Bahrain - So, is Formula 1 alive and well and living in Paris? Or is it just slowly dying away in the stale air of the FIA’s headquarters on the Place de la Concorde, where so many have been guillotined during the French Revolution?
History repeats itself.
And I’m not suggesting that F1 cars are running around like headless chickens. Despite some pretty terrible decisions over the last couple of seasons – from overly complex hybrid drive trains and restrictive engine development regulations and tyre debacles plus aero that gave us 2014’s stupidly ugly noses to the latest qualifying disaster – despite all of this, 2016 has kicked off to a fairly decent start.
Entertaining start to the season
The racing, believe it or not, has been rather entertaining, in no small measure thanks to Max Verstappen shooting his young mouth off to Toro Rosso in Australia and Lewis Hamilton blowing two starts in a row: from pole to sixth at the end of Lap 1, in Oz; and from pole to seventh at the end of Lap 1, in Bahrain.
If he carries on like this, he’ll drop more places on opening laps than McLaren did the whole of last year through engine failure.
And right there we have another example of F1’s inability to switch on the lights when it matters. At Spa, Button and Alonso got a combined grid penalty of 55 places.
By heavens, that would have placed the two McLarens in Poland. Perhaps that’s really why Alonso wasn’t in the car yesterday. He’s still trying to plot his way back from over yonder.
No. Only joking. At least the FIA succeeded in strengthening F1 cars beyond recognition over the last twenty years, so that Alonso could walk away from his terrifying accident in Melbourne, whilst Robert Kubica did the same in 2007 after an even more horrific crash in Canada.
Alonso - luckiest man alive
The Luckiest Man Alive, Alonso was called by an Australian newspaper – whilst the fractured ribs keeping him out of yesterday’s Bahrain GP opened the door to the 'Second Luckiest Man Alive', Stoffel Vandoorne, who made his mark with a storming drive in Fernando’s car.
Alonso, in the meantime, must be contemplating his future. McLaren and Honda ain’t gonna give him a winning car any time soon.
And he’s survived four close calls since 2012: first when Grosjean skimmed over his head in a colossal pile up at Spa; then when his McLaren mysteriously speared off the road during testing at Barcelona, at the start of 2015; then when Raikkonen lifted him up into the air in Austria, also in 2015; and now in the opening race of the 2016 season, in Oz.
Whether the Barcelona accident was of his own doing, we don’t know. But the crash in Melbourne was, and that’s a bit worrying, raising the question of whether Fernando still has what it takes to take on the Young Guns.
And they’re getting ever younger still: Verstappen, Vandoorne, Wehrlein...
But wait, let’s first finish off our history lesson.
'Ecclestone lost his marbles'
F1 had been guillotined over the last couple of years, right there in Paris, where Louis XVI and Marie-Antoinette lost their heads almost two and a quarter centuries ago.
Here’s why: FIA president Jean Todt is a weakling, F1 ringmaster Bernie Ecclestone has lost his marbles and on top of this, you get a unit called the F1 Strategy Group.
It sounds fancy, yes. And with more brains in F1 than a couple of Einsteins put together, one would have thought that a special unit called the Strategy Group – the best of the best, if you will – would continually come up with clever answers to enhance and advance the sport.
The group comprises of the FIA, the F1 commercial rights holder and the game’s six biggest teams. During decision making meetings, the FIA have six votes, the commercial rights holder have six and F1’s six biggest teams (Mercedes, Ferrari, Red Bull, McLaren, Williams and a floating member) have one vote each, or six in total.
So, after Australia’s qualifying debacle – with Vettel out of his car and walking around in jeans with three minutes of Q3 still to go – every single stakeholder in F1, including hundreds of millions of fans, knew that the sport would have to revert back to the old system as soon as possible.
That’s what the team bosses then voted for, unanimously: to dump the new system and revert straight back to the old one for Bahrain.
Except that nobody told the F1 Strategy Group, who vetoed the team bosses’ decision.
Huh? How come one or two or three people could overturn the unanimous call of all eleven team bosses, in the face of universal opposition to elimination-style qualifying running into the millions?
But back it was, in Bahrain, to an unmitigated disaster.
And it is disastrous for many reasons, amongst them that there simply ain’t enough time and tyres for teams and drivers to react to being on the cusp of elimination, resulting in drivers sitting in the pits as they’re counted out, resulting in ever less action on the track.
New qualifying format
And that’s exactly the gist of it: under the new format, the three segments of F1’s one hour long qualifying session all start with a bang and end with a whimper. In Bahrain it was all over in Q3, again, with three minutes on the clock remaining.
So, instead of building up to a crescendo, elimination-style qualifying kicks off at a helluva rate with many cars on track, whereafter it steadily progresses to an anti-climax with nothing happening at all.
Try, also, to put yourself in the boots of a track-side spectator. How the hell will that spectator have any understanding of what’s happening?
So, the system will now change.
But here’s the worrying part: why did it happen in the first place? All the engineers and drivers warned against the viability of elimination-style quali. And when it was proven to be useless, why did the Strategy Group vote to have it in place even for one more event?
Because Todt is weak and Ecclestone is mad. One minute Bernie calls the new system “crappy”, the next minute he decrees that it should be tried again as it has “not been given a fair chance yet”.
Even the latest Strategy Group meeting, on Saturday in the Bahrain pits, failed to deliver an answer and the issue has now been carried over to a meeting on Thursday, where a suggestion to decide grid positions by an aggregate of two runs per driver will be discussed.
Meetings, meetings, meetings. Discussions, discussions, discussions.
And then Ecclestone and Todt make the decision in any case.
No wonder the drivers have written a letter to the authorities, expressing their concern over the governance of the sport. Bernie, in his inimitable style, has conceded that they have a point, only to dismiss it in the same breath.
Nor the drivers, nor the team bosses, have any say in rule making. Their place is to keep quiet and race.
According to the Bern.
Here is the truth, though: F1 has always been run autocratically and chaotically, with crisis management as a central tenet of Ecclestone’s approach.
And not only to avert crisis, but also to create crisis.
Bernie lives by the age old dictum of “all publicity is good publicity”.
Yet, in amongst all of this, we actually got two decent races out of Oz and Bahrain.
More races on the way
But don’t jump up and down with excitement, or not yet, for the FIA has chosen their opening races carefully.
Melbourne, see, is perhaps the most unrepresentative track of all 17 or 18 that used to be the norm in years gone by; 2016 will stretch over 21 venues.
What’s true for Melbourne won’t necessarily hold for other tracks on the calendar at all – except that Mercedes will, for the time being, be dominant, followed by Ferrari.
That’s because Melbourne is a point-and-squirt street circuit used once a year, with lots of dust off line and a race stretching into nightfall, with unrepresentative temperatures.
That’s point number one.
Point number two is that Bahrain is, with Canada, the track where drivers of the same team bunch together most.
Check out Michael Schumacher’s pole time of 1min31.431 ten years ago, compared to team mate Felipe Massa’s 1min31.478.
Or just this year: Hamilton less than a tenth quicker than Rosberg; Bottas two thousands of a second quicker than Massa; Verstappen 42 thousands quicker than Sainz; and Vandoorne 64 thousands quicker than Button; with a lot of the rest in similar cars not separated by much.
What this means is that Bahrain separates teams, more than drivers.
Again, the track has – like Melbourne – an absence of long, fast sweeps plus a lot of hard braking into short sharp points around which cars have to rotate quickly.
Add it all up, and the trick moves on to strategy, including tyre compounds, as well as managing the rears over a long stint.
Given the number of pit stops, the sharply falling temperatures and a third compound now available during races, and it was difficult to work out the Bahrain possibilities in advance; the variables just seem inexhaustible.
In the end, we had no major surprises though, except one: Romain Grosjean bringing the Haas back home in fifth, which went one better than the biggest surprise in Oz, where Grosjean brought the Haas back in sixth.
At both events, the Frenchman’s was the drive of the day, even though he had some competition in Bahrain, in the shape of Vandoorne, Wehrlein, Ricciardo, Verstappen and Daniil Kvyat, who all drove out of their skins.
It all bodes well for the future, of course.
What bode best, though, was the number of overtakes; some of them exquisite (like Raikkonen’s pass on Ricciardo on the outside of Turn 4 early on and again on Bottas around the outside of Turn 1, on Lap7), whilst others were a bit more clumsy and didn’t come off (like Bottas on Hamilton, in Turn 1 on Lap 1).
In the spirit of fairness it has to be said, though, that Lewis left the door wide open and closed it without properly thinking his line through to the end. Had Bottas not gone for the gap, we would have held that against him as well.
At least it wasn’t a Fin-on-Fin (in the shape of Kimi and Valtteri) coming together again.
Well, Ferrari seems to be out of it already, with Vettel’s retirement on the warm up lap and possibly a fragile turbo casting the spectre of unreliability over the scarlet cars.
Which leaves an intriguing title battle between Hamilton and Rosberg, now that the German has won five straight races in a row – two this year, plus three at the back end of 2015 – to steal a march on the Englishman.
There’s life then, in the chase for glory, still.
Yet, if it was the other way around, with Hamilton romping off into the distance, one would have felt that it was all over already, bar the shouting.
So, the racing in the two opening stanzas has been good, with double winner Rosberg especially strong in Bahrain, where he usually shines. Remember how he set fastest lap of the race, for instance, in his very first Grand Prix, way back in 2006, in a Williams?
That now, with Alonso and Schumacher in the race. Nico is also strong in China, which is next on the calender.
So, let’s wait for a race of two to see if a pattern develops, especially in midfield.
But let’s not wait any longer to change the qualifying format. And please put a head back on the body of F1 politics. The sport is in desperate need of good leadership.