We don’t expect any of you come to TopGear.com’s Sunday Afternoon Club looking for hard news, so when we post after practice, qualifying or a race, we’re looking for a theme, a story, a pattern that will get us all thinking and talking. Nonetheless, the rules of journalism dictate that we post something vaguely sentient as quickly as possible. So sometimes stuff gets written about which, on reflection, we change our minds.
But not today, four days after Fernando Alonso won the Chinese Grand Prix. At the time I wrote: “Was that a good race or a slightly strange spectacle with a predetermined result largely calculated on various team laptops some time on Saturday night?” At the time I was struggling. The race had been exciting, yet it was also oddly anaemic.
And a lot of you agreed (here are the comments), so let’s return to the topic and ask once again. Is F1 losing its mojo? It matters, especially to me. I have been watching Grands Prix since 1976.
On Monday a younger chum (at my age most people are younger) and I had a few pints, and spoke about the race. I expressed my reservations. His response was that it was still more exciting than Schumacher’s Ferrari era, ten years ago. If he’d been any older he might have been able to recall other eras when each race’s outcome was similarly predictable; between 1984 and 1993 only those driving a Williams or a McLaren won the title… in 1998 McLaren cars won 15 of the seasons’ 16 races. And I could bore on. My early passion was severely tested by Mario Andretti’s Lotus 79, for one.
And of course, over nearly 40 years, a passion will ebb and flow, and its range will, at least in part, depend on who’s doing the winning. Nigel Mansell’s nine wins in 1992 took some swallowing. But not once did it feel like it does right now. Don’t get me wrong, unresolved anxieties around racing in Bahrain aside, I am looking forward to this weekend. It is still Formula One. I just think a line has been crossed, and the sooner F1 retreats back behind it the better because its soul is at stake.
Personally – and this is just my own strictly unofficial view – I would rather F1 wasn’t racing in Bahrain. But the human rights debate only compounds the fact that F1 feels like a show, not a sport, when the curtain goes up in Bahrain. As it does in China, and Korea, and Abu Dhabi (yeah, even with that scenery), and as it did in Valencia. Singapore and the Circuit of the Americas somehow manage to feel the real deal, like a show that’s been transferred to Broadway. But the others are more like a franchise show on a cruise ship.
Which brings us back to the real issue, the show itself. The Sunday Afternoon Club was not alone in finding the Chinese race overtly synthetic. In what has proven to be compelling diversion from the Bahrain issue it’s been on everyone’s lips this week. F1 insiders like McLaren’s Martin Whitmarsh were obliged to step up and to defend the show, albeit unconvincingly.
While I’m certain Whitmarsh has no idea right now which team will win on Sunday (and probably not his own), I didn’t believe him when he claimed that before Sunday’s race started nobody knew Alonso would cruise to victory. Which was the point I made last Sunday.
Come this Saturday, even with Pirelli’s move away from offering the ‘guilty’ soft option this weekend, I bet every team will know exactly what its car is capable of across the race distance and on the obligatory mix of option and prime and also have a pretty good idea of what each competing car will manage. Then it’s just up to the drivers to follow the plan, with double DRS zones ensuring there’s no chance of actually getting stuck behind someone.
Which of course they will all do with ease, as most at the front are driving well within the car’s capabilities, which is maybe why we see the likes of Nico Rosberg so close to Lewis Hamilton and why all hell breaks lose, as it did in Malaysia, when one driver unilaterally opts to tear up the pre-arranged plan.
My young buddy asked me why I still bothered and I speculated it was maybe like cueing up a Bond movie for the umpteenth time, a comforting low level buzz of something unobtainable, something exotic. Then again in 50 years there have been just 23 Bond movies — just over a season worth of F1 races at the current schedule. But Bernie still has time to sign up some plenty more soulless venues like this weekend’s one. Assuming that is, they will still want the show.