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The View From Australia

Australia hosts the best grand prix in the world - doesn't matter which city, it is almost always voted the best by most people involved. However, once the Australian Grand Prix is over, the public forgets. The nation has had its weekend in the sun and the television networks get on with the business of covering other sports…rugby league, in large and unmanageable doses.

Over the weekend of March 8-9, the local TV network will saturate us with the beauty of Albert Park, "Melbourne's Showcase To the World"(ugh). For the weekend, the only Ferraris you see will be on the track, Williams-Renaults will be instantly recognisable as the dodos who dumped Damon Hill and Benetton will be the idiots who lost a double world champion.

Come March 10, what's F1? Relegated to the netherworld of post-10:30 pm on a Sunday night, F1 is no longer an issue. No news (unless there is a fatality), no coverage outside of two hours on a Sunday night, when we're saddled with "our very own Alan Jones" and his sidekick Dazza*.

What a brilliant lineup.

Dazza knows nothing and Alan Jones knows less, despite what he tells us and the know-all image he projects.

If F1 makes the 6pm news, it is usually a poor-quality vision bite with someone unlikely flashing across the line accompanied by incorrect information. On-line magazines are our lifeline as no-one else will touch it. The golf and tennis can shove the coverage back for up to four hours and have been proved not to rate as well, but the network has usually paid more money for the tennis or golf. More shops are devoted to same, so they make more money. Scary stuff. That's without taking into account the fact that you can comfortably tape a race, but not 18 holes of golf.

Then there's the network itself. One marvellous incident happened before the screening of last year's Italian Grand Prix. During the credits of some awful film we saw fifteen seconds of Michael Schumacher firing through the Lesmos on his way to a victory. Brilliant, 'eh? This was before the supposedly live coverage of the race began and here was straight-faced Dazza and Allan needling each other about their neckties and tipping a Damon Hill victory (but only because he's in a Williams). Thanks for caring, Channel Nine. What always makes me laugh is Dazza's promise to be back bigger and better than ever next year.

Motorsport in Australia is experiencing rapid growth and F1 is growing in popularity. But do the networks care? The most coverage the Grand Prix got last year was a string of stories over people opposing its installation at Albert Park and media hysteria over the threats by said opponents to pour oil over the track. This year, it has all died down and people will be surprised to see cars tearing around the streets of Melbourne on their TV screens when they're expecting the cricket. The race will be big, there will be record numbers there and record ratings, but for the rest of the year, after all that hard work, Channel Nine lets itself down.

And the rest of us.

Peter Anderson

* Dazza:

"Dazza" is big Darrell Eastlake, a Channel Nine commentator who was banished to a glass box at the last Commonwealth Games for shouting too loudly
during the weightlifting...yeah, he's that kind of commentator....


Race Day : March 9th 1997

F1GP Blues

(Perennial optimism, new rubber and a tight grid could see a change in the pecking order in 1997)

They all said it last year and they all said it the year before that. "The car feels good, it is quick through the corners, there is a lot less underwater." Or, "with our two drivers I feel we have a winning combination." Or, "Overall the car is an evolution of last years model but there have been some significant improvements that we hope will give the car a 1or 2 second advantage" etc. etc.

The single most constant thing about Formula 1 is its undying optimism. Some teams of course, have the luxury of hereditary optimism and don’t need to remind themselves as to how good they will be in the upcoming season(and I think we all know who we are talking about here), but the majority need the morale ‘ups’ that this enforced confidence supplies them with. The business of running a Grand Prix would seem to have greater rewards than winning a race or the Championship. The acquisition of Sponsorship money and corporate entertaining, the gainful employment of 50 of 100 skilled people, the thrill of the chase, or just the glory of Formula 1, what is it that keeps the managers coming back year after embarrassing year, pointless and underfunded? It must be different things to different people. Eddie Jordan, Frank Williams Eric Broadley and Ron Dennis are died in the wool racers. They have to be immersed in Formula 1 to exist, they live through their passion and no matter how uncompetitive their team, embarrassment is not in their vocabulary, just improvement, evolution etc. Flavio Briatore was a reluctant latecomer to his team and has publicly expressed more of a business interest than a passion for his sport and Alain Prost and Jackie Stewart are actively involved figureheads to pull in the corporate loot. But that’s OK. For whatever purpose you are holding a Formula 1 team together, the ultimate goal has to be a win or for some, a point and, as the new term begins at Melbourne next weekend for the first Grand Prix of the season, the optimism will be at a demented level, the self hype will be at boiling point and no one will allow themselves even the remotest thought that their car is going to fall by the wayside or, not get at least one point or, for some, where reality and fantasy start to blend towards the practical, a podium finish.

The holiday projects and the notes and times have all been compared and assessed. The boys are in their new classes and the red light is waiting, like the school bell, to signal the commencement of their lessons.

Winter testing at both Estoril and Barcelona have thrown up widely differing performance figures. The top running teams have been constantly pushed by the midfielders and the also-rans from last year are showing a form that, if only on paper, gives hope that the lower half of the grid will see as much action as the front.

The consensus of opinion remains the same as last year in as much that Williams will, if not walk it, have to exert the minimal amount of excercise to keep off the closing pack. However Benetton seem to be on the trail once again after a cheerless year and Gerhard Berger(blindingly quick in testing) rather than team mate Jean Alesi, seems to be the current favourite for the pat on the head and the extra digestive biscuits.

Michael Schumacher, despite having sandbagged to a degree at the beginning of the ’96 season with his recalcitrant Ferrari managed to claim 3 victories, one in front of a home crowd at Monza and likewise, nothing seems to have changed this year. Whilst the press talk about reliability problems and instability and the fact that the old spec engine will have to be put into service for the first three races of ’97, Eddie Irvine whips round the Team’s Maranello test track in record breaking time. Reliable or not, Schumacher will make the car look great and he will win Grands Prix this year that is for sure.

The Frentzen and Villeneuve pairing over at Williams will be interesting with Jacques, moving his game up a notch to put Heinz Harald firmly where he, Villeneuve, thinks he should belong. If the German remains marginally faster than the Ferraris, then he could be seeing a lot of his old nemesis, Schumacher, in his mirrors.

A newly dressed McLaren is all gung-ho this season with both David Coulthard and Mika Hakkinen putting in impressive testing times. This was another team that ‘Could do better’ last year, but didn’t and despite some good performances, remained a disappointment. Optimism here, seems to take the form of auto kinesis and with the money that sponsors West Tobacco and Mercedes have put into development of the car and it image, it should roll along under its own steam.

The new teams of Lola and Stewart Racing and the rebadged teams of TWR Arrows and Prost will all be mixing it towards the back of the pack all with aspirations of getting points. Damon Hill trying desperately to justify his decision to go with TWR and covering up for his disastrous testing programme said recently " The car is great, it’s just a little on the slow side, which obviously gives us the greatest potential to improve over any of the other teams". With the now infamous unreliability of the Yamaha engine, Hill may be wishing that he had taken the Jordan offer, as he will probably be seeing a great deal of the rear end of that car in the coming races. It is unfortunate that the reigning World Champion has to suffer the Ignominy of a car that seems to have jettisoned all the promise it had at it’s unveiling and that his talents should be squandered in trying to develop a car, already with a terminal disease, that for this year at least will be totally uncompetitive.

Two ex world champions both have points to prove. Of the two Prost (nee Ligier) will be the one to watch. Driver Olivier Panis put in some stupifyingly fast testing laps to confound even the top teams. With Bridgestone’s official announcement that team Prost will be the fifth team that they will be supplying this year, the car, powered by the Mugen Honda promises to be extremely competitive. Stewart Racing has yet to perform and despite new recruit Jan Magnussen and old hand Rubens Barrichello pushing the Tartan Army forward, it will be an added bonus if they end up in the points.

Lola will be running an old spec Ford Zetec V8 for the first half of the season and even qualifying could be a problem. Sponsors, however are not unduly concerned as judging by Lola’s reputation and past history a championship is but a matter of time. It just depends on how much.

Eddie Jordan, changing tack when Hill wouldn’t bite, is trying out the raw talents of Ralf Schumacher and Giancarlo Fisichella. Whist quick in testing, neither has the experience of Formula 1 racing. We may see some improvement by midseason when Jordan could be looking at podium finishes.

Probably following closely in the Jordan slipstream will be both Tyrell and Sauber. Both teams have come up with tidy if conventional packages. The Tyrell driver-duo of Mika Salo and Jos Verstappen look good on paper, yet despite the renewed litany of position, points and podium, Ken Tyrell has been out in the cold for a long time. This could however, be a better year for them. Sauber will be a slightly different proposition. Having two times winner Johnny Herbert to boost the teams credibility and ex Ferrari tester Nicola Larini to exploit last year’s Petronas/Ferrari engine, should put the team in some point scoring situations. With Ferrari rumoured to be using the same ’96 spec engine at least for the first two races, it will be interesting to see if the Sauber chassis is any match for the Big Red.

Finally, a team with little hope, but a great deal of aspiration and managed by the biggest anorak of them all is Minardi. Giancarlo Minardi has a vision and a passion for his sport like no other, yet always fighting finances, has rarely been within a mile of the podium. This could change with the take over by a consortium including Flavio Briatore (rapidly becoming the Rupert Murdoch of Formula 1) and ex driver Alessandro Nannini. The Hart engine that powers the car is reliable if a tad workmanlike. Using Bridgestones could conceivably get the team a point or two in damp conditions, but whether drivers Jarno Trulli and Ukyo Katayama have the mettle remains to be seen.

The new circuit at Albert Park in Melbourne will be used only for the second time in its current configuration although Australian ‘Grands Prix’ of sorts have been held there spasmodically since 1928. It is a longer than average lap utilising fast flowing corners and slow tight bends, a mix that all drivers had to learn from scratch last year. Expect lap times to be dramatically quicker this year. The recent despoliation of part of the track by alleged conservation protesters remains a mild threat for race day, but the ‘bonhomie’ and sheer exuberance of the occasion should overcome any tension that may be present.

So as the lights go out on Albert Park, the lights in Britain and other parts of the world go on as a bleary eyed audience take to their TV’s in the small hours of Sunday morning. In that split second of spinning Goodyears and Bridgestones, the Bullshit will be left behind on the grid with the dissipating fumes of high octane fuel. The testing configurations, the light fuel loads, the sticky tyres and wing adjustments will count for nothing. Each man will be driving for himself and his own piece of personal glory. Glory however, will come to only one driver this weekend. Look for the blues and the reds rather than the yellows and whites.

Chris Richardson

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