Liberty for all as drivers speak their mind

Just one year ago in the Formula One pre-season Lewis Hamilton wistfully spoke about the fast-cornering, wide-tyre monsters of eras past and wished for their return. Amazingly, it happened.

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No surprise then that given the opportunity to suggest more changes to the new owners of Formula One Hamilton, Fernando Alonso, Sebastian Vettel and Australia’s Daniel Ricciardo had no hesitation in providing a wish list.

Ricciardo certainly didn’t hesitate. “A race in Vegas. I’ve said mine,” he all but blurted like a man doubling down on a good hand.

Hamilton was also up to the theme, offering up his favourite playground. “Miami race,” he said then quickly adding a wish closer to his … heart. “More ladies in the paddock,” he said. “Yeah, more paddock access. There are too many dudes in the paddock. V12s.”

In a week where Formula One’s continued use of so-called “grid girls” created a minor controversy in Melbourne, Ricciardo looked to the distance and kept quiet on that one, although he can rarely contain a smile.

Alonso, facing another year battling midfield in his unreliable McLaren, had a different vroom in mind. He wasn’t letting the engine theme go by given his travails with his Honda power plant in pre-season testing.

“Yeah I agree with everything,” the Spaniard said. “Equal engines for everyone.”

“I don’t agree with that one,” Hamilton countered, knowing full well his Mercedes likely has the measure of everyone.

Ricciardo: “But not electric.”

Hamilton: “And not Honda.”

It was a sledge out of nowhere and prompted amused gasps from the hardened media throng.

Alonso managed a “thank you” while Ricciardo – likely still pondering the grid girls or the consternation in the McLaren garage – leaned towards Hamilton and whispered, “headlines”.

As the first joint driver media conference of the new season it seemed to hit the No.1 goal of the sport’s new American owners. Entertainment matters. It certainly served as a reminder how much fun Formula One can be before the racing gets serious.

The drivers are stars and the sport is at its best when it lets their personalities and rivalries shine.

These men, now thickset with even stronger neck muscles thanks to the faster racing to come, are why Liberty Media has paid billions for the biggest travelling roadshow in the world. Letting them off the leash to race and contest has to be the best way to recoup the investment.

Still, there may be some way to go in keeping the star attractions in the loop. With faster and more closely fought racing the goal in 2017, race director Charlie Whiting had earlier briefed the media about removing the so-called “Verstappen rule” that penalised drivers who defended their position under braking. That gem hadn’t quite made it to the men in the cockpit.

“You know everything before us,” Ricciardo said.

“The good part of it is that it means less decisions to be made on track in a way. If they leave it up to us I guess the positive is that we can sort it out on track,” he said, although sitting beside him was Ferrari’s Vettel, who lost a podium spot last year under the ruling.

“Hopefully we can get redemption if something hasn’t gone our way. But yeah we’ll see, I like being able to race.”

Given Ricciardo had benefited from his teammate Max Verstappen and then Vettel being penalised in the Mexican Grand Prix, the Australian acknowledged his good fortune with a joke.

“I guess he wants his trophy back from Mexico. It was a pretty small one actually.”

Faced with a deadpan German, Ricciardo offered: “I’ll shut up.”

No need, Daniel. If we’re in a new era of entertainment there should be Liberty for all – even for drivers.