I closed last month’s Modern Times with an optimistic prediction that Kimi Raikkonen could be this year’s world champion. After Ferrari’s magnificent start to the season and McLaren’s disastrous one, my soothsaying skills are already looking questionable. In my defence, I did also suggest last month that, if Bridgestone came up with a tyre at least as good as Michelin’s, Michael Schumacher could disappear into the distance. That’s exactly what he did in Australia, pursued only by his own team-mate. Ferrari’s domination of this opening race was total — first and second on the grid, first and second in the race, an effortless record lap and race speed. And Bridgestone’s tyres were indeed a factor in what the Australian joumos called a red-wash.
A few days before the race, the temperature in Melbourne hovered around 30 degrees — Michelin weather. But by Sunday it had become unseasonably cool, even for autumn down on Australia’s southern coast. During the race the Williams and BAR drivers found their Michelins were graining badly, and their lap times deteriorated. In Malaysia, they said bravely, it’ll stay hot, and things’ll be different.
But Ferrari’s superiority in Australia wasn’t just down to the weather. The F2004, a logical development of last year’s car, arrived in Melbourne as a complete race-ready package. Driver included: a sixth world championship title and a 35th birthday have done nothing to reduce the all-consuming will to win and prodigious capacity for hard work of the world’s best racing driver. All in all, apart from Ferrari and its supporters, most of the Fl circus was reduced to a state of some gloom by this first race: the teams because they had a graphic demonstration of how much catching up they have to do, and the rulers, Ecclestone and Mosley, because all their efforts to make Fl more unpredictable, and more appealing for TV audiences, seemed doomed to failure —just because Maranello is doing its job properly.
Williams and Renault seem most likely to close the gap, but on their Oz form it is hard to see either of them besting Ferrari with any consistency. Juan-Pablo Montoya started his final Williams season with a typically hotheaded manoeuvre at the first corner. Ralf Schumacher, whose continuing failure to agree terms with Frank Williams for 2005 has been all over the German press, continues to race with the expression of someone with an unpleasant smell under his nose. Fernando Alonso did another polished job to take third — helped by his nimble Renault being able to use the softer Michelins — but he was running in a different race from the Ferraris. Renault hope that more horsepower can be found as the season goes on.
BAR’s bullish mood after winter testing seemed justified, for both Jenson Button (joint third in qualifying, running fourth in the race until his tyres went badly off) and Takuma Sato went well. But the McLarens looked completely lost all weekend. Kimi Raikkonen was fighting for 10th place when his engine seized after only nine laps: David Coulthard took a single point for eighth. Having failed to get the MP4/18 to a race at all last year, McLaren were ready early with the MP4/19, but both engine and chassis seem below par.
Surprisingly, the new one-engine rule seems to have had little effect on how this first race turned out. Raikkonen’s was the only significant retirement with engine failure, and the penalty system of moving cars that have engine changes down the grid did not need to be invoked. Only the BAR mechanics had to perform a rapid miracle before qualifying, when Jenson Button’s chassis was found to be cracked after a kerb-hopping incident. You can’t change engines without penalty, but you can change chassis, so Jenson’s engine was put into the spare car in under an hour.
However the new qualifying format, with two single-lap sessions run one after the other, has been almost universally voted a failure. The drivers don’t like it, it’s unfair on the lesser teams and, most important of all, it’s a dreadful bore for the spectators.
Not so long ago qualifying, an hour on Friday, an hour on Saturday, was one of the great highlights of an Fl weekend. Each hour would build to a climax as the quick boys waited for the optimum track conditions to make their banzai run, often having to cope with each other and with traffic as they did so. Anybody who saw it will not forget Keke Rosberg’s pole lap at Silverstone in 1985. Keke’s Williams-Honda was averaging 160.9mph for those 65 seconds, and looked it, particularly coming through the old Woodcote. And what about the countless great struggles for grid position in Monaco, when qualifying was so often more exciting than the race? Or 22-year-old Rubens Barrichello’s lucky pole for Jordan at Spa in 1994?
The move to single-lap qualifying was forced on Fl by the requirements of the Great God television. The TV companies complained there was too little action early in the hour. Their concern, as always, is not for the enthusiast audience, who only make up a small percentage, and will keep watching whatever happens. The big numbers are what matter, the millions dozing quietly on their sofas who may still, in their soporific state, be able to ingest into their subconscious some of the noisier advertising messages during the commercial breaks. Heaven forfend that they should switch over to another channel, or worse still turn off the telly and go and do something else.
But if you meddle with the shape of a sport because of purely commercial pressures, it can backfire on you. Qualifying in Australia on the Saturday lasted longer than the Grand Prix on the Sunday. That race will not go down as one of the most exciting in living memory — but qualifying was a lot worse. Of course the Sunday morning warm-up, that great appetite-whetter for the crowds, building the atmosphere towards the big event in the afternoon, has gone — TV isn’t interested in it, so why bother?
Not much to watch on Friday, either, because the new engine rules encourage teams to run as little as possible. The first half of the new qualifying process is blighted, because no-one wants to risk his car on his first run for the sake of running five minutes later on his second. With no significant work allowed on the cars between qualifying and the race, even the second qualifying lap may be at nine-tenths rather than ten-tenths. Formula One has become less a matter of driving a 200-mile distance as fast as driver and car can go, and more a matter of strategy and reducing mechanical risk. That sort of thing is fine for the Le Mans 24 Hours, but it’s not what grand prix racing is about.
Even the meddling with the championship points structure, to those of us who think that motor racing should be about trying to win motor races, is a retrograde step. Since last season the FIA have dealt with the threat of the World Championship being resolved too early — by July in the case of Schumacher’s 2002 title — by making a victory matter less. Giving eight points for second instead of six, and six for third instead of four, may keep the championship open for longer, but it may also encourage drivers and teams whose job it is to try to win the championship to aim more for safe points than risky victories.
You can’t blame Ferrari for doing a wonderful job. As Ross Brawn says, it’s up to the others to catch up. The longest grand prix season in history lies ahead, and we all know Fl can undergo surprising reversals of fortune. Ironically it worked that way last season for Schumacher himself, for he had a pretty scrappy three races to start the year, and didn’t take the lead in the points table until Round 8 in Canada in June. But that was unusual. In the last 14 years, the future World Champion has won the first race of the season 11 times.
By that token, Schumacher is already looking like a seven-time World Champion. With the general health of Formula One in mind, I rather hope that’s another of my predictions that doesn’t come to pass.