On the evidence of the Australian Grand Prix last weekend, Formula One motor racing is once again back in the fast lane. There was lots of overtaking. The Ferrari team, for once, looked vulnerable. And plenty of people did the decent thing and crashed.
I wasn’t exactly on the edge of my seat. But I didn’t fall to sleep either. The thing is, though — how much of this excitement was down to the much-talked-about new rules? For the sponsors, they’re great. Now, the cars go out to qualify one at a time so every team is given exactly the same amount of exposure on television.
They help the advertisers, too. By structuring the qualifying laps in groups of five, broadcasters have a natural break to run their commercials. And because the teams don’t all sit around doing nothing for the first half of the qualifying session, they’re good news for the commentators as well. In recent years, they had to spend half an hour talking about the weather.
But what about the viewers?
Well, I missed the nail-biting conclusion to the qualifying hour, the sense that someone might go out in the dying moments and unzip a banzai lap. And with only one car on the track at a time, there’s no chance of some dozy back marker messing it up for the front runners.
Now, we have to sit and watch as a seemingly endless succession of half-witted anonymous South Americans in a selection of equally half-witted cars trundle round in a time that we know will be hopeless and embarrassing.
Let’s be honest shall we. Alonzo’s lap is only of any interest to Alonzo’s mother. I think therefore the new rules have made the qualifying sessions a little bit worse. But what about the race itself?
Well, so far as I can tell, the only difference now is that we don’t know how much petrol is in anyone’s tank. Was Frentzen fourth on the grid because he was running on fumes? Was Coulthard down in tenth because he had half of Kuwait’s sub-terranean reservoirs sandwiched between his shoulder blades. I don’t care. Guessing how much petrol is in a car is not a good spectator sport. I could stand on a motorway bridge and do that.
I honestly believe the new rules have made no difference to the race at all and the Australian Grand Prix was exciting because of the weather, which couldn’t make up its mind and meant everyone started on different tyres.
The fact of the matter is this. In qualifying, the Ferraris were a second faster than any other car. And in the race, Michael Schumacher was even more sensational than usual. Think about it. His team made the wrong choice of tyres. They messed up the pit stops completely and toward the end, his car started to disintegrate. In the closing stages, he had lost two crucial aerodynamic aids which would have made the car just about undriveable.
And yet he hung on to the coat tails of the McLaren and Williams and came home fourth.
The man is still Manchester United in a helmet. And his car is still Steve Redgrave with an exhaust pipe.
It doesn’t bode well for the rest of the season.
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