MARCH 29, 2010
Please rain on my parade lap
So it seems reports of Formula 1's death have been greatly exaggerated. After the yawn-fest in Bahrain, the magic returned with a sprinkling of Melbourne rain and it's as if there was never a problem with the sport's health. As John Travolta waved the chequered flag, this looked very much a sport 'staying alive'.
The Australian Grand Prix was a classic race, with enough action to last half a season. But memories are rather shorter than that. Afterwards Fernando Alonso made the wisecrack that F1's critics would not be able to call the sport boring 'for one week, at least...'
Therein lies the rub. In a modern media age the maxim 'you are only as good as your last race' doesn't only apply to the drivers. The Bahrain Grand Prix created the reaction it did because it was the first race of the year. After five months of build-up featuring arguably the most exciting line-up of all time, the world's media outlets sent extra correspondents. What else were they supposed to write about? The procession served as a wake-up call - or rather its diametrical opposite.
But to imagine there is anything unusual about disappointing Sunday afternoons in modern F1 is to overlook the fact that the last few seasons have all regularly produced poor races, even in the context of exciting title battles. Qualifying has provided much more consistent entertainment.
As usual, the truth lies somewhere between the two extremes of Bahrain and Melbourne. The Australian Grand Prix took place in precisely the conditions in which F1 thrives. A period of rain leading to a drying line is the perfect combination to guarantee mayhem. It has long been the same as it throws a whole bunch of spanners into the teams' immaculate preparations, which otherwise have a tendency to balance each other out. That's why the idea of using sprinklers persists as the simplest way for Formula 1 to guarantee a thriller.
In Bahrain the new rules came under attack, particularly the ban on refuelling. The teams should share any blame as they were invariably taking a cautious approach in a bid to make sure of a finish at the first race. That was reflected in the stale contest.
But there is an argument that the very same rules helped generate some of the interest in the latter stages in Australia - as guys like Hamilton, who'd made an extra tyre stop, attacked and ultimately caught the Ferraris, who had stayed out. However, the problem persisted that he couldn't pass when he got there - and that is F1's eternal dilemma.
The sport now heads to Malaysia, which showed last year how even rain can go too far. On that occasion a tropical storm caused the race to be stopped at half-distance - that's not exactly a show either. The twilight start time meant it couldn't be restarted and the cars were left stranded on the grid in a futile and embarrassing hiatus until time ran out. The race start has been brought forward this year so hopefully there will be no repeat, but neutrals will be hoping for thunderclouds regardless.
Other than rain, the other major factor that brightens up grands prix is the safety car - and those inevitably happen more often at circuits with barriers close to the track. Recently the sport has been swamped by giant circuits designed with a clean sheet of paper by Hermann Tilke - such as Bahrain, Malaysia, China, Turkey and Fuji. Those don't even set the pulses racing, let alone the cars. But Tilke's street circuits in Valencia, Singapore and Abu Dhabi hardly make up a list of classic racing venues either, close walls or not.
Before we tint our spectacles any rosier, overtaking also comes at a premium at more established circuits like Barcelona, Monaco, Silverstone, Hungary and Suzuka. Imola had turned desperately processional before it disappeared from the calendar.
Australia has bought F1 some time. But pre-season testing and Bahrain have shown that cars need to be about three seconds quicker than their quarry to get past with ease in dry conditions. So yes, the problem remains. No knee-jerks, certainly, but the teams' planned meeting in Malaysia must go ahead regardless of the leeway afforded by the thriller in Oz.
Getting them all to agree on anything will, of course, be next to impossible anyway. If they do get desperate, they should all just club together to buy a large hose.