It wasn’t a classic by any means, but there was a least a change of winner as the new era of Formula 1 unfolded at the Australian Grand Prix.
The design of the Albert Park track means that it is seldom conducive to a lot of overtaking, which coupled with wider, more aerodynamically-sensitive cars, meant that anyone expecting a re-run of Dijon 1979 was going to be in for a disappointment.
In fact, anyone who goes into any grand prix expecting the racing to mirror the closing lap antics between Rene Arnoux and Gilles Villeneuve is always going to be underwhelmed. The reason that race is still being name-checked now, almost 40 years on, was due to the very fact that it was so unusual.
So there were people who woke up early who were left with little recourse but to express their misery in 140 characters or fewer. Never mind, the self-same people will be getting up slightly later in another couple of weeks to complain about the lack of overtaking in the Chinese Grand Prix too. Or the design of the track. Or the absence of fans, or something. Moaning about Formula 1 is so 2016.
And there was overtaking, with both Force India drivers pulling off some pretty impressive moves in their big pink rocket, which my daughters thought looked great. The new tyres certainly create a more pleasing visual appeal as well, although there’s no getting away from the fact that the ‘shark fins’ by and large look dreadful.
Of course the real job of the new tyres is to allow the drivers to push harder for longer and on that front they were a success. There was virtually no moaning over the radio about degrading rubber, and the most significant move of the race – Sebastian Vettel passing Lewis Hamilton – happened by him staying out for longer, working the tyres more. An overcut rather than an undercut. This bodes well for the rest of the season too.
But without doubt the most encouraging element of the race was that Ferrari and Vettel beat Hamilton and Mercedes in a straight fight. Over the past three seasons there has been just a single race – the 2015 Singapore Grand Prix when the Mercs were strangely off the pace – where they were beaten purely on speed.
Pre-season testing had hinted that Ferrari had closed the gap, but that happens in pre-season all the time. And when Hamilton topped the opening two practice sessions I was genuinely worried that there was going to be another false dawn. Much as I rate Hamilton as a driver, the last thing I want to watch again is him cruising to a fourth world title challenged only fleeting and superficially by his team-mate.
But on that side too there was reason to be buoyed. OK, so Valtteri Bottas was off his game in qualifying. But after a quiet opening part of the race he came on strong as it progressed and was a real threat to Hamilton in the end. Given that Melbourne is a track where Hamilton traditionally excels, there’s no reason why he shouldn’t be in a position to fight for the win in Shanghai.
Unfortunately it looks like the Red Bulls have a bit of work to do to escape the no man’s land they occupy between Merc and Ferrari and the rest. While there’s big gap back towards the rest, one you could probably measure in pounds and well as seconds, the fight between Williams, Force India, Haas, Toro Rosso, Renault and McLaren is going to produce some epic entertainment as the year plays out.
Aside from out-lawing the ‘shark fins’ on aesthetic grounds, there’s not a great deal that F1’s new owners could do to improve the spectacle on track at the moment, but already their presence is being felt elsewhere. There was a pronounced step up in the quantity and quality of the social media output. Whether it was the short-form video clips, Facebook Live from within the paddock, or online infographics, it was clear that time, effort and money was being invested at levels much higher than before.
That also appeared to be the case on the ground too, with the introduction of the ‘fan mile’, which effectively stopped the drivers from sneaking into the track behind their sunglasses and coterie of trainers and PR types and instead put them face to face with the people who actually pay their wages.
Ferrari’s over-sensitive decision to impose a media black-out after Friday shows that some of the ‘bad old ways’ lingers in the DNA, and the Aussies are better at doing that sort of thing than almost everyone else in the world, but it’s set the bar at a decent level for the rest of the season and ought to go a decent way to ameliorating the complaints about the lack of noise and/or overtaking.
* This column is the first time I’ve had the opportunity to put pen to paper since the passing of John Surtees. I had the honour of meeting Big John many times, initially when he was a part of Team GB in A1GP and then through the Henry Surtees Foundation, which we helped to promote at AUTOSPORT.
A lot has been written about his achievements on two and four wheels, and a lot about the amazing work the Foundation did, especially around the support of Kent air ambulances. Of the many things that impressed me about him was how deeply he cared about supporting the next generation of drivers.
However, it transpires that this went beyond that… Of the small communications team at Formula E, two of the emerging press officers had conducted their first professional interview with Surtees, showing that his commitment to helping the next generation extended to all areas of motorsport. He was truly a class act who will be sorely missed.
Photo: Getty Images
Andrew van de Burgt has been a motor racing journalist for over 16 years. He started working for the Jaguar Racing team on its website in 2000, before moving to AUTOSPORT in 2002. From 2005 to 2014 he was the Editor and then Editor-in-chief of the most prestigious motorsport weekly and online publication in the world. He has covered everything from NASCAR in the States to V8 Superscars in Australia and pretty much everything in between.