In Formula 1 the entire paddock is an adrenaline fuelled hive of activity. There is no time to rest and the competitive nature of everyone involved means that there is little opportunity to take in the goings on of the greater world.
Drivers spend their time poring over data looking for an edge under braking, engineers try and figure out how to get the absolute maximum from the car without risking a part breaking and journalists all try and get the inside line on breaking stories. Last year in Bahrain however showed that sometimes this most insular of sports can look outside its box and take in the events of the real world.
The ongoing political strife in Bahrain is well documented but it was interesting to see how many photographers and journalists tried to jump from informing about the sport to trying to make their bones as “war reporters.” The situation in Bahrain is not at the epidemic danger level that many feared 12 months ago. There is obviously tension but foreigners still work freely and without danger in the Kingdom.
There are internal issues for the Bahraini authorities to deal with but seeing as Formula 1 doesn’t try and meddle with domestic and foreign policy in China, the United States, Brazil and other nations why should it presume the right to do so in Bahrain?
The Sakhir International Circuit
Last year’s race in the desert was arguably the best that Bahrain has produced and with the hugely unpopular 2010 layout now a distant memory the track is growing in favouritism among the drivers with Lewis Hamilton saying:
“The Bahrain circuit is a real challenge, particularly for the tyres with overheating and also the sand on the track, but this helps to make it unique,” said the Mercedes racer. “The layout has a great combination of fast, slow and medium corners which make it tough for the drivers and the car, so it will be a true test for us. I can’t wait to get back in the car and see what we can do.”
Having a car that is strong under braking and gives good traction under acceleration are the keys to a good lap in Bahrain. The lap opens with heavy braking into turn one, drivers scrub off 150 mph in less than 140 metres, for the slow first gear right hander. The long acceleration zone towards turn four offers few challenges for drivers but braking into the corner is one of the better overtaking opportunities. However with the corner tightening on the exit you will need a willing dance partner otherwise contact is unavoidable!
“With two DRS zones, I think we should see some decent racing,” said the McLaren driver. “The two best overtaking opportunities are into the Turn 1 and Turn 4 hairpins. They’re both good places to attack – you can force another driver onto the inside line and then attack on the exit, when they’re more vulnerable. The second DRS zone will mainly be used to close the gap down to the car in front, before attacking again along the pits straight.”
The middle sector of the lap has some challenging corners with the combination of turns five to seven seeing driver thread the eye of a needle to keep on the narrow racing line. The track falls away under braking into turn eight so it’s easy to lock up the front tyres and ruin a lap…and a set of Pirelli rubber.
Jenson Button, the 2009 race winner, spoke about the challenges of this section ahead of this weekend’s race:
“The Sakhir circuit requires a good overall car balance,” commented Button. “There are some tricky and technical low-speed changes of direction; you need to place the car really precisely at the corner entry in order to maximise traction at the exit. And there are also some high-speed sweeps – Turns 6 and 7, for example – and some fast corners, such as the uphill left-hander at Turn 11. You need a good front-end, but also good traction, to get the best from those corners.”
The final sector features the long back straight but with the medium speed final corner it is all but impossible to make another overtaking move before the end of the lap.
The bland desert setting leaves a lot to be desired but the minute sand particles offer lots of challenges. The track surface can be covered in a fine coating and grip is greatly reduced but the sand can also clog up intakes and sidepods and see temperatures soar. Teams therefore have to do a good job of keeping their cars, as well as their drivers, as cool as possible during proceedings.
“Drivers are at full throttle for 50% of the lap in the race and 57% in qualifying,” said Taffin. “However the high ambient temperatures and low humidity are the main challenges for engines in Bahrain and bodywork may have to be slightly opened to aid the cooling configuration.”
Mercedes looking to build on promising start to campaign
If you had offered Mercedes two podiums and a pole position from the opening three Grand Prix of the season the team would have grabbed the offer without hesitation. However after a very promising start to the campaign it is clear that there is still room for improvement.
Hamilton and Rosberg have both been strong but Nico’s retirements in Australia and China, both with technical issues, have given the Brackley squad reason for pause as they get ready for Bahrain. Toto Wolff summed up how the ups and downs of the opening races have given the team lots of reasons for optimism but also a reality check that much is still to be done:
“After three races, we have an equal balance of reasons to be pleased and areas we need to improve,” said the German. “Two podium finishes in two races for Lewis represent a strong start to the season. But two technical retirements for Nico in three races are not acceptable, and everybody is working flat out at the factory to make sure we hit our target of bringing both cars to the finish at every race.”
Obviously having a quick car that has some reliability concerns is a much more attractive proposition than a slow, reliable car but getting both cars to the flag this weekend is crucial and while it is unlikely to see Hamilton continue his podium streak a top five finish would be a strong way to finish the opening quartet of races.
Team principal, Ross Brawn, spoke about how the team will evaluate their performance following this weekend’s race:
“The very different track conditions at each venue should give us a good understanding of the car that we have to work with for the rest of the season,” he said. “The performances so far have been pleasing and perhaps even beyond our pre-season expectations however there is work to be done. We have two main areas to focus on; we must improve the reliability and we have to lift our performance to find that extra couple of tenths to our fastest competitors.
“A strong two car finish will be our target this weekend, and we want to see both Nico and Lewis in a position to score not only points but podiums regularly. We’ve had a taste of success already this season and the slight feeling of disappointment with third place in China is our motivation.
Hamilton’s start to the season has been superb and while the race pace of the car is clearly lagging behind the other front runners there are clear signs that the team are making progress. In Australia we saw Hamilton way off the pace when he changed to the prime tyres and as the race progressed he lost touch with the leaders.
Some will say that his podiums in Malaysia and China both came as a result of slightly good fortune but it is to do him a disservice. At Sepang the weather conditions obviously played a hand in a somewhat chaotic Grand Prix but last weekend a good strategy and very competitive race pace saw the former champion register a strong finish.
Hamilton commented that it will be difficult to make progress this weekend, given the short turn around from China, but he is clearly getting more and more comfortable within the team and revelling in his role.
Rosberg on the other hand could be forgiven for a slightly rueful outlook on the opening races however the German is driving well and if the team can solve the reliability gremlins that have affected him he could be strong this weekend.
“The first three races haven’t quite worked out as we had hoped on my side but the positive is that we have a car that we can really work with,” said Rosberg. “So I’m looking forward to getting on with this weekend. It’s going to be very tough on the rear tyres and our biggest challenge will be to make the most out of the situation. We’re better prepared than we were last year and we have shown that the car is much stronger so I really hope that we can achieve a great result in Bahrain.
Webber looks to bounce back
After the radio silence from Red Bull’s drivers in the lead up to last weekend’s Chinese round the fireworks started early with Sebastian Vettel saying that he didn’t regret his actions in Malaysia and that in some ways he felt that it was retribution for the times that Webber has not supported his title bids enough.
The team has been under the spotlight for the last month with the most caustic sound bite being Webber’s podium assessment that “Seb will be protected as usual.” That protection comes from Helmet Marko with the Austrian keen to stress that in future the Red Bull squad would not employ team orders. Quite where an instruction becomes an order would obviously be very debatable within the team and team principal, Christian Horner, shot back that “this has got nothing to do with Helmut.”
The team did a fantastic job of airing their dirty linen in Shanghai and now will look to move on. Webber of course had a miserable time in China with ending qualifying with no fuel and his race with no right rear wheel after an action packed start to the race. His crash with Jean-Eric Vergne cost him a three place grid penalty this weekend so he is immediately on the back foot but the real fireworks will once again be when we see both drivers side by side.
Shanghai finally got the intra team relationship into focus. We were able to see the façade that Red Bull has managed in recent years with their ultra competitive drivers clearly aware that the other driver was stealing focus from them. For Vettel it is natural to feel as a triple champion that he should have unquestioned support. For Webber it is natural to feel that the team gives his rival too much support….
The fight between the Red Bull’s won’t be settled in the garage it will be on the track. Webber realises that he doesn’t have the support of Marko but he knows that Horner will fight his corner to ensure as much impartiality as possible within the team.
It might be another couple of races before we see a wheel to wheel fight between the drivers but with the team generating so many column inches in the aftermath of Sepang it will be engrossing to see how both drivers try and gain an edge in Bahrain. Will the relationship between the drivers be a cancer that spreads and ruins their season or something that spurs the team on towards even greater success? It’s impossible to know at the moment but something that will dominate the news cycle for the foreseeable future in Formula 1.
Alonso and Raikkonen continue to impress
With Ferrari and Lotus clearly having developed strong cars there has to be a feeling within the team’s that their respective number two drivers, Felipe Massa and Romain Grosjean, need to step up to the mark this weekend.
Massa has been back on form in 2013 and been superb in qualifying but his inability to get the most from the prime tyres last weekend in China meant that he trailed his Alonso home by over 40 seconds. The Brazilian’s single lap pace, and early race pace, has been very impressive but whereas Alonso can offer relentless consistency it seems that Felipe goes off the boil as the race progresses.
The signs are there that he is coming back to form and it would be far from a shock if he stands on the rostrum soon but until he does so there has to be a nagging feeling that while he is driving better than at any point since his Hungarian crash he is still lacking that final percentage to be an elite driver again.
At Lotus it seems that Grosjean is a bit gun shy. After so many high profile accidents last year he is, quite rightly, keeping his head down and looking to get to the finish without causing undue attention to himself. This however has meant that he is driving within himself and not as well as e can.
Last year we saw blinding speed interspersed with these moments of madness. He needs to find his single speed again and relax into the races. He has been unlucky with setup problems at races this year so maybe it is too early to draw definitive conclusions about his prospects this season but with Raikkonen at the fore of the championship fight it is clear that Romain needs to up his game. Returning to the scene of his first career podium finish could give him the incentive to improve.
Speaking about his prospects this weekend it is clear that the Frenchman is looking to build on a strong qualifying performance in China and find a way to get the most from the car on race day:
“The priority is to find the balance with the car,” said Grosjean. “I want to be right up there fighting for podiums and showing the speed I showed last year. Hopefully we’ll get there soon, and I think Bahrain would be the ideal place to really start getting some good points. We’ve been quick there before, so there’s no reason why we can’t do it again.”
The team however are backing the former GP2 champion to bounce back. James Allison, their technical director, was full of praise for his racer again this week.
“The truth is that it’s certainly not Romain causing the problem,” asserted the engineer. “Romain is fast, smooth and good at looking after tyres, however we have not yet managed to give him a consistent car that lets him bring his talent to bear. It’s not him; it’s that we haven’t got it quite right for him yet and what seems to be clear from Kimi’s weekends is that the car is a tricky little beast to get just right.”
Maybe with the backing of the team and having had three incident free race weekends we will see the natural speed of Grosjean return this weekend.
In Shanghai Raikkonen was superb. Racing with a badly damaged front wing he finished second and was on the pace throughout. He trailed Alonso home by just over ten seconds and in Bahrain, where he was second a year ago, he should be able to capitilise on the Lotus’ famed ability to coax as much life as possible from tyres.
Alonso’s speed in Shanghai was such that he barely seemed to have to push hard at times to open a gap or maintain his lead. Like we saw in Australia with Raikkonen once a driver gets to the front and can control their pace it is possible for them to maintain a gap and maintain tyre performance. Doing so once again this weekend will be crucial for both Ferrari and Lotus if they are to have a chance of winning in Bahrain.
With Raikkonen lying second in the championship it is natural for the team to be expectant of another strong race, especially considering their double podium in Bahrain last year, but “The Iceman” is keep to keep expectations in check and will just concentrate on getting the most from the car this weekend:
“Apart from Malaysia we’ve had good races this year, but that said there have only been three so it’s too early to say anything,” said the 2007 champion. “Just because we had a good result there last year doesn’t mean Bahrain will be good for us again this year. We have to try and do the best we can in every race and try to score some points to keep us in the fight. If everything goes our way, it will be a good result again. However, it is useless to promise anything beforehand. This is motor racing and whatever can happen, will happen.”
McLaren still struggling to find speed
Jenson Button admitted after the Chinese Grand Prix that his fifth place finish was a reward for strategy rather than out and out speed. The McLaren squad are getting a better understanding of their car but it won’t be until the European races, when major developments will come on stream, that we will see them make progress.
The team started the year badly off the pace in Melbourne but have managed to score points at each of the three races and their strategic process in China was one that showed they are maximising their potential on race day. However, maximising the cars potential in qualifying is still a major issue and seeing a McLaren in the Q3 shootout on Saturday would be a surprise given that the midfield fight will be ultra competitive this weekend.
Sauber’s Nico Hulkenberg, the Force India drivers and Toro Rosso will all be strong in Bahrain so Q2 could be very tense for the McLaren drivers.
Team principal, Martin Whitmarsh, knows that it’s a long season and that the team has to focus on the endgame of the championship but time is clearly running out for their chances of challenging for the title and Button’s hopes will be pinned on a major upgrade package at Barcelona in three weeks time.
Perez had a combative Chinese race with an early race fight with Esteban Gutierrez seeing the Sauber driver slam into the back of Adrian Sutil. Perez later of course had Kimi Raikkonen damage his nosecone after contact with the rear of the McLaren. It’s been a tough start to his McLaren career for Perez but until the car develops it is unfair to judge his performance up to now. Finding a way to score points this weekend will be a successful race for the Mexican.
It would be easy for drivers, engineers and other team members to get discouraged and lost motivation after a difficult start to the season. The competitive fire of everyone in Formula 1 however is such that they will instead be focussed on getting the most possible from their underperforming package.
“The first three races haven’t been the easiest for us,” admitted Whitmarsh. “There’s been a little progress at every round, and we’ll be looking for another improved showing, as well as the opportunity to increase our understanding of MP4-28, in Bahrain this weekend. The work that goes on at the track is only the tip of the iceberg, though. There’s been an incredible amount of effort expended back at Woking, so as to ensure that the delivery of new parts, and the evaluation of fresh ideas, remains constant. Their efforts never go unnoticed, and the development trend is in the right direction.”
Impossible to judge midfield scrap
Sauber, Force India and Toro Rosso have precious little to choose between them at the minute. The Force India seems to the fastest car with the Toro Rosso lagging behind but the opening three races have shown us that these teams are all grouped closely enough that it is simply a case of whoever can find the right setup will be at the fore.
Toro Rosso’s Shanghai performance was a good display of this with Daniel Ricciardo making it through to Q3 and scoring a healthy helping of points in seventh. Paul di Resta was pushed wide at the start of the race but recovered magnificently in his final stint and finished eighth while Hulkenberg briefly led, by virtue of a contrary strategy to the majority, before falling back to finish tenth. In Bahrain if any of these teams can find a way of maintaining tyre life and finding a good setup they could finish in the top six.
For di Resta last weekend’s race was one that will give him a lot of confidence moving forward but also one that could have been even more successful. The Scot is looking forward to Bahrain:
“It was a good result [in China],” said di Resta. “I was stuck in traffic, my tyres were graining and I couldn’t move forward. Fortunately we got ourselves into some clean air after my second pit stop and I think we showed that the potential of the car is very strong. In the end we left China feeling pretty satisfied, but knowing that there is more potential to come. Last year the car worked well in Bahrain, and we’re back to the medium and hard, the same as we had in Malaysia, where we were strong.”
Williams are clearly lagging behind expectations this year but there are signs of encouragement for the team and while it’s unlikely that we will see Pastor Maldonado or Valtteri Bottas near the points on Sunday the team may be in a position to get more from the car than they have up to now.
Tyres under fire
China showed how difficult a bind Pirelli are in. The tyre manufacturer was hired by Formula 1 with specific instructions to promote better racing by producing a less durable tyre that would necessitate multiple pitstops during a race…and that is exactly what they have done.
Shanghai was possibly a bit too extreme with the option rubber only lasting a handful of laps and drivers terrified to push them hard but we also saw lots of overtaking during the race and, as ever, some drivers were able to make the tyres work while others struggled to do so.
Formula 1 at the moment is not the flat out blast that it was in the past but far from being “driving to a delta time” it is now a tactical battle where strategy and driving style plays a far more crucial role than any time in the history of the sport. Should a team push hard at the start of a stint and try to open a lead before the tyres go off or should they try and eek out as much mileage as possible and drive slightly below the limit in doing so? Formula 1 has become a classic case of the hare and the tortoise.
Some fans deride this and say that “F1 is the pinnacle of the sport and that the cars should be pushed to the limit.” It’s a fair point but if you take away the live timing and TV graphics does a car on race day look slower than on Saturday? Are they any less spectacular?
The answer is no. We have superb racing with lots of overtaking and in the three years with Pirelli we have regularly seen races go right down to the wire. Rose tinted views will obviously tell us that the “glory days” were better but while there were some fantastic races in the 80s, 90s and the last decade was the same volume of great races per season? The answer, in my view, is a resounding no.
It’s up to teams to get the best from their packages at every race and as Eric Bouillier of Lotus said: “We asked Pirelli to provide tyres which encourage different strategies and adapting to this is part of the competition. We are all allocated the same tyres so it’s up to us as teams and the drivers in the cars to make the most of them.”
“I think you can push on these tyres but it’s never perfect,” admitted the Finn. “You cannot always push 100 per cent. I think they are very good in qualifying and have good grip, so it’s up to you and you have to look after them a bit more in the race. It’s not really any different from last so I don’t really understand why people are complaining.”
Pirelli were steadfast after Shanghai that they were simply manufacturing tyres that meet the demands set to them by the teams and with races so regularly coming down to the final stages to decide wins, podiums and points is there any reason to look for a change?
Rookies out to impress
Rookies have come under the spotlight after Shanghai after Esteban Gutierrez crashed into the back of Adrian Sutil. The Mexican has been handed a five place grid penalty and even his team boss, Monisha Kaltenborn has been critical of him and looking for ways to try and give younger drivers a chance to build their experience. With testing banned they are forced to learn in the most public place possible and any mistake is immediately scrutinised under the microscope of post race analysis.
“We can see his potential but he made a mistake, and that is the dilemma at the moment about rookie drivers,” Kaltenborn told Autosport.com earlier this week. “I am not trying to justify things, but to not have any Friday sessions to practice in, and then come in to a world of F1 where there is a lot of pressure because there are only a limited amount of opportunities to score points, is very hard.”
With five rookies on the grid it is inevitable that we will see mistakes and incidents but to give them the chance to learn is the most important thing. In the past rookies, such as Hamilton or Heikki Kovalainen, could complete over 20,000 miles of testing before sitting on the starting grid. Now the likelihood is that a driver may have a few thousand miles under his belt.
Finding a way to allow rookies to develop is crucial moving forward and there has been speculation about how to do this with reports earlier this week suggesting that Pirelli are looking to introduce a “Friday rookie tyre construction” to allow reserve drivers to get more experience in their role as FP1 participants.
Speaking about his prospects this weekend Gutierrez said:
“To end the Chinese Grand Prix like that was disappointing,” admitted the Sauber driver. “The mistake I made not only ended my race, but I also received a five place grid penalty. Of course, this will not make the race in Bahrain any easier, but it doesn’t change my approach or my motivation. I will fight and make the best out of the situation. I know the track from my time in GP2; it’s a very demanding track for the tyres.”
Fellow rookie Valtteri Bottas, driving for Williams, has had a much quieter start to his Formula 1 career with solid, if unspectacular, performances. He has however done well in comparison to Maldonado. The Finn is taking a mature approach to the early season races and this weekend he will look to spend Friday ensuring that he can find a way to get the most from his car in Bahrain:
“It’s been a very busy start to my career with two back to back races in a row,” said the Finn. “It has meant that I have had a lot of time in the car and the chance to try and understand its characteristics. The track in Bahrain isn’t used much throughout the year so can be quite green and the dusty surface means that the conditions can change quite a lot from one session to another, so it will be important to keep searching for the best grip on each lap.”
At Caterham this weekend will see Heikki Kovalainen return to the team as a reserve driver and FP1 participant so the team could start to make progress in the coming races. For driver Giedo van der Garde this weekend will see him race at a track where he was a GP2 podium finisher and the Dutchman is keen to start improving and getting closer to the pace of his teammate, Charles Pic:
“Coming straight after China this is a chance for me to get back to the performance levels I want to be racing at,” said the 28 year old. “China was a pretty tough weekend, but I’ve had a couple of days to recharge since leaving Shanghai and after the race we had a very good debrief and we’ve identified a few areas we’ll work on this weekend in Bahrain. Since announcing my F1 drive I’ve been really clear that the first few races were always going to be tough for a rookie, but it’s all part of the learning process so I’m as positive as ever and looking forward to getting back to work.”
Jules Bianchi has been the rookie star of the opening races and the Marussia ace is confident that he find even more pace in the coming races as he gets more and more comfortable with his car:
“I learned a lot during the course of the Chinese Grand Prix weekend,” said the Frenchman. “It was a challenging race and in many ways it felt like I crossed the line with a much more complete understanding of the MR02 and the tyres. Although it’s still early days, I am really comfortable with my understanding of the car.”
His teammate, Max Chilton, is also looking forward to this weekend’s race. The Englishman has been outclassed by Bianchi so far this term but improved in China. Getting on a par with Bianchi is unlikely at any of the coming races but making progress will be enough for Chilton before mid-season when he really should be on top of his car.
“It’s good to be heading into Bahrain so soon after China,” commented Chilton. “We ended the weekend there on a more positive note, so I think the short gap between races will be useful in helping us to carry through that momentum!”
Setup challenges facing the teams this weekend
“It is a circuit that has some key characteristics that will present new challenges for the teams,” commented the Englishman. “It’s a high braking circuit so brake wear will be a factor, it is tough on rear tyres and it has a high ambient temperature. For engines it is a high power, high efficiency circuit that places a premium on straight line speed.”
As mentioned earlier finding a way to cool the car is even more important in Bahrain than at most races but each team will also face a lot of other factors in finding a balanced setup this weekend.
Sauber Tom McCullough, the team’s head of track engineering, outlined some of the difficulties:
“The Bahrain circuit is dominated by several long straights with mainly slow and medium speed corners,” said McCullough. “This places high importance on an efficient aero package and a car with strong low speed performance – in particular traction. The circuit layout is also very demanding for the brakes. The desert environment results in quite a dusty track – especially when the wind builds up. The typically high ambient and track temperatures make it a real challenge for the cooling level of the car and management of the tyres.”
Formula 1 revolves around Pirelli tyres
After coming under fire in China for their brittle tyres that made qualifying one of the least inspiring sessions in recent years Pirelli will bring the medium and hard combination of tyres. These tyres are the hardest compounds available in 2013 and with the track traditionally being quite harsh on rubber it is clear that this weekend will still be a test for the tyres.
Finding a way to balance performance and durability will once again be the difficulty facing the teams this weekend but Paul Hembery, Pirelli’s motorsport director, is looking forward to the weekend and moving forward from the criticism that his company faced last time out:
“Bahrain is one of the few circuits on which we will be competing for only the second time,” said the Englishman. “We’re bringing the two hardest tyres in our range, the medium and hard compounds. This was a combination last used in Malaysia. The big challenge in Bahrain is normally the heat, which can be in the region of 30 degrees ambient and 45 degrees on track, and this accentuates the amount of energy going through the tyres.
“The grip in Bahrain can be very variable, due to the sand that gets blown onto the surface from the surrounding desert and this makes track evolution quite hard to predict. Traction and braking are the two key aspects of Bahrain, both of which are very demanding on the tyres.
“From what we saw last year though, there will be plenty of scope for different race strategies, which can even allow drivers who have not qualified as well as they hoped to recover during the grand prix and I would expect to see a three-stop race from most teams, as was the case last year. Degradation rather than actual wear will decide the strategy.”
Weather for this weekend
Sunny skies and high temperatures will meet the paddock when the action gets under way with temperatures expected to climb to over 30C on each day of the weekend. With only a light breeze offering any respite the cockpit will be exceptionally warm for the drivers this weekend so keeping fluid intake high will be crucial.
The drivers are used to these conditions but spare a thought for the mechanics in their flame, proof race suits. With races so often coming down to strategy and more and more emphasis being placed on faster pitstops the pressure is immense for the mechanics. With high temperatures and a high workload on Sunday, most will stop three times, mistakes could creep into the pitstops and have a big impact on Sunday’s Grand Prix.