We witnessed a fifth Mercedes 1-2 in five races, on the back of their five seasons of championship dominance. That’s as impressive as it is challenging as we crave some variety and surprises in F1.
I woke up feeling a little disappointed on Monday morning after what may apparently be the last Spanish GP for a while. Frustrated with Mercedes, Ferrari, and Formula 1 itself.
Mercedes for being so damned good at everything F1 these days.
A vast group of calm, mature, experienced, professional people, all rowing in the same direction and resourced and empowered to dominate their rivals. The cut-and-paste nature of their dominance is painful right now, always remembering that over the decades one team has often dominated for a while, be it Ferrari, Williams, McLaren, Red Bull, Renault, Lotus, and so on.
FERRARI MAKING TOO MANY MISTAKES
Ferrari frustrated me because they are underperforming their considerable resource, talent and potential.
Just 10 weeks after dominating the winter testing at this very track they were the third best team as they continued to trip over themselves and hesitate in races.
The Ferrari drivers are both making too many mistakes, and the team’s race strategies lack clarity and conviction. They are allowing an over-performing Max Verstappen in a temporarily mildly underperforming Red Bull to outshine them. Even when they did have Merc on the ropes in Bahrain they blew it.
However, the team must unequivocally and openly support their leader Mattia Binotto and build further support around him. Not discard him like some kind of football manager merry-go-round. He seems a decent man, a racer with absolute knowledge of all things Ferrari F1, and an approachable and inclusive manager at a time when the team needs stability.
I asked Binotto on camera in Bahrain if he felt he could really handle a role which to a large extent Mercedes share between the considerable talents of Toto Wolff, James Allison and Andy Cowell. Yes, the same James Allison Ferrari let go, among others. Binotto replied that he had the right people around him to complete the tas
Furthermore, Mercedes’ hierarchy are not carrying the weight of expectation and pressure of an entire nation and its demanding media like Ferrari do. Binotto’s scholarly calmness will be tested to the extreme which is why he needs support. I hope he has Ross Brawn on speed dial for advice too.
F1 CAN’T WASTE CHANCE TO REBOOT
And I’m frustrated with Formula 1 and the FIA because the 2021 regulations offer the opportunity for a root and branch change that the sport needs and, from various conversations I had in Spain, I don’t sense it’s going to happen.
Teams are involved in the process too, and they shouldn’t be because they are competitively hard-wired to think only of their own success, and not the good of the sport.
I sense significant compromise coming, with little changing in terms of overall competitiveness through the field, and nothing to attract new teams and manufacturers which is critical to the health and future of F1, just as it was in the past. We are on a heavily-moated island, drawbridge raised, and more importantly few waiting for the drawbridge to be lowered.
F1 is 70 years and 1000 races old, and is a global giant with 350 million viewers. That momentum is great, but as guardians passing through we can make it better. It’s a duty.
It was a 66-lap race, but pole man Valtteri Bottas’ chance of winning was effectively over before turn one because of a clutch vibration off the start. A complex collection of parts and software we will never be allowed to see, and couldn’t understand anyway, created by an army of talented people we can never meet. But the main point here is that a ‘clutch vibration’ should not be a race-defining moment unable to be remedied over the next 300kms.
Furthermore, a team of 1000 clever people with all the data in the world can’t fully understand why a three-degree track surface change torpedoes one team’s performance and lights up another car. So how the hell are we supposed to?
I grew up selling cars before I tripped over a bloke called Senna in F3 and found myself in F1, and a golden rule of selling is never to confuse your customer, or in our case, the fans.
Fernando Alonso’s arrival and departure in the sport pretty much decided the roller coaster fate of the Barcelona venue. Unsurprisingly people are motivated and excited by people, not clutch algorithms.
Oh dear, I’m on a roll now, because I’m passionate on this subject.
2021 VISION: A DRIVERS’ CHAMPIONSHIP
Formula 1 has to be entertainment first and foremost. The cars must lose 100-150 kgs. We need bulletproof low-degradation tyres even if we have to mandate a number of pit stops. The aerodynamic influence must be slashed, such that we don’t need artificial band-aids like chewing gum tyres and drag reduction systems in the rear wing. Back to where we were, with a modern twist.
F1 must be a drivers’ championship, not an engineers’ tech fest. The cars must be the angriest, flightiest most challenging machines on the planet. I don’t want to see teenagers jumping in them and having it all mastered by lunchtime, and fully on the pace.
The drivers must be gladiators, but we’ve buried them so deep in the cockpit we can only tell them apart by a glimpse of a multi-coloured crash helmet and some Day-Glo tape on half the camera boxes above the roll bar.
Think of an image of the faces of Fangio and Moss at work, and the body language of Clark, Hill and Stewart in the car. Mansell and Senna wheel to wheel in Barcelona. Now mentally draw the top of the crash helmets of today’s stars.
Let’s take this further. Imagine now Valentino Rossi at work on a motorbike, Sir Chris Hoy and Victoria Pendleton in a velodrome, Roger Federer and the Williams sisters at the net, Messi in the penalty box, Bolt at the finish line, Jonny Wilkinson before a crucial rugby kick, and so on. We totally share those intense moments of human endeavour with them.
We can’t appreciate Lewis’s ‘strat mode 5’ power setting or the latest 50 spike aero barge board in the same way, but three abreast into the first corner in Barcelona was immense, if only it could have happened a few more times for the lead.
A young man named Harry Shaw, who is sadly very unwell, messaged and motivated Lewis to his very impressive victory, and F1 must peel away the many layers of technical complexity which prevent us fully sharing and understanding what he’s doing out on track to make that difference. In the same way I don’t want to look at the Mona Lisa through two layers of bubble wrap.
Of course, the drivers need protection and safety, although Rossi relies on a layer of leather. And don’t get me started on the risk the TT riders are willing to take.
I’m convinced that F1 has gone the wrong way with these hybrid V6 1.6-litre engines, control systems, and aero. Incidentally at a time when Aston Martin, Ferrari and Mercedes are all launching immense road cars with V8 and V12s. They are developing V6 hybrid supercar engines, although Merc are ironically now moving from V6 to straight six road engines.
Of course, hybrid, electric and fuel-cell motors are incoming quickly, but the impressive engineering capabilities of F1 could be directed at other challenges such as battery development, super-fast battery charging in the pits and conductors laid into the track, or for example electrifying some of the hundreds of trucks we take to a European race. We shouldn’t just laden the race cars with everything, they primarily exist to inform us who is the fastest, bravest driver, and which team can best think on their feet in the heat of a race. Anything else is a by-product bonus.
And this is why 2021 is so important for F1, but we’ve probably missed the optimum moment or maybe they should delay it a year. We must recreate the days when a Jordan, Stewart, or Force India might, just might, win the race. And create the environment where they can exist in the first place.
And while I’m ranting, I saw a number of interviews with these privileged drivers at the weekend which were reluctant, dismissive and grumpy. You are F1 drivers living the ultimate dream, it’s not the dentist’s waiting room on a wet Monday morning.
THE BEST FROM BARCELONA
Let’s look for some positives, as we proper fans always do. But firstly, let’s not pretend it was way better years or decades ago, a quick check of most results sheets underlines that.
Our unpredictability back then was generated by significant car unreliability and drivers missing a gear shift or braking point, ending up in nearby gravel traps and barriers. But at least we could see and understand that.
The GP at the weekend gave us some spirited racing again in the midfield with plenty of barging and tyre rubbing, even amongst team-mates. It was ferocious, bordering on delicious desperation, for a few world championship points.
Verstappen has started using phrases like ‘I decided to bring it home’ and ‘it looked like trouble so I backed off’, and this control applied to his considerable speed and talent in the right car still has ‘world champion’ written all over it, and the man to beat in the next phase of F1.
The Toro Rosso boys of Kvyat and Albon were giving it plenty, as was Sainz in the McLaren and Ricciardo in the Renault. I accept powerful DRS rear wings were putting the followers into play, but they weren’t shy when they arrived at the apex. If that had all been for the podium we’d be waxing lyrical about one of the best Spanish GPs for a while.
McLaren’s fastest race pit stop of 2.07 seconds, and standing on a few corner apexes in Barcelona, reminded me of what still really wows me about F1 after 35 years. But I want the fastest 26 drivers in the world in angry F1 cars, nose to tail, run by sustainable teams at viable and varying circuits.
There’s a 2021 mission statement for you, and there’s more than enough money, talent and knowledge in place already to make that happen. We deserve nothing less for our passionate support and loyalty.