Q+A with Michael Oliver

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Second in Daniel Hewitt's interviews is Michael Oliver. Michael is a motor sports writer and historian on past Formula One seasons from the 1960s, ‘70s and ‘80s. Drawing on his extensive knowledge and experience in F1 over several decades, Michael Oliver provides his response to the questions that were posed to him in this interview.

The new Formula One season is about to kick start in Melbourne very soon. What are your expectations for the first race? Michael Oliver: The first race of the season is probably the one I look forward to most, as it often seems to be the most unpredictable and therefore provides the opportunity for a rare bit of excitement! However, my expectations are that one of the best-funded teams will end up winning, as by definition they tend to be the best prepared for the new season.

Formula One has been hard-hit by the recession. Many sponsors have pulled out their funding, including ING with Renault at the end of this year, or are reducing sponsorship; Super Aguri ceased operations earlier last season when they failed to secure further investment, then Honda pulled out. How do you view the future of the sport?
I think the amount of money spent by Formula 1 teams nowadays is obscene and the conspicuous wealth which is displayed very publicly at every race is totally at odds with how the 'real world' lives. The sport has got to 'cut its cloth' more appropriately and find ways of providing exciting, close racing which still provides manufacturers and sponsors with a reason to get involved - and that certainly doesn't involve a 'spec' engine! I also think F1 needs to get more relevant to the man in the street in terms of developing technologies which will find their way onto road cars in the near future, particularly in the area of environmentally-friendly technology, whether it is fuel, solar panels or KERS - which is a small but interesting step.

Ross Brawn now has his very own Formula One team, Brawn GP. They’ve produced some promising results during testing. What are your expectations for the new team and do you believe they will have a ‘race winning’ car this season?
That is hard to say. A cynic who has been around a few years might say that testing 'form' displayed by a team not normally familiar with the top of the timesheets is rarely carried over into the actual season. As the saying goes 'When the flag drops, the bullshit stops', so we will soon find out... Having said that, Ross Brawn is an extremely talented and experienced engineer and with his career record at Jaguar, Benetton, Ferrari etc you would expect him to put together a good design, so we might be in for a surprise.

Sebastian Vettel made a big impression in 2008. Timo Glock also provided some promising performances. But who do you think will be 2009’s ‘most improved’ driver?
I'd like to see Bourdais put together a strong season - as he is clearly a very talented, hard-charging racer and I think he had more than his fair share of bad luck last season. I'd like to say Jenson Button, as I think he still has a lot of talent, it just must have been very de-motivating driving such a poor car season after season and I think he appears to have made some poor choices with some of his career moves and contract negotiations. If he can start to string together some good results, I think the boost it will provide to his confidence will see him perform at a level that we've not seen since his debut year with Williams.

What do you believe will be the most visibly evident and/or exciting change in the regulations for 2009?
That the cars look butt-ugly! But if it improves the racing and gives us more overtaking and excitement I guess horrible, misshapen out-of-proportion cars will be worth it...

Many believe that Bernie Ecclestone is misusing his power and having too much influence over the regulations in Formula One? Should the teams run the sport and not have a dictator?
I think this whole business of 'most wins takes Championship' [for the 2010 season] is ridiculous - why has Bernie suddenly come up with this one? The points system has served the World Championship very well since 1950 so why change it now? A Championship is about reliability and consistency throughout a series of races. Lewis Hamilton won the championship last year because he and his team made fewer mistakes than Massa and Ferrari and being a Champion is as much about not making mistakes as it is about winning races.

The BBC has now secured UK coverage of Formula One in a five-year deal – including TV, radio and online streaming rights. What benefits do you believe this will bring to the sport as a whole and for the viewers/fans?
I'd like to have more control over what I watch in a GP but I don't want to pay a premium price to do that. So if they are able to provide more viewing choices via the net or the red button I'm all for it.

Which Grand Prix/s do you most like writing about and why?
Old ones in the period 1965-85, because that is when I went to a lot of races in the UK and Europe. One tends to be nostalgic about 'halcyon days' but I do believe the sport was purer and less tainted by commercialism then and better for it. If I could time travel, I would go back to a lot of those races I went to and pay more attention to them and enjoy them more - with many of the races in the 60s and early 70s I was just a kid and could not understand the significance of what I was witnessing at the time.

Talk us through a day in the life of a motor racing journalist...
I usually get up around 7.30 to help get my kids off to school, then sit down at my computer any time between 8.30 and 9.00 to check my emails and peruse a few of my favourite websites. Depending on what I am working on, I would then either start writing, researching or interviewing. As a slightly overweight 40-something ex-professional cyclist, I try to go out for a ride every day so would clock off around 12-ish and ride for an hour. I then have some lunch and go back to work 2-2.30-ish. Around 5.30-6.00 I stop work and would cook or help to prepare dinner. I work best in the late afternoon and evening so, after dinner, I often go back to my PC to write or research, particularly if I am working on something which requires calls to North America. I'm usually tucked up in bed by 11, although if I have a deadline I have been known to work on til the early hours. I used to be able to work through the night but I rarely do that nowadays - getting too old for that sort of thing!

Who would you most like to see crowned as the 2009 Formula One World Champion? Why?
Robert Kubica, because he is a dedicated driver who clearly has a lot of talent but he is not arrogant or showy with it.

And finally, a few words on Ken Anderson and Peter Windsor and their planned F1 team...
I wish them the best of luck. Recent history suggests that they are going to find it very difficult to make an impression unless they have the backing of a major manufacturer. Personally, I would be very surprised if they ever made it to the grid but would be delighted to be proven wrong.

Interview by Daniel Hewitt