LONDON (Reuters) - Sunday’s season-opening Australian Grand Prix showed that Formula One has lost none of its ability to shoot itself in the foot -- and to detect silver linings in the darkest of clouds.
Just 15 cars lined up on the grid after a week of negative headlines that portrayed the glamour sport in a far from flattering light, with only 13 after the first lap and 11 at the finish.
Struggling Sauber were dragged through the courts to address why they had contracts with three drivers to race two cars, a case that triggered speculation about possible arrests and seizure of equipment.
Manor Marussia’s feelgood story about a team beating the odds to survive turned into a tale of one that failed to turn a wheel on track.
McLaren -- the second most successful team in the sport’s history -- began their new Honda partnership by qualifying last, finishing last and expressing relief that Jenson Button had even made it to the checkered flag.
By the time fans were heading out of Albert Park, after a processional Mercedes one-two, Red Bull consultant Helmut Marko was discussing the possibility of billionaire owner Dietrich Mateschitz falling out of love with the sport and leaving.
“I feel a bit for the fans,” commented Red Bull’s Australian driver Daniel Ricciardo. “It was a boring race. It was frustrating.”
If Melbourne was not the start that Formula One wanted, with Mercedes seemingly crushing all hope of rivals closing the performance gap, it was also not as bad as the Cassandras were claiming.
“I think we could have had much nicer headlines,” the sport’s commercial supremo Bernie Ecclestone told Reuters on Monday.
”Nobody has mentioned the fact that, thank God, Ferrari seems to have gone forward, which is good.
“Sauber after all their problems got more points than in all of last year, which is a positive. There are some positive things but unfortunately a lot more negative. But the negative things really are not Formula One’s problem.”
That remains a moot point, with smaller teams struggling to survive and demanding a more level playing field with cost cuts and more of the revenues.
Sunday’s outcome may have convinced some that the season was already a two-horse race, depending on Nico Rosberg taking the fight to double world champion team mate Lewis Hamilton, but there were glimmers to suggest Mercedes might not have it all their own way.
Australia, with an emphasis on fuel-saving in the V6 turbo hybrid era, cannot be held up as truly representative of the season as a whole.
McLaren, who have not won a race since 2012, would have gone away from last year’s opener with their hopes up after taking second and third places.
It turned out to be the high point of their year.
Hamilton, winner on Sunday, failed to score a point in Melbourne in 2014 but went on to take his second title with 11 wins in total.
“Australia is quite a unique circuit and we often see some odd results here,” agreed Williams engineering head Pat Symonds after his Brazilian driver Felipe Massa started third and finished fourth.
“Now...you’ve got Mercedes and you’ve got ourselves and Ferrari and then the rest. I don’t think that will change, but the small gaps might be quite different circuit to circuit.”
Rivals will be hoping that the coming races in Malaysia, China and Bahrain will give them more cause for optimism -- however unlikely that looks at the moment.
“I am a bit concerned that Lewis will win by Monza,” commented Ecclestone, whose widely-disliked double points for the final race novelty kept last season alive right to the finish but has not been continued.
“I think Mercedes are going to take a lot of beating.”
Editing by Ed Osmond