F1: Alonso sends out ominous warning
With any luck, Fernando Alonso is better at racing cars than he is at making predictions. If not we are all in a whole lot of trouble.
After blazing his way to an emotional victory in yesterday's curtain-raiser in Bahrain, the Ferrari debutant made everyone wince by providing the most damning insight of the weekend.
"After qualifying and the first corner, more or less the positions will be settled," he replied when asked how he thought the rest of the season might pan out.
It was the answer we were all dreading. After months spent building up the 'Most Exciting Season in the History of Formula 1' we had, whisper it quietly, just witnessed the cure for insomnia.
The new rules -- the much-publicised ban on in-race refuelling, the change to the points system designed to encourage overtaking -- had patently failed to improve the racing.
As one cynic observed in the paddock afterwards, the headlines would no doubt ask: "Is this shaping up to be the most boring season in the history of Formula 1?"
Of course it isn't. There is no need to push the panic button just yet.
The return of Michael Schumacher, sixth yesterday for Mercedes in his first race since Brazil 2006; the fascinating intra-team battle at McLaren, where Lewis Hamilton drew first blood by claiming third place to Jenson Button's seventh; and the unprecedented competitiveness of the grid, with four teams and eight drivers all capable of race wins, cannot fail but generate drama. It just didn't do so yesterday.
First of all, there was the start. It had been flagged up as potentially explosive.
With the 35C heat on, and 170kgs of fuel on board each and every car, the drivers would be wilting in machines that would "handle like pregnant elephants" according to Jackie Stewart.
We held our collective breath.
A plume of smoke from the back of Mark Webber's Red Bull apart, the top drivers all negotiated the first few bends unscathed.
Webber's team-mate Sebastian Vettel sped away from pole position to reach turn one in the lead, Alonso held his nerve and the inside line to beat his team-mate Felipe Massa into turn two, and Mercedes' Nico Rosberg got the jump on Hamilton to claim fourth position.
Okay, we thought, they got lucky this time and settled back to watch the show. Fifteen laps later we were still waiting. Then Hamilton pitted.
Aha, we thought, here surely was the cue for fireworks. The teams had spent all winter practising tyre changes which, with the ban on refuelling, would last just three turbo-charged seconds.
Another snag: the screens would not tell us how long each wheel change took, only how long each car had spent in the pit lane. A potential area of interest for the television viewer at home spurned by the powers-that-be.
This needs addressing for Melbourne.
Before you knew it, everyone had pitted. Hamilton, first on to the fresh rubber, managed to leap-frog Rosberg and Button did likewise to Webber. Other than that, it was as you were.
Only Vettel's engine gremlins added spice to the drama late on, the German slipping backwards through the field as Alonso, Massa and Hamilton all passed him to assume the podium positions. And that was that. Game over.
"It's a pity. We should have won today," Vettel lamented. "We had control of the race and were on top of the strategy."
Alonso, who looked ominously quick throughout and may well have caught the Red Bull anyway, begged to differ.
"I was waiting the time to attack him, maybe the last 10 or 12 laps," claimed the two-time champion, whose last race win was back in Japan in 2008 -- this was Ferrari's first one-two since the French Grand Prix in June 2008
"But suddenly he had a car problem and he was dropping and we had the chance to overtake him a little bit earlier than expected. There is no better way to start my relationship with Ferrari. This is so special."
Massa's second place, after the life-threatening accident in Hungary last year that obliged him to miss the rest of the season, was also a nice moment and well received by all. "It is really thanks to God that I am here," he said. "It feels amazing to be back."
Schumacher, though, seemed slightly underwhelmed on his return and was not impressed with the new regulations.
"Overtaking was basically impossible unless somebody made a mistake," said the German. "That is the action we are going to have with this kind of environment of race strategy.
"The new rules with the tyres that everybody has to cope with -- I struggle a little bit with those. But after three years I guess it's natural you have to find your way into new bits and pieces."
The final word went to Button, whose analysis in the heat of the moment is usually spot on.
Asked to sum it all up he delivered the scathing assessment: "All the cars stop at the same time and don't overtake each other.
"The first lap is definitely your best chance of overtaking.
"It might throw up a few more strategies in the race -- I hope it does, because run like that every race, it's not the most exciting.
"I think I was a little bit conservative, but we are all learning the new regulations."
That is a problem that needs addressing, starting in Melbourne next week. (© Daily Telegraph, London)