MELBOURNE: The longest season in Formula One history also risks becoming its most extended test of patience if efforts to shake up the sport fall flat.
Last year was so predictable that even F1 supremo Bernie Ecclestone called it “boring,” while runaway winner Lewis Hamilton agreed the crisis-prone sport was “broken.”
With a record 21 races in 2016, organizers have been searching hard for ways to boost flagging viewing figures for a series that is too often dominated by one team.
The nightmare scenario is another parade for Mercedes, whose drivers Hamilton and Nico Rosberg won 16 of the 19 grands prix last year and only missed pole position once.
Pre-season testing in which Mercedes clocked 6,024 kilometers (3,743 miles), nearly a third more than their closest rivals Ferrari, has cast a sense of foreboding over this week’s season start in Melbourne.
Chief among the innovations is a much-debated new qualifying format, which steadily eliminates cars one by one and finishes in a top-two shoot-out.
But the new system doesn’t look like it will have much impact on the quickest drivers, with Rosberg admitting last week he had not even bothered to look at it.
One fear is that it will introduce even more complexity to a sport already heavy on technicalities. Toro Rosso’s Carlos Sainz Jr said, “I read them [qualifying regulations]very briefly and I didn’t understand them.”
“I just hope that the fans that are not big fans of Formula One and just turn on their TV on Sunday understand it and they know what’s happening,” he added, according to Autosport.com.
The cars should at least make more noise this year, with twin exhausts introduced after complaints from petrol-heads that the hybrid F1 engines were simply too quiet.
A big cut in radio communications will make a genuine difference, forcing drivers to make decisions rather than rely on their data-crunching teams in the pitlane.
“Strategy, engine-mode deployment, tire choices, even up to a point pit stops, a lot will be down to the driver to decide,” Mercedes boss Toto Wolff said on Autosport.com. “Things will be less optimized by algorithms and engineers, and it will give room for error.”
“What I like is that it is the driver who will be taking decisions, and not remote-controlled from the garage,” he added.
Hamilton warned that life was about to get much harder for drivers, who already have trouble mastering their cars’ complicated systems.
“The idea is probably a good thing and you’ll see it evolve over the races,” he said.
“We’re all going to struggle, probably in the first race in some way or some form, but we’ve tried to prepare the best way we can,” Hamilton added.
Meanwhile tire supplier Pirelli has introduced new “ultra-soft” tires and greater flexibility in the teams’ choice of rubber.
But complex rules surrounding tire choices have left many scratching their heads, while teams also must commit to their selections weeks in advance to ensure supply.