Bob McMurray: Change would be a grand thing
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“Plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose” is the first sentence I wrote after seeing the qualifying sessions from the Australian Formula 1 Grand Prix last Saturday.
Lewis Hamilton had just eclipsed the field to take pole position for the race. New teammate Valtieri Bottas was, in Formula 1 terms, a decent way back. Sebastian Vettel led a Ferrari "resurgence" (another one that is) to grab a front-row starting place. And all the rest were somewhere back in the distance.
Still, Ferrari was there at the front and Kimi Raikkonen in the sister car to Vettel was not too far behind so perhaps just a hint of a bit of competition?
It all seemed so familiar and so much a portent of things to come. But the French phrase rang in my head. Basically it means "the more it changes, the more it's the same thing", and that looked how things were going to pan out.
The thing that had changed, obviously, was the look of the cars. Tyres at some 25 per cent greater in width than 2016 - although, with the rear tyres now 405mm wide, they have some way to go before they come close to the huge balloons of the 1970s and 1980s.
Those were more than 457mm wide. Combined with the lower front and rear wings, they added to the increase in overall car width, and gave an aggressive, meaningful stance.
The cars are also much faster than before with some estimates predicting times 4 or 5 seconds a lap faster on some circuits, bringing with that extra speed a much more difficult and challenging beast to tame.
Amazingly the minimum weight of a Formula 1 car in those heady days of Hunt versus Lauda and Andretti versus Peterson and the rest was around 575 kg. Today they weigh in at 722 kg.
In the mid-1980s, BMW produced a turbocharged Formula 1 engine for the Brabham Formula 1 team that produced, from just 1.5 litres (2017 engines are 1.6 litres), a reputed 1500bhp (1120 kW) in a car that weighed just 545 kg, with fat tyres and the drivers head and shoulders above the cockpit sides and the cars with minimum aerodynamics. Brutes to drive.
John Watson standing pondering the McLaren M29 at the 1979 Canadian GP. Photo Bob McMurray
Perhaps there is a lesson there as the ever more ridiculous, and larger, front wings seem to go even further in preventing close racing and overtaking, although that remains to be seen as the season progresses.
Of course today's engines (or rather "power units") are miracles of engineering using a fraction of the fuel of those in the last century.
I digress. Sunday's Grand Prix was encouraging in that there was some real competition at the front.
A few years ago, I could never have envisaged being happy that a Ferrari or that Sebastian Vettel won a race.
To see both happen together I was extremely happy.
I do know that the Vettel / Ferrari combination had already won in 2015 but the top step eluded them in 2016. This Melbourne win came not at the expense of a Mercedes problem but seemingly on pure pace of driver and car.
Unfortunately it was a race between just two cars at the front with occasional glimpses of a third or fourth car.
Worryingly, the overtaking was minimal, the procession was monumental but perhaps that is the characteristic of the Albert Park track.
Yet still, there were encouraging signs for a resurgence of competition, of some major threat to the Mercedes dominance.
One race, one good result for Ferrari, does not mean anything other than that.
At the Albert Park event in 2016 Ferrari and Vettel looked certain to win but for a bad tactical error, and went on to be relatively uncompetitive for the rest of the season. But this year the team and drivers have an air of confidence and, more importantly, a fast car.
Red Bull was disappointing with a disastrous weekend for Daniel Ricciardo and an average one for Max Verstappen, but they have shown they are more than capable of getting back on track in a hurry.
Added to all the action on track is the encouraging noises coming out of the "new" Formula 1 management saying there will be change -- determined by what they think the fans want.
2017 could be a "memorable" season in the words of new Mercedes technical director James Allison. Hopefully it will be memorable as the first season of change and the first of epic seasons to come.
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