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Harris: Suspense In F1?

Mike Harris | Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Tuesday, April 20 2010

Have Bernie Ecclestone and the F1 boys actually done something right? (Indianapolis Motor Speedway photo by Ron McQueeney)

By Mike Harris | Senior Writer
RacinToday.com

The Formula One Grand Prix in China  on Sunday was one of the most entertaining races I’ve watched in some time.

Thanks to the weather, an on-and-off rain that kept everybody guessing on tires all day and had the cars throwing up roostertails that hampered visibility at times, the action was nearly constant and there was more than a little suspense.

What really made it a great race, though, was the fact that the wet track didn’t affect the competition. In fact, it enhanced it.

There were two- and three-car battles all over the Shanghai track as drivers exhibited the kind of courage and ability that you expect from the drivers billed as the best in the world. And TV did a nice job of following those battles throughout the race.

This was a far cry from the kind of racing we have seen in Formula One in recent years, with most of the events resembling a parade as Ferrari or McLaren or Renault or Williams or Brawn – whichever F1 juggernaut had the best car that year – simply overpowered the rest of the field.

I have often criticized Bernie Ecclestone and the other people who run F1 for turning what was once a great, competitive sport into little more than a technical performance for gearheads .

During my tenure as the Associated Press’s Motorsports Writer, I covered just about every F1 race in North America from 1980 until 2008. The events were fun to cover and the personalities were great, but the racing, was  often uneventful, to say the least.

In 1986, I was in Montreal for the Canadian Grand Prix – a hugely popular event north of the border. Nigel Mansell, then driving for Williams, led 63 of 68 laps on the way to victory and everyone else behind him seemed to just fall in line and stay there.

By the halfway point, it was hard to keep my eyes open, and the more than 100,000 fans in the stands appared to have the same problem. After the race, I struggled to find anything but Mansell’s victorys to write about.

Later, riding in a press van on the way back to the hotel, I made the mistake of asking out loud if anyone there could ever remember a more boring race. One photographer from England became so outraged, he nearly came across the seat to thrash me, saying, in one of his calmer moments, “You Yanks simply don’t understand. That was one of the most technically beautiful races I’ve ever seen.’’

Perhaps it’s just a cultural thing. Many F1 fans seems to love the cars and technology above all. If the races are boring, fine. The cars look great and just think about all those neat parts and pieces that make them go.

People on this side of the pond tend to favor NASCAR and IndyCar, where there is often side-by-side racing and “rubbin’ is racin’’ is a well-worn motto. That’s probably the main reason F1 – which is no longer racing in the U.S. – has not caught on over here as a mainstream sport.

But my gut feeling is F1 fans around the world are thoroughly enjoying the kind of racing they have been seeing in the first four races this season – even on a dry track.

Watching former World Champion Lewis Hamilton drive his McLaren through the field a couple of weeks ago in Maylasia after a poor qualifying effort,  was a treat. And the Brit did it again on Sunday in China, where he started sixth.  At one point in the Shanghai race, Hamilton snookered both Red Bull cars in a daring pass that didn’t look possible on the wet track. He very nearly caught teammate and reigning F1 champion  Jenson Button, who became the first driver to win more than one race this season as the McLaren drivers finishing 1-2.

Give Ecclestone and his cohorts credit. They have made numerous rules changes in the last couple of years trying to even out the playing field and put more action on the track without compromising safety.

For the moment, it appears they have succeeded. And the winners are F1 and racing fans everywhere.

– Mike Harris can be reached at mharris@racintoday.com

Mike Harris | Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Tuesday, April 20 2010
2 Comments

2 Comments »

  • Ed says:

    So Mike, what I think you are saying is that for Formula One to succeed in the United States, the host track needs to install a sprinkler system on the track with random, intermittent activation to make the racing interesting.

    As it is now, F1 could televise engine bench tests and the engineers who developed the engines with the three strongest amounts of horsepower on “race day” could be placed on the podium. If the racing takes a back seat to the technology, then the purists could have their way without drivers potentially screwing up the technology display.

  • We take the good with the bad as fans of the sport…

    As the great Murray Walker said:

    “Anything can happen in Formula One, and it usually does.”

    That includes Bahrain 2010. You can’t appreciate daylight without the darkness of night,