On the weekend of March 16th-18th, the Australian Grand Prix starts another season of the fastest sport on the planet, and the usual questions will be asked: can Lewis Hamilton win his second World Championship this year? Will the smooth class and consistency of Jenson Button keep him near the top? Can Fernando Alonso wrestle back the championship? Is Ferrari going to re-take its place atop the constructors table?
The answer is no to all questions – obviously. (Well, we think, at least.)
It’s difficult to see Sebastian Vettel releasing his clasp on the crown unless something incredibly drastic happens. Vettel won the title last season by a huge distance of 122 points, and the worry is that his smiling bonce will remain far and away from the pack in the same way that Michael Schumacher’s sinister mug dominated the sport in the early part of the last decade.
Schumacher’s tenure in charge was easily the most mind-numbingly boring episode of F1 and actually lived up to the clichéd insult that non-F1 fans throw at the sport – that being that it’s just a bunch of cars going round in circles. Though it would be great to blame everything on Schumacher – and we’d really, really love to – the cars and rules at the time didn’t exactly allow a thrilling spectacle, and they were less races than processions, with the same drivers and cars finishing in the same positions race after race, year after year. Thankfully, the yawns from the crowd were finally noticed, and rules were enforced to improve the spectacle – and nowadays it resembles a proper competition and not just elaborate advertising events in which sponsors plaster their wares all over the place and fashionistas wander around pretending that they’re actually interested in the race. (Helena Christensen at the Monaco Grand Prix a few years ago was particularly funny: “So Miss Christensen, what attracts you to Monaco and Formula 1?” The interviewer asked. “Erm…the cars. Yeah…the cars are very nice.” Helena replied.)
Though Vettel walked the title last year by a large margin, like Schumacher used to, unlike the Schumacher era the cars below 1st place provided enough excitement and intrigue to compensate for the lack of spectacle at the top of the table.
In all likelihood the intrigue this season, again, lies below first place.
Lewis Hamilton has claimed that he’s well prepared to improve on last year’s failure of finishing 5th – and expect all to go well until he resorts to his normal attitude and starts ramming people off the track – and look for the formerly chirpy Fernando Alonso to continue being a sulky bastard who struggles to do much without everybody bending over backwards to help him; also, keep a keen eye out for Jenson Button – because he’s so bloody dull it’s easy to forget he’s there.
But it’s the return of Kimi Raikkonen, with Lotus, that’s arguably provided the most the most interest ahead of the season – with questions raised about whether his 2 year break from F1 will affect his ability to compete at the top level.
The concern is that the 2007 world champion will come back a shell of his former self; in much the same way as Michael Schumacher did when he signed for Mercedes in 2010 following a 3 year retirement. Although we hate to keep going on about Schumacher – and we really, really do – his return made a mockery of Frank Williams’ quote that Schumacher would win races driving a ‘shopping trolley’, when he showed that without by far the best car on the grid he’s not the dominant phenomenon that people would claim him to be. (Alright, he was a great driver. Still hate him though.)
The difference between the two is that Raikkonen continued to drive – albeit at a lower level – and has looked good in pre-season testing. Although admittedly pre-season testing is notoriously unreliable – and this season it was less a testing session and more a pageant for the title of ‘Ugliest Car in the World’ – Raikkonen looks to have retained his pace and ability to compete.
We’ll find out more after the Grand Prix in Melbourne – which Sebastian Vettel will win.
By Peter Simpson