Tuesday 19 October 2010

Breaking up is never easy

This weekend the F1 circus has a new venue, at the Korean International Circuit in Yeongam. But it turns out that the new facility for the inaugural Korean Grand Prix may if anything be too new. Anticipation of the race had for some months focussed prominently on whether there would be a race at all, with preparation of the track and facilities behind schedule.

Bernie admitted in the Guardian yesterday that until a few weeks ago cancellation of the event was a real possibility: 'Last month I didn’t think it would be finished. And it would have been cancelled then – for sure'.

However, things came together (Bernie's public 'hurry up' of Korea's preparations seemed to concentrate minds) and FIA race director Charlie Whiting approved the track 10 days before the first practice session is scheduled to start. This somewhat stretching the FIA's usual 90 day deadline for such an approval.

This hasn't done a great deal to calm nerves in certain quarters, particularly given that the final layer of track tarmac was laid on 9 October, but 13 days before F1 rubber hits the road. Some therefore doubt the extent to which the tarmac will have 'cured', and will therefore hold up to the rigours that 24 F1 cars (and support events) will impose upon it. Nico Rosberg and Nick Heidfeld among others have aired their concerns publically, such as that the track may break up, as well as that oils used in the construction of the track may not have dissipated, both of which have the potential to make the surface treacherous.

This may of course all be a storm in a teacup, and the weekend may well go off without a hitch. Weather is likely to be mild, rather than intensely hot, which will help the track hold together. Plus, despite the trepidation within the F1 fraternity, most are keeping a lid on their angst, and have trust in Charlie Whiting's judgement on the circuit's suitability as well as his and the FIA's ability to sort problems that do arise.

However, history contains some warnings. From the advent of large tyres and downforce there have been several examples of problems with the track after tarmac being laid a matter of days before an F1 event. In Zolder '73, Argentina '80, Dallas '84, Spa '85 (the first go at it), the story is the same: rules waived, deadlines missed, problems started.

So what are the lessons of these? Well the first one is that the show is likely to go on regardless of any problems. There is only one example in the history of F1 of a race being postponed, Spa '85, and postponing a European round early in the season (in that case in early June) is a completely different matter to postponing one in Asia in October. The pressure from being set up for a race having hauled equipment halfway across the globe is likely to ensure that some sort of race happens. This was indeed the case in Argentina and Dallas.

Another lesson, on a brighter note, is that once the lights go out the drivers will get on with it as if there was no fuss at all beforehand, and are likely to deliver us a classic motor race. Certainly Argentina in 1980 and Dallas in 1984 have strong claims to being the most exciting and unpredictable races of their respective seasons. As luck would have it, the BBC website has highlights of both races, available here and here.

In a case of extreme track break up, we could have the topsy-turvy situation of the fastest times of the weekend set in first practice on Friday. It could also be the case in qually that drivers will attempt to set times early in each session rather than late.

The race may be attritional (in Argentina there were seven finishers, and in Dallas eight). Having the precision to not wander off line onto the slippery stuff, which is likely to suck you into the scenery, as well as having the ability to improvise and make the best of a situation (qualities that Alan Jones and Keke Rosberg, winners of the Argentina and Dallas races respectively, had in spades) will be vital. I'll leave it to you to decide who in the current field you associate with these qualities, but I'm thinking in the Alonso direction (particularly as this may be a Ferrari track more generally).

Should be one to look forward to.

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