Early March rivals October as my favourite time of the motor sport year. October is great because for me there is nothing like watching Formula Ford from Paddock Hill Bend at Brands Hatch sipping a mug of coffee as dusk closes in. All the championships are playing out and the winners and losers of the year are becoming known.
On the other hand March is the start of the new season, everything seems fresh and exciting – motorsport cannot possible be boring.
Want proof? The Albert Park circuit has produced some seriously awful F1 races, yet has never once been criticised for it the way the Hungaroring or Magny Cours have. Because Albert Park is the traditional curtain raiser, everyone puts the usually boring race down to the teams and drivers finding their feet.
But last year’s Australian Grand Prix was one of the most significant races of the year: it kick-started ‘spygate’ and heralded the arrival of Lewis Hamilton. But aside from Hamilton’s move on the first lap and David Coulthard doing his best to decapitate Alexander Wurz, not a huge amount happened.
A popular race
Maybe I’m being a bit miserable – Albert Park has a lot going for it. It’s superbly organised event (just look how many support races there are) and provides a hassle-free venue with which to start the season.
Likewise, as with Jacarepagua in the 1980s, it provides a very different challenge for contemporary F1 cars in comparison to other circuits on the calendar. While the race is often dull, the end result rarely is (BMW had their best qualifying result of last year here), and for some teams points at Albert Park can guarantee their survival for the following year (Minardi in 2002).
Action aside, the season-opening race in any championship is always the strangest – it is certainly the most over-analysed. Beforehand everyone is busy assessing the runners and riders in minute detail, everything from Kimi Raikkonen’s favourite CD through to Lewis Hamilton’s preferred curry is considered as a vital element for understanding the season ahead.
Likewise post race, every single moment of importance, half-incident and coincidence is viewed as a portent for the season ahead. By the time we get to the mid-season runs of 3 races in 4 weekends, all this goes out of the window, as everyone, couch potatoes included jump from race to race with no time to catch breath.
Like exit-polls in elections the opening race of the year can be false indicators – but usually aren’t. Last year’s Moto GP opener saw Casey Stoner edge out Valentino Rossi the Australian riding what appeared to be a quicker machine and using his tactical nous to ensure he remained in front. The rest of the Moto GP season, by and large, followed this pattern.
Whatever happens the season-opener is a must-watch event, and the 4.30am (UK) start time gives the occasion that extra something (although it rarely agrees with my regulation Sunday morning hangover).
There is no early lunchtime crash into the sofa scenario here, you’re up before the birds, and texting your mates before sunrise. It may be uncomfortable, but it feels like you’re witnessing something important.
I’ll be setting my alarm and I hope you will too.
Don’t forget F1 Fanatic will have a special live comments thread open for qualifying and the race. Keep an eye out for F1 Comments Live open half an hour before the start of each session.