Grumblings around the F1 paddock and fan circles continue over the "boring" nature of the 2010 Formula 1 season, but if you look at the numbers, the 2010 F1 season is shaping up to be the most exciting in decades.
The Most Exciting Season In 20 Years...
Already this year there are no fewer than 7 drivers within 10 points of the lead in the Driver's Championship, and five manufacturers are in the running for the Constructor's Championship.
Perhaps even more telling: this year is the first since 1990 that the first three races have been won by three different drivers from three different manufacturers. The last time it happened, Ayrton Senna won the U.S. Grand Prix for McLaren-Honda, Alain Prost won the Brazil GP for Ferrari and Riccardo Patrese won the San Marino GP for Williams-Renault. The level of competition and parity between drivers and manufacturers is again at a level when some of the greatest racing in F1's history happened.
Out of boredom, a legendary year? It seems impossible given the sleepy start to the season at Bahrain, but the 2010 season may yet prove to be one of the most hotly contested, exciting seasons of F1 in recent history--on track and off. On the other hand, this statistical review may be missing some of the bigger picture: the atmosphere of the races themselves. Rain takes most of the credit for the helter-skelter grids and races at Australia and Malaysia, and the refueling ban still threatens to turn the upcoming races into processionals.
Formula 1 has pushed itself so far into the stratosphere of megabucks racing that the average fan can't afford to attend. Those that can tend to sit quietly in the stands, hesitant to leap to their feet and cheer for fear of spilling Dom Perignon on their custom-tailored suits. Or at least that's the public perception. At some of the more remote races, the stands sit largely vacant. Even at the fervently attended races in Spain, Italy and the U.K., there's little to draw the home viewer into the trackside experience, which leads us to problem number two.
Another hindrance to enjoying the race: the locked-down TV coverage. While we Americans enjoy SPEEDtv's color commentary and telestration, the shots themselves and all footage of the races are closely controlled by the FIA, meaning there's little variation or special focus that can be delivered to regional viewers to tailor the presentation to their tastes or desires. And the shots chosen by the FIA are often questionable in their relevance to racing entertainment. Closeups of the garage staff when nothing is happening on track? Missing the fight further back in the pack to watch the front-runners execute strategy 10 seconds apart? There's a lot left on the table when it comes to delivering exciting coverage even when the races themselves don't seem particularly exciting.
Worse yet, there's talk circulating the grid about the return of KERS next season. Rather than the voluntary, build-your-own format of the 2009 season, the new proposal will see a single manufacturer and mandatory use, taking the series further toward spec-car status. While that might seem to push things toward a more even field, letting the drivers dice things up on skill alone, many of F1's fans watch to see which manufacturer can make the most of the rules with their engineering, not to see yet another spec series with near-identical cars. Technology is a huge part of the heritage and enjoyment of F1, and as that wanes, so too does some interest in the sport.
The Remainder Of The Season...
As Eccelstone and the the teams continue to ponder tweaking the series' ruleset to improve overtaking (changes that will almost certainly have to wait until next year, like smaller front wings and removal of the double diffuser) we'll have to wait out the rest of this season with the fueling ban, the smaller front tires, and the two-compound tire rules. Ride height changes may yet be made mid-season to allow alterations to be made in parc ferme conditions between qualifying and the race, following the brouhaha about Red Bull's ride height and active suspension allegations after the Malaysian GP this past weekend.
All we can do is sit and wait, captives of the formula, and hope that conditions conspire to deliver exciting races despite the initially gloomy tone set in Bahrain. The next race will be in China in just under two weeks' time, pitting the top three teams and top seven drivers against each other to see if one can pull ahead before the midpoint of the season.
Who will be able to do it? Red Bull's Sebastian Vettel, who has shown early dominance despite reliability issues with the car? Fernando Alonso, finally racing for his beloved Ferrari team? Or Jenson Button, the reigning champion behind the wheel of the McLaren? Any of these, plus drivers like Massa, Kubica, Hamilton, Rosberg, and Webber have all been within striking distance already this year. We'll just have to wait and see--at this point, it's anybody's game.