It’s Hit Home – The State of Play in F1

I’m not the pessimistic type, but this Sunday’s Australian Grand Prix was one the worst and most disjointed races in recent years.

After many shocking turns even before the field started the first racing lap of the season, spectators and viewers saw the competing field reduced to just 15 drivers. A mixture of injury, car failures and software issues saw the starting grid to its lowest level for an opening race since 1963. After looking at the times of qualifying on Saturday afternoon, it finally hit home to me the quite mammoth gap between the stunning time set by Lewis Hamilton, and the rear of the grid with Magnussen’s tuned down McLaren. Comparing against 2014’s Q1 times (as Q2 and Q3 was affected by rain), the times actually aren’t that bad. In 2014 Daniel Ricciardo’s quickest time was 6.2 seconds quicker than the slowest time set by Romain Grosjean, while this year 3.5 seconds seperated Lewis Hamilton from Kevin Magnussen. This should give Honda much hope – not only did Button’s McLaren finish the race (although he was two laps down, this was nothing but a minor miracle), but they have less ground to catch up on then the likes of Sauber and Lotus did in 2014.

There was a severe lack of action throughout the field in Australia, which was the only factor distracting everyone in 2014 from the sheer domination by Mercedes that had not been seen since the previous McLaren-Honda era. The combinations of lack of cars on the grid (mainly Bottas through injury and Kyvat because of engine trouble), Ferrari’s improvement with the power unit and McLaren’s immediate but temporary demise meant that the midfield is currently sparser and more spread out than in 2014. BBC commentator David Coulthard suggested that the new design of the nose cones were to partially to blame for the lack of overtaking, with the cars visibly greater effected by running in the wake created by the car in front. Suddendly DRS seems like a good solution again.

The build up to the race was dominated by the fascinating but yet scandalous battle between Sauber and Giedo van der Garde, at one point baylifts were at the gates of the paddock, ready to come in and seize Sauber’s race cars and equipment. Luckily for the good of the sport the case has been dropped by the van der Garde camp for now until they can reach a settlement, an announcement which should be released in the next couple of days. Personally I feel for van der Garde and think that he is right to try and claim back his seat or seek compensation – and he timed his legal action very carefully to ensure maximum media exposure while attempting to force Sauber into a quick reaction. The negative side to this was that it brought disrepute to both Sauber and the sport, and threatened the team’s very existence. The upgrade of the Ferrari power unit led to one of Sauber’s best performances in recent years, with Felipe Nasr finishing in fifth place – marking the highest place finish for a Brazilian on their debut. This put together with Ericcson’s eighth place meant that Sauber have already surpassed their 2014 total of zero points in the constructor’s championship, which in the long term will help to relieve some of their financial difficulties, which is what the van der Garde saga drew the spotlight onto. Granted the whole affair doesn’t seem to have been handled very well by Sauber’s management, but when a team has to ditch one ‘pay driver’ (regardless of talent) in favour of someone who brings more money in, we need to step back and view the bigger picture.

After the race Horner treated the world’s media by saying that the FIA should intervene and help balance the playing field, after again heavily criticising the Renault power unit. Dr. Helmet Marko has also suggested that Red Bull could exit the sport completely (a threat often exercised by Ferrari many times in recent years to no effect). If taken at face value then it seems that Red Bull are just bitter that their dominance has dwindled after their glorious 2009-13 spell, but there’s more to it than that. Red Bull do have a right to feel agreeived, their prior success was built around the genius of Adrian Newey and their aerodynamics, the development of which was not restricted and parts of it could easily be banned by the FIA at relatively short notice, such as the blown diffuser. Engine development however is restricted, so after Mercedes came flying out the blocks in 2014 it was going to be a tough ask to overcome them in a short period of time – with restricted development and limited testing the status quo is maintained and it is easier to hold that advantage, aero development can only go so far.

There’s additional subtext behind this. There have been whisperings that Dietrich Mateschitz wants to sell up and exit F1, with over $300m reportedly being spent by just Red Bull themselves annually, and around 1,200 staff employed by both Red Bull and Toro Rosso. This level of commitment is reviewed every year, and the point may come where they seek a buyer. With both Audi and Renualt viewing an entry to F1, this could provide the perfect opportunity for them both – Marko’s suggestion that Red Bull could exit the sport could be a ‘come and get me’ plea to Audi.

I’m hoping that in Malaysia we see some better action on track. With Bottas and Kyvat propping up the midfield, Magnussen and the Manors running we could see some more battles, plus the layout of Sepang with it’s huge straights will provide overtakes assisted by DRS at least. 

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