SPEED opens F1 season with live coverage from Australia

SPEED opens the 2008 FIA Formula One World Championship season this weekend with live coverage of the Australian Grand Prix from Albert Park in Melbourne. SPEED begins with live coverage of practice beginning at 11 p.m. ET. Host Bob Varsha returns to headline the popular F1 on-air team that includes former driver David Hobbs and former mechanic Steve Matchett in the booth, with longtime F1 journalist and former team manager Peter Windsor on the grid. The complete weekend F1 schedule on SPEED:

• Thursday – Practice (11 p.m. ET, LIVE)
• Friday – Qualifying (11 p.m. ET, LIVE)
• Saturday – Inside Grand Prix (11:30 p.m. ET)
• Saturday – Australian Grand Prix (midnight ET, LIVE)
• Sunday – Australian Grand Prix replay (1:30 p.m. ET)

Below, the SPEED on-team offers insight into the 2008 season (Note: Steve Matchett was unavailable as he is visiting race shops across Europe for the new “RPM – Racing Per Matchett" features to run during SPEED F1 weekends):
Does Lewis Hamilton continue to amaze or suffer a bit of a “sophomore slump?"
Varsha: It all depends on the car, and though we won't know for sure until Melbourne, it appears that the McLaren will be good again. On the other hand, he won't have a two-time world champion helping develop the car, and he'll have to cope with being the team leader.
Hobbs: In winter testing, Lewis has been very quick. He also does not seem the type of guy who would have a sophomore slump.
Windsor: He will continue to amaze. Lewis to my eye is as good as anyone we’ve seen since a Scots sheep farmer named Jim Clark decided to drive for Team Lotus. It is difficult to fault Lewis. McLaren-Mercedes, however, may well fall into a mini-slump. That will be nothing to do with Lewis; that will inevitably be due to the absurd battering taken by the team in 2007. Momentum kept them alive almost through to Brazil; in 2008 it will be more difficult.

Biggest story heading into 2008 season?
Varsha: I would say the impact of new technical rules, including the spec ECU (electronic control unit) that manages the engine, gearbox and clutch, the elimination of traction control and engine braking, mandatory four-race gearboxes, the effective elimination of spare cars and the modified qualifying format.
Hobbs: Is F1 over all the rumpus from last year? Or has it been deeply harmed. Can Honda and Toyota really step up the pace to where they should be with their budgets? Will Adrian Newey's much vaunted Red Bull cars, all four of them, find some real pace this season? There are so many stories that to pick one big one is not possible.

Windsor: For me, it will be the new technical regulations — to wit, the absence of gear dependency under braking and traction control under power — in that order. For once, the rule changes will have a huge impact on the drivers (as distinct from directly affecting the grip or performance levels of the cars). It will be fascinating to see how some drivers cope better than others; and it will be fun listening to the lesser guys blaming “set-up" when in reality they are just not braking as well as some of their peers. In short, the corners all begin the braking area; the absence of traction control is but an adjunct. I think we’ll therefore have a better view of the sublime skill of drivers like Kimi Raikkonen, Lewis Hamilton, Jarno Trulli, Jenson Button and Mark Webber; and I think guys like Fernando Alonso, Nico Rosberg, Robert Kubica and Felipe Massa and Kuzuki Nakajima will have us all running for cover.

Biggest story that is currently hiding out of plain sight?
Varsha: Bernie Ecclestone has been unable to get the teams to agree to a new, long-term version of the Concorde Agreement, the three-way contract among the FIA, Bernie's company FOM, and the teams that dictates the way the series is run. Right now everyone is working off a set of letter agreements, and when the first major issue arises we may have to suffer through another round of bickering that takes away from the racing.
Hobbs: The battle between teammates Hamilton and Kovalainen could be very strong and, of course, may be divisive again for McLaren. That could be lurking in the weeds.

Windsor: BMW will no longer finish an easy third …or second …or wherever it was they finished in 2007. The mid-field is rising upwards. It’s going to be a dog-fight.
Are there ANY discussions going on anywhere about potential return of F1 to the U.S.? Does F1 have to race here to remain relevant to its hardcore U.S. fan base?
Varsha: Second question first: the F-1 fan base here in America grew without much help in the form of domestic drivers, teams, or events or coverage of American participation when it was there to be enjoyed. So, I don't see the fans turning away as long as the sport is kept accessible via SPEED. As for the future of the USGP, we all hear the same encouraging words from Indianapolis, and we know that the sport's stakeholders want to be here. I can't see the race going anywhere but Indy, and with the Speedway's centennial coming, adding F-1 to its current lineup of MotoGP, NASCAR, and a reconstituted IndyCar series would be spectacular.
Hobbs: I don't know. If there aren't, it would be a crime; the USA needs and deserves a race or two!

Windsor: Yes, plenty of discussions are taking place. However, there are now only two circuits on the calendar NOT fully underwritten by governments of countries – Australia (local government only) and Britain. Both are looking weak. The loss incurred by every other race in the championship is absorbed by the country concerned — and F1 in return gives that country the status of being on the championship. That’s the way F1 works. It is a global TV sport. Spectators present on the day are completely irrelevant to the business model. F1, therefore, is very foreign to the way U.S. sports promoters work.

Will the U.S. federal government ever think in F1 terms? Definitely not. Is there an individual out there — or group of individuals — who can do for America what the government of Abu Dhabi does for Abu Dhabi? Probably.

And does F1 have to race in the US for it to retain its fans? I think not. F1 has millions of fans in the US — and they are fans of the championship as a whole, not just of a race in the US. They watch every round on SPEED — just as many of them watched F1 Indy on SPEED. Think about the number of people who lined up to buy Scott Speed merchandise at Indy — and we’re talking Scott Speed here, not Dan Gurney at his peak – and you appreciate how thirsty U.S. fans are for F1. For the great names in history like Ferrari, Williams and McLaren. For the exquisite technology. For the brilliance of drivers like Kimi and Lewis.

Which driver will offer the biggest surprise in 2008 – either for really stepping up or really falling off? Why?
Varsha: I expect Heikki Kovalainen to shine in the McLaren. The young Finn suffered from a combination of a bad car and a lack of leadership last year at Renault, and his late-season competitiveness, including holding off Kimi Raikkonen's Ferrari in the rain in Japan, was overshadowed by Lewis Hamilton's title charge. With Kovalainen in the other McLaren, Hamilton is going to have his hands full again, and McLaren is going to have another "Who's number one?" public debate on their hands.
Hobbs: Kovalainen fast; Coulthard slow.
Windsor: “Surprise" is the operative word here — and of course is very subjective. So, how about Kauzki Nakajima? On the basis that most people probably think he’s going to fail, I think he has a reasonable chance of looking pretty good in the Williams-Toyota.

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