Intrigue and optimism in post-Ecclestone era
Hamilton to reclaim crown as dynamic new owners look to attract younger audience to F1
Next weekend the Formula One season kicks off a week later than usual to allow for multiple regulation changes. Melbourne's street circuit around Albert Park Lake will roar with the sound of 20 cars, down from 22 last year. It's always a great season opener but it's not always a barometer of things to come.
There are lots of changes for 2017. Bernie Ecclestone has been given an honourable discharge by Liberty Media, the new owners of F1. His title 'chairman emeritus' means he did a grand job, now go away while we do a better one.
The 'we' includes the holy trinity of CEO Chase Carey, who as former executive vice-chairman of Rupert Murdoch's 21st Century Fox was once tipped to succeed Murdoch, even by the boss himself. Sean Bratches, former executive vice president of sales and marketing at ESPN, and to complete the trio is my former F3 mechanic Ross Brawn. The engineer was involved in Michael Schumacher's successes as well as winning two world titles with his self-titled F1 team in 2009. Here's a guy that knows a thing or two about the sport.
Liberty Media's modus operandi will be to engage with fans via social media and plough a furrow aimed at attracting a younger audience to the sport. They'd like a return on their eye-watering $8bn investment, thanks very much. Why Irish-American John Malone, who heads up Liberty Media, wants Formula One in his arsenal is a conundrum. He's the biggest land owner in the USA and he justified 'coveting' land when he told Fortune magazine: "I actually do believe that there may be a genetic element in wanting to own the land you're on. For 400 years the Irish farmed land that was owned by English landlords. The farmer's existence was temporary, transitional."
For sure one way of reaping a rich harvest in F1 is to nurture fans. Video content from inside the paddock has been relaxed so teams can link up with their fanbase. Take Lewis Hamilton: he has 3.9 million followers on Instagram and 4.2 million on Twitter, that's some audience reach.
Ecclestone never did get 'social media' ("My 14-year-old daughter tells me it's 'awesome'"). Bernie thought Twitter was a bird song, Facebook a make-up manual, and YouTube a swimming device. But at times his logic was seriously skewed. He didn't want to court millennials because he said they can't afford to buy the products advertised in F1.
Liberty Media will attempt to reverse this perverse view and woo these people who will eventually have money to buy that Rolex. Good luck to them and good riddance to the previous incumbent CVC Capital, although Ecclestone and his wacky sense of humour will be missed. I reserve a two-fingered salute for his odious henchman Pasquale Lattuneddu but that's another story which I look forward to sharing with Liberty Media one day soon over a cup of tea.
Winter testing is all done and dusted. Mercedes, Ferrari and Red Bull appear to be the pick of the crop. There are many factors at play that don't tell the entire story, such as tyre compounds, fuel loads, secret tweaks they're saving until last, all sorts of games they like to play in the battle to outwit each other.
Thanks to the new regulations, F1 cars will be more than three seconds faster per lap, courtesy of enhanced aerodynamics, wider and lower wings and wider tyres, all of which help create more downforce, mechanical grip and increased cornering speed. It all seems to suit Ferrari very nicely. However slipstreaming and overtaking may be casualties.
All local eyes will be on Red Bull's Australian driver Daniel Ricciardo but his eyes will be firmly fixed on his upstart team-mate Max Verstappen. Daniel is a class act, while teen sensation Max comes with a lot of PR and promise. Who will reign supreme? This battle will be one of the highlights of the season.
There is an air of expectancy about Ferrari. Despite Kimi Raikkonen topping the winter time-sheets, there are some in the know who don't believe the Finn will last until the end of the season. I think Vettel will lead the charge of the light brigade in the battle of balaclavas, if there are any victories to be had against the might of Mercedes that is.
Hamilton is looking deadly cool and ready for combat but his team-mate, Valtteri Bottas, who walked into the coveted role following the shock retirement of newly minted world champion Nico Rosberg, is going to be giving it his all. That's another fascinating duel that will keep us on the edge of our seats. I reckon Hamilton will cruise to a fourth world title, unencumbered this time by a favoured team-mate.
McLaren had a dismal time testing and it looks like they'll miss Manor motorsport to shield them at the tail end of the grid. The only way is up, or is it out? McLaren and Honda is proving to be a match made in hell. They may not even make it to Melbourne together. What is going through Fernando Alonso's head now? He passed up a golden opportunity to partner Hamilton at Mercedes and now he's 20mph slower in a McLaren on the straight? Apparently he has a get-out clause. . . At this rate he needs an ejector seat.
Hass, Williams, Renault, Force India will have a best-of-the-rest mid-grid battle. Renault has been asked to change its rear wing as it would be deemed illegal in Melbourne. Toro Rosso, Sauber and McLaren will mingle around the back at this expensive drinks party.
Manor Racing, owned by Belfast man Stephen Fitzpatrick, saw his attempt to play the long game in F1 take a short-cut to demise. He was a couple of years too early, because Liberty Media will surely implement those budget caps that have been touted for so long. Under the previous management there was no helping hand for the underdog - you were basically hung out to dry. Manor did a good job given their resources, and 212 people were out of work, which is a real tragedy.
So, ten teams and 20 drivers do battle in Melbourne. It can't come soon enough. If ever a country loved sport it is Australia; a fitting place to open this new chapter in Formula One's promising future.
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