London, England – Sunday’s season-opening Australian Grand Prix showed that Formula One has lost none of its ability to shoot itself in the foot – and to detect silver linings in the darkest of clouds.
Just 15 cars lined up on the grid after a week of negative headlines that portrayed the glamour sport in a far from flattering light, with only 13 after the first lap and 11 at the finish.
Struggling Sauber was dragged through the courts to address why it had contracts with three drivers to race two cars, a case that triggered speculation about possible arrests and seizure of equipment.
Manor Marussia’s feelgood story about a team beating the odds to survive turned into a tale of one that failed to turn a wheel on track.
McLaren – the second most successful team in the sport’s history – began its new Honda partnership by qualifying last, finishing last and expressing relief that Jenson Button had even made it to the chequered flag.
By the time fans were heading out of Albert Park, after a processional Mercedes one-two, Red Bull consultant Helmut Marko was discussing the possibility of billionaire owner Dietrich Mateschitz falling out of love with the sport and leaving.
“I feel a bit for the fans,” commented Red Bull’s Australian driver Daniel Ricciardo. “It was a boring race. It was frustrating.”
If Melbourne was not the start that Formula One wanted, with Mercedes seemingly crushing all hope of rivals closing the performance gap, it was also not as bad as the Cassandras were claiming.
“I think we could have had much nicer headlines,” the sport’s commercial supremo Bernie Ecclestone said on Monday.
“Nobody has mentioned the fact that, thank God, Ferrari seems to have gone forward, which is good.
“Sauber after all its problems got more points than in all of last year, which is a positive. There are some positive things but unfortunately a lot more negative. But the negative things really are not Formula One’s problem.”
That remains a moot point, with smaller teams struggling to survive and demanding a more level playing field with cost cuts and more of the revenues.
Sunday’s outcome may have convinced some that the season was already a two-horse race, depending on Nico Rosberg taking the fight to double world champion team mate Lewis Hamilton, but there were glimmers to suggest Mercedes might not have it all their own way.
Australia, with an emphasis on fuel-saving in the V6 turbo hybrid era, cannot be held up as truly representative of the season as a whole.
McLaren, which has not won a race since 2012, would have gone away from last year’s opener with its hopes up after taking second and third. It turned out to be the high point of McLaren’s year.
Hamilton, winner on Sunday, failed to score a point in Melbourne in 2014 but went on to take his second title with 11 wins in total.
“Australia is quite a unique circuit and we often see some odd results here,” agreed Williams engineering head Pat Symonds after his Brazilian driver Felipe Massa started third and finished fourth.
“Now, you’ve got Mercedes and you’ve got ourselves and Ferrari and then the rest. I don’t think that will change, but the small gaps might be quite different circuit to circuit.”
Rivals will be hoping that the coming races in Malaysia, China and Bahrain will give them more cause for optimism – however unlikely that looks at the moment.
“I am a bit concerned that Lewis will win by Monza,” commented Ecclestone, whose widely-disliked double points for the final race novelty kept last season alive right to the finish but has not been continued.
“I think Mercedes is going to take a lot of beating.”
Ecclestone backed Red Bull’s call for action to rein in Mercedes’ engine advantage and make races more competitive, but played down talk of the former champion walking away from a sport it dominated only recently.
“They are absolutely 100 percent right,” Ecclestone said on Monday when asked about Red Bull principal Christian Horner’s statement that the governing FIA should apply an “equalisation mechanism” to narrow the gap.
“There is a rule that I think former president Max Mosley put in when he was there that in the event that a particular team or engine supplier did something magic – which Mercedes has done – the FIA can level up things.
“Mercedes has done a first class job which everybody acknowledges. We need to change things a little bit now and try and level things up a little bit.
Ecclestone said it was not a case of doing everything possible to stop Mercedes but simply to allow other manufacturers more flexibility.
“What we should have done was frozen the Mercedes engine and leave everybody else to do what they want so they could have caught up,” he suggested. “We should support the FIA to make changes.”
Under a complicated system of tokens, manufacturers can make limited changes to their engines during a season but not wholesale revisions.
Renault-powered Red Bull has been frustrated by its inability to keep up with Mercedes, prompting Red Bull motorsport adviser Helmut Marko to suggest that his team, which won four consecutive championships before being left in the Mercedes slipstream, might pull out if billionaire owner Dietrich Mateschitz lost interest.
COSTS AND REVENUES
“We will evaluate the situation again as every year and look into costs and revenues,” he said. “If we are totally dissatisfied we could contemplate an F1 exit. Yes, the danger is there that Mr Mateschitz loses his passion for F1.”
Ecclestone pointed out that Red Bull had committed to at least 2020 but recognised the risk.
“Whether they will, who knows?,” he said. “Dieter is a sporting guy and I don’t think he’ll stop because he’s being beaten. He’s more likely to stop if he was winning.”
Red Bull made a dismal start to the season with Daniel Ricciardo finishing sixth and lapped in his home race, while new Russian team mate Daniil Kvyat withdrew before the start with a gearbox failure.
But when Mercedes team boss Toto Wolff accused Red Bull of moaning because it was were losing Horner retorted that the rules had changed constantly when Red Bull were winning to give others a chance.
“Double diffusers were banned, exhausts were moved, flexible bodywork was banned, engine mapping was changed mid-season – anything was done to pull us back,” he said.
‘MANOR MARUSSIA WILL HAVE TO PAY’
The struggling team, which emerged from the remains of the failed Marussia outfit after going into administration and missing the last three races of 2014, failed to turn a wheel on the track in Melbourne, missing all three practice sessions and Saturday qualifying, blaming software problems, which ruled it out of the race.
However, it escaped sanction with stewards deciding to take no action after an enquiry decided the team had made “all reasonable endeavours” to get the cars ready.
But Ecclestone said: “We should have never ever, ever allowed Manor to do what they’ve done. It’s our fault. I predicted this would happen.
“They had no intention of racing in Australia. Zero. They couldn’t have raced if someone had gone there with a machine gun and put it to their head.
“It was impossible. So they had no intention. We’ll have to see now. And they will have to pay their way to get there and get out of there,” he added.
Marussia, which was ninth overall last season thanks to a ninth-place finish by Jules Bianchi in Monaco, won a race against time to get its cars through crash tests and onto the air charter for Australia.
Ecclestone said there had been no charge for the freight because they were entitled to that providing they were competing.
“But they didn’t compete so they’ll have to pay for that,” he added.
The team is in line for some $50 million (R620 million) of revenues from last season but would have forfeited the right to that if they had not turned up to compete in Australia with cars that satisfied the regulations.
Manor Marussia sporting director Graeme Lowdon said on Saturday: “We knew we had the possibility of unknown problems and we haven’t had the benefit of sorting some of those problems out in pre-season testing.
“But equally we had to come here on the basis that we’re racing so we brought all of our normal equipment. There’s 28 ton of equipment to support these cars and all of the staff.
“We are trying very hard but it is a tough thing to do in the time available.”