No anti Melbourne sentiment here
Unlike others in the media, I am not down on the trip that the Formula 1 fraternity makes to begin the season in Australia. If Formula 1 wishes to claim it is the only truly global sport – as claimed by team principals in the FIA press conference – then the journey time from Europe, time zone acclimatisation required and having to visit somewhere with a strong currency making hotels and wine expensive in Melbourne is par for the course.
However, the fiasco that was qualifying today has raised a number of questions that must be addressed by those with responsibility. This is the 3rd occasion F1 has postponed qualifying to the race day, the other 2 being both in Suzuka Japan in 2004 and 2010.
The fact that everyone must wait until tomorrow for qualifying to be concluded is no big deal because this is just F1 and no world calamity has occurred.
Was this avoidable?
Of course nobody wants to see drivers recklessly placed in situations where they are put at an unacceptable and avoidable risk; and of course we can accept that human beings make mistakes and this includes F1 stewards making bad calls.
Yet the key to all this is the word avoidable. Is it not the case that the F1 debacle in Melbourne today was completely avoidable? Most pertinently, would this have been the case had the FIA applied some pre-emptive forethought and its officers taken proper precautions based under their own regulations?
Firstly, credit where credit is due. It appears the F1 stewards are making an effort this year to be more visible to the fans in terms of explaining their decisions. I understand from those who are closer to the situation than I am that this is not un-connected to the global media fallout following the ‘Vettel yellow flag’ debacle following the last race of 2012.
A new openness
Charlie Whiting gave an interview and briefly explained the final decision made today, whilst carefully making it clear that he was not responsible for making it.
“The stewards are the ultimate decision makers in this case but we asked them to come and have a chat based on the fact that there was more heavy rain imminent and the light was fading – err… they decided the best thing was to abandon the session today and put everybody out of their misery really and then schedule it for 11 o’ clock in the morning – which seemed like the sort of err… best time when we look at the time table”.
When asked, “Were all the teams happy with this decision?” he replied with a shrug, “I’ve not heard complaints – so I’ll take that as err… yes”.
However, Charlie is clearly not in touch with reality as Ross Brawn for one is not happy about the way matters were handled. SKY News reports he told them he felt Nico or Lewis were likely to have challenged for pole position had the qualifying been run to schedule.
This was no hurricane
No one contests that by the time the final decision had been made it had become unavoidable and inevitable. It was the delays to Q1 and Q2 that have been criticised and denied the qualifying event the proper opportunity to be concluded.
The response from F1 fans has been that thousands if not tens of thousands of them on various internet platforms have complained about not being able to see their driving heroes challenged by having to drive in the rain.
One defence offered has been that a similar decision to abandon qualifying due to appalling weather has occurred previously and Japan 2010 is cited. Yet, it is important to make clear that the conditions at the scheduled start of Q1 today was in no way at all comparable to those faced in Japan. A typhoon had rolled in and made any thoughts of starting qualifying impossible.
Drivers’ robbed of opportunity
A philosophic Nico Rosberg had this to say, “It’s such a pity, such a pity that the qualifying was stopped because in those conditions I was feeling really good and the car was going really well.” These are hardly the words of one in fear of his life.
McLaren driver Jenson Button appears to suggest the delays and failure to conclude the session were wrong. “When the FIA do something good in terms of safety – we’re happy, when they do something wrong because it’s [perceived] too wet we’re unhappy”. He conceded that after the delays, the decision was inevitable.
Not only were Mercedes denied an opportunity in conditions that their car and driver were well suited to, but these kind of conditions have traditionally thrown up opportunities for those usually way down the grid.
I’m sure James will cover this in his ‘on track’ review but JEV was most impressive today in the wet conditions. Let’s not forget that triple F1 WDC – Mr. Vettel came out of the pack and grabbed the attention of the F1 world given the inclement conditions in Japan ’07 and Italy ’08.
Give a dog a bad name
The problem for the stewards is best explained in the phrase, ‘give a dog a bad name’. Race weekend management has been consistently in the headlines over the past 12 months with a range of issues hitting the headlines.
Three times in 2012, the actual order of the grid was only confirmed several hours after the qualifying session was complete due to stewards’ investigations. These were for fuel matters in Barcelona and Abu Dhabi and in Japan as deliberations over Alonso and Vettel’s on track manners were mulled upon.
Then there was the deployment of the 2nd safety car in Singapore which many argue was not necessary. The result being that almost 20% of the race was under non-racing conditions, a decision many felt was too conservative.
We are hearing reports today that rat’s have eaten the cabling the race stewards rely upon to communicate from their multi million dollar race control to the cars. DRS usage, red, blue and yellow flag information and Safety Car delta times cannot be provided now for the weekend with the effect that the drives’ are on ‘trust’ with the use of their DRS systems. Whether it is indeed rats or another reason this is simply not acceptable.
Then add to this we have a president of the motorsport Federation who claims it is actually not his job – to do the job – he was elected to perform. Regulate. Our friend Jean told the world this week that he wants unanimity from the teams to bring in any cost cutting measures.
The ‘bad name’ and range of appropriate adjectives that could be applied to our much esteemed regulatory organisation are many and cannot be published here.
Stewards dealt a tricky hand
Yet despite all this, the stewards deserve some sympathy and understanding when considering their conservative approach to starting and re-starting qualifying today. There were 2 conspiring factors beyond their control given the rain that was expected and indeed arrived.
Firstly, the race in Australia was pushed forward from its traditional start time by Ecclestone and FOM to facilitate a more palatable viewing time for those of us in Europe.
Whilst unusually considerate of Mr. E for the F1 fan base in ‘old F1 land’, this means the window to hold the Australian race and qualifying is small as the local start time is around 17:00 – with sunset at 19:43.
This has now been clearly demonstrated too fine a margin to play with when staging a global sporting event. Will it take the cancellation of a race in similar circumstances for Bernie et al to come to their senses?
Secondly there is the nature of the circuit. Albert Park like Singapore, Monaco and Valencia is a temporary ‘street’ circuit. The circuit has been traditionally given the wink and a nod in obtaining the ‘Class 1’ FIA circuit accreditation to hold an F1 event. Yet no modern F1 circuit built by a new host such as Austin would be allowed to deliver a facility in this state of repair.
Compliance for all
The key issues are poor drainage due to a lack of appropriate camber and a compromised surface on which the cars run with painted lines across the driving line that become slippery when wet. This poor circuit construction plays into the hands of the ‘health and safety F1 bearcats’ who protest that we mustn’t risk the harm or death of a driver needlessly when a rain cloud appears on the horizon.
For Aussie fans this is not just a problem for Albert Park but one that Monaco has been getting away with for decades. The latest example of the Principality’s sub standard circuit was Barrichello being taken out of a race due to a ‘loose manhole cover’. Absurd!
Street circuits should comply with the standards deemed acceptable by the FIA for Formula 1 racing, wherever the location.
The other option is to accept that the quality of finish to a street circuit is sub-standard to the rest but let the drivers demonstrate their skills regardless of the conditions. After all the accelerator can be released as well as applied.
The black hole
The biggest crime of all today was the stark omission discovered in the sporting regulations. As stated earlier, qualification being disrupted has occurred before so this is not a meteor from outer space event. There are a host of rules for forming a race grid should qualification not be possible at all.
However, the scenario of a partially completed qualification session has not been addressed and comes under the ‘catch all’ – the stewards will decide on such matters in the event this occurs.
The weather forecast for later is fortunately better and the session should be completed. Yet if this was not possible, consider the host of competing claims for how the grid should be formed. Ludicrous.
It is the abject lack of foresight and creativity of thought that may be the most damming accusation that can be made of the F1 regulators and weekend on track event managers. Avoidable.
Watching scores of Marshal’s in bulky waterproofs with their brushes attempting to ready a circuit for qualifying – whilst humorous – is pitiful in a cutting edge technology driven sport and again avoidable.
A formula 1 car clears 60 litres of water per second when shod with full wet tyres. Surely there is a case for issuing teams with an extra set of wet tyres for occasions when circuits require drying. All the cars should then be sent out to drive a required number of laps at a controlled speed to clear the hundreds of thousands of litres of water.
Insisting existing historic circuits, whether street or specialised tracks, are meeting the same regulatory specifications with which the new race venues must comply is not just sensible but equitable, fair and just. This would ensure the driver’s are not placed in avoidable danger yet sessions are not unnecessarily cancelled.
Further, having the foresight to regulate for such circumstances encountered today is surely not too much to expect and indeed once more is avoidable. Such a black hole in the sporting regulations does nothing to allay the impression that the FIA and it’s officers are a bunch of amateur grace and favour ‘Charlies’ (pardon the pun) – interested more in attending swish parties and drinking champagne in concorde with the rich and famous in ‘Gay Paris’.