Motor racing: F1 opener puts overtaking in the spotlight
By Alan Baldwin
LONDON (Reuters) - Formula One entered a bold new era in Sunday's Australian season-opener with bigger tyres, faster cars and a winning Ferrari but the lack of overtaking is causing concern.
"What overtaking?," said Brazilian veteran Felipe Massa when the Williams driver was asked how difficult it had been to get past rivals.
Melbourne's Albert Park has never ranked high on the list of circuits with the most overtaking manoeuvres but fans saw hardly any after the opening lap.
Force India's Sergio Perez took both Toro Rossos while team mate Esteban Ocon was in a three-car battle that saw him and Renault's Nico Hulkenberg sweep past Fernando Alonso's McLaren.
But they were rare highlights of a race without crashes or a safety car.
"It was hard to follow and drive close behind others," complained Red Bull's Max Verstappen, who has built up a reputation as one of the sport's most exciting overtakers.
The problem came as no surprise to the likes of triple champion Lewis Hamilton, who had flagged up in testing that the new aerodynamic regulations had a downside and could lead to processional racing.
The cars are creating far more downforce, taking some corners flat out and throwing out more turbulent air that makes it harder for followers to get close.
"Even in the years before it’s been difficult to follow once you get within one and a half, or one second, just because of the turbulent air which messes up the aerodynamics of the car and that way we don’t have that much grip," explained Mercedes's Valtteri Bottas.
"Now, as more of the grip from the car is relying on the aero, it’s a bigger effect.
"And the cars are wider so I think there’s more turbulent air so now it’s more like two seconds or even two and a half because you actually feel quite a big effect from the car in front and that way in the corners it’s more difficult to follow."
The next race is on April 9 in Shanghai, a circuit that last year saw more overtaking than any other with 128 passes. Hamilton alone made 18 of them -- more than the entire 20 driver grid produced in Melbourne.
If there are far fewer cars overtaking there, then Formula One has a problem.
"It’s always generally been tough to follow... I hope that doesn’t mean for the rest of the year that it’s more of a train," Hamilton said on Sunday.
"I don’t know if it was exciting for you guys to watch, but for me personally I want to be closer up with the cars and (doing) more close wheel-to-wheel battling.
"It’s really through strategy and pitstops that we are racing right now."
(Reporting by Alan Baldwin, Editing by Ken Ferris)