Saturday 24 October 2015

Austin Qualifying (or not) - The story of the hurricane

It had a depressing familiarity. First the qualifying start was delayed by half an hour. Then another. Then another. Then another. Then another. Then (hallelujah!) that if the weather didn't break quali would be 0900 tomorrow instead. Then eventually, at about 1600 local time, some three hours after the qualifying action was due to start, they gave up indeed to reconvene tomorrow morning.

The Austin weekend has been characterised by rain
Photo: Octane Photography
Why always America, as The Sun's Ben Hunt lamented? That most scared of prizes for the sport? Ten years on from Michelin-gate. Also in the land of the Dallas farce; the Las Vegas car park; the Phoenix ghost town; Watkins Glen running out of money; Long Beach and Indy lost to the sport's financial hard ball?

As for this time, as Bob Dylan might have had it, this is the story of the hurricane. The outer edges of Hurricane Patricia hitting the Austin Grand Prix weekend yesterday and today. Bringing with it vast quantities of rain and often of the horizontal variety. The first practice session on Friday did happen, albeit in the wet. The second was canned, due to lightning in the area and strict rules in America about requiring people (such as marshals) to work in such conditions.

And today? There was no lightning but that was about the only respite. The rain was just as heavy as for FP2 for the most part but now was incessant. And come the qualifying hour's scheduled start time it was clear we had no conditions for running. Which is when the absurd stretched-out repetition outlined above kicked in, as the weather didn't change noticeably. A few pointed out too even if the rain was to stop there was rather a lot of water to get rid of - not the work of a moment.

In the morning there was some running though - FP3 happened as scheduled as the conditions while treacherous then were less bad than they later became. Indeed there was plenty of running in it as there was (and is) a possibility that it'll be used to determine the grid, as without a quali session the FP3 order can be used instead.

There was running, in FP3
Photo: Octane Photography
In many ways it showed F1 at its very best. The skills and bravery of all pilots could not be missed, and there was not a single write-off (the worst that happened was that Nico Rosberg did a little damage to his front wing). But as always seems the way in this game there was a snag -  this time that hardly anyone was in the track to witness it. Spectators were still locked out due to the extreme weather, the gates not opening until about an hour after the session finished. That seemed more a decision by the COTA track rather than by F1, in order to get the venue into a state capable of accepting people. But joined up activity between the sport and the venue doesn't seem like too much to ask for.

To offer some insight into what F1's thinking is, well according to Ted Kravitz the FIA F1 race director Charlie Whiting felt stung by the events of the Japanese Grand Prix in 2004. Those of you of a certain vintage will remember then that all expected a typhoon to hit the track, the circuit was therefore closed for the Saturday and qualifying for the first time ever switched to early Sunday. The trouble was that the typhoon changed direction at the 11th hour, and the weather at the circuit that day in fact would have been fine to run in.

Whiting, according to Kravitz, has since resolved to not be as beholden to forecasts and instead to turn up, sit poised to run the whole time and see what happens weather-wise. So what looked like mere lethargy in Austin - no one wanting to make a decision - was in fact strategy. In a way it's admirable as it gives the best chance of things running on the scheduled day. But there is a problem with this, for those who pay to turn up and watch. They not only have to brave extreme weather to get to the track (and as someone on Twitter pointed out it was on a day that the Government was advising people not to travel) but also have to sit in that same weather for hours in what is no doubt an unpleasant experience, with the very real potential of seeing nothing at the end of it all. Add too that this time they may have been locked outside the circuit for hours in the morning. Add also that car parks and the like were churned up. Or flooded. Or both. I dare say many of them would have appreciated an earlier decision to give up and try again on Sunday; one either first thing today or even yesterday that would have saved them all the bother.

Once again it was the paying punters that missed out#
Photo: Octane Photography
This is not mere benefiting from hindsight. Many on Friday spoke of this course of action that we ended up with anyway and from the point that alarms went off this morning in Austin it was clear the weather was extreme and set in (as forecast). It looked rather like a no brainer to many of the rest of us, but F1 insisted on ploughing on.

It rather underlines that F1 thinks almost exclusively in terms as a TV sport wherein things run as close to schedule as possible and not thinking much about those who actually turn up. It's not a surprise of course, but it doesn't make it right. And we saw the conspicuous downside of it today.

Perhaps I'm suffering from defective memory (or perhaps, without wishing to indulge in racial stereotypes, it reflects the politeness of the Japanese) but I don't recall much fallout from the goings-on in Suzuka in 2004. Most of the reaction was that it was one of those things. Perhaps even something to have a chuckle about. It didn't strike as something to avoid at all costs in future, including rather trampling on those who pay to attend in person.

And what we ended up with this time in Austin was rather farcical with matters being stretched out almost obsessively even though it was clear that the weather wasn't going anywhere. As my brother noted it was redolent of Homer Simpson chasing his precious runaway suckling pig (see below), insisting "it's just a little airborne, it's still good...". What we needed was someone to play Bart Simpson and point out "it's gone".

In that way of things in the meantime there was assorted tomfoolery in the pits as drivers and mechanics to their credit did what they could to entertain the dusting of fans hanging on in the main stand opposite. But once again Hunt cut to the chase.
Fortunately tomorrow's forecasts look more encouraging for a qualifying session to indeed take place in the morning with the race run as scheduled - as has happened in the afore-mentioned Japan round in 2004 as well as that in 2010, and partially in Australia two years ago. Some suggest that the weather might not be better for a morning quali session but should at least fine up for the afternoon so it appears a race roughly as scheduled will happen at least. As noted we have a grid for that scenario too with the FP3 order that can be fallen back upon (perhaps summing up the season in some way, Lewis Hamilton still gets pole in that scenario). The only problem was that first thing on Saturday this looked by far the most sensible course of action. As indeed it did on Friday. There's no easy solutions in extreme situations such as this but the feeling lingers that the least worst one was wilfully shunned here.

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