Formula One heads to its second race of the season this weekend in Malaysia with the reigning champion team threatening to withdraw from the sport, the result of the first race still under protest, and race promoters in revolt over the sound of the cars.
The off-track strife has obscured the sporting promise provided by the season opener in Australia.
The race in Melbourne defied those naysayers worried about the reliability of the new V6 turbo engines by having 15 finishers and a welcome shake-up to the sport’s pecking order; Sebastian Vettel out of the race early, Mercedes winning but with lingering engine concerns, and McLaren and even Williams back in the fight.
However the sport’s apparent eagerness to attach a cloud to every silver lining was on show again immediately after the checkered flag fell at Albert Park.
Second-place finisher Daniel Ricciardo was disqualified from his home race for exceeding the new limits on fuel flow, and his Red Bull team immediately appealed, blaming the problem on a malfunction of the FIA-approved sensor fitted to each car. The appeal will be held on April 14, after the third race in Bahrain.
Red Bull team owner Dietrich Mateschitz raised the stakes further by saying such disputes will be of more importance than money when it comes to deciding whether the energy drink maker stays in the sport beyond the short term.
“The question is not so much whether it makes economic sense but the reasons would be to do with sportsmanship, political influence, and so on,” Mateschitz said in an interview with Austrian newspaper Kurier.
“In these issues there is a clear limit to what we can accept.”
The other political spat emerging out of the first race was over the sound, or lack of sound, made by the new engines. Compared to the high-pitched roar of the old V8 engines, the new powertrains produced a muted purr.
The outgoing chief of the Australian Grand Prix, Ron Walker, even threatened to sue for breach of contract and said the engine sound will be a major talking point at a scheduled meeting of grand prix promoters next month. Walker is a strong ally of F1’s commercial chief Bernie Ecclestone, who has always opposed the cleaner, greener engines and has used the issue as a wedge in his ongoing wrestle with the FIA for control of the sport.
With F1’s political heavyweights preoccupied by looming fights in courtrooms and boardrooms, the sport’s fans will be more concerned with the on-track battle which resumes at Sepang, outside Kuala Lumpur, this weekend.
Mercedes is again the favorite, with Nico Rosberg having won comfortably in Australia. His fastest lap of the race was with a relatively heavy fuel load in the early stages, indicating he had plenty of speed in reserve had he needed it.
Fellow Mercedes-powered team Williams looks the major threat on the race pace it showed in Melbourne, which was obscured by Felipe Massa being taken out at the first corner and Valtteri Bottas losing a wheel when he clipped a wall, costing him the likely podium finish.
McLaren, which had its worst season in decades in 2013, is the surprise constructors’ championship leader after rookie Kevin Magnussen and Jenson Button were promoted to second and third respectively by Ricciardo’s disqualification. But the team’s trackside chief Eric Boullier acknowledged that was flattering.
“It’s true that Mercedes and Williams have some pace, maybe between half and three quarters of a second quicker than the rest of the field,” Boullier said.
Ferrari had a mediocre performance in Melbourne and technical director James Allison agreed that “we have our work cut out to improve our car in order to compete on equal terms with the Mercedes team.”
Mercedes technical principal Paddy Lowe hinted that the team’s advantage could be even more pronounced in Malaysia.
“Sepang is a permanent race track which is generally a lot more differentiating of the cars; particularly with regard to aerodynamics,” Lowe said.
“As always, reliability and endurance will be crucial, but we believe this venue will provide a more accurate representation of the relative pace between teams.”
There will be a somber note to the race in Sepang, as it is a short distance from Kuala Lumpur’s airport, from where the ill-fated Malaysian Airlines plane this month took off on a flight which authorities now say resulted in it crashing into the ocean, killing all on board