Have you ever been more excited about the start of a Formula One season?
The formbook shredder and reset button that is the introduction of 1.6 litre turbocharged V6 powerunits means the Australian Grand Prix is the most anticipated race in years, but that excitement is not universally shared by all 11 teams.
The major regulation changes—perhaps the biggest season-to-season alterations in the sport’s history—have provided headaches for teams, with Red Bull Racing advisor Helmut Marko recently telling ESPN F1 that his team, the only outfit to win a world championship this decade, are two months (the equivalent of five races) behind schedule.
Meanwhile, Toro Rosso, Red Bull’s sister team, have got their own excuses in early ahead of the season-opener, telling Autosport that the Albert Park race will arrive a month too early for the team to demonstrate their true pace.
Speak to any team principal or driver ahead of the race and the aim of the game is to see the chequered flag. With complex new technologies and procedures, the subject of outright performance is for another day when the sport has settled into its new routine.
Teething problems, however, are expected—despite the teams having 12 days of pre-season testing to learn about their new cars—with Roberto Dalla, head of electronics supplier Magenti Marelli, telling the Mirror that there is a real possibility that none of the 22 cars could reach the finish line in Melbourne.
Although race director Charlie Whiting has dismissed the claim, telling Sky Sports that a "Doomsday scenario is quite unlikely," there is the potential that the race could end with only a handful of cars running or even no cars at all.
And if that happens, the consequences will extend far beyond Whiting simply reverting to the running order of the lap before the final retirement and publishing that as the finishing order. With two weeks between Melbourne and the second race in Malaysia, Formula One will have plenty of soul searching to do.
Like the aftermath of the Bahrain Grand Prix of 2010, the first race of the non-refuelling era which proved to be a waste of everyone’s time, we will be fed with ideas of knee-jerk reactions and a list of actions that Formula One, highly self-conscious at the best of times, must take to prevent itself from becoming a laughing stock.
We will be told how no cars finishing is extremely pathetic, embarrassing and humiliating for the sport (it’s always "the sport" when things get serious, isn’t it?) and how we should have seen this coming as F1 has been in the process of "killing itself" for a number of years.
But consider this: Could a "farce" actually bring a larger audience to Formula One?
After all, if you talk to any casual fan of Formula One, it soon becomes clear what they look for in a grand prix.
Some tune in for the traditional grid-walk, to witness the glamour of celebrities contrasting with the tension enveloping the drivers and team members. They may also divert from watching the day’s football action as the race edges towards its close, to observe the joy of victory and to share the pain of a late-race retirement.
The one aspect of a grand prix that appeals to us all, though—no matter how much or little we care for F1—is the start.
Why? Because it provides the perfect mixture of pressure and anticipation. It is the moment that carries not only the hopes and dreams but the fears of 22 drivers and thousands of team employees. You don’t require an advanced knowledge of F1 or its competitors to enjoy a start but merely a human perspective.
The start of a grand prix, with each car within only a handful of yards of the next, represents true unpredictability, a guaranteed chance that all could go wrong. The rest of the race is when, you know, the boring stuff happens.
But, particularly in the early-season races, that unpredictability—that nagging, overwhelming thought that all could go spectacularly wrong at any moment—will be present from the opening lap to the chequered flag. In short, the thrill of the start will be elongated.
As sports fans, we tend to take a perverse pleasure in watching its protagonists encounter difficulty; it’s part of the reason why the demise of reigning Premier League champions Manchester United under David Moyes has been widely welcomed this season.
And if, for example, Adrian Sutil climbs from a smoky Sauber as the 22nd and final retirement on the 31st and final lap of the Australian Grand Prix, there is an argument that we should rejoice.
News bulletins and the back pages of newspapers that wouldn’t usually give a second thought about Formula One will explain how and why a single car was unable to complete 58 laps, and those watching and reading will soon discover that a motor race that lasts for 30 laps, rather than 60-odd, might actually be worth watching.
Those people, then, will perhaps make the extra effort of watching the Malaysian Grand Prix in the hope that a repeat of Melbourne will occur, but instead of seeing 22 cars slowing to a smoky halt, they might see them spinning hopelessly around Sepang in the midst of a monsoon.
And come the Chinese Grand Prix, the bug might well have bitten and F1 will have gone some way towards reclaiming the 50 million viewers it lost when Sebastian Vettel cleaned up with Red Bull in 2013. Formula One has been absent from the wider world’s attention for too long, so it must capitalise on any opportunity to return to its consciousness.
If the Australian Grand Prix does become Doomsday, it is worth retaining a sense of perspective and viewing it as engineering failure but a potential sporting victory.
As Vettel himself will discover in 2014: In disappointment lies an opportunity.
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