Op-Ed: Judging by the BBC, trouble’s brewing all over F1

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Here is a sampling of Formula 1 headlines at the BBC today:

Hamilton makes peace with McLaren (this is on a main page, a slightly different headline is on the story)

Sebastian Vettel admits worries over car reliability

Fernando Alonso faces test threatening Ferrari harmony

Michael Schumacher insists he can still do well in F1

I had navigated over to the BBC to see what was going on, and my reaction after skimming these headlines was: “One of the top teams is going to blow up soon.”

The headlines all link to stories with which we’re familiar now. Lewis Hamilton’s junky weekend in Australia (is it now officially the story everyone is sick of talking about but still can’t quite get enough of?). How Red Bull would be off to a dominant start if Sebastian Vettel’s car could only go a full race without breaking down. That Fernando Alonso and Felipe Massa have exchanged passes and better finishes, although it seems Alonso’s the faster of the two and was help up in Australia. Finally, Michael Schumacher’s woes and the fact that he’s been almost completely out-driven by his younger teammate, Nico Rosberg.

These stories have been the ongoing thread of the 2010 season. As I said, there’s nothing especially new today, now just hours before practice begins for the Malaysian GP.

But collectively, seeing them all on one page, they struck me. Already, after two races into the season, there are some serious tensions at all four top teams.

I say that because, if the media are covering it and starting to write opinion pieces about it, trust me, it’s worse than they are reporting. The reporters are getting just peeks and hints, and are smelling something brewing. When that happens, the vast majority of the time, the brewing is near complete, the peeks are showing only a small part of the whole story.

I’ve seen this — and this isn’t a complete list — plenty of times in political campaigns, within governments large and small, at sport teams and within private companies. By the time reporters (and other watchers) start to see the cracks, the fissures are big. The hint that someone is getting booted out of a campaign quickly is followed by that person exiting. The sign that a government is about to shuffle players comes soon before the players move around or out. Managers and coaches are fired when there is a suggestion it might happen.

It’s pretty rare for reporters to be way out ahead, to be calling the next step in the story way before it happens. They usually are right on the tail, but always a significant tad behind.

Now, this isn’t a universal truth, by any stretch. Sometimes — OK, plenty of the time, no need for the snarky comment! — reporters and others get it wrong. Sometimes they put a few too many pieces together that don’t, in the end, fit.

But generally, they get it right, especially these types of “process” stories and especially when they are there following them day in and day out. And Formula 1 certainly seems like a chummy, tight-knit community, including the journalists who cover it. (David Hobbs talked about that a bit on the latest Downshift, if you haven’t listened in yet.) So they might be that much closer to their sources than other reporters. But, are they? Is the F1 media scrum really more enclosed than, say, the Washington, D.C. press corps? Or than the reporters who cover the NFL, Premier League football or Olympic curling?

I doubt it. Could be, but, I doubt it.

And that means that if we, as fans, are getting hints that Lewis Hamilton is frustrated about his season thus far, he’s really frustrated. If Sebastian Vettel is said to be concerned about Red Bull’s reliability, it means he’s stated that concern to Christian Horner or Adrian Newey in no uncertain terms.

And at some point, the doubts we are reading about Michael Schumacher are going to be reflecting even more serious doubts within Mercedes and within Schumacher, himself. (And, really, what I’m suggesting is… those doubts are already springing up.)

Now, of course, all this can change direction quickly. A win has a way of calming people down, right? If Vettel can claim pole and victory at Sepang, or if Schumacher can use his wiles to charge through a wet race and claim the top step, we’ll be getting different stories come Sunday afternoon.

But right now, it feels like a lot is brewing.

Which I guess we all like to call “business as usual” in F1?


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