Friday, May 6, 2011

New season providing memories to savour

I'm sitting on the plane that is bringing me home from the opening trio of races, and I'm reminiscing.

I'm not daydreaming about the first time we heard the engines roar for 2011 in Albert Park, Sebastian Vettel's dominant start to the season, Vitaly Petrov flying or Lewis Hamilton's slow, steady reeling-in of Vettel this weekend.

Nope, I've gone a little further back: I'm re-living 1995. Trawling through the plane's CD library I've stumbled upon the breakthrough album Different Class by Pulp. It reminds me of my mum's pistachio green VW Polo, studying for my A-levels, David Coulthard's first Formula 1 win and me, at 17, thinking the world started and stopped at the Norfolk county border!

However, one thing slightly tainting the fun of air-drumming to Common People is that I've just realised Vettel would have been seven years old at that time. Ouch!

OK, I'm going to park memories of my oversized The Sweater Shop jumper - which was a must-have item for a lanky lad in Norwich in the mid-90s - and cast my mind back to the more recent memory of two races that have set the benchmark for the 2011 season.

Lewis Hamilton celebrates victory at the Chinese Grand Prix

Lewis Hamilton celebrates victory at the Chinese Grand Prix. Photo: Getty Images

To be totally honest, I think that, while we all enjoyed the opening round in Australia, it disguised just how frenetic this year is likely to be. I was chatting to some guys in the paddock on Sunday who were speculating that if that race was run again tomorrow, Pirelli would bring the even more marginal Supersoft tyre to Australia.

I think that is an indication of the success of having these new tyres. As DC said at the end of the commentary on Sunday: "Thank you Pirelli".

While I agree with that sentiment, I think we should be thanking F1. I've been sharing this flight with the likes of Ross Brawn of Mercedes, Williams designer Sam Michael and Paul Di Resta, who has been mightily impressive for Force India. Those three guys, and the rest of the designers, technicians, drivers and team principles up and down the pit lane, want cars that are fast in every circumstance.

The drivers ask for consistency and reliability, while the manufacturers want something that is so quick it helps shift their road cars. However, they have agreed to totally compromise their work for the sake of you guys sitting at home.

To improve the show. Vettel didn't want a car that simply "dropped off a cliff" as its tyres were worn at the end of Sunday's race. The strategists aren't keen on the pit wall resembling Air Traffic Control as they desperately try to outwit their opponents and make themselves look clever, and team bosses don't want to have to defend strategic mistakes after every race.

Look back to 12 months ago in Bahrain. Hardly an overtake, and most cars stopping once. This year the sport is totally unrecognisable, and it makes for compelling TV.

I don't envy the boys having to call such frenetic racing in the commentary box but I think they're doing well. Particularly DC, whose experience, knowledge, eagle-eyes and quick wit have surprised even me.

As for Martin Brundle, he's welcome to have his grid walk back! Logistically, it was impossible for him to do it in China so I bravely took on the challenge. But I have enough to think about doing 60 minutes of live TV pre-race, with stories developing around me, and I really didn't like having to doorstep the drivers. It felt a bit like walking into your office and shoving a microphone under your nose as you sit at your desk.

Martin has done more than 200 of them whereas Sunday was, believe it or not, the first time I've been on the grid pre-race. I'm just happy to have survived interviewing a seven-time world champion despite DC totally abandoning me!

After I'd finished that, it was time for the racing. Almost 60 stops in Malaysia, a further 55 in China. And amongst it all a chance to look like a real hero. McLaren boss Martin Whitmarsh told me on the pit wall after the race that his team had actually got their strategy wrong and wanted to do only two stops.

Yet, while Vettel demonstrated that, even with his skills it was impossible to make such a tactic work, Hamilton and Mark Webber made a stop more and it paid dividends. In fact, the success of the tyres has totally overshadowed the introduction of DRS (Drag Reduction System) and re-introduction of KERS (Kinetic Energy Recovery System).

It is clear the FIA is still fiddling with the DRS rear wing to encourage overtaking. I don't find it artificial as it still takes skill to make a move stick. What I think we need to avoid is drivers overtaking in only one place, following their rival and not making a move until they can use their DRS advantage. We may also see two zones in Turkey.

You couldn't accuse Lewis of lacking ambition when overtaking though, could you? I was watching the race unfold in the McLaren hospitality area and while everyone was leaping around, hands on heads, almost unable to believe what was happening, the messages coming in thick and fast on Twitter were almost identical.

A good example of the power of Twitter was someone tweeting me a photo of Fernando Alonso's DRS operating outside the prescribed zone. I told the producer what I'd seen and the guys in VT called up the same clip and played it to the nation while Martin and David commented on it.

Anyway, the Pulp album has now rolled around to Monday Morning so I'm going to return to the 90s and leave you guys to a lovely shortened working week. We've stacks of stuff planned for a few weeks' time when we get to Turkey.

Thanks for setting your alarms in your droves the past month - it's good to know that plenty of you were watching as we marched around the pit lane and paddock. Below are my five favourite moments of the season so far - here's hoping for plenty more until 27 November!

1. Lewis's interview in the garage after his first win of the season. He was as open, honest and relaxed as I've ever seen him. I was blown away by the clarity of thought that he described as he closed in on Sebastian.

2. Petrov''s podium. What a car Renault have produced this year, and how cool was Vitaly in Australia? The first ever Russian podium in F1 and a great reward for the team's faith in him.

3. Eddie Jordan totally forgetting his question to Jenson Button on the F1 Forum in Malaysia. Thankfully DC stepped in as JB and I were both corpsing at that moment. Classic EJ and I missed him in China.

4. The RB7. Adrian Newey is an enigmatic individual who seems to have a God-given ability to design the most incredible racing cars - Williams, McLaren, Red Bull. They must all be so grateful they could afford him.

5. The racing. Paul Di Resta beating his classy team-mate Adrian Sutil, Felipe Massa beating Fernando Alonso, Vettel's dominance, Webber's doggedness, Team Lotus mixing it with the midfield and Kamui Kobayashi's racing instinct. Bodes well for the next seven months, eh?


Olivier Grouillard Brian Gubby Andre Guelfi Miguel Ángel Guerra Roberto Guerrero Maurício Gugelmin Dan Gurney

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