F1's January jolt


Always there’s a frisson when the Formula 1 cars hit the track for the first time each year. Indeed it’s been rather too exciting for some at Jerez: Nico Rosberg (an electrical fire) and Lewis Hamilton (a brake problem-related off).

Whatever happened to that monumental Mercedes-Benz calm, complete with attentive flunky holding a bowl of hot water, soap, flannel and a towel by the perspiring driver’s elbow? Perhaps it never existed – the concept that is, not the flunky.

Already the heat in F1’s kitchen is rising under the blue sky of southern Spain: McLaren and (Lotus)-Renault quick; Red Bull understeering but in a better position than it was this time a year ago; and Ferrari waiting, waiting, waiting for Fernando Alonso.

This time 40 years ago, however, the season had already reached a feverous pitch, with a 100,000 chanting Brazilian fans being hosed down from a bowser. According to Andrew Marriott’s report in Motor Sport, this only served to crank up their samba beat.

I cannot deny that I am obsessed with 1973. That was the year in which I progressed from Matchbox to Corgi models – and also began to take notice of F1. Dad would ran-tan on the window and give the universally accepted opposite-lock signal and my street game of football or, preferably, cricket would be placed on hold while I dashed inside to catch the Beeb’s patchy coverage. Mostly that seemed to be rallycross from Lydden Hill – Keith Ripp’s bloody muddy Mini – but certainly I remember watching that year’s Monaco Grand Prix; the long shot across the harbour to the Chicane captivated me.

So too did the cars: Lotus 72 and McLaren M23 – a pair of greats – and those stubby Tyrrells, 005 and 006, that Jackie Stewart used to beat them.

So obviously diverse. So thrilling. So memorable.

And that was the year Emerson Fittipaldi’s Brazil finally joined Carlos Reutemann’s Argentina on the World Championship calendar.

The latter race was a cracker. Clay Regazzoni, in his first outing with BRM, led until the Firestones that had helped him to a surprise pole position wilted in the heat and under the strain. Handsome François Cevert took over, and the Tyrrells and Lotuses circulated nose to tail for a time – before victory on that January day in Buenos Aires went to reigning champion Fittipaldi. His new team-mate Ronnie Peterson’s engine seized; Stewart suffered a blistered front Goodyear; and Cevert clung on tenaciously until ‘Emmo’ sent one, a skittering scrabble, down the inside with 11 to go.

The coiled Interlagos provided a more straightforward affair two weeks later, i.e. in February. Nobody could get close to the compliant 72s across its bumpy surface – damping expertise is the thing that Stewart concedes Tyrrell lacked – and Fittipaldi controlled the GP from start to finish.

Of course I didn’t get to see these races. And Motor Sport text was too heavy going for a five-year old. Yet somehow these distant and impossibly exotic ‘fixes’ fired me up, via March’s extended tyre test and race at Kyalami, for F1’s European tour. Which is often when new designs – actually Denny Hulme had stuck the M23 on pole for its debut in South Africa – and occasionally new regulations were implemented, providing further shots of intrigue and expectation.

A series of official tests in Spain before F1 arrives en monolithic bloc in March does not tantalise in the same way. The season ends much later these days – 2012 stretched to 25 November whereas 1972 concluded at Watkins Glen on 8 October – but despite the thrilling climaxes of recent years, still the anticipation of a new campaign is what does it for me – the placing of the pencil on a blank sheet rather than the dottings and crossings.

Just imagine if a season again started with a January jolt. That’s how it was from 1953’-58, and in 1965, and from 1967-’68 and 1972-’82 (bar ’81). And it might be so again given Bernie Ecclestone’s desire to pack more into a year, and given that the details of the next Concorde Agreement are still to be dotted and crossed. (If indeed there is to be one.)

Why not spread the races out from January to (if you must) December and dab the season with official tests at strategically propitious points? Teams, particularly those with a smaller workforce, would thus be provided extended opportunities to review and hopefully amend their performance shortcomings during the year, and the races, as long as 20 remained a maximum, would feel even more special because they wouldn’t have to be churned out once a fortnight.

The New Year’s Day openings to 1965 and ’68 were a bit too keen, but a race – preferably not at Jerez – in late January/early February is surely not beyond the wit of today’s players.

I’ll be glued to the screen come March, but I know that the interminable build-up and incessant ‘Bigger and better than ever!’ thudding TV trailers will have left me feeling more relieved than anything else.

Better surely for it to be a release. So, the sooner the better: when the red lights go out, the bullshit stops.

That used to rhyme – back in 1973.

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