On Thursday in Bahrain, Jenson Button said of the coming year “For a fan of Formula One, this season should be electric, it really should be. If it's not, we're doing something seriously wrong.”
Fast forward to the beginning of this week, and after the Bahrain Grand Prix on Sunday, the general consensus is that someone is doing something seriously wrong.
The level of excitement for viewers of the race is best summed up by this tweet from well-known sarcastic purveyor of motorsport wisdom @sniffpetrol: “Under the terms of the Geneva Convention anyone possessing more than 2 DVDs of the Bahrain GP may be considered a torturer”
So what happened? How could the opening race of a season that promised so much deliver so little?
Of course, if you are Fernando Alonso, Mike Gascoyne/Tony Fernandes, or Jake Humphrey, the season began brilliantly. Alonso won his debut race for Ferrari, the Lotus duo oversaw an emotional and relatively successful return of one of the great names in Formula 1, and the BBC anchorman began his second season presenting critically acclaimed grand prix coverage (even if he got the name of his pit lane reporters mixed-up on at least two occasions).
However, for us viewers, the race was basically a procession from start to finish. The only overtaking manoeuvres of any note took place on either the opening lap, during the one round of pit stops, or from an unfortunate mechanical failure. Is this a result of the ban on refuelling, the longevity of the new Bridgestone tyre compounds, the new layout at the Sakhir circuit, or was it just one of those dull races that come around from time to time?
The lack of overtaking on a Sunday is nothing new. The aerodynamics of these modern Formula 1 cars does not allow one driver to follow another driver closely. If a driver can't get close enough to the back of his rival, overtaking is not possible unless the driver behind has a huge performance advantage.
Last season drivers on different fuel loads could overtake each other, but thanks to the ban on refuelling all of the cars are roughly the same weight at any given stage in the race, which reduces overtaking opportunities. Last season drivers qualified on different fuel loads, taking strategic decisions based on their predicted race pace. This meant faster drivers were starting a bit further down the grid, again giving more opportunities for overtaking.
Now that refuelling is banned, all the drivers take their pit stops at the same time. On Sunday, virtually all the front runners made their one tyre stop within a three lap window. When different refuelling strategies came into play in previous season the order was shaken up, and there was a genuine excitement in seeing whether Driver A would emerge ahead of Driver B after his pitstop and positions changed throughout the race. Now positions only change during the pitstop window if a driver gets held up in traffic, or his pit crew make a mistake.
In Bahrain, most runners had stopped for their one and only tyre change by Lap 16. From then on it was largely a procession to the finish line for the remainder of the 49 laps. Only Sebastian Vettel's misfortune allowed any more notable changes in position.
Seven-time world champion Michael Schumacher, who has seen vast swathes of rule changes in his time, bemoaned the lack of passing opportunities, and warned this trend would continue as long as these current regulations were in place. “Overtaking was basically impossible unless somebody made a mistake. That is the action we are going to have with this kind of environment of race strategy.”
Even the race winner was critical of what the new rules had introduced. “With no refuelling, it will be difficult to see any overtaking, so after the first lap the positions will be set.” The McLaren duo added to the frustration felt by their fellow drivers. “You start with fuel, you do one stop and it’s pretty much a train all the way”, said Hamilton, while Button admitted “The first lap is definitely your best chance of overtaking.”
So are the new rules to blame for Sunday's lack-of-spectacle? Many said before the beginning of the season that they were looking forward to seeing the fastest car on pole position after low-fuel qualifying. But if the fastest car is on pole, then logic suggests it will disappear off into the distance on race day.
What can be done? There has been a lot of talk this week about introducing a mandatory second pit stop. FOTA did talk about this before the season began, but there were teams who vetoed the idea, as they thought that their new car preserved tyres better than that of some of their rivals. Forcing the teams to make two stops may not make much difference though – the front-running drivers will just make their second pit stops within a couple of laps of each other, and very little overtaking will occur.
McLaren team principal Martin Whitmarsh, speaking after the race, said that the teams will look at the idea of stopping twice again. He also suggested that the tyre compounds Bridgestone had provided were too durable, with the medium tyre on Sunday lasting at least three quarters of the race distance. If the Bridgestone tyres were to last for a limited number of laps, then the teams' ability to control tyre wear will come into play, and there will be more opportunity for on-track overtaking.
Of course, the style of track does influence tyre wear, and we may see tyre degradation come into play more in Australia. But can tyres alone be relied on to provide exciting racing? Maybe the FIA should have another look at this refuelling ban.
The different strategies of last year gave mixed grids, and although the amount of overtaking wasn't exactly overwhelming, there was more excitement during the pit stop windows as the teams' tactical acumen was tested. Some said that it was too complicated for fans, and that viewers wanted to see the fastest car on pole position, but this probably does a disservice to most motorsport aficionados, who are knowledgeable and like to see the strategies unfolding.
Added to that, refuelling gave us something else that could go wrong. Everybody remembers pit lane fires and drivers heading off down the pit lane with a fuel hose still attached. It may not be much fun for mechanics when such dangerous things happen, but the cars taking on fuel added to the tension and excitement of racing.
Of course, we could be over-analysing this, and an amazing season to rival even the last two could be lying ahead. All sports have lulls: football has dull games that finish nil-nil; cricket has matches that last for five days and still end in draws; by all accounts the England vs. Scotland rugby union match last weekend was not good viewing. A breathtaking race could be in store in Melbourne, and we will all be wondering what the fuss was about in Bahrian.
Bernie Ecclestone is not overly troubled, and doesn't see the need for imminent change. “There is no panic, no crisis for F1. I think there is nothing we can do immediately and we should not just knee-jerk into changes.”
The commercial rights holder did have some scathing remarks for the teams who helped to put together the new regulations. “I had a meeting with the teams and tried to explain to them what our business is about â€” racing and entertaining the public, not about playing with computers and going fast over one lap. The problem is that you cannot really have teams in any shape or form having a part in the sporting or technical regulations. You cannot have the inmates writing the regulations.”
Former world champion Jacques Villeneuve, who was commentating for BBC Radio 5 Live at the weekend, also warned against making modifications straight away. “The rules are fine,” the Canadian said. “One race doesn't mean anything. The worst thing would be for sudden changes before everybody is sure what they want.” Martin Brundle had a similar view, preferring to wait until Australia before coming to a verdict on the new rules.
Wait and see is probably the best option for Formula 1 at the moment, but when twitter comments from drivers and teams such as those below are being published, the sport could really do without a repeat of Bahrain.
“Wow! New rules, not sure huh? Why do they keep dicking with it? Followed Mercedes power for the whole race, no chance to overtake – again” – Mark Webber
“Seen a lot of comments about [Sunday's] race and how boring it was for spectators, I agree totally, we need to do something about it.” – Heikki Kovalainen
“So what did you all think? Personally, my highlight was correctly guessing Jake Humphrey would indeed be sporting a pink shirt on race day!” – Claire Williams, Williams Press Office