Bernie Ecclestone has been branded as bonkers for advocating “fake rain” be introduced to spice up Formula One racing.
Critics, including World champion Sebastien Vettel and his Red Bull team-mate Mark Webber, have lampooned the idea, calling it “ludicrous”.
But one former driver who won’t ‘rain’ on Ecclestone’s plan is John Watson (pictured below).
The Ulsterman, a five-time grand prix winner back in the ‘70s and ‘80s, has been calling for years for artificial rain to be used to liven up pedestrian F1 races.
“I first proposed this to Bernie in 1994,” said Watson. “Fans want to see exciting races where the drivers are made to work. I love to see it happening.”
Inside F1 ahead of Sunday’s season-opening Australian Grand Prix in Melbourne, the current debates centre on the introduction of moveable rear wings, the return of the KERS power boost system and quick-wearing Pirelli tyres — all designed to increase overtaking opportunities — but F1 ringmaster Ecclestone has muddied the waters with his radically different ‘wet race’ proposal.
He suggested that simply turning on the sprinklers during a race would be the best way of keeping grand prix audiences entertained.
“Look at the races we have now,” said 80-year-old Ecclestone. “Overtaking is almost impossible because, in the dry, there is only one good line for maximum speed due to the rubber on the track.
“You have a completely different picture when it is wet. We always had the most exciting races in the wet, so let's think of making rain.
“There are race tracks you can make artificially wet and it would be easy to have such systems at a number of tracks. Why not let it ‘rain' in the middle of a race for 20 minutes, or the last 10 laps? Maybe with a two-minute warning ahead of it. Suspense would be guaranteed.”
But Ecclestone is finding little support among current drivers with Aussie Webber quick to douse the idea.
“No and no,” he said. “It can be more exciting when we have some different weather conditions but just think of Jim Clark, Jackie Stewart and Ayrton Senna, masters in the wet. Jackie’s still here but the other two would be turning in their graves if they thought we’d have sprinklers and hoses around the track.”
Others like Lewis Hamilton, a wet race master, described it as “a gimmick too far”.
But Watson, the British Grand Prix winner in 1981 and runner-up to Keke Rosberg in the 1982 World championship, has long believed F1 races need to be livened up and thinks a wet track could be the answer.
“Far too many races are long, boring processions punctuated by pit stops,” he said. “TV audiences just fall asleep or switch channels.
“Formula One needs to be more than an event for the purists and the petrol heads. And 10 minutes or 10 laps with the sprinklers turned on would keep the drivers and viewers wide awake.
“Bernie’s idea is not as daft as it sounds,” adds Watson whose early F1 days were spent with Ecclestone’s Brabham team.
He also warns that what Ecclestone wants he almost always gets.
“Bernie has built F1 into a massive billion dollar global brand and he still holds the purse strings.
“But is he serious or is he just hyping things up to take the spotlight off the fall-out from the cancellation of the Bahrain Grand Prix? I couldn’t possibly say.”