F1: Round 1 – Melbourne, Australia – Qualifying

A qualifying session the likes of which we’ve rarely seen in F1 saw a rookie team lock out the front row, while McLaren confirmed their dismal pre-season testing form by ending up in the back end of no where with 14th for Heikki Kovalainen and 15th for world champion Lewis Hamilton.

Hamilton only just squeezed into the second qualifying session by less than 0.05s ahead of rookie driver Sebastien Buemi. The McLaren looked balanced enough and the drivers were hitting all the apexes, but the car simply didn’t have the pace necessary to get any further ahead. And then to add insult to Hamilton’s day, the drivetrain failed on the car (a gearbox failure is feared) meaning he wasn’t able to run at all in the second session.

It was impossible to know who would end up ahead and who would falter in a wildly unpredictable session – all previous form books were well and truly out of the window. Ferrari were at best mediocre, both getting through to the final session but Felipe Massa managing to finish no better than 7th on the grid and Kimi Raikkonen 9th.

BMW’s Robert Kubica did well to finish ahead of the much fancied Nico Rosburg who had dominated Friday practice sessions, but his team mate Nick Heidfeld failed to get into the final qualifying session. Williams had a similar split showing, Rosburg’s fourth contrasting with Kazuki Nakajima, who could not replicate his strong practice form when it counted and who ended up 13th. And Renault saw Fernando Alonso slide off the grass on the penultimate corner of his final run in Q2 and end up failing to get into the final session, but at least fared much better than his team mate Nelson Piquet who ended up 17th. Both Force Indias dropped out in Q1.

Both Toyotas finished in the top 10, but lower down than expected given the boost they get from the controversial rear diffuser. And Red Bull looked on track to have a good day, with Sebastien Vettel a hugely impressive 3rd place but his team mate Mark Webber ending up the slowest of the final qualifying session runners.

However, all the attention has to go to Brawn GP who absolutely ruled the qualifying session, always looking the team to beat and then in the final session delivering on their promise in spades. With Brawn officially classed as a new team, this makes today’s result the first time a new entrant has taken pole for its debut since the factory Mercedes-Benz team in the 1954 French GP.

It’s a brilliant achievement for a team that, just a few weeks ago, looked dead and buried. And for Jenson Button, who beat out Rubens Barrichello for the pole: both drivers had been facing the end of their F1 careers, only to know find themselves at potentially the start of their best-ever season in the sport and potentially even a title bid.

Qualifying times:

Pos  Driver      Team                      Q1        Q2        Q3     Laps
 1.  Button      Brawn-Mercedes        (B) 1:25.211  1:24.855  1:26.202 19
 2.  Barrichello Brawn-Mercedes        (B) 1:25.006  1:24.783  1:26.505 21
 3.  Vettel      Red Bull-Renault      (B) 1:25.938  1:25.121  1:26.830 21
 4.  Kubica      BMW-Sauber            (B) 1:25.922  1:25.152  1:26.914 19
 5.  Rosberg     Williams-Toyota       (B) 1:25.846  1:25.123  1:26.973 21
 6.  Glock       Toyota                (B) 1:25.499  1:25.281  1:26.975 19
 7.  Massa       Ferrari               (B) 1:25.844  1:25.319  1:27.033 21
 8.  Trulli      Toyota                (B) 1:26.194  1:25.265  1:27.127 20
 9.  Raikkonen   Ferrari               (B) 1:25.899  1:25.380  1:27.163 21
10.  Webber      Red Bull-Renault      (B) 1:25.427  1:25.241  1:27.246 20
11.  Heidfeld    BMW-Sauber            (B) 1:25.827  1:25.504           14
12.  Alonso      Renault               (B) 1:26.026  1:25.605           12
13.  Nakajima    Williams-Toyota       (B) 1:26.074  1:25.607           16
14.  Kovalainen  McLaren-Mercedes      (B) 1:26.184  1:25.726           15
15.  Hamilton    McLaren-Mercedes      (B) 1:26.454  no time             5
16.  Buemi       Toro Rosso-Ferrari    (B) 1:26.503                     10
17.  Piquet      Renault               (B) 1:26.598                     12
18.  Fisichella  Force India-Mercedes  (B) 1:26.677                     10
19.  Sutil       Force India-Mercedes  (B) 1:26.742                      9
20.  Bourdais    Toro Rosso-Ferrari    (B) 1:26.964                     10

BBC coverage

F1 looks very different this season, from the extremely unfamiliar qualifying line-up to the very odd new car styling under the new technical regulations – gone are all the curves and vents, while the new front wing looks absurdly big and the rear wing ridiculously small. What’s surprising is how quickly this odd new car becomes accepted and yo stop noticing its changed at all. And in a way, the same is true for the new-look TV coverage.

For UK viewers, there was another big change to F1 this weekend: a change of host broadcaster, as the BBC resumed coverage of the sport after a 12-year hiatus. The switch had been announced abruptly and dramatically mid-season 2008 with ITV apparently resigning from its contract, necessitating Bernie Ecclestone to do a rapid damage-limitation deal with the BBC to take over for 2009 in a five year deal.

ITV did a lot in the early days of its coverage to revolutionise the presentation of F1 in the UK: until the mid-90s, the BBC had essentially cut to the circuit in time for the race, shown the laps, and then cut away as soon as the chequered flag fell. ITV by contrast wrapped a whole lot of programming around it with proper build up and analysis to make it proper event TV, and the BBC were promising to use all their multimedia channels (from interactive TV to digital radio to their extensive Internet functionality) to deliver a similar step change to F1 upon its return to the BBC fold.

In truth, any such change wasn’t evident here this morning with qualifying in Australia. Maybe the BBC is keeping its powder dry until the European races before rolling out new features, reasoning that the majority of the UK audience will still be safely tucked up in bed for the Australian and Malaysian rounds. But the most surprising thing about the BBC coverage this morning was how much like “business as usual” it felt.

The basic format was kept the same, with a main presenter (former children’s presenter Jake Humphries doing an impressive word-perfect job, even though Steve Rider – if not Jim Rosenthal – will be missed from the ITV set-up) anchoring with the assistance of two F1 experts – now David Coulthard and Eddie Jordan, but really is didn’t feel all that different from having Mark Blundell filling the same function. They worked togetehr well from the start and had a natural rapport that made it feel as though they’d been doing this for years.

For the qualifying itself, they threw up to the commentary box team of Jonathan Legard and Martin Brundle. Legard had been Radio 5’s motorsport commentator for several years until deciding to switch to football coverage, but the temptation to move to the TV coverage of F1 was enough to pull him back. And Brundle of course was a key element of ITV’s team and the one element fans were sad about losing then the switch of broadcasters was announced, so the BBC have been canny in signing him up. In a sense he’s in the same position as Murray Walker in 1996 when the BBC lost the rights to F1 coverage and Murray looked as though he would be forced out of the sport he loved so much and was so completely identified: but ITV made him an offer he couldn’t refuse and he jumped channels, just as Brundle has not been tempted across the aisle.

The Legard/Bundle pairing is probably the bit of the coverage that needs the most work, with the rapport simply wasn’t there, and they would interrupt/talk over the other or leave awkward silences rather too often. It wasn’t that bad and many viewers wouldn’t even notice, but it made you realised how polished the old James Allen/Brundle act had been by the end. (Not that I’m missing James Allen at all, possibly the world’s most boring commentator and whose departure is for me the biggest positive thing to come out of the switch of coverage from ITV!) Still, this is a matter of fine tuning and getting used to each other, and in Legard they have someone who can convey excitement and enthusiasm – not quite perhaps to the heights of Murray Walker, but pretty up there.

Otherwise the F1 graphics were the same; the BBC featurettes were more polished and highly produced than the old ITV counterparts; but it all felt very much the same as it had been under the previous management. With one exception – the adverts.

Now, I hate adverts breaking into the race itself: they don’t dare break into a live football match for the ads, but ITV felt happy peppering every Grand Prix with breaks, invariably at the worst times. There was no way of those feeling natural and they always disrupted the coverage. But during the qualifying or race build-up, they helped punctuate the coverage and provide breather spots, and you came to know that you were only 10 minutes away for the start of the race when they cut to their main advert break. Without these bullet ppints int he BBC coverage, it just seemed to go on … and on … and not have a shape to it. Even during qualifying, there are breaks between the sessions (ostensibly for the teams to do set-up work but in reality for the broadcasters to go to commercial) where it just felt wrong not to have adverts.

Not to worry, it won’t take long for the adverts to be distant memories of a bygone age, just as we’ll quickly adapt to the new look cars, the bizarre running orders, and for Legard and Brundle to gel. Perhaps it’s a good thing to start off from a solid “business as usual” opening in Melbourne, just as long as the BBC has more exciting plans for the future.

And of course, coverage is nothing without an exciting championship and ation on track. And in this regard at least, the 2009 season looks set to deliver, surprise and confound.

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