F1 season uncorked

DEAN MCNULTY -- Sun Media

, Last Updated: 10:52 AM ET

It has been 58 years since Formula One held its first championship race at England's venerable Silverstone Circuit in 1950.

But as the world's richest motor racing series gets set to open its 59th season in Australia early Sunday morning, there are two overriding issues that could make 2008 its most controversial year ever.

These issues -- the spy scandal and the ugly bit of racism directed at Lewis Hamilton during winter testing in Spain -- will have a huge impact on teams such as McLaren and Ferrari.

Not coincidentally, they are the top two teams in F1 and their No. 1 drivers -- Hamilton for McLaren and Kimi Raikkonen for Ferrari -- are expected to fight it out for the world championship again this season.

It will be as much about how the teams deal with these off-track matters that will determine the championship come November at Brazil's Interlago as will the performance of its star drivers.

Just to recap the spy scandal, Ferrari mechanic Nigel Stepney was found to have secretly copied team blueprints and gave them to then McLaren chief designer Mike Coughlan.

That -- more than Hamilton's superb rookie year, claimed Ferrari -- was responsible for McLaren's domination early in the 2007 season.

The result was a world-record $100-million fine from the International Automobile Federation (FIA) and a black eye for McLaren -- one of F1's historic front-runners.

Ferrari, however, hardly comes out of the mess unscathed.

During the investigation it was revealed the Italian prancing pony squad also allegedly had spied on the Renault team during its back-to-back championship seasons with Fernando Alonso.

It is with this backdrop that many in the F1 circus feel the hangover from 2007 will be a big factor when the lights go out on the grid at Melbourne.

"That's what I feel and I'm not alone. A lot of people feel that about this sport and I think it needs to be cleared up," former world champion Damon Hill told The Times of London this week.

"I would love to think that it would simply be a matter of straight competition this season, but you have to take account of the background issues."

Hill is also one among many in the F1 paddock who feel that the FIA was being unfair to drop the entire spy scandal at the door of the McLaren factory, especially since any Ferrari involvement in other such cases was not investigated with the same urgency.

"My heart sinks a little bit when you talk about the championship this year," he said. "I am aware, and a lot of people are aware, that there is a great deal of pressure on McLaren and that affects their ability to compete. It affected their ability to compete last year and it affected their championship result."

Which brings us to 23-year-old Hamilton, F1's first full-time black driver.

While his record of four wins and 12 podium finishes in his inaugural F1 campaign made him an instant celebrity in his native Britain, it did not endear him to Spain's Alonso, his two-time champion teammate at McLaren.

It was a direct result of this so-called feud that led fans at Spain's Circuit de Catalunya to hurl racial taunts at Hamilton as he tested the 2008 McLaren MP4-23 there in January.

Given the propensity of European sports fanatics -- seen more often at top level soccer matches -- for ill-mannered behaviour, F-1 supremo Bernie Ecclestone threatened to cancel the Spanish Grand Prix this season if there was another such outburst against Hamilton.

There are some, like Hill, who fear, however, that the racism on top of the pressures Hamilton already is under as potentially the youngest champion in F-1 history, could adversely affect Hamilton.

"It's a case of: 'Welcome to the sharp end' of the sport," Hill said. "But he knows that. Lewis is tough.

"The flip side of that is he has created very high expectations and anything less and he's (seen as) a loser."

Hamilton is gorging ahead amidst the maelstrom, just wanting to put the whole lot behind him.

MOVING FORWARD

"I've moved forward and I'm looking forward to (Australia)," he said. "The car is feeling good, the team feels good and I feel good and that's all that matters."

As for team McLaren, it has managed to carry on in surprisingly normal fashion in the wake of all that has happened since last season.

For example, team principal Ron Davis barely batted an eye at the $100-million fine, and the team's banishment to the end of pit lane after losing all its 2007 championship points seems to have been forgotten.

At Melbourne this weekend McLaren should have been relegated to the final pit stop as they are doled out based on constructors' points, but it hasn't worked out that way, because it seems the luxury motorhome that the team brings to F1 needed more space than that allotted at the end of pit road.

In the world of F1, of course, ostentatiousness always takes precedence over a penalty for cheating.

If there is a backlash at McLaren it might be that Mercedes -- its longtime minority owner -- will up its ante and clean house to disassociate itself from the spy scandal.

Davis et al might want to pay close attention to what Haug said in direct response to a question about the German automaker's plans for its race team.

"Options for the future development of the company are under discussion all the time," Haug said. "But it's clear that we don't need to own more than 50% of the shares in order to ensure that we're listened to as much as we want to be."

So when the race starts in Australia there may be as many eyes on what going on in the paddock as on the Grand Prix road course.

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2008 F-1 SCHEDULE

March 16 -- Australian Grand Prix, Melbourne

March 23 -- Malaysian Grand Prix, Kuala Lumpur

April 6 -- Bahrain Grand Prix, Sakhir

April 27 -- Spanish Grand Prix, Barcelona

May 11 -- Turkish Grand Prix, Istanbul

May 25 -- Monaco Grand Prix, Monte Carlo

June 8 -- Canadian Grand Prix, Montreal

June 22 -- French Grand Prix, Magny Cours

July 6 -- British Grand Prix, Silverstone, England

July 20 -- German Grand Prix, Hockenheim

Aug. 3 -- Hungarian Grand Prix, Budapest

Aug. 24 -- Mediterranean Grand Prix, Valencia, Spain

Sept. 7 -- Belgian Grand Prix, Spa

Sept. 14 -- Italian Grand Prix, Monza

Sept. 28 -- Singapore Grand Prix, Singapore

Oct. 12 -- Japanese Grand Prix, Fuji

Oct. 19 -- Chinese Grand Prix, Shanghai

Nov. 2 -- Brazilian Grand Prix, Sao Paulo


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