Driv­ers go into re­vamped and high-speed era

New Straits Times - - Sport -

FOR­MULA One ventures into the un­known zone of a long-awaited re­vamped and high-speed era un­der new Amer­i­can own­er­ship this week­end when the en­gines roar into life at the sea­son-open­ing Aus­tralian Grand Prix.

Lib­erty Me­dia’s takeover and the off-sea­son de­par­ture of the sport’s vet­eran com­mer­cial ring­mas­ter Bernie Ec­cle­stone have co­in­cided with an over­haul of the tech­ni­cal reg­u­la­tions to usher in a new breed of ‘fat­ter and faster’ cars.

The wider new ma­chines with broader tyres make much greater phys­i­cal de­mands on the driv­ers and are ex­pected to pro­vide more noise and spec­ta­cle — and hope­fully bet­ter rac­ing with more pass­ing moves — as For­mula One bids to ap­peal to a younger, global, dig­i­tal and so­cial me­dia savvy au­di­ence.

The re­tire­ment of 2016 driv­ers world cham­pion Ger­man Nico Ros­berg has also trig­gered change with Finn Valt­teri Bot­tas switch­ing from Wil­liams to part­ner three-time cham­pion and pre-sea­son favourite Lewis Hamil­ton in the cham­pion Mercedes team.

That has been just one of a rip­ple of moves up and down the pit lane that have added an even greater sense of ad­ven­ture, and the un­known, to the com­pe­ti­tion with Fer­rari per­form­ing well in pre-sea­son test­ing to sug­gest they may join Red Bull in mount­ing a chal­lenge to the dom­i­nant Ger­man team.

Al­ready, Lib­erty have re­laxed re­stric­tions on teams’ pad­dock use of so­cial me­dia stream­ing of their live ac­tion dur­ing test­ing and made prom­ises that there will be more sub­stan­tial changes to come as four decades of Ec­cle­stone’s lead­er­ship are dis­man­tled and swept aside.

The sight of the strug­gling McLaren Honda team switch­ing back to ‘retro’ chas­sis names and team colours, with the re­turn of a flash of or­ange, and Force In­dia’s bold in­tro­duc­tion of pink livery has added to the sense of a bold new be­gin­ning.

But be­neath the sur­face many of the old fears per­sist amid hushed warn­ings that only a much-im­proved ‘show’ with bet­ter rac­ing will help the sport halt a slow but sure de­cline in its fan base in a highly-com­pet­i­tive global age of dig­i­talised sport­media.

De­spite the changes at Mercedes, that in­cluded the de­par­ture of tech­ni­cal team boss Paddy Lowe to join Wil­liams, the cham­pi­ons will start 2017 as favourites again with Bri­tain Hamil­ton the man to watch on the track. Lowe has been re­placed by for­mer Fer­rari bof­fin Bri­ton James Allison.

Bot­tas, whose switch from Wil­liams meant that the Bri­tish team had to ask Brazil­ian vet­eran Felipe Massa to make a rapid Uturn af­ter re­tir­ing and come back to part­ner 18-year-old Cana­dian rookie Lance Stroll, has set­tled in quickly and eas­ily along­side Hamil­ton.

But the top pre-sea­son story has been the prob­lems at McLaren where a board­room up­heaval led to the oust­ing of longterm chief Ron Den­nis be­fore test­ing con­firmed that Honda’s lat­est en­gine — in the third sea­son of their much vaunted part­ner­ship — lacks both power and re­li­a­bil­ity.

Two-time cham­pion Fer­nando Alonso of Spain made lit­tle at­tempt at hid­ing his feel­ings af­ter a frus­trat­ing run of fail­ures dur­ing test­ing.

“There is no re­li­a­bil­ity and there is no power,” he said.

For one of the sport’s tra­di­tional grandee teams, it is an em­bar­rass­ing sit­u­a­tion that new ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor Zak Brown has in­her­ited. And even be­fore the start of the new sea­son, team chief Eric Boul­lier had to fend off talk that Alonso is look­ing to move.

“He wants to be com­pet­i­tive and we need to be com­pet­i­tive to keep him happy... if not, he’ll take his own de­ci­sions,” he said.

Such dis­cord has been a con­sis­tent back­drop to the raz­za­matazz of Lib­erty’s takeover which has seen for­mer Benet­ton and Fer­rari tech­ni­cal di­rec­tor Ross Brawn in­stalled as the sport’s new mo­tor sports di­rec­tor, a po­si­tion cre­ated for the multi-cham­pi­onship win­ning Bri­ton.

His job brief is to make the sport and the rac­ing as at­trac­tive as pos­si­ble de­spite Mercedes dom­i­na­tion — they have won the last three driv­ers and con­struc­tors’ ti­tles and 51 of the last 59 Grands Prix.

Red Bull team boss Chris­tian Horner ar­tic­u­lated the feel­ings of many when he said it was “un­palat­able” to con­sider the prospect of three more years of Mercedes supremacy, but stopped short of in­sist­ing on any kind of hand­i­cap sys­tem.

Brawn ac­knowl­edged the prob­lem and re­jected any kind of syn­thetic so­lu­tion. “The fans will see through an ar­ti­fi­cial so­lu­tion,” he said.

“The real core of it is to look at how you level the play­ing field in terms of fi­nan­cial re­sources and so forth and that’s why a five-year plan must in­clude the fund­ing of the teams, bud­get con­trol and distribution of funds .... There is a dis­par­ity...” he added.

That re­mains a prob­lem for the fu­ture while F1 bids to make a re­sound­ing re­turn with a louder and faster show this week­end. AFP

Mercedes’ Lewis Hamil­ton has his tyres changed dur­ing pre­sea­son test­ing.

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