GRAND PRIX racing faces a growing loss of fans if the leaders continue to circle in a procession and produce the same results, PETER COSTER:
THE DIMINUTIVE, but surprisingly well-preserved Bernie Ecclestone, has been given the title of chairman emeritus of Formula One and a salary of $5.3 million a year, but he has never been the retiring type.
Ecclestone has walked tall in F1 for the past 40 years and would stride down the pit lane at Albert Park alongside his big mate Ron Walker, around hip height, but there was never a doubt as to who was calling the shots.
Walker and Ecclestone brought the Australian Grand Prix to Melbourne, much to the fury of fans in Adelaide who preferred to think it as pinching a race they made popular.
Adelaide is now struggling to bring the crowds to the Clipsal 500, the V8 Supercar race staged around the Adelaide street circuit each year. Crowds are down by at least 20,000 and the reason is the race’s predictability.
If the same drivers and cars form the same yearly procession the fans will leave in much the same way.
After winter testing in Europe, the evidence that the grid in Melbourne in less than three weeks will look the same as the past few seasons was there to be seen.
Mercedes, Ferrari and Red Bull were the dominant teams and will likely line up in that order at Albert Park.
McLaren expects better results with Renault power replacing the Honda engines that have failed to deliver the speed that once dominated Formula One.
Williams, too, hopes to be in the mix with factory-supplied Mercedes engines, which has become a point of contention.
Williams, run by Claire Williams with her father, Sir Frank Williams, is said to have badgered the FIA about being guaranteed engine and software parity with the Mercedes team. Williams denies this but there has always been suspicion that engine manufacturers do not always supply customer teams with the same package as the factory teams.
Mercedes boss Toto Wolff has also felt the lash of Ecclestone’s tongue. Bernie blames Wolff, who owns the Mercedes F1 team (with a lesser interest held by Niki Laura) for F1’s problems.
Before he sold his major share in F1 to Liberty Media, Ecclestone laid the blame for the F1 procession at the garage door of Wolff and Mercedes.
“I blame Mercedes and Toto for putting us in the s*** we are in terms of the competition,” Ecclestone grumbled.
“If they’d given an engine to Red Bull, we’d have three teams for the past three years racing each other.
“The thing I was struggling with for the past four or five years is the fact that there was no competition and I was trying to sell it to the promoters and we were not delivering.
“It was like me being in the music business and getting people to book The Rolling Stones and then not have Mick Jagger turn up.”
No saint himself, Ecclestone has also blamed Wolff for the halo that will now surround drivers in their cockpits for the first time in a race at Melbourne.
“That bloody halo business…the guy that made that happen was Toto Wolff and the guy who works for the drivers (GPDA president Alex Wurz).
“Toto’s ideas in some way were right when he said. ‘If we now don’t do it and there was an accident where someone was killed…’
“But I said, ‘Be careful, because if there is an accident and the guy can’t get out of the car and then he died…’”
Ecclestone is also angry over Liberty’s decision to dump grid girls and says that replacing them with grid kids could prove difficult, if the kids get out of control.
“I think getting rid of the grid girls was a little bit cranky, but there will always be pretty girls in the F1 paddock,” Ecclestone said.
“I spoke to someone who said if they are 12 years old, are they going to bring their parents with them?
“I remember the time it took, when we had the pit lane walkaround, the time it took to get the kids out of the garages, because that is what happens.”
Ecclestone, in an interview with the London Sun, said a series of women-only drivers is being seriously considered:
“Someone said to me that it was very close to happening. I think people want to see women in F1. I can’t see why people would just want a women-only series.
“If you had some women drivers in F1 and they were good enough, they would get a lot of interest.
“It needs someone to say, ‘Give them a go.’ Liberty should do that. It would be a good thing for the Formula One Group to do.”
One of Ecclestone’s ideas, however, is likely to drive fans away from F1. Ecclestone believes the future of Formula One lies in Formula E.
Electric cars are already on the track in their own series, but Ecclestone believes electric cars are the future of F1.
Likely, they are the silent assassins of Grand Prix Racing. Ecclestone’s big mate, Ron Walker would have told him that.
Walker knew that sound was as greater part of F1 as the fury. He wanted the noise put back and that is being done by increasing the rev range of the hybrid engines in the current cars, which sound like Japanese buzz boxes being loaded up with the week’s groceries in supermarket carparks.
The major engine changes being planned for Formula One will not be seen (and hopefully heard) on the F1 grids until 2020.
Until then, the premier formula must do more than fiddle at the margins while Rome burns (as rumours abound that Ferrari might leave F1 to start a rival series).
The halo may save drivers from being decapitated if another car crashes on top of them, but will the drivers be able to extricate themselves in the case of a fire.
The fire won’t wait, although the FIA appears to think so by extending the mandatory time in which a driver must get out of the car after a crash.
The fans at Albert Park will see the halo hanging over the driver like a veranda around a sheep station homestead.
Mercedes driver Valtteri Bottas says he has become comfortable with the device: “I’ve done a race simulation already with the halo, and I have to say during the race I never noticed it anymore.
“Initially, it’s something new, it looks different. Some people say it’s not nice at all. But I think it’s only a matter of time everyone will get used to it, and if it can avoid even one injury, big or small, it’s a good device.”
Toto Wolff, in spite of sanctifying the drivers with the halo, now says he doesn’t like it:
“I’m not impressed with the whole thing and if you give me a chainsaw I would take it off,” Wolff said.
Melbourne will see the grid carrying the halo but will anything else change, is the question. If the finishing order stays the same, the fans will leave.
Author: Peter Coster
PETER COSTER is a former editor and foreign correspondent who has covered a range of international sports, including world championship fights and the Olympic Games in Los Angeles.