The Bahrain Grand Prix has been one of the most talked about sporting events of the year. With political uprisings having forced the cancellation of last year’s race in the desert there has, according to the likes of Amnesty International, been precious little in the way of change in the Kingdom.
There is, in my view, little to no chance of the protests having any effect on proceedings this weekend on the track but the bigger issue facing Formula 1 is whether they should be in Bahrain in the first place.
There is no doubt that there have been numerous human rights violations in the nation in recent years. With the majority of public opinion clearly against having a race in Bahrain though it is obvious that Formula 1 has lost a PR battle. Newspaper reports and television analysis have continuously lambasted the sports decision makers to race in Bahrain.
Reading reports it seems that Formula 1 is the only series in the world that has crossed the borders into the frontiers of Bahrain but it has hardly been alone. The European Tour plays golf tournaments in the Kingdom and other sports have also played there in the last year.
FIFA and the IOC both still recognise the Bahrain nation, as does the United Nations, so while the Bahrain football team can still look to qualify for a World Cup or their athletes compete in this summer’s London Olympics Formula 1 is being painted as the “bad guy” that is sending their teams and drivers into the country.
A sense of perspective is needed. The Kingdom of Bahrain is recognised by the biggest sporting organisations in the world. Why should Formula 1 be chastised for looking to host a race in the country?
Bahrain International Circuit
In 2004 Bahrain became the first Middle Eastern country to host a Formula 1 Grand Prix at the Bahrain International Circuit. For 2010 the circuit has been extended to utilise a longer track configuration increasing the lap to 6.299 km from 5.412 km. Due to the desert heat and the presence of sand on the racetrack the track surface is very slick and will only present a single racing line; overtaking is therefore very difficult with so little offline grip.
From a driver’s perspective Lewis Hamilton said:
“The circuit is a typically modern F1 track,” commented the 2008 world champion. “With plenty of run-off and a good variety of corners. You can be really late on the brakes for Turns One, Four and 14, which is a particularly technical final corner.
“Still, there are definitely passing opportunities. Turn One is a classic late-braking opportunity, and it also gives you the chance to set up the other driver, by forcing him to defend up the inside and then compromising his exit speed, which gives you the opportunity to have a look inside at Turn Two, or even Turn Four at the end of the straight.”
Vettel looks for improvement
Sebastian Vettel has endured a miserable start to the campaign. Mark Webber has held the upper hand in the Red Bull team as both drivers adjust to life with considerably less rear grip and downforce as a result of the ban on blown diffusers. After dominating the sport for two and a half seasons it seems that finally Vettel’s luck has run out.
To win races on as consistent a basis as Vettel has done in recent years takes a combination of driver skill, car performance and luck. In the opening three races each of these factors has been lacking at various moments and though Vettel has done well to scrape home a podium finish in Australia and a top five finish in China it is clear that this year will be more of a struggle for the German.
Vying for a third consecutive championship was always going to be a difficult task but the Red Bull is clearly lacking in relation to McLaren. Lewis Hamilton and Jenson Button have consistently had a much better car than the Red Bull drivers, particularly I qualifying trim, and in Bahrain there is little reason to expect otherwise.
Red Bull will need to ensure that their upgrades lead to a dramatic improvement once the European season starts in Barcelona because it is clear that right now the team are struggling.
With Vettel running a completely different configuration of exhaust in China to his teammate it perfectly illustrated just how much is wrong with the car in the eyes of the double champion.
In China he used a configuration that he knew would give him less downforce and judging by the way that he was unable to attack numerous corners in qualifying, especially the final corner, it was little surprise to see him struggle in the Orient.
A stronger race this weekend is now a necessity otherwise Webber might find himself in a very comfortable position of dominance in the intra team battle. The Australian is much happier with the current configuration of cars, which are much more natural and balanced, compared to last year and it is showing through in his driving.
As ever the intra-team rivalries are sure to be one of the biggest stories of the weekend but it is inside the McLaren and Mercedes garages where most of the intrigue lies this weekend.
Mercedes look to maintain momentum
Following Nico Rosberg’s faultless victory in China the Mercedes GP team finally started to repay the faith that Stuttgart has shown them since purchasing the Brawn GP squad after the 2009 season.
Rosberg converted the team’s first pole position in their current guise into a surprise victory in Shanghai and following that success there is now pressure on the squad to maintain the momentum.
The season has been one of ups and downs for Mercedes with the team showing flashes of great speed in the opening two races before winning in China. Even though the German needed Button to have a pitstop problem to ensure the victory Roberg’s performance was stunning in Shanghai.
A first victory for any driver reinvigorates them and with Bahrain having fond memories for Rosberg this weekend should give an accurate representation of what the team can look forward to during the rest of the season.
Before China it had been expected that Mercedes would struggle with tyre wear but ultimately whereas the majority of the field had to make three stops Mercedes were able to make one less.
This was rooted in their qualifying speed where Rosberg needed just three sets of tyres to qualify on pole position. With the McLaren’s and Red Bull’s forced to make additional stops it seems that the team has learned how to use their tyres effectively. This weekend’s high temperatures should provide confirmation that the team has been able to match their qualifying pace with tyre durability during races.
For team principal Ross Brawn it is clear that the squad is looking forward to challenging at the front of the field once again:
“After the fantastic weekend that we experienced in Shanghai, it has been nice to take a few days to reflect on the achievement of the first win for a Mercedes works car since 1955, and of course, Nico’s first win in Formula One,” commented Brawn.
“The team have worked very hard to overcome the tyre issues that affected us at the first two races, and it is clear that achieving the optimum performance from the Pirelli tyres is absolutely key to our performance and ability to challenge at the front of the field. The temperatures and track conditions in Bahrain will be very different to Shanghai, however we will work hard to extract the maximum performance from the F1 W03 and have another strong weekend.”
While Mercedes have impressed so far in 2012 they now face the task of moving forward from their victory and consolidating their position as one of the leading teams on the grid. It was a task that BMW found difficult after Robert Kubica’s Canadian victory in 2008 and with Mercedes having started the season aiming for a win it will be interesting to see how they can recalibrate their goals for the year ahead.
McLaren on the other hand are exactly where they wanted to be. They have had the fastest car on the grid over the course of the opening three races and only a late race pit stop gaffe could derail Button in Shanghai.
The former world champion had the pace to win in China but ultimately lost too much time with his stop and fell into traffic in the final stint of the race. Even so a fine second place finish shows his strength.
With McLaren once again expected to have the fastest car on the grid the team is in relaxed mood ahead of Bahrain. When asked about their failure to win in China team principal, Martin Whitmarsh, said:
“It’s just one of those things,” he said. “The strategy call was absolutely right. We would have got him out into clear air. He lost some six seconds and then lost a heck of a lot more because of the traffic. Understanding the tyres, getting them into the sweet spot, either by skill or good fortune is vital.”
With Hamilton and Button driving at a high level the team will undoubtedly have another opportunity to battle for the win this weekend.
Massa needs to perform
Ferrari have endured a difficult start to the season but with Fernando Alonso driving at an exceptionally high level the Scuderia have been able to win a race and offer some hope for the rest of the year.
The performance of his teammate, Felipe Massa, has however been nothing short of disastrous. The Brazilian has been outshone throughout the opening three races to such a degree that there is justified speculation about his future with the team.
With the car clearly a handful it is arguable that the level that Massa has performed is probably more to the level of the Ferrari but with Alonso still able to mix it at the front of the field it is clear that Massa could be doing more to justify his position.
He has always done well in Bahrain, including winning in the past, and it will be interesting to see how he can perform this weekend.
Team principal Stefano Domenicali though is clearly not expecting the team to suddenly start setting the pace this weekend. Ferrari is, once again, in damage limitation mode with Domenicali saying:
“We knew we would have problems in Shanghai and Sakhir,” the Italian said. “Of course, we’re unhappy at not being able to bring home the points tally we could have done in China. I think we had the potential to at least get Fernando into the top five and Felipe into the points, but both of them spent almost all their time in traffic and never managed to lap consistently with a clear track ahead of them. As a result of the lack of top speed, Fernando therefore had to try and overtake at other parts of the track and take risks. In Bahrain, we will try and limit the damage more effectively, as we did not manage to do so in China.
“Above all, we will have to get the most out of the tyres, both in qualifying and in the race. Understanding when and how much can be got out of the tyres has been the key factor to this first part of the season. It can make the difference and we must improve our ability to analyse and predict their behaviour.”
Getting the Pirelli tyres into their operating window will be crucial for Massa if he is to have a chance to improve on his poor start to the year and finally claim his first points finish of the campaign.
Technical challenges facing the teams in Bahrain
TheBahraintrack will revert to its standard configuration this weekend and it will provide the teams with the challenge of having a car with decent top speed but with numerous slow corners teams need to have a very stable car under braking.
Sauber’s head of trackside engineering, Giampaulo Dall’Ara said:
“The track is a sequence of long straights with low speed corners, so it’s very demanding on the brakes,” commented the Italian when asked about the difficulties facing the teams this weekend. “Good traction is also crucial on this circuit. We didn’t use the maximum downforce level in the times when we raced without DRS. Having a good straight line speed can make a difference there.”
The temperature and the track surface also provide unique challenges to the teams with Dall’Ara continuing:
“Another peculiarity is the tarmac. Although it’s smooth, it’s quite abrasive, especially on the rear tyres, because of this combination of high temperatures and the sand which is blown on the track. Pirelli will provide us with the soft and medium compounds. Normally the ambient temperatures are between 35 and 40 degrees Celsius, which means that we have to use maximum cooling. This also applies to the brakes, although in that case it’s because the drivers have to brake very hard. At the end of the day the most important factors are braking performance and traction.”
Formula 1 revolves on Pirelli tyres….
China was ultimately a race dominated by tyre degradation. In the closing stages Fernando Alonso and Kimi Raikkonen were both badly exposed by their tyres. Both drivers raced well before running off track due to a lack of tyre grip.
This weekend should offer a similar challenge and also the first opportunity to see the 2012 spec Pirelli tyres in high temperatures. Last year’s cancellation means that there is little indication how the tyres will last during the race but the Italian company however is clearly looking forward to the challenge with Paul Hembery saying:
“There are a number of technical challenges that we are anticipating for Bahrain, with the hot conditions in excess of 30 degrees centigrade putting the compounds into a different working range,” said the Englishman. “We’ve gathered some data from the track as the result of our tests there in the past, but the tyres and cars have changed so much since then that it is almost like starting again with a blank sheet of paper. However, we’re expecting a notable degree of degradation that should certainly test the teams in terms of strategy.
“With the circuit not having been frequently used, we are anticipating quite a high degree of track evolution over the course of the weekend. The risk of sand on the track can be an issue, as it takes time to clear and can cause graining. So tyre management will again be crucial in Bahrain, with rear traction in particular the key to a strong qualifying and race pace.”
Weather for this weekend
After rain affected each of the opening three racesBahrainshould offer the first opportunity to see the current crop of cars in high temperatures with no prospect of rain. Temperatures are expected to be in the high twenties to low thirties.