If there’s one thing we are well used to at Scuderia Toro Rosso it is starting a new season with two “almost rookie” drivers and a new engine supplier. 2018 is no different, except that at least our driver line-up managed a handful of races with us at the end of 2017 and Honda is an engine partner, not just a supplier and so we feel we are operating very much as one team.
While much of the media made a huge fuss about the way winter testing went for us, we were very much aware that testing is testing and that life could be different once the racing began. And so it turned out, as we did not qualify very well and lost one car after 15 laps of the race with a Power Unit issue. Joining forces with Honda has impacted on us in several ways; taking courses in Japanese life at the factory, getting to eat sushi at lunchtime at the track and…travelling to Melbourne via a visit to Honda’s head office in Tokyo. If we were in any doubt about how passionate the Japanese fans can be, that soon changed after our trip. We’re already looking forward to our next visit. Here in Melbourne, grand prix fever hits you the moment you step into the Arrivals Hall at the Tullamarine International Airport, with local TV crews on hand to grab a quick soundbite from the drivers.
If there’s one thing the whole of Australia is mad about it’s Aussie Rules Football and for the past couple of years, the start of its season has coincided with the start of ours. Some of the Australian media think this is inconvenient but usually the F1 and footie teams combine to promote both our sports. On Thursday evening, Pierre Gasly attended an AFL game, the opening match of the season, between Richmond and Carlton. This is more than just a game as it’s a Melbourne derby match, both teams being based in the city. The game took place in the legendary and huge MCG (Melbourne Cricket Ground) which is Richmond’s home ground. It is one of the most iconic sports stadiums in the world and no fewer than 90,000 fans turned up to watch! Pierre was taken behind the scenes to meet the players in the locker room. In return, we invited three of their players to the Albert Park track and showed them round our garage and gave them a tour of the paddock, which they seemed to enjoy a lot.
It’s fair to say that ever since it was held in Adelaide, starting in 1986, the Australian Grand Prix has always understood the concept of giving the fans great value for money, with non-stop action both on and off the track. Therefore, a lot of the new initiatives put in place for the fans by the sport’s new owners were hard to spot as there is just so much going on every day in Albert Park. Indeed, it’s unlikely that anyone would now suggest running a noisy 2-seater F1 car at 07h30 each morning, but that’s been the wake-up call for everyone staying in the vicinity of Albert Park for several years now. Fitted with old-skool F1 engines, not the current quieter hybrids, you could hear the wonderful sound several miles away.
There’s been talk of different camera angles and exciting new on-board material to give viewers a better idea of what it’s like to sit in the cockpit of a Formula 1 car, but all this new technology is going to have to be very good to match the pre-race build up in Melbourne, which featured the most thrilling on-board ever…from the cockpit of one of the jets used by the Royal Australian Airforce Roulettes display team, as they blasted past the grandstands.
Another pre-race novelty, seen for the first time this weekend was the arrival of the FIA F1 Future Stars to replace the grid girls and stand with the drivers at the front of the grid, while the national anthem is played. The “Grid Kids”, which is what they will always be called, were chosen from Australia’s pool of junior karters and they all seemed to enjoy the experience massively. Brendon and Pierre made sure they high-fived them all and made them feel relaxed about what must have been one of the highlights of their young lives.
As to the track action, the prediction following winter testing, that the mid-field will be more closely contested than ever this year, was proved to be correct. The result in Melbourne matched some pre-season predictions and confounded others. It’s going to take a few more races for a clearer picture to emerge, starting with our trip to sandy scenery of Sakhir and the Bahrain Grand Prix.