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April 16, 2011

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Steering clear of a predictable race

FORMULA One and professional cycling, sports poles apart which share a common problem: how to pass the bacon butty and tea test.

That is when sports are so lacking in suspense or surprise that couch potatoes comfortably feel they can go to the kitchen, make themselves a bacon sandwich and a cup of tea without having to worry that they're missing crucial action. Make me one, please, while you're at it.

Predictability is not good for a sport. F1 is aware of that and so is adding bells and whistles to improve the show, including tires that with luck should fall apart as quickly as an ice cream in a hot hand. Drivers sliding around on worn-out rubber should make for more riveting viewing and unforeseen race outcomes in the 2011 season that started last month with the Australian Grand Prix. Both are most welcome in a sport which, given the hundreds of millions its teams spend on the cars and their drivers, should be delivering far more bang for all those bucks.

Cycling, on the other hand, should embrace the fact that there are always quiet moments in races, especially its most important ones, the three-week tours of France, Italy and Spain, when spectators will pour themselves a glass of wine and doze off.

And that's fine. Because in cycling, as with tennis, action often builds toward a crescendo. The first few hours of a race, the first games in a set, aren't so important in themselves, you can slip away to the kitchen for refreshments. But they lay the foundations for the denouement - the tiebreaker, the 5-4 game, the bunch sprint, the last mountain climb - that no fan wants to miss.

Cycling will never deliver adrenaline through a fire hose - thrills! Spills! All the time! - like F1. Its tantalizingly gradual delivery of excitement is one of its charms. International cycling boss Pat McQuaid should tell television executives to buzz off and defend the sport's idiosyncrasies instead of pandering to their demands for more spectacle.

To add spice, McQuaid is trying to strip riders of the two-way radios they use to communicate with their managers during races. The International Cycling Union president figures that will make riders think more for themselves and that left to their own devices, they'll race with more derring-do and be more exciting to watch.

But there's no compelling evidence that it will work. Since many riders and team bosses are opposed, McQuaid risks simply aligning the sport against him. Somewhat insultingly, his plan suggests that riders with radios are little more than remote-controlled robots.

Cycling puts on a fine show as it is. If anything, the best way to improve it would be to make it more believable. Redouble efforts to catch drug cheats, and more viewers will tune in.

As for F1, there were worrying indications from the Australian Grand Prix that the new Pirelli tires may not have been quite as fragile on Melbourne's Albert Park circuit as was thought during offseason testing.

Damn. The idea that drivers might be forced to dip into the pits as much as four times in a race to replace tires worn to the canvas was exciting. The Bridgestones used until last season were so durable that cars looked at times to be riding round and round on rails, which was as boring as watching the hands of a clock.

Hopefully, the new Pirellis will wear much faster, as they are designed to do, and reward drivers who know how to take care of tires, such as Jenson Button - which is only fair. Hopefully, those drivers who don't or who are saddled with poorly balanced cars will be punished with crumbling tires that will cause them to slow dramatically. That is only fair, too. It should make for a much better show.

So, too, should the go-fast rear wing that drivers will be able to activate when they're closing in on the car ahead, giving them an extra burst of speed to overtake. Overtaking shouldn't be too easy. But nor should it be as impossible as it was for Fernando Alonso at the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix last November, the season-ending race that had the potential to be a thriller but instead was a crushing anticlimax because so little happened.

Lotus Renault driver Vitaly Petrov says fiddling with all the gizmos and dials on their steering wheels - gears, rear wing, KERS power-boost button, et cetera - while driving at top speed could prove to be like answering mobile phone text messages, frying eggs and tying one's shoes all at one time. But isn't this why these guys are paid fortunes, because they are the best and have reflexes as sharp as razors? If they're unhappy, they can drive a taxi.

F1 boss Bernie Ecclestone's whacky suggestion that "suspense would be guaranteed" if tracks were sprayed with water to make them slippery and treacherous is just silly. Race outcomes would be too random. F1 does not need to become a lottery to rediscover excitement.

But Ecclestone is right that F1 should be delivering the unexpected.

If not, there is always a bacon sandwich and cup of tea calling our name.


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