Chinese Grand Prix - armchair view


There was, I’ll admit, a slight sense of disorientation. About 35 minutes before a Grand Prix starts, custom dictates that I leave the media centre, make my way across the pit lane and embark upon a grid walk. Having attended the previous 217 Formula One World Championship races, however, I missed last weekend’s Chinese GP – the first I’ve watched at home on TV since Japan 2000. With little more than half an hour to go, I headed not for the track but the kitchen, to smother some toast with Marmite.

Separation didn’t leave me feeling particularly uninformed. It’s easy to forget how the world has changed. Back in 1973, for instance, one had to wait until September 27 – a Thursday, when Motoring News and Autosport hit the shops – to find out what had happened in the previous Sunday’s rain-affected Canadian Grand Prix. Even with the pace of electronic media, the time difference between Montreal and the UK can make it tricky to hit daily newspaper deadlines today, in the event of any delays. Forty years ago it was significantly harder and I couldn’t find the results anywhere. There were no follow-up clues on the Tuesday, either. Nowadays, if anything, things have gone too far in the other direction. If a serial midfielder says something banal, it is top-spun into a news story within minutes.

China morphed into what I’d call a “timing monitor” race – a classic example of the genre being Valencia 2009. There were many who castigated that afternoon’s GP of Europe as “dull”, but actually it had been a pulsating duel between Rubens Barrichello’s Brawn and Lewis Hamilton’s McLaren. They did not fight wheel to wheel, but were instead a few seconds apart on contrasting strategies – and a timing monitor enabled you to follow the fluctuating balance of power. In the end, McLaren fluffed its final stop and “Pit bungle costs Hamilton victory” became a familiar headline refrain. In reality, Barrichello was always on course to emerge ahead – this was the refuelling age and he’d have benefited from several extra laps on a light fuel load prior to the final stops – but we weren’t to know that as the race evolved.

The difference, that day, was that both drove flat out – a description that hardly applied at all in China (Sebastian Vettel’s brief, late stint on soft Pirellis excepted). From where I was sitting, the BBC commentary team – Ben Edwards and David Coulthard, with Tony Dodgins in the background as silent observer – did a fine job of conveying the fluctuating performance equation as the event progressed, but it’s a complete nonsense that racing drivers are increasingly being told to counter their competitive instincts by allowing others to pass unchallenged, in order not to take too much out of their rubber.

We keep hearing that the current tyres are designed to embellish the show, but a Grand Prix lasts three days – not just two hours on a Sunday afternoon. Drivers hardly run at all during the first 30 minutes of Friday’s free practice – something Pirelli hopes to address from Spain, by providing an extra set of tyres that reserve drivers may use – and qualifying occasionally becomes less compelling by the session. Such was the case on Saturday, when some drivers completed a single Q3 lap while others preferred to stay in their pit. Anybody else miss the days when the whole field used to leave the pits almost as one on a Saturday afternoon, on a banzai mission to extract the most from a last, freshly stickered set of soft tyres?

About 5000 miles from Shanghai, at Silverstone, the works Audis later competed hard in Sunday’s opening round of the World Endurance Championship. They swapped positions five minutes from the end of the six-hour contest – not as a consequence of team orders, but because old-fashioned racing circumstance sometimes plays to a particular driver’s advantage.

One sport, two sharply contrasting approaches… and I know which presently has greater purity.

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