It’s ‘start your engines’ time, says this first-lap nutcase

The Formula One season starts afresh with the Australian Grand Prix on Sunday and resident petrol head Suhas Bhat puts on his helmet, figuratively speaking.

Jean-Eric Vergne of Toro Rosso
Suhas Bhat

By Suhas Bhat

Hey boss, can I write a weekly column for the new Formula 1 season? 

 “Sure, but what can you bring to the table? Why would fans want to read about the world of Formula One from a twenty-something sports journalist?” 

That had me stumped for a while. I looked to the sport for some inspiration.  

“Leave me alone, I know what I’m doing,” complained Lotus’ Kimi Raikkonen over the radio in the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix. Hmmm, can’t exactly say that. 

What about the sport’s wunderkind, three-time world champion Sebastian Vettel? What does he have to say on the matter of trying something new? Somewhat hazily, my mind wandered back to the speech he gave after winning the Drivers’ Championship in Brazil last year. 

“You need to be in the right place at the right time but I also believe that you can create your own luck and work for what is coming up.” 

Hey, that’s pretty neat. So what if I don’t have many years of experience in the field or I’m not on first-name terms with the likes of Fernando Alonso, Raikkonen, Christian Horner and Martin Whitmarsh. Yet.


Driver previews for the 2013 Formula One Season

Iceman Kimi back in the groove

Treble winner Vettel insists on clean slate

Olympian Alonso ready to do battle

Time running out for old man Webber

Button more excited than ever at McLaren

Risk-taker Hamilton hopes to be competitive

Di Resta knows the pressure is on at Force India


Can I write a column sharing my insights on the wonderful world of F1 with a promise to tell it like it is?

Five red lights later, I’m pushing the pedal to the metal and beginning what I hope will be an eventful journey. 

Introductions

 Well, I share a birthday with Bernie Ecclestone (where’d my birthday champagne go, Bernie?), I’m a mechanical engineering drop-out (found out writing’s my thing) and really like brackets, it seems. I try not to take sides in the battle among the tifosi although I have immense respect for Mark Webber’s blunt honesty. 

“Thanks buddy.. Yep we not all w***ers..”, the Aussie told MotoGP rider Cal Crutchlow when the latter said he was beginning to understand what F1 was all about.  

Aside from Webber, I also enjoy watching Formula One because it’s a sport that combines brain and brawn. Sure, not everyone can be a race driver but you can still play a part, and a vital one at that, as a pit-stop engineer, fuel specialist, race strategy planner (economics students, game theory plays a big part, I hear) and car designer. 

Also, it’s probably one of the few honest-to-god global sports, caravanning as it does around 19 cities with a cavalcade of interesting characters (you have to be a bit of a “first-lap nutcase” to agree to being pummelled by 3.5g-force for sixty-odd laps) that keep things interesting.

And, admit it – there is a schoolboyish delight in witnessing crashes at 300mph. Provided no one gets hurt, of course (looking at you, Romain Grosjean!). 

A blast from the past – the F1 2012 season summarised

The 2012 season ended with a bang as Vettel won by a margin of just three points over Alonso. Meanwhile, third place went to Raikkonen who won the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix on the season of his return to F1 and showed everyone that, even at the age of 33, he knows exactly what he was doing. 

After the Singaporean Grand Prix, Michael Schumacher retired for a second time and Lewis Hamilton announced his switch to Mercedes in the new season after 14 years with McLaren. 

Schumacher’s inability to secure wins – he only got one podium finish, in Valencia last year - was behind his decision while Hamilton insisted that it was time for some change (and notes. Big, green ones). 

Button is now the undisputed leader at McLaren and has had to take on mentoring duties for the young Sergio Perez. The Englishman had a poor season for the Woking outfit as his car couldn’t last the distance, prompting the team to come up with a wholly new version, the MP4-28. 

Another veteran, Webber, also had a mixed season and earned a one-year extension to his contract only after a good drive at the British Grand Prix, much like Felipe Massa, who purposely had a gearbox change to help team-mate Alonso move up the order in his home grand prix. 

Aussie, Aussie, Aussie... Oy, oy, oy!

I’m always told by Sanjeev Palar and the rest of the crew working at FOX Sports that the Australian Grand Prix is always described as the fan’s race. The scoreboard reads zero, everyone’s smiling at each other (that doesn’t last long) and the fans believe that every driver stands a chance of securing some points (except Marussia & Caterham, those guys are just too darn new).

But I’m not going to hype the race like it’ll be the best sporting extravaganza in the world. (The new season is here, hurrah! Can’t you smell the fresh scent of motor oil, don’t you sense the grid girls putting on their best tight-fitting latex outfits, and can’t you hear the menacing growls of the mechanical beasts... well, you get the picture). 

But I will say that the race on Sunday will be one worthy of watching simply because of how the previous season unfolded.

Regardless of whether you're a Ferrari or a Red Bull or a Nicole Scherzinger fan, last year was one of the best seasons in Formula 1 history. And I, for one, will genuinely be glued to the television set come Sunday. 

The custom-made track, built from scratch every year around Albert Park Lake, has become Button’s favourite in recent times. He’ll be looking to make it four wins out of five come March 17.

The temperature in Melbourne at this time is usually at the higher side at around 32°C, light showers are common, and with a number of slow corners, braking wear will be high. Pit-lane dynamics will also play a significant part with a whopping 280 metres to traverse before tyre changes can be implemented (did you know it took the McLaren engineers just 2.31 seconds to change Button’s tyres at the German Grand Prix?). 

Home boy Webber will obviously be used to it all and will be eager to win his first Australian Grand Prix. Last season he was within a whisker of a podium finish, fighting Hamilton for third right until the final lap.

Vettel, his team-mate, will be seeking to romp ahead right from the first practice session onwards although his drives from the back in Abu Dhabi and Brazil showed that he has the confidence and grit needed to make the best out of a sticky situation. 

Alonso certainly managed such situations superbly last season but will be hoping that the F138 is more reliable than the jalopy he was handed in 2012.

The new machine “is on a different planet”, according to teammate Massa – so at least the omens are promising. 

Prediction time

I don’t know if you can really predict the championship contenders just yet. I mean, you can look into all the pre-season testing data, get a hold of an expert who can analyse the new models and consider the capabilities of the drivers but making prognostications at this stage is a fool’s errand. 

As we saw in 2012, the start of the season can be rather unpredictable and all the main marques stand a chance. The only gut instinct I have is that Hamilton may not hit the ground running with his new team. 

As the rules haven’t changed all that much (no permanent DRS in qualifying should reduce pole-to-flag wins) and as Pirelli has promised a tricky configuration of new compounds in its tyres, it’s pretty much an open field. Any of Vettel, Alonso, Button, Webber or Raikkonen can win the season-opener in Melbourne, barring any early retirements. 

Alonso, pumped as he would be after losing out on the title last season by the smallest of margins, will be more focused than most for the race. And he might also have to do it from behind the front row as the British engineers from the McLaren and Red Bull teams would have designed a single-lap monster, as has been their wont in recent seasons. Nothing new for the Spaniard, then.

Let’s get this baby on the road

Let’s not forget that a host of new drivers will be also looking to make an impact while Perez, Nico Rosberg and Grosjean will probably have to mature as they have key support roles to play for their talented seniors. 

But who knows, one of them could grab a win and emerge as the breakout star of the season. As they say, it’s a fresh start, a clean slate, a new beginning and all that jazz. 

Whatever happens, I can’t wait for the five red lights to turn on in Melbourne on Sunday. We’ve waited far too long (111 days, 12 hours and 10 minutes, to be precise) for the sport to return. 

Welcome back, F1. You were sorely missed

You can follow Suhas Bhat for more updates about the world of F1 at his Twitter account. In fact, you really should because he complains far too often that he doesn't have enough petrol heads to talk to before, during and after races!



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