The F1 paddock was in full swing today as the new season got underway in Melbourne. The atmosphere was positive, with everyone looking forward to what should be a closely fought championship. But as always there are undertones of problems in the offing. And the weather threw up some surprises with rain storms in the afternoon and evening. More are forecast.
Whatever happens from here this is an historic season already for two reasons; it’s the first time there have been six world champions in the field and it’s the longest ever F1 season with 20 races.
Although there are voices in the paddock still saying that next month’s Bahrain GP will not happen, people on the ground there have told JA on F1 that the situation is quite different from last year. One neutral reader with no axe to grind, who lives in the Gulf and visits Bahrain regularly, told me this week, “The security threat is nothing like it was 12 months ago, and as far as the race being a ‘political statement’, I don’t think normal people, even those with strong opinions on such matters, see the race as such.” However FIA president Jean Todt said after the recent FIA World Council that they “will take the right decisions at the appropriate time”, which suggests that there are still decisions needing to be made.
Other threats are everywhere; the teams are divided with the FOTA seven on one side and five teams on the outside in Ferrari, Red Bull, Toro Rosso, HRT and Sauber.
They are working together to try to control costs and the signs are that this process is about to enter a new phase where the policing of the Resource Restriction Agreement will fall under FIA management. This is something that all the teams, with a couple of exceptions, are in favour of. Ferrari support it as do Mercedes and McLaren. For it to become part of next year’s regulations it needs to be passed by a majority and that is something being worked towards at the moment.
This way, should anyone be found to have overspent, there would be the possibility of some sanction from the FIA, which FOTA did not have and which therefore made it pointless in the eyes of Ferrari.
Smaller teams running out of money is another threat, with suggestions that not every team will make it to the end of the season.
The paddock was full of the usual hubbub, people reuniting after four months apart, drivers doing a frantic round of media interviews. I spoke to Alonso, Hamilton, Button and Raikkonen today, four of the six world champions, who are ready to dive into this new season.
“F1 is about improving the car every race and it’s something we will have to do better than the others if we want to win the championship,” said a cheerful Alonso. “But I’m in the best team, I trust the team and I know that if everything goes well, before long we will fight for victories and hopefully it will not be too late. We want to be world champions in November, so let’s see how we start in March. We have managed to maximise the Pirelli tyres over a single lap, so that’s good news for qualifying and the first lap. After that it’s all about aerodynamics.”
The word in the paddock is that Ferrari has a heavily revised car under development for the Spanish Grand Prix in May. It will require new crash tests and will be designed to make the external exhaust concept work and the set up be more consistent.
This evening FIA Race Director Charlie Whiting gave a briefing on new rules and answered any questions the media had. He said that the FIA is currently satisfied that the exhausts on all cars here in Melbourne are legal,
“All of the systems we’ve seen so far comply with the extensive new regulations so our position is simple: we are not in a position to be able to say exactly how much aerodynamic influence each individual system has,” said Whiting. “The aim of the new regulation was to ensure that we don’t have to do that. We have no idea how much aerodynamic influence each individual system has, nor really at this point is it anything that interests us. As long as they comply with the rules, we are happy. And as far as we’ve seen so far, they all do comply with the rules.”
He also clarified that the FIA has never said that F Ducts are banned, however driver operated systems, such as McLaren pioneered in 2010, are banned. Another point he made was that DRS Wings are in the 2014 technical regulations, which herald a new era of F1. In other words, DRS is here to stay.
A final note from the Whiting briefing; he said that the Technical Working Group discussed in October the ugly stepped noses on the cars, but it was considered too late in the design cycle to change it for 2012. He did imply that there would be efforts made to improve the situation with a tweaking of the rules for 2013.
Practice gets underway tomorrow. All eyes will be on the Mercedes who have a clever device on the rear wing which acts like an F Duct, but is not driver operated. Whiting alluded to it today, “What it appears some teams are doing is that when the DRS is operated, it will allow air to pass into a duct and do other things,” he explained.
“That is all I can say – you will probably have a pretty good idea of what it might be doing, and other teams will as well. But it is completely passive. There are no moving parts in it; it doesn’t interact with any suspension. No steering, nothing. Therefore I cannot see a rule that prohibits it.”
The usual cut and thrust of F1 life is in full swing, in other words.
For any readers in the UK, here is the full schedule of the BBC coverage of the weekend. Jaime Alguersuari, Jennie Gow and myself will do the commentary on BBC Radio 5 Live and on BBC Online (practice sessions).
AUSTRALIAN GRAND PRIX 2012, DAY ONE
Friday, 16 March: Practice 0130-0300 and 0530-0700. Live commentary on BBC Radio 5 live. Live text and audio commentary on BBC Sport website
AUSTRALIAN GRAND PRIX 2012, DAY TWO
Saturday, 17 March: Practice 0300-0400. Qualifying 0600. Live commentary on BBC Radio 5 live. Live text and audio commentary on BBC Sport website. Extended highlights on BBC Two 1300-1415
AUSTRALIAN GRAND PRIX 2012, DAY THREE
Sunday, 18 March: Race 0600. Live commentary on 5 live. Live text and audio commentary on BBC Sport website. Extended highlights on BBC One at 1400-1600