest, and I have to admit sympathy with his view. After all the disappointments of last season and indeed, for McLaren, the disappointments of the three seasons before that they understandably wanted to take no unnecessary chances. And team tactics are nothing new in motor racing. Seeing the two silver McLarens circulating serenely at the head of the field, each with a three-pointed star on its nose, reminded me of nothing so much as the Mercedes domination of Grand Prix racing in 1955, when Fangio was the habitual and comfortable leader and Stirling Moss followed dutifully in his wake. Except at the British Grand Prix at Aintree, when in a popular and historic victory Moss beat Fangio to the line: no pits to car radio then, and we can’t know what Neubauer might have said to Fangio before the race, but to this day Stirling isn’t quite sure whether Fangio let him by or not.

As I watched the two silver McLarens flash past the Melbourne chequered flag 0.5sec apart, I saw in my mind’s eye those curious horseracing grandstands at Aintree and two silver W196 Mercs, Stirling’s arm aloft from the cockpit of the one in front, as he scored his first World Championship Grand Prix victory by a fifth of a second from the then greatest driver in the world.

Mika’s perspective on Formula One doesn’t go back as far as that, of course. I’m sure he doesn’t know about Peter Collins handing over his Ferrari to Fangio at Monza in 1956, killing his own World Championship chances and guaranteeing Fangio’s. But he said, “I’ve been in F1 a long time, and followed F1 a long time, and What David did today was remarkable. Looking back in history I don’t see many things like this. It’s a really gentleman way to go racing.”

Mika, a brave tiger in the cockpit, is a warm, simple and straightforward soul out of it, less eloquent (in English, anyway) than David. On the podium in front of a TV audience of hundreds of millions, as the Finnish national anthem played, he was suddenly overwhelmed, and unable to keep back the tears. Afterwards a hard-bitten Australian journalist, eager for a telling quote, asked him why he had lost composure. Mika clearly felt the question needed no answer, but with patient dignity he answered it anyway. “I’ve been trying so many years, so hard. Hearing your national song, it’s a strong situation, and you cannot help it. Maybe, with more wins, I’ll get used to it, so I won’t cry.”

So the McLaren domination of Melbourne didn’t disappoint me. I felt the tactics were justified, and I was happy for the two Good Guys who now lie first and second in the World Championship. But, of course, it’s not good for racing to have one team as dominant as McLaren were in Melbourne. The best way to kill any whiff of fixing is for more cars to be competitive with one another, so everybody has to race everybody else flat out all the time, for whatever points they can pick up. It won’t be a case of Mika and David deciding cosily between them who will win, once Ferrari, Williams, Benetton and the rest have caught up. As, sooner or later, they will. First, it seems, they have some work to do.