With one team stuck in the pits, another spending much of the week in court, two others – Red Bull and McLaren – hamstrung by their power unit suppliers and only 15 cars taking the start, it was a stuttering opening to the new Formula One season in Australia.
An unfortunate chain of events it may have been, not least the back injury sustained by Valtteri Bottas which ruled him out of the Grand Prix, but the thin field – only 13 cars completed the first lap, after both Lotus entries were eliminated – was hardly the image this most technologically advanced of sports seeks to project, especially on a weekend when, at last, it joined the modern world, with a snazzy new website, enhanced Twitter feed and YouTube channel.
The underlying reasons, as with so much in Grand Prix racing, are financial: thanks to the sport’s sky-high costs only 18 cars qualified – the hastily-reassembled Manor Marussia team failed to emerge after software issues prevented the cars from running – leaving Formula One open to this kind of scenario, should, as can happen, technical gremlins strike the remaining entries. At the same time, a lengthening season – the last 2014 race was on the final weekend of November – has resulted in a shorter winter break, reducing the amount of time teams have to prepare for a gruelling campaign.
What should have been the race of the year, the season-opener with all the anticipation that brings, therefore assumed the status of extra test session for the likes of Honda and Renault, both of which seemed under-prepared for the new campaign. There are no guarantees in sport, but Australian fans and Grand Prix organisers in Melbourne would have every right to feel a little short-changed by what they were served up on Sunday.
Back with a… bang
While McLaren Honda’s disastrous weekend at least came at the beginning of what is intended to be a long marriage, Red Bull’s senior figures could barely conceal their disgust with the power units supplied by long-time partner Renault. Not only has Ferrari leapfrogged the French manufacturer over the winter but Renault has, in the view of the likes of Christian Horner and Adrian Newey, taken a backward step even on its disappointing 2014 unit. Red Bull are well aware they are effectively stuck for 2015, their performance limited by Renault’s deficiencies in what is currently an engine formula. But with rumours continuing to swirl that Renault, which has had terrible press since the new engine regulations were introduced at the start of last year, may be considering buying into a team and effectively creating a works outfit once again, Red Bull must be considering all options as it ponders what might end up being a dismal year.
Barry rules it out
Bernie Ecclestone wasn’t in Australia, although he did make his presence felt by using Formula One’s decidedly naff on-track broadcast graphics to publicly thank Australian Grand Prix Corporation chairman Ron Walker on the 20th anniversary of Melbourne’s race. Another season begins with no word on what happens ‘after Bernie’, then, but one man who has definitively ruled himself out is Matchroom Sport founder and chairman Barry Hearn. Hearn, the master of transforming a sport through canny promotion and well-packaged broadcast products (just the kind of skills Formula One could do with, incidentally), told the audience at SportsPro Live last Thursday that he was not a motorsport fan and therefore working in the sport would break his golden rule of “always love what you do and don’t touch the sports you don’t like”.
Silverstone’s military future?
Another motorsport-related tidbit from SportsPro Live, SportsPro’s annual sports industry conference, came from Silverstone’s newly-installed sporting director Stuart Pringle on the subject of customer service. The Northamptonshire circuit has just taken its security services in-house, dispensing with the much-maligned G4S in the process. And Pringle revealed that there has been an initial approach to Britain’s military services to assist at the venue’s major events, with the aim of recapturing some of the magic of London 2012, where the army’s involvement was regarded as a highlight, and restoring the link to Silverstone’s history as a Royal Air Force airfield.
The driver market-ability
He watched the opener on television, but Fernando Alonso was last week declared as Formula One’s most marketable driver by sports research giant Repucom. Repucom’s research showed Alonso has 98 per cent recognition in Spain, with 88 per cent viewing him as an effective brand endorser. The rest of the top ten was led by Felipe Massa, largely by dint of his huge appeal in Brazil, new Ferrari recruit Sebastian Vettel and Lewis Hamilton, the man SportsPro anointed last may as the world’s most marketable athlete – our list is based largely on potential over the next three years. The rest of Repucom’s top ten, designed at least in part to stimulate debate, featured Jenson Button, Nico Rosberg, Daniel Ricciardo, Romain Grosjean, Max Verstappen and Sergio Perez.
Marketability is largely subjective, of course, and with such a small field of drivers this year, it’s worth considering the merits of the drivers who didn’t make Repucom’s top ten. Based on the results in Melbourne, the world will know much more about newcomers Felipe Nasr and Carlos Sainz soon – Brazil and Spain will be on the lookout for new heroes in the not too distant future. Nico Hulkenberg, meanwhile, remains a star in the making, in the eyes of many, despite fears he may be destined to spend his Formula One career in the midfield, and will likely win fans and more headlines by his appearance for Porsche this year at Le Mans. Sweden’s Marcus Ericsson and Venezuela’s Pastor Maldonado are probably hampered by small home markets, the same argument which might play against Bottas, despite the Finn’s obvious talent.
New Red Bull recruit Daniil Kvyat appeared on SportsPro’s list last year, largely due to his home market, but the Russian remains a low-key figure despite his graduation to Red Bull Racing for 2015. Which leaves Kimi Raikkonen, traditionally pigeon-holed as the marketing man’s nightmare, despite his speed, championship pedigree and perhaps unparalleled popular appeal amongst Formula One fans. In a world where disruption counts and going against the grain is often seen as a virtue, might there actually be a case for Formula One’s eldest driver being the most marketable figure on the 2015 grid?