Party like it’s 1998

Right: I promise not to use the word “fairytale” while reviewing the season’s opening grand prix. Button drove brilliantly, very pleased for the team, all of that, yes yes yes.

I will, however, make the comparison to a previous occasion when a team turned up with a totally dominant car at the start of the season: not 2004, as James Allen has been going on about (not without good reason, mind), but 1998. Then as now the rule changes led to a team that had not been a title contender getting a jump on the field: it was a team that had recently brought in one of the paddock’s top technical minds, and had been known to be making changes and improvements over the course of the previous season. In 1998 it was Adrian Newey at McLaren; this year it’s Ross Brawn at, er, Brawn.

Interestingly, when Schumacher took one of his dominant titles and ITV’s reporter grabbed a comment from Brawn in the pitlane, he went out of his way to mention 1998: having turned up expecting to be competitive, Ferrari were stung to be thrashed by McLaren; the experience drove Brawn and the team to pursue the levels of excellence that led to their domination in the early 2000s. Perhaps that spectre also drove him in preparing the Honda team over 2008 for this year.

Honda, incidentally, have been left looking like chumps: they have had to spend almost as much to get rid of the team as they would have done to keep it running, and it has achieved success without their name on the car. They must have anticipated that other manufacturers would also withdraw; given the publicity they should now be getting, it has turned out to be a very expensive error – worst of all, one that Richard “Smugface” Branson has capitalised on. Actually, I don’t mind Branson: he perhaps paints a picture of free-spirited wheeler-dealing that isn’t very representative of the reality of entrepreneurialism, but it’s preferable to the equally imaginary sour-faced bitchiness portrayed by Alan Sugar. But Aye dye cress…

Before returning to the racing, let’s have a look at the TV coverage. The reversion to The Chain as the theme was probably justified: ITV always struggled to find appropriate music in my view. The CGI intro sequence is passable, but no better or worse than ITV’s numerous efforts. Jake Whatsisname was sound, I thought – occasionally prone to terminological errors such as “parade lap” for out lap, but let’s be generous for now and put it down to nerves on live TV.

Coulthard and Jordan were a big step up from Marc Blundell, and I expect DC to come into his own when there is controversial on-track action to assess. Brundle was excellent as ever, although Jonathan Legard – who I thought should have been brought in when Murray Walker retired – disappointed slightly. He was instantly authoritative and listenable, but he messed up the climax of quali very badly: he kept going on about Button while significant changes for third place and below were going on – Brundle evidently felt he had to shout over him just to comment on those; and he didn’t keep track of who was on a hot lap, and Brundle had to tell him it was all over! He would have got away with it on radio, but on TV we could all see his error. I’m sure he and Brundle will gel better over the course of the season.

Ther were some odd things in the build-up, too. The presenting crew were never properly introduced: this might not matter too much for Ted Kravitz, with whom even semi-regular viewers will be familiar, but Lee McKenzie was, I believe, not seen on-screen until her post-race interview with Lewis Hamilton. The build-up material was passable, but the Brundle-voiced technical pieces weren’t properly introduced, and offered the kind of thin explanation that one associates with BBC news.

Spare a thought for TV exile James Allen, who offered a Twitter commentary from Melbourne. Alas I didn’t partake, but that wasn’t because I forgot to put my alarm clock forward and got up too late to watch the race live. Definitely not.

As for the racing: much as the opening round should be the first chance to see who’s quick and who’s not, usually it poses more questions than it answer. This year was no different: the Brawn has an advantage over the rest of the field, but how much? Kubica was, after all, closing Button down towards the end: was that an indication strong BMW race pace, or just down to the peculiar circumstances of the race? Can the other teams develop their way into contention? Can Brawn develop their way into maintaining their advantage? If we look at 1998, McLaren only dominated for one further race: by round 3 in Argentina, Schumacher was able to split the McLarens in qualifying and beat them in the race. Will this happen this year, or will it be more like 2004 when Ferrari won consistently?

Given how tight the field is – unlike 1998, when the teams spread out and outfits like Prost and Stewart that had been coming good in 1997 fell back again – I would expect some of the teams to catch Brawn before we get back to Europe, but not necessarily overtake them. Adrian Newey and Red Bull must feel in with a shout, although their development programme went badly wrong last year. Ferrari seemed well down here, but their race pace should have been OK for some points – but will reliability catch them out this year like it did in 2008? What about Renault? The signs from testing were very mixed, but the more negative ones seem, so far, to have been proved right.

And as for McLaren: Brundle and Coulthard observed consistently that car looked balanced, and just all-round slow: this suggests there is not a huge amount of pace in it, waiting to be unlocked, and a significant overhaul will be needed if it is to become competitive. Handily, most of the teams are looking at significant work anyway in order to incorporate Brawn-style diffusers. But it looks like 2004 all over again for the Woking crew.

In that context, Hamilton’s race was impressive: with low expectations, he was able to pick his way through the race and extract probably as much pace as the car has to offer. It’s perhaps as well for Kovaleinen that he got knocked out on the first lap: if he had failed to capitalise in the same way as Hamilton did, it would have made for an even worse start to the season than a retirement!

On that front, a few drivers already look likely to be under pressure for their seats by mid-season unless they can improve. Renault were probably right to give Piquet a  second season: Nico Rosberg has shown that an apparently wayward debut year can be a great learning experience for much better things, and that ditching F1 drivers after one season can be counter-productive. But getting knocked out in Q1 does not repay the team’s faith. Nakajima also needs to be doing better with a good car than making Q2 and crashing in the race. Seasoned racers Anthony Davidson, Takuma Sato and Tonio Liuzzi are all twiddling their thumbs, should a vacancy arise…

Overall, today’s race offers little further clue as to who will emerge to challenge Brawn: Ferrari, Toyota, Williams, Red Bull and Renault are all more or less credible possibilities. McLaren are a big unknown, while Toro Rosso may well come on strong in the second half of the season like they did last year – considering he is a rookie and the team have had very little time with the new car, Buemi’s drive, which you’d call solid in most circumstances, was really very good. Force India need to keep up with the development, but if they do they seem likely to be mixing it in mid-field at least some of the time – which begs the question of who, exactly, will be at the back of the field…

Thank goodness the next race weekend is only five days away!

A final thought: I do not like the new rule of the tyre compounds being two “steps”  apart. It is artificial enough to say that drivers must use both types of compound in the race, but if the two are very different, effectively you are compelling the drivers to compete with unsuitable equipment, which doesn’t seem very F1. The new aerodynamics and KERS seem to be adding sufficient variables and overtaking spectacle: this arbitrary rule seems both unnecessary and potentially unsafe, plus it threatened to be decisive to the outcome of the race, even though a Kubica victory over Button would not have been a fair reflection of their relative strength over the weekend. Let’s hope that rule gets amended back to last year’s iteration, or preferably scrapped, before long.

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