Publishing schedules being what they are, I am writing this during the hangover days at the end of the millennium break. You, on the other hand, are reading it well into the fresh century. You have long since heaved a sigh of relief at the end of the fireworks, the fulsome speeches, the credulous prognostications, and most of all those wretched newspaper fillers that consist merely of lists: the greatest men and women of the last 1000 years, the 100 worst cars of the century, the 50 greatest pieces of music, the 200 most boring politicians, the 20 most significant missed opportunities.
But now life has returned to normal. We’ve all realised that nothing has changed, except the date. And fear not, I’m not going to subject you to a list of the Ten Things Max and Bernie Should Do to ensure the future of motorsport as we know it.
In fact some very significant Things were emerging in the days before Christmas which, if correctly channelled, could do rather a lot to ensure the future of Formula One.
You’re tired of reading, on these pages and elsewhere, pleas for increased tyre grip and reduced aerodynamic grip to help bring about a rebirth of overtaking. So it was cheering to hear that Bridgestone’s tyre monopoly will end at the start of next year — to the delight, among others, of Bridgestone themselves. They’ve had to supply every team since Goodyear pulled out at the end of 1998, and thus have gained far less promotional kudos from always being in a win-win situation. Now, after a 16-year lay-off, Michelin have contracted to supply F1 tyres to Williams and Prost in 2001, and others in due course.
By the time they withdrew back in 1984 Michelin were top dog in the Grand Prix tyre stakes, having shod 44 winners over four seasons and 14 in their last year alone. A renewal of the rubber war in Fl will inevitably accelerate the pace of tyre development, and the short-term result of competition between Michelin and Bridgestone will surely be more tyre grip. That of course will increase speeds, and no doubt further rule changes will follow: a return to fully-treaded tyres may be the next stricture.
Just as news was leaking out of Michelin’s return, details began to emerge of the deliberations of F1’s think tank, the Technical Working Group, made up of representatives of the teams themselves. In an eight-hour meeting with the FIA, proposals were put forward to increase drag, reduce downforce and increase mechanical grip. They include new limitations on the size and effect of front and rear wings, wider rear tyres for greater drag (and, of course, more mechanical grip), and a drastic reduction in rear diffusers, those underside tunnels inboard of the rear wheels. A condition known as diffuser stall, when the car suddenly runs closer to the ground over a bump and the effectiveness of the diffusers is momentarily lost, is now thought to have caused Ayrton Senna’s fatal accident.
The very fact that these proposals are being debated in front of the FIA indicates that the powers that be (aka Ecclestone B. and Mosley M.) accept that overtaking has become almost impossible and that the TV spectacle is suffering as a result. It’s all very encouraging: but we’re not there yet. Technical rule changes nowadays need the unanimous approval of all the teams, which may be hard to secure.
McLaren managing director Martin Whitrnarsh, for one, believes that a better way of slowing the escalation of speed would be the old ploy of restricting engine capacity. The current engine specification — three litres and, now, no more than 10 cylinders — is enshrined in the F1 regulations until 2007, a necessary stability with major manufacturers investing huge sums in engine programmes. But Whitmarsh likes the idea of smaller engines with fewer cylinders, and with the latest technology shrinking the physical dimensions of today’s F1 engines, a 2.4-litre six-cylinder could be tiny.
Even so, I suspect such engines would before long be producing 700bhp, so the speed reduction would probably not be great. Reducing engine size has been tried before, most dramatically in 1961, when to widespread dismay the 2.5-litre formula was replaced by 1.5-litres. Grands Prix were expected to become a dull, slow procession of little cars, but within a year lap records were being broken again. And in 1995 engine capacity was reduced by 14 per cent from 3500 to 3000 cc, but soon the cars were just as quick, and quicker.
For the F1 teams themselves, any fleeting celebration of the new millennium was dwarfed by the looming approach of a much more important deadline: the first race in Australia on March 12th. F1 testing is banned during the month of November, but at first light on December 1st the slumbering Spanish air around Jerez was rent by the sound of V10s as McLaren, Williams, Jordan and Prost got under way. Over the other side of the Mediterranean the same thing was happening at Fiorano as Rubens Barrichello became a Ferrari driver for the first time.
At this stage the cars were by and large 1999 machines with 2000 bits, and the prime task was forging new driver/team relationships which will need to be strong enough to withstand the mid-season pressures to come. All was smiles and optimistic good humour: Jean Alesi said that joining Prost was the most important moment of his career since he signed for Ferrari. (He was similarly up-beat when he went to Sauber, whom he came to dislike publicly). Jordan declared from the first day that Jarno Trulli was a true star of the future. And McLaren quietly got on with some fast times, David Coulthard and test driver Olivier Panis using the old car with different generations of Mercedes engine and a new, lighter and ultraquick-change gearbox. Then, after they’d gone home, Trulli, light on fuel, recorded a best lap 0.1 sec faster still.
Actually, it’s the last time we’ll see this December scramble to test with hybrid cars. The teams have endorsed Bernie Ecclestone’s proposal that Fl testing should now be banned from the end of the season until January. Staying away from the tracks through December is meant to save lots of money — but the rich teams will probably spend even more setting up simulation testing in their factories.
As early as December 7th the first proper 2000 car turned a wheel. Jacques Villeneuve did 35 trouble-free laps of a murky Silverstone in the BAR 02, the car that must somehow repair the shattered image of the most hyped new team in F1 history. It was using the new engine that is at the heart of BAR’s freshly-minted deal with Honda. At the same time came news of an uneasy truce between BAR boss Craig Pollock and the man who tried to topple him from power, Adrian Reynard. Now both are called Managing Director and supposedly have equal status, Pollock with responsibility for management of the business and Reynard for all technical aspects. We’ll soon see whether harmony will break out, or whether paddock discussions between the two will become loud enough for eavesdropping journalists to be able to catch an earful.
A few days later the Stewart team were at Jerez, their cars and transporters still white with the flowing tartan ribbon while the new Jaguar colours await their embargo. Eddie Irvine delighted the listening journalists with his gung-ho optimism, saying he expected to be able to beat Coulthard and Barrichello this season, if not Hakkinen and Schumacher — a typical throw-away comment carefully crafted to unsettle David and Rubens. But ironically it was Irvine’s team-mate Herbert who wound up fastest, Irvine complaining he was unused to driving an F1 car without power steering… Rubens was quicker than the Irishman too, while Mika Salo, suffering from ‘flu, still managed to be as quick as new team-mate Pedro Diniz on his first run in a Sauber.
Not that any of this means very much. Lap times from test sessions are notoriously misleading, because fuel loads vary widely, and individual test programmes have all sorts of different aims and may be trying various tweaks with no focus on specific lap times. But however sparsely attended a test may be, every lap time is known around the F1 world within minutes of being set. Meaningless or no, everyone wants to know what the times are, and a balls-out lap on a whiff of fuel can be an adroit way of raising an inexperienced sponsor’s pre-season hopes, just when you want him to sign another cheque.
But soon the testing will be forgotten and we’ll be hunkering down for the real thing. Surely, this time, nothing can go wrong for Schumacher? Can Haldcinen become the first triple champion on the trot since Fangio? Will BMW breathe new life into Williams? Will Honda breathe new life into BAR? Can Benetton reinvent themselves? Can Jordan continue their onward and upward progress? And will the mix of Ford, Stewart, Irvine, and Jaguar become the story of the year? Forget the new millennium: this is what matters. This is the new season. Roll on Australia.