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More than a rain shower needed for Formula One


In the space of just two races, Formula One has veered from one extreme to another - from total boredom in Bahrain to a near-overdose of thrills and spills in Australia.

The ideal ground for this sport lies somewhere in the middle, and the racing spectacle shouldn't be so reliant on the weather.

Rain, as F1 fans have long known, can improve the show. On Sunday, raindrops conveniently doused Melbourne's Albert Park circuit shortly before the race start. Viewers in front of their televisions around the world must have been celebrating.

The ensuing crashes, absorbing racing and dashing overtaking moves were just the tonic needed to revive interest in F1 after the dust-dry, season-opening downer in the desert of Bahrain.

In this second grand prix of the season, Jenson Button showed that he can win even when he doesn't have the luxury he had last year of driving the fastest car. On Sunday, the Briton was the first driver to pit for dry-weather tyres when the rain had eased but when parts of the track were still damp. It was risky and brave and paid off handsomely with a second consecutive Melbourne victory for the defending world champion.

His McLaren teammate Lewis Hamilton could do with a dose of Button's cool. As quick as he again proved, clambering to sixth from his disappointing 11th place in qualifying, Hamilton again proved in Melbourne that he is still far from being a well-rounded professional. Last year, he lied to race officials. This year, eager Australian police confiscated Hamilton's road car after he burned rubber on a street near the circuit. A racing car driver should know better.

During Sunday's race, Hamilton admonished his pit crew for bringing him in for a tyre change. He was right to be angry, because the unnecessary stop almost certainly cost him a better finish.

Button didn't need his team to tell him what to do. It's been clear since his first grand prix win in Hungary in 2006, which also started in rain and finished in near-sunshine, that he can cope with mixed conditions. His smooth driving style also meant in Melbourne that he was able to make his tyres last through to the chequered flag.

Based on the torrential downpour that curtailed the race last year, adverse weather could make things interesting at the Malaysian Grand Prix next weekend, too, but F1 can't conjure up rain at every race - not unless it takes a leaf out of the Chinese government's book and sets up its own Weather Modification Office to try to produce precipitation on demand or, just as outlandishly, installs water sprinklers at race tracks to make the tarmac excitingly slick.

Melbourne was a mirage, because races as watchable as that are still too few and far between. The spectacle at Albert Park is helped by the fact that the first turns often produce crashes, that there are places to overtake and that the track is lined in sections by walls that punish drivers who aren't careful.

Fans must brace themselves for other races, perhaps many other races, later in the season that will be as deathly dull as Bahrain's, especially if there are no deluges to spice things up.

The underlying problem with F1 remains that it is still too difficult under normal circumstances for drivers to pass each other. That is mostly because of the way F1 cars are designed with such a heavy emphasis on aerodynamics - and that is the problem F1 teams and administrators must sit down together to solve.

F1 cars are "so efficient that it's difficult for even a fantastic driver to overtake another slow car," Ferrari team boss Stefano Domenicali says. "That's the point that we need to attack, all together, to make sure that we are able to solve it." 

Once solved, F1 won't need to pray so hard for rain.

Even in Melbourne, where there were passing moves galore, the overtaking difficulties were clear. After his second pit stop, with newer tyres, Hamilton was more than a second faster than the Ferrari pair of Felipe Massa and Fernando Alonso, who had older tyres with less grip because they pitted just once, but even with that big speed advantage, Hamilton was unable to pass them. That problem, in other races, is a surefire recipe for more Bahrain-like processions.

-John Leicester is an international sports columnist for The Associated Press-


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