SPY: DRIVEN

So, here we are on the way to Bahrain, a race that makes us walk to work through the same gate as the circus acts. When you’re queuing up to pass your bag through the security scanner behind the sad-face clown with the floppy shoes, you do at times wonder, are they taking the mickey? Spy likes this race though. Good garages, good paddock, plenty of space. Spy is a simple soul.

Australia probably asked more questions than it answered – which is about par for the [Albert Park] course. What it did seem to confirm – and Spy feels safe prognosticating from behind a curtain of anonymity* – is that no-one’s going to have a comfortable season. With the possible exception of Williams (who will be uncomfortable for different reasons) everyone’s got a battle on their hands, with immediate rivals on pretty much the same pace. It might actually be a season about the drivers. Which is handy, because that’s what our reader poll has suggested I talk about this week.

Isn’t every season about the drivers? Spy’s not convinced. It’s not that you could put a strategically shaved ape into a good car and have them win** but the basic standard of F1 is so high these days, the gap between the cars tends to be bigger than the gap between the talents. Usually – but maybe not this year. Which is exciting. For you, obviously, and for retailers of carbon fibre. For everyone working in the pitlane it’s a recipe for late nights with a glue gun and bulk orders of tank tape and cable ties.

Surprisingly, it’s not the rookies you’re expecting to be bending things. They all look pretty solid. It goes against the grain to say it but credit is perhaps due to the organisers of the F2 Championship. The drivers arriving from the junior ranks all look like they’ve got the chops. Doubtless driving an F1 car is still a bit daunting – and it should be: 800kg of car with 1000 horses under your right boot shouldn’t be something trivial – but half the field is 25 or under and none of them look out of their depth because they’ve driven cars that are big enough and fast enough that the step up doesn’t require the special brown race overalls.

Spy just wishes they didn’t all take it so seriously all of the time. They’re all so dedicated: these days trainers can do their job by text message rather than by bullhorn. Where’s the driver falling out of a cab at the airport on Monday morning having come straight from a nightclub? F1 Racing took Lando Norris and George Russell to the pub over the winter – ie the off-season – and they ordered water and both bought their own salads with them. Spy’s too young to remember days when drivers would prepare for qualifying with a four-course lunch and a bottle of red*** but surely you’re allowed a sausage sandwich and a half a shandy in January? But that ain’t how they do it now. If there’s a hundredth of a second to be found with the right diet, it’s quinoa and pulses all the way.

Of course, what’s slightly more unnerving than the dedication of youthful zeal, is the idea that the likes of Vettel, Hamilton, Ricciardo etc, are now the cynical old stagers. How can they be senior pros? At least one of them’s only just out of braces.

There was a notion over the winter that F1 might be about to have one of its periodic changings of the guard. Spy doesn’t buy it. The big names are in their prime and hungry to rack-up the trophies; they aren’t going to be knocked off the perch easily. There’s a tantalising prospect that we might just get one of those years where the advantage wings around race-by-race. Hamilton vs Vettel has tended to be a short-lived affair in the past, and it’d be nice to see them going toe-to-toe over grand prix distances. Again, there’s been talk over the winter about Vettel having a glass jaw. Nah. Vettel doesn’t crack under pressure. Vettel eats pressure for breakfast. He’s won two of his Championships on the final day of the season – against Alonso. That’s not the mark of a man who buckles. He’s a double-hard wotsit – but most of them are. Whatever else changes in F1, that doesn’t.

Of course, what everyone wants to see this year is a fight for the championship between more than two drivers. That would be well worth the popcorn. 

which is illegal in some countries

** unless it was the RB7, and a really determined ape with a good grasp of strategy and a stellar record in junior ape-racing categories. 

*** French drivers, obviously.