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Australian Grand Prix 2008

19th March 2008

The power of the press

Imagine a scenario. You’re a relatively successful professional racing driver embarking on your rookie season in the piranha pool that is modern day Formula 1. You’re super-fit, super-focused, and super-ready for all the demands of your first weekend in the spotlight.

Near the top of your list of boxes to tick should be media-savviness – well, you’d think so, wouldn’t ya? Not, it transpires, if your name is Nelson Piquet Junior.

In twenty years of shooting grands prix I’ve rarely witnessed such an appalling all-round debut race weekend as that which the young Brazilian has just engineered for himself.

It kicked off with a Radio Five Live interview; not a challenging gig, since the interlocutor is the perpetually smiling David Croft. “So, Nelson, a new season and all to play for,” enquired Crofty enthusiastically. “Who do you consider to be your main rivals?”

With a disdainful shrug of the shoulder came the blunt reply: “All of them.” Having grudgingly lurched into motion, the interview proceeded in a similar vein. As you can imagine, by the time he returned to the media centre David was more than a little disappointed with Piquet’s lack of ambassadorial nous.

As the English press digested the report of this curious non-interview we were joined by one of Brazil’s top journalists – who, upon hearing the news, told us of a similar recent experience. Before the interview even started Piquet had been asked how he’d like to be addressed: Nelson Piquet Junior; Nelsinho; or Nelson Piquet. A curt “call me what you like” was the answer.

What never ceases to amaze me and my colleagues, many of whom have years more experience than me, is the arrogance that is so evident in many of the young drivers new to the sport. F1 does not exist solely to provide them with an opportunity to drive cars quickly. It’s a business; it is the stage and they are supposed to be the showmen whom the audience pay to watch. They are, in effect, employees. They’re paid to sell cars – and watches, mobile phone contracts, hotels, televisions, carbonated energy drinks, computers, you name it.

There are at least two British racers in F1 this year who – because they’ve grasped this fundamental truth and acted accordingly – arguably have had longer careers in the top-flight than perhaps their results would warrant. It’s surely not rocket science to be polite and cooperative with the very people who are there, for the most part, to make you look good and to keep the paying public topped up with enthusiasm for the sport. Lewis Hamilton manages it with aplomb.

As for Renault’s rookie, after the wretched weekend he’s had (both on and off the track), he’s got some bridges to build.

What a great race MIIAAAATE!

Wow, what a way to start a season: blistering heat, good-looking cars, a fantastic circuit set in a top city, and a race full of incident won in dominating style by the new superstar of world sport.

That Lewis bagged his first win of many this year came as no surprise. What did amaze, however, was just how nervous and harder to drive the cars appeared to be in race conditions. Gone are the days of foot-to-the-floor, let-traction-control-sort-it-out cornering; the cars are palpably harder to master and far less forgiving of any lack of finesse.

Any session spent at one of Albert Park’s corners amply illustrated what a fantastic idea of the FIA’s it was to employ McLaren Electronic Systems and their technical wizard Peter van Manen to produce the Standard Electronic Control Unit. Of course, while a number of drivers seemed out-of-sorts with their new rides, step forward Mr Raikkonen, most showed time and again what lightning car control reactions are all about.

I’m sure everyone else is, like me, looking forward to a year of great racing – and a sight fewer legal shenanigans than last season.

Please now take a few minutes to enjoy my pictures from the 2008 Australian Grand Prix by clicking on the ‘Formula One’ link at the top of the page.

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