GRAND PRIX fans who prefer the armchair to the track will get a whole lot more noise and a better viewing experience from Albert Park this year, as PETER COSTER reports:
THE SOUND and the fury will return to Formula One at the Australian Grand Pix at Albert Park this weekend, but the scream that once was F1 will be on television.
Not as full-throated as it was before the music died when the 1.6 litre hybrid turbo engines were introduced in 2014.
Bernie Ecclestone, now chairman emeritus of Formula One, said at the time: “I was not horrified by the noise, I was horrified by the lack of it.”
The former F1 supremo vowed to find a way of “making them sound like racing cars”.
But even Ecclestone seemed powerless to pump up the volume.
Engines will rev higher to produce a more acceptable sound, but not until next year.
At Albert Park this year, the F1 cars will be fitted with heat-resistant microphones on the exhaust to produce the rawness we want to hear.
It won’t be the same shriek that required earplugs in the grandstands, but it will heighten the television experience, along with 360-degree coverage provided by extra onboard cameras.
Viewers will be able to see what the drivers see. The halo surrounding the cockpit will be in shot, but the drivers will be looking ahead and won’t see it. The centre pillar could prove a distraction.
There is also the issue of getting out of the car in an emergency. The Australian Grand Prix will be the first time the halo has been tested under full race conditions.
Australian fans, however, are more likely to be looking for a dominant performance from Daniel Ricciardo.
After five years in F1, all of them with Red Bull, Ricciardo must add to his five GP victories. He has been on the podium 27 times but slow starts have ruined his chances, whereas teammate Max Verstappen is a brilliant and fearless competitor in the race to the first corner.
The Dutch driver won his first Grand Prix in his first year with Red Bull in 2016, has three wins and 11 podiums and is 21 years of age compared with Ricciardo at 28.
It’s time for the Australian driver to look for another team at what he agrees is a seminal point in his career.
His contract with Red Bull ends this season and Mercedes and Ferrari are known to be interested in signing him in 2019.
Lewis Hamilton will stay with Mercedes but second driver Valtteri Bottas may move on when his contract also ends this season.
At Ferrari, Sebastian Vettel’s teammate, Kimi Raikkonen is struggling to win races at the age of 38 and might also move on, or more likely retire.
This season promises to be much the same on the F1 grid: Mercedes, followed by Ferrari with Red Bull holding off the rest.
Testing at Barcelona saw the same order with Vettel, Hamilton and Ricciardo topping the time sheets on different days: according to set-up and tyre choices with hyper-softs joining super softs, hards, intermediates and wets for choice.
“We had some strong pace in testing at times,” said Ricciardo, “then you see what others are doing and you’re not sure anymore, but I think we’re looking OK.
“I think we still have to find a bit of time, we still have things to improve, but I think we are close enough to be in the hunt.
“It’s been a good winter, we did a lot of laps and we’re definitely feeling better about ourselves than we did 12 months ago.”
Ricciardo’s best finish at Albert Park was second in 2014, but he was disqualified on a technicality over fuel flow.
Also looking for better results are McLaren and its double world champion Fernando Alonso. Alonso has been particularly critical of the Honda engines the team struggled with over the past three seasons.
McLaren will run Renault engines this year but its problem may now be Alonso, who skipped the Monaco Grand Pix last year to race in the Indianapolis 500, which he led for 27 laps before his McLaren Honda engine failed.
The Spanish driver has committed to the Indy 500 next year and a full season of world endurance racing, including the Le Mans 24-hours.
This sort of schedule is reminiscent of the 1960s when some drivers raced every weekend. When there was not a Grand Prix or a non-championship race, drivers would compete in Formula Two or sports car events.
The great Jim Clark died in an accident in a Formula Two race in 1968 when he ran into a tree at Hockenheim after a likely suspension failure in a notoriously fragile Lotus.
Another world champion, John Surtees, was seriously injured when he crashed in practice for a sports car race in Canada in 1965.
The only man to have won world championships on 500cc motorcycles and in Formula One, died aged 83 last year. Surtees, whose son Henry died in an F2 race at Brands Hatch in 2009, still felt the urge to race: “If I could, I would have a go,” he said in spite of horrific injuries after his Canadian crash and his son’s death. Racers race.
Force India driver Sergio Perez, however, is critical of Fernando Alonso’s schedule. “That’s a really hectic program,” Perez told the Spanish newspaper Mundo Deportivo.
“With how busy we are, not only with races but also the simulator and everything else that we have to do, I think it’s impossible.
“You would have to find the perfect compromise with your calendar to achieve it, but I don’t think you can do two seasons at once.
“Right now we have 21 races, which requires a lot of commitment, so at this point in my career I would not consider it.”
The major engine changes in F1 will not come until 2020 and its new owners, Liberty F1, will likely make Ecclestone earn the more than $5 million a year they are paying the 87-year-old for his experience in transforming the premier formula into a global mega sport.
Whether they listen is another issue. Ecclestone admits he is “cranky” over the decision to dispense with the too-obvious attractions of grid girls.
Petrol heads, mostly male, are as appreciative of female bodies as they are of the aerodynamic curves of F1 machinery.
Political correctness, however, has won the day. Seen as the exploitation of women, grid kids are to be on parade instead.
It is surprising someone has not complained about the exploitation of children.
Controlling the kids is Ecclestone’s concern apart from his crankiness at not being able to see girls on the grid.
Kids around the pits can be a problem, as has been proved whenever children have been part of the F1 show.