Did you hear that 2014 is a brave new era for F1?
It’s been impossible to escape the relentless hype machine in the off-season. Not long ago I speculated that the 2014 season could go either way: it could be a farcical mess or a real re-affirmation of the world’s premier motorsport. I was willing to give the buzzing ‘powertrains’ (engines are so last year, daddy-O) and X-rated noses a chance. I was willing to believe the fan-boys proclaiming 2014 to be the ‘best season ever’. If it meant we get some actual motor racing out of the world’s ‘best’ motor racing series, then so be it.
Did we get that in Melbourne? Did we hell.
Okay, so Vettel retired early. Are people that easily pleased now that the retirement of one top driver is enough to make a race incredible? A good motor racing series is good in spite of one dominance by one driver, not because of it; see V8 Supercars with Jamie Whincup, or BTCC with the Honda team. I know we’re all sick to the back teeth of Vettel and his stupid finger (on his hand, not on his car), but if anything his early retirement flagged up one of the key issues with the new F1 ruleset. I’m all for making a series unpredictable, but moving the goalposts so far that most of the existing top teams can’t even limp through one grand prix without error messages isn’t a battle of attrition; it’s a farce. Granted, it was nice to see a return of attrition, as opposed to having an entire grid of cars complete a race without fault. But we’re not talking man and machine being pushed above and beyond the limit; we’re talking a KERS hardware issue crippling the defending champion, like an error message on a computer. Cue the ‘KERS has encountered a problem and needs to close’ memes and jokes.
The cars hardly look any better on repeated viewings, summed up in commentary by Martin Brundle after an accident in qualifying (‘that’s the best thing that could’ve happened to that nose, it’s horrible’). But even worse was the sound. We’ve heard time and again over the off-season how F1 has had turbos before and so by extension the turbo engines this year will be just as good. But they really aren’t. 1980s turbo F1 cars were visceral forces of nature, barking fire and brimstone and spewing insane amounts of horsepower. The class of 2014 are none of those things. David Croft in commentary diplomatically put it thus: ‘they aren’t quite cranked up to 11, more like 7 or 8.’ I’m sorry, but monotone buzzing and whirring isn’t good enough for F1. No wonder Melbourne City Council were reconsidering renewing their contract to stage the race; their reason being that they weren’t ‘getting enough bang for their buck’. Especially when in the same weekend, fans were treated to four V8 Supercar races with a packed grid roaring and snarling through the streets of Albert Park, the gunshot gear changes reverberating off the walls like a war zone.
And this brings me to the heart of the issue: the old problems are still present.
Barely ten laps in, talk of fuel conservation started; this most tedious blight on modern F1. This was then compounded post-race when 2nd place finisher Daniel Ricciardo was disqualified for ‘exceeding fuel limits’. Wait a minute, I hear you ask. If refuelling during the race is forbidden, then how did he make it home if he used up too much fuel without running out of gas? That after all is what makes fuel mileage finishes in NASCAR so exciting – as Dale Jr found out in Las Vegas. But no, that would be too simple a solution for the FIA. Instead, it’s all about measuring fuel flow – how much fuel goes into the engine per hour. Yes, ladies and gentlemen, F1 has officially become a rigid adherence to MPG over MPH. As my friend quipped during the race, only Top Gear can make a fuel conservation race entertaining from start to finish.
I get that F1 has to relate to road car technology, but it has historically done so by leading the way, letting their innovations trickle down into road cars. Now F1 is having to follow road car trends for efficiency. There are ways to promote innovation and fuel efficiency in motorsport – Group C prototype racing proved this in the 1980s. Give the teams and manufacturers a blank slate and X amount of fuel, and if they use more than that…well, they’ll run out. This drove innovation as no matter what engine you used, it had to be both fast AND efficient. F1’s overcomplicated system is not only restrictive to engine development, but asking for trouble, especially as now Red Bull are reportedly appealing and claiming that the sensors are unreliable at best. Talk about making a rod for your own back, FIA.
Worst of all was the chronic lack of actual racing. I unfortunately missed the race live, and stumbled on the podium result by accident on social media. I still sat down to watch the race, only for my heart to sink when I realized that the top 3 order at the first corner was how they would finish. Many jumped on the impressive performance of Valtteri Bottas as worthy of note, which they were correct to do; the tragedy being that his moves were the only significant moments of actual racing in the entire 57-lap grand prix. And for the last time – DRS doesn’t count. The fact that a) it even exists and b) still doesn’t improve the racing shows how deep the problem runs. And without wishing to bang the V8 drum again, the Supercars support races were mini-epics featuring close racing and drivers visibly pushing their brutal machines to the limit and balancing a tightrope between reward and disaster – and often falling off it. So if the big bruising taxi-cabs can do it, why can’t F1?
Still, I guess this lack of actual racing meant a lack of stupid penalties – although laughably Romain Grosjean was penalized with a drive-through penalty before the race even began. A preemptive strike perhaps?
Perhaps by the low standards of F1 in recent years, Melbourne was a pretty good race. But frankly, my optimism preseason doesn’t seem to have been well-founded.
Never mind. British Touring Cars season 2014 starts March 29th.