by Ed Gorman, former F1 Correspondent, The Times
I always loved the Australian Grand Prix. Even though I used to experience it through a haze of jet lag – mere newspaper journos were never given enough time in-country to adjust – you could not help enjoying the setting, the people and the passion for the sport. Albert Park is right up there with the best of them – in my day in the paddock that would include Silverstone, Monza, Spa, Monaco, anywhere in Japan, Montreal and Brazil.
From the comfort of my sofa 10,500 miles away and without the need to get on a cheap flight all the way there, those hugely positive vibes about Formula One still come over loud and clear. The Grand Prix is taken seriously in Melbourne, it gets genuine support and it remains a worthy setting for the season opener.
In the last few years, particularly from a British perspective, the sport has been struggling a bit. The success of Sebastian Vettel and the corresponding lack of it among the main British teams and British divers has sapped enthusiasm in the UK. So like many armchair followers I was looking forward to something a bit different and boy did we get it.
The combination of the sweeping rule changes, the new sounds and technology and the new driver talent on show, plus the complex challenge of managing fuel loads made for a real sit-up-and-take-notice race weekend. The opener should be at the very least an amuse-bouche for what is to come and I found myself thinking about all the might-have-beens and the intriguing unanswered questions once the chequered flag had come down.
For example, the season looks massively promising for Lewis Hamilton, assuming he can get past Nico. It is not looking too bad for Sebastian Vettel either, given the performance of Daniel Ricciardo’s Red Bull, which finished second prior to being disqualified. And what about Williams? Where would they have finished had Valtteri Bottas not hit the wall and Felipe Massa not been shoveled off the track by Kamui Kobayashi? And where are Ferrari in the pecking order? Was the electrical fault on both cars enough to consign them to the upper middle order or is this another not bad, but not great, offering from Maranello?
The sport’s administrators have given the teams a proper challenge and the single most positive element I would argue is that they have returned some of the skill back to the cockpit. The cars are powerful, unruly and complex and they are proving a handful for the world’s top drivers. No doubt things will settle down and the drivers and teams behind them will gradually learn the new ropes, but in the meantime it looks like we could be in for some exciting racing in the early part of the season.
Rookies catch the eye
Driver wise, you could not but help be impressed by the new kids on the block – Daniel Ricciardo stepping up in class to Red Bull with a mature performance in front of his home crowd and Kevin Magnussen putting on an astonishing debut for Ron Dennis’s team. And then there is Daniil Kvyat, the new teenage star in the Toro Rosso, who started eighth and finished tenth, becoming the youngest points scorer in Formula One history as he did so.
And what of the teams? The resurgence of Williams is very exciting. After years of being also-rans, the proud outfit now under Claire Wiliams’s control looks a force to be reckoned with. One of the best shots in the television coverage was a cut-away of her in the garage, barely being able to look at the screen as she watched Bottas whack his rear wheel into the wall, on lap 10. She looks like someone who wants to win badly and maybe – like her father – she will be tough on her drivers. Mercedes are clearly a step ahead of everyone and Nico Rosberg did not put a foot wrong in his impressively packaged new Silver Arrow. His performance is encouraging from a Lewis Hamilton perspective but slightly worrying if the team runs away with the season. Red Bull clearly have a useful if unprepared car and cannot be discounted yet.
The look of the new cars
Looks-wise there are some seriously ugly machines knocking around. The rules on nose height have forced designers into some ungainly solutions with Ferrari taking the title for worst of all (Lotus as runner-up?). The red cars look like a couple of old prize-fighters with noses that have been broken and flattened after years in the ring. I can’t imagine Luca di Montezemolo – who guards the style of Ferrari with a passion – is all that pleased with his latest Formula One thoroughbreds.
The new sound of F1
I know the thorny question of engine noise – or lack of it – has been heavily debated already but, for what its worth, here’s my view, having tuned in for the first time this weekend. I am torn on this. In some ways quieter cars are better for everyone, speaking as one of the thousands of people whose hearing was damaged by being too close to Formula One. They are also a lot more interesting in the sense that you can hear much more about how the car is performing with the new cars – the engine note, the gear changes, the screech of lock-ups. You can also hear ambient noise around the cars, including the crowd occasionally and even the circuit commentator – the redoubtable Bob Constanduros. There were moments when it felt, or sounded like, a Grand Prix from years ago.
But there is no doubt that something has been lost. The sheer roaring, full-throated extravagance of the V8s was enough to send a shiver through my spine every time I heard them close up. The old cars physically invaded your space as they approached, hammering the ground like a tank on speed. I will never forget standing in the tunnel at Monaco feeling the chest bursting impact of cars rifling past towards the sunlight. Somehow Formula One – the pinnacle of motor sport – felt just right being ludicrously loud.
I admit I spent quite a lot of time this weekend trying to put my finger on what the new cars sound like. Lawn mowers? No. Motor bikes. Maybe. Powerboats. Yes. My guess is that the main loss here will be felt by people at the tracks. On TV, the new “noise scape” is less impressive but more interesting and after a while we will all have forgotten what some of us are missing. There will also be more people around not needing hearing aids.
Two final thoughts
It was great to hear Kamui Kobayashi so honestly and completely accepting responsibility for his fairly embarrassing crash at the first corner. It is not often you get a driver putting his hand up and doing that when there is always someone else to blame. It turned out anyway that the rear brakes had failed.
It is a relief that the length of quali has been looked at. But it is a pity the changes weren’t more radical. Cutting the most boring section – quali one – from 20 to 18 minutes is hardly a big step and does not make enough of an impact. More controversially, I found the race very long and not as interesting after the safety car as before it. Does Formula One have to stick to such a long-winded format? A shorter, more intense Grand Prix might be the way ahead…I’ve got my fingers in my ears on that one.
What do you think? Do you agree with Ed’s comments on the first weekend of F1 racing 2014? Give us your views below