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A Thought or Two on Speed

With the off season nearly at an end, it is time to step back and make our predictions based on the testing we have all been following so avidly. Or so it seems, judging by the number of experts pronouncing the obvious.

Of course Ferrari look the team to beat and McLaren and Renault are their nearest competitors – anyone could work that out after a quick look at the timesheets from the various testing venues used. And it is hardly controversial to suggest that Massa will be faster than his teammate in 2007 – again, that is pretty clear from testing.


Speed – ambiguity intended

It is so easy to forget that this is just testing and that the truth will only emerge once the season gets underway. Many a team has been embarrassed by their race performance after having a brilliant winter and others come good after a race or two. That’s what makes for a great season, after all – the unpredictability of racing.

That is what I keep telling myself, anyway. F1 could really use a closely-fought championship with several drivers and cars battling for honors – so I hope that all the indicators are wrong and Ferrari will not have the enormous advantage in the races that is so obvious in testing.

But allow me to point at one last interesting fact from the final day of testing in Bahrain: Scott Speed’s 8th fastest time in the Toro Rosso. Not only was he quicker than the Red Bull duo (which must be incredibly frustrating for them) but he has also given an answer to Gerhard Berger’s doubts about his commitment. I stand by what I have said about Speed in the past – our resident American is much better than anyone gives him credit for.

But it also vindicates the psychological skills of that man, Berger…

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How Many Races Makes a Season?

Over at F1-Fanatic, Keith Collantine has asked the question, How many races does F1 need?, and thereby saved you from my proposed rant about Honda’s new colours. I feel inspired to be awkward, irascible and downright objectionable over the idea of increasing the number of GPs and, as usual, I cannot resist an opportunity to play devil’s advocate. So here we go.


Will the added circuits have corners as good as this?

It is easy for us to say, “Yes, give us more races,” when it costs us nothing and adds to the entertainment we crave. But the teams have a point when they say that more races means more expense for them – and this at a time when the FIA is trying to reduce costs. Even Bernie’s upper limit of twenty races may be pushing the envelope too far for some of the teams involved – and that means the little ones that tend to be more popular (Williams, for instance).

Before we shout too loudly for more races, we should consider carefully what effect this might have. It is not just a matter of expense; there is quality to be considered too.

Some will remember the days before the advent of cable and satellite television in Britain. Believe it or not, there was a choice between five channels, take it or leave it. With the arrival of new TV technology, suddenly we were presented with hundreds of channels and we thought we’d entered a brave new world of unlimited entertainment.

The reality turned out to be very different. Sure we had choice as never before, but what was worth choosing? From having a limited TV service that we continually assured ourselves was the best in the world (and it was – remember the annoyance of having two great programmes on at the same time?), we progressed to limitless choice between channel after channel of pure tripe.

The lesson is that there is only so much quality in the world; you can concentrate it or spread it thinly but nothing will increase the amount you started with. I will admit that, with perseverance, it is possible to find one or two channels on satellite TV that are pretty good but are you not then right back where you started? So quality collects into little bundles while the dross spreads out, offering no real choice at all.

This has some relevance for F1, believe it or not. If we increase the number of races, we also increase costs and cut down the amount of time and money that can be spent on developing and testing the cars. Yes, NASCAR has 40 races in a year but they are racing primitive machines that could never be regarded as the pinnacle of technology. And the danger is that allowing more races will lower the pace of development in F1 cars.

Look at this off season that is now drawing to a close. Cars that were designed at the beginning of last year are only now hitting the tracks in test sessions and the teams are struggling to get them fully prepared before the first race of 2007. Some will not be ready. And the result of less testing time is more failures and underperformance.

Does anyone remember how frustrating it is to see a talented driver lose race after race because of breakages on his car? Go back thirty years and you will find countless races in which the driver who deserved most to win was sidelined through mechanical failure. We are spoiled in this age of almost perfect reliability and have become used to seeing the best driver in the best car win with regularity.

There is the matter of familiarity breeding contempt to be considered too. Increase the number of races too much and they will begin to look the same, especially as the new ones added will inevitably be the anodyne, squeaky-clean chicane fests that are designed these days. Boredom will creep in as we realize that the circuits all look the same and they might as well hold all the races in one place. I would rather have a season of ten races on the great circuits of old than thirty held on brand new featureless tracks that provide no challenge at all.

So let us think carefully before providing a knee-jerk response of “Yes, yes, more races, always more races.” If we are talking about additions that are genuinely interesting tracks that provide a real spectacle, then yes, perhaps we could have a few more. But I think twenty must always remain the upper limit – any more than that and the quality will begin to decline.

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Say Buddy, Got a Match?

The big news today is that Lewis Hamilton grabbed the quickest time on the final day of the Valencia test sessions. This bodes well for the young driver’s future, showing that he has no problem getting back into the car after a big shunt. No doubt McLaren are heartened too to see the MP4-22 performing so well already.

We all know it’s meaningless, of course; off season testing is always an unreliable indicator of likely results in the races that follow. So why do we follow it so closely, poring over lap times and making guesses as to which teams will be the stars of the coming season?


It’s addiction, you know – so starved are we of action in the sport that we’ll read anything to get us through the lean period. These few months when nothing is happening but hype and hope are the real test of the F1 fan’s stamina. To outsiders it might seem that we should take a break and go off to watch football until the season opener (Melbourne, Australia, March 18, by the way) but they really don’t understand what drives us. We’re addicted and must have something to feed our habit.

So we read every scrap of info that comes our way, ponder arcane details of design in the new cars, compare testing times, listen to what even the lowliest F1 mechanic has to say. Without even noticing, we feed the habit, even stooping as low as to pick up stogies dropped by Bernie Ecclestone as he wanders the world, adding GPs here and cutting a few there.

It has to be said that there are benefits to this obsession too. Unlike the part-time F1 fan, we do not have to spend the entire Australian GP wondering who the heck that guy is in the Bloopmobile Special this year – not only do we know, we could tell you his age, his career history and what he had for breakfast this morning. To my shame, I have to admit to missing the occasional off season in the past and being very confused in the first few races as a result.

How fitting it is that F1 has been the last refuge of the tobacco advertisers for so long. Like nicotine addicts condemned to wear the patch for three months, we hang on grimly until we can once again light up the television for that first, so-satisfying hit of the year. Life is merely an annoying interlude between races.

As with the dwindling band of committed smokers, we are determined to hold on to our habit, too. To tell an F1 fan that “hey, there’s hockey on the TV” is like offering gum to a smoker – it just doesn’t cut it and he returns to reading the obscure article about Barrichello’s new helmet design that he found on the back page of the local rag this morning.

But hey, I don’t mind admitting it: my name is Clive and I’m an F1 fan. Try to convert me if you will, I won’t change. Fact is, I love this sport…

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