Australian Grand Prix 2010 - 30/03/10

Triumph. Triumph over adversity, indecision and inclemency. Triumph over rain, Bahrain. Triumph over difficult beginnings. Triumph for Jenson Button and Formula 1, that was the story of the Australian Grand Prix 2010. The spiritual season-opener delivered all that Sakhir did not; excitement, unpredictability and specifically, frequent overtaking. Everywhere you looked, there was a story, whether it was Sebastian Vettel’s Red Bull denying him yet another straightforward victory, the three-star world champion sandwich at turn 1 on the first lap, a stirring charge through the field by Lewis Hamilton and Fernando Alonso, or even the assured drive of a man once again on the rise, Robert Kubica.

Qualifying had seen Red Bull lock out the front row, with Vettel claiming his 2nd pole in a row. Home favourite Mark Webber, having not had a smooth run through the second sector on his flying lap, lined up second just ahead of Alonso who had put in an excellent performance. The rest were a quite significant amount behind, most notably Lewis Hamilton who had no excuse apart from a lack of pace and eventually fuel for qualifying 11th, over half a second behind McLaren teammate Button. Rosberg again got the better of Schumacher while making it clear to the media he was unhappy and capable of much better. Rubens Barrichello, Robert Kubica and Adrian Sutil all put in quality laps to overshadow their stable mates and make Q3. Elsewhere, Lotus appeared to have moved ahead of Virgin as the fastest of the new teams, with Sauber looking more and more like pre-season’s biggest sponsor hunters.

Colder temperatures than expected during qualifying in Melbourne turned out to be an occasion of portent, with all teams having to start the race on intermediate tyres. The rain was not expected to last with a dry line forming early on, but of course it would have its effect on the race outcome. Vettel got away from pole cleanly, but the best start was Felipe Massa’s vaulting him past Button, Alonso and Webber into 2nd place. Alonso himself had a diabolical start from 3rd, leaving him surrounded by turn 1. The resulting collision as he turned in on Button caused him to spin, clatter into Schumacher and leave him facing the wrong way. While Fernando sat there for a few painful seconds as the whole field went by, Robert Kubica had gone from 9th to 4th by avoiding the carnage ahead, whereas Schumacher had to pit for a new wing.

The first lap also saw a horrifying crash lead to the season’s first safety car as Kamui Kobayashi’s front wing came off, got caught under his front wheels and sent him careering into the wall. His subsequent rebound threw him back on track and into Sebastien Buemi and Nico Hulkenburg whose races were done on the spot. The sleek new Mercedes SLS safety car pulled in at the end of lap 4, leaving Vettel to resume his lead from Massa, Webber, Kubica, Rosberg, Button, Hamilton, Sutil, Barrichello and De La Rosa. By lap 6 it was clear Jenson was uncomfortable with his car, and he was passed by an on-fire Hamilton, leading to Button pitting at the end of lap 6 for slicks. He then proceeded to go off the road at turn 3, making his decision look premature and losing him a hatful of seconds. However, as soon as he collected himself, Button confirmed his masterstroke and started to set blistering sector times, signalling the need for the rest of the grid to also run slicks which they started doing by the finish of lap 9.

Webber, who had passed a struggling Massa for 2nd, pitted later than most and lost considerable track position as a result. He rejoined 5th, and after a short trip across the grass once again ended up behind Massa who himself had a slow tyre stop due to pit lane traffic. By this point, Button had scythed his way through the field on his warmer slicks using his knowledge of where the grip lay. He now ran 2nd behind Vettel but ahead of Kubica and Rosberg. Come lap 16, Fernando Alonso had fought his way through the pack and was once again running 8th and in the points, but Michael Schumacher had gotten caught up behind Jaime Alguersuari’s Toro Rosso. Lap 16 also saw both Webber and Hamilton pass Massa, then as Hamilton tried to pass Webber on the approach to turn 3, both ran wide and allowed the Ferraris of Massa and Alonso through. This wouldn’t be the last time Lewis and Mark would cause trouble for each other.

The on-track action and intrigue was fast banishing the memories of Bahrain two weeks previous, and even more so when Hamilton passed Massa on lap 22 and Webber got the better of Alonso as the Spaniard got offline between turns 3 and 4 losing a lot of grip and traction. As if there wasn’t enough to keep track of at the front, the biggest shock (or was it?) of the afternoon came as leader Vettel was pitched off the track with suspected wheel/brake failure. The resulting yellow flags had stopped Nico Rosberg from reclaiming the 4th place he’d just lost to the charging Hamilton. All of this left last year’s winner, Button, well ahead of Kubica who himself had maintained position after a superb first part of the race. Hamilton soon caught him and Webber once again dispatched Massa. Alonso had closed up to Massa as well but the threat of imminent team orders did not materialise, and Alonso failed to find a way past for the rest of the afternoon despite once again clearly having the legs on his teammate.

Another major turning point in the race came when Webber, Rosberg and Hamilton pitted again for fresh tyres between laps 31 and 35, dropping them considerably back from the fight for second place. Cue Webber joining behind Rosberg and passing him quickly, then Hamilton going off on a still greasy track and letting Webber through but taking him straight back, followed by both drivers trading fastest laps as they closed by almost 2 seconds per lap on the Ferraris. Inevitably they caught the train again, and the visibly difficult Ferraris which were lifting midway through corners due to chronic understeer, were expected to be easy meat for Hamilton and co. What happened next was an untimely reminder of the difficulties faced by the drivers who tried to pass slower cars in Bahrain. In Alonso’s wake, neither Lewis nor Mark could make any further headway and their pace was reduced to that of the Ferraris with their knackered tyres. This in turn led to the faster degradation of Hamilton’s fresher tyres, especially after the punishment meted out to them over the preceding laps.

When Lewis finally had a sizeable run at Alonso down to turn 13 and had gotten alongside, Alonso kept the inside covered. As Hamilton was pushed wide, Webber took a dive up the inside, hit the McLaren’s rear and both ended up in the sandpit. Rosberg, who had been keeping a very close watching brief, was extremely close to getting past Alonso himself immediately after the incident at turn 13 and showed that had Webber and Hamilton not made contact, the latter may well have slid past Alonso into turn 14. As it was though, Alonso’s masterful defending of position ensured 4th place after such a miserable start, with Hamilton and Webber finishing 6th and 9th respectively. Throughout all of this unfolding drama, world champion Button calmly maintained his lead and preserved his 50+ lap old tyres to come through 12 seconds ahead of the Robert Kubica’s 2nd placed Renault, who himself had withstood pressure from McLaren, Ferrari and Mercedes drivers to claim a memorable podium finish and provide further evidence of his pace and good results on temporary circuits, such as Monaco and Montreal.

It’s great for the championship to have the lesser-rated members of the major partnerships get one over on their illustrious rivals so early on. Felipe Massa has cause to be very proud of his 3rd place performance, very much making up for the loss of position to Alonso at Bahrain’s first corner. However, his noticeable lack of pace compared to Alonso during the race in Bahrain when both had passed Vettel, and the gap to him in Melbourne qualifying will not be lost on the returning Brazilian. Similarly at McLaren, this result is a tremendous boost for a team looking to make it back to the front of the grid and a world champion who very few people gave a chance of standing up to Hamilton. Jenson’s early call for slick tyres and his reputed ability to nurse them made the race for him and stood in stark contrast to Hamilton’s barracking of his team for bringing him in a second time. Suddenly Jenson does not look like the awkward new boy trying to infiltrate a tight circle of friends.

Over at Mercedes, Nico Rosberg did a much better job of supplanting Michael Schumacher as the lead driver in the team by once again scoring solid points, even if he never looked a podium threat at any stage despite running 3rd during the early part of the race. Schumacher crawled into 10th place and the points having finally passed Alguersuari (twice) and then Pedro de la Rosa. However much you consider his time away and his age or the new regulations, 10th place is never going to be an acceptable result for Schumacher, a driver for whom satisfactory was often unsatisfactory.

But what of Red Bull, their well supported Aussie hero and their champion-in-waiting? Their blatant speed advantage has not delivered a victory or even a podium. Vettel cannot be faulted, having not put a foot wrong since the opening day of the season, but Webber’s two qualifying hiccups and latest difficult race day performances can only be attributed to himself. This team is starting to drown in a myriad of missed opportunities, be it Webber’s chance to open up some sort of lead on his superstar teammate who has had nothing but heartbreaking, victory-shattering car dramas or the team as a whole failing to capitalise on a clear early season head start. You expect Vettel will sorely miss the possible 50 points when McLaren and Ferrari start to close the gap as the season progresses into Europe.

Red Bull’s aforementioned rivals will be grateful for the victories handed to them on days where their cars were incapable of winning on pace alone. Possibly of greater importance, F1 has earned temporary respite from the acidic criticism levelled at the sport’s new regulations and the dearth of overtaking opportunities with a scintillating spectacle. Of the new teams, Lotus have also earned themselves a shred more credibility by having a solid Heikki Kovalainen bring home his car 13th, achieving another full race distance for the fledgling squad, just as Karun Chandhok brought home his Hispania Racing Team car 5 laps down but in one piece. Triumph.

Australian GP 2010 Preview - 26/03/10

Ferrari and Red Bull

The most impressive speed at the opening round of the 2010 F1 season in Bahrain two weeks ago was displayed by Red Bull Renault and Ferrari. RBR’s Sebastian Vettel appeared to have the outright pace advantage with Fernando Alonso very close by. Both teams will of course be hoping that the two week break since the first race will not have been enough for the chasing pack to develop their cars enough to be a big threat to their early season dominion.

With pole and race win going to Vettel and Alonso respectively, for RBR’s Mark Webber and to a lesser degree, Ferrari’s Felipe Massa this weekend will be vital for establishing their own championship credentials. Webber’s poor qualifying in Bahrain condemned him to an afternoon of gearbox chasing, and while Massa made a popular comeback straight to the sharp end of the results with 2nd place, he certainly won’t be keen to have Alonso pull another first corner move on him. As far as Massa will be concerned, the comeback race is over and the injury doubts are dispelled, the championship battle and the competition have begun. Webber will also be aching to use such a rare car advantage to capitalise on what could be the best chance he’ll ever have to win his home race. Alonso and Vettel were considered pre-season favourites for the championship, therefore their teammates will be doing everything to turn the tide as early as possible. Another eclipsing performance from either Vettel or Alonso will see momentum will start to build in their favour.

McLaren and Mercedes

While pre-season testing suggested that Mercedes GP and McLaren weren’t quite up to Ferrari’s pace, qualifying over a second behind Vettel’s Red Bull at Bahrain came as a shock. Both teams were undoubtedly hoping to be close enough to capitalise on any slips but only Hamilton was able to take advantage of Vettel’s demise. The new regulations ensured that neither Rosberg, Button nor Schumacher were able to make great progress from their starting positions, placing an even higher premium on qualifying performance.

Much was made, needlessly so, of the gap between Nico Rosberg and Michael Schumacher on his return. Michael’s race pace and consistency were all that could be expected of him given his time away and the new regs, and his one lap pace will continue to improve. The best is yet to come. For Rosberg, every single opportunity to gain from Schumacher’s so-called “rustiness” must be taken with both hands. So far he’s only benefitted from the comparisons, therefore another qualifying and race victory over Schumi will be his main aim this weekend. An overall race win or pole position may still just be out of reach for the Mercedes car without others running into trouble.

At McLaren, regardless of the playing-down, Hamilton has definitely taken first blood in the intra-team Brit world champ fight. Jenson will be annoyed at having qualified the better part of half a second behind Lewis at Bahrain and then getting stuck behind Schumacher and Webber while Lewis made the podium. He too will be keen to reverse any mounting inertia that Hamilton may establish by another strong result over Button this weekend. It was evident from halfway through 2009 that Jenson needed to step up during qualifying, and this year’s regulations may consign Button to many tough races if his one lap pace remains shy of Hamilton’s. As a team, McLaren will be pushing fiercely to close the early-season gap to Red Bull and Ferrari before the new points system pulls them out of reach, while maintaining any advantage over Merc GP.

Williams and Force India

Another season, another Williams car that won’t trouble the podium? Frank and Patrick will be hoping not. Barrichello managed to just squeeze into the points at Bahrain while Hulkenburg had a torrid debut, spinning on lap 3 then battling past all the newcomers for no reward. Nico will undoubtedly get closer and closer to Rubens as the season progresses, but the team are in danger of falling behind not only Force India, but also Renault unless major development strides are made. With the overtaking situation apparently gloomy and the top 4 teams looking good for maintaining their stranglehold on the better points with such good quality driver line-ups, Williams may well be thankful for the extended points system this year.

For Force India, this is new territory. With a car that looks to be points-capable throughout the season, costly errors and pointless incidents absolutely must be eliminated. Williams, Renault and Sauber will undoubtedly improve as the season wears on, so these early opportunities for scoring good points and making use of advantageous tyre strategies such as Sutil’s in Bahrain must be followed through. Force India themselves showed great development potential in 2009, putting the onus firmly on Sutil and Liuzzi to make use of a great starting position in 2010. The team will surely be looking to have both cars in the top 10 in Australia.

Renault, Sauber and Toro Rosso

Renault may well have surprised a few people with the pace of their car in Bahrain. Kubica made Q3 and was looking good for a fruitful day before coming together with Sutil on lap 1. Petrov’s race was cut short by reliability gremlins, but the team are confident that regular points scores are a real possibility. One feels that with Kubica leading the team in fine form, the occasional podium may not be out of the question. The target must again be Q3 and a top 8 finish for Renault in Australia.

Sauber were probably Bahrain’s biggest disappointment having shone in pre-season testing. Both Pedro de la Rosa and Kamui Kobayashi were struck down in the race with terminal problems, but their pace was far from what was promised. Having introduced their own F-duct system, their aim will be to get nearer the top 10. However the F-Duct system on the McLaren certainly didn’t help them in the overtaking stakes on the evidence of Bahrain, so Sauber may well have to look closely at what comes next. Expect another midfield performance barring any major race incidents or safety cars.

Toro Rosso may also have cause to be disappointed with their Bahrain showing, with Alguersuari being the only one to join the new teams dumped out of qualifying at the first hurdle. Being their first year as a proper constructor, they will probably find it hard going, but much of the Faenza staff will have been in this position before. With Jaime’s pace edging closer to that of Buemi’s with experience, they will expect to stay well clear of the new teams in the races and hopefully give Sauber and Williams cause for concern. Staying out of trouble will be a major priority.

Lotus, Virgin and HRT

The arrival and relative performances of these three new teams to F1 in 2010 has produced some genuine back-of-the-grid interest. Certainly the personalities behind Virgin Racing and the heritage surrounding Lotus F1 have helped gain them support and a following, or at the very least some airtime. Bruno Senna and Karun Chandhok will of course bring the might of their respective nations’ support and interest to HRT.

Lotus were the only one of the new teams to get their cars to the finish (pretty much) first time out with Kovalainen winning the new team battle at Sakhir. However, it was Timo Glock’s Virgin Cosworth that probably had the edge on pace. Hispania of course had to use qualifying and the practice sessions of the Bahrain GP as a televised shakedown, and the race as a (short) testing exercise. As we progress race by race, expect the gaps between these new teams to decrease and the fight to become more intense. The aim of all these teams without question is to finish the Australian GP and gain invaluable mileage and data, or possibly even a Toro Rosso-shaped scalp.

Notable Absentees: Nick Heidfeld 22/03/10

The 2010 season is the first in which Nick Heidfeld does not have a Formula 1 race seat since entering the top flight ten years ago with Alain Prost’s team. Heidfeld’s decade in F1 ended last year with the withdrawal of BMW Motorsport, leaving Quick Nick to chase fruitlessly after drives at Mercedes and McLaren amongst others. Eventually, for this season he ended up as reserve driver for Mercedes GP, and one can’t help but feel Heidfeld’s time in a top F1 race seat is over.

Nick Heidfeld entered F1 on the back of impressive campaigns in the lower formulae. F1’s then main feeder series was F3000, albeit much more indirectly than GP2 is now. Heidfeld narrowly missed out on becoming a rookie F3000 champion in 1998, losing out in the end to a hungrier and more experienced Juan Pablo Montoya. Having already tested a McLaren F1 car the year before that through becoming the 1997 German F3 champion, Heidfeld was taken on as McLaren F1 test driver in ’98. In his second year of F3000, Nick won the championship convincingly. While the calibre of competition in that year may have been questionable, with only Franck Montagny, Alex Yoong, Enrique Bernoldi, Justin Wilson and Stephane Sarrazin ever making it to an F1 race seat for any period of time, you can only beat what is in front of you. Or not in front of you, as the case was in 1999 for Heidfeld and the series-leading West Competition outfit.

In his early F1 career while driving for Sauber between 2001 and 2003, Heidfeld had Felipe Massa and Kimi Raikkonen as teammates, both of whom have gone on to achieve much in F1. Despite coming out on top against both of those Ferrari-bound men, his long term stock never rose the way Massa’s and Raikkonen’s did. A spell at Williams-BMW in 2005 saw Heidfeld record his first pole position at the Nurburgring, and in a memorable race where Raikkonen’s McLaren fell apart on the last lap and most of the big names had some off-track drama, Nick held it together to finish 2nd. This immediately after another great showing at Monaco, where he also finished 2nd. Despite these memorable results, he finished behind Williams teammate Mark Webber in the final 2005 standings, his chance at a front-running Williams car coming a year too late. However, Heidfeld had done enough to impress head of BMW Motorsport Mario Theissen.

The defining period of Nick Heidfeld’s Formula 1 career was undoubtedly his four years as a BMW Sauber driver alongside Robert Kubica. After seeing off the challenge of Jacques Villeneuve in the sister BMW, the impressive late season debut by new-boy Kubica in 2006 once again cast the spotlight on someone other than Nick. His response to the hype and excitement around yet another wunderkind teammate was Heidfeld’s greatest triumph, his best ever season. In 2007 when all eyes were on McLaren, Alonso, Hamilton, Raikkonen, Ferrari and spygate, Heidfeld scored points in 14 out of 17 races, finishing a career-best 5th in the championship. Most notably, eclipsing his highly-rated teammate Kubica 61 points to 39, but again finishing no higher than 2nd in a race. The following season saw BMW-Sauber produce a car far more to Kubica’s liking, and in a season where the team finally had a championship challenging, race-winning car, it was his teammate who took a memorable first win for the Munich-Hinwil outfit in Canada. Heidfeld was, of course, 2nd. Nick managed four podiums to Kubica’s seven, and finished 15 points adrift of his teammate at the completion of the season.

Finally, in 2009 when BMW-Sauber were genuinely expected to be a serious title prospect, the KERS-powered ball was dramatically dropped. Often off the pace, both Heidfeld and Kubica struggled to get anything out of the ’09 package. While development of the car did lead to better late-season form, the decision had already been made to withdraw from F1, leaving Heidfeld out of a job. Despite such an uncompetitive machine, Heidfeld did record yet another 2nd place finish in the monsoon conditions of Sepang. Those oft-quoted Heidfeld adjectives came to mind; Solid, dependable, reliable, consistent. It’s no wonder Heidfeld holds the record for most consecutive finishes in F1 races. With such a record, how was it that Heidfeld was unable to find a seat on the 2010 grid, whereas Kubica (who Heidfeld beat again) was able to land the lead driver position at Renault? Was it due to Heidfeld’s other records, that of the driver with the most F1 championship points without a win, the most 2nd places without a win, the most podiums without a win?

Every F1 team wants to believe that given the right car, their driver can win races, even if they are the 11th fastest team on the grid. Does his lack of a winner’s trophy make Heidfeld any less worthy of a 2010 seat than Heikki Kovalainen or Jarno Trulli? Did a career built on reliability and results, and a good record against illustrious teammates, not even earn him a place at a Sauber or Force India? Ever since his first foray into F1, Heidfeld will feel that the limelight was always reserved for his contemporaries, whether it was Montoya and his tie up with Williams and Chip Ganassi, Raikkonen getting the McLaren drive he felt belonged to him, Kubica receiving the plaudits at BMW or Schumacher, Rosberg, Vettel and even Hulkenburg being the more celebrated Germans.

I doubt we’ve seen the last of Nick Heidfeld in an F1 race seat, but maybe we’ve already seen the best that he has to offer in a car that could, and should have made him a winner. Yes we remember the move around the outside of Fernando Alonso’s McLaren at Bahrain in 2007, and yes we remember Nick was the first driver in 31 years to take an F1 car to the Nordschleife. But as it stands, a driver who showed much early promise and clearly justified his place in F1, may be remembered more for what he did not achieve.

Notable Absentees: Kimi Raikkonen 20/03/10

In 2009 it became clear very early on that Kimi Raikkonen was not going to see out the full term of his Ferrari contract. Despite neither Kimi nor Felipe Massa starting the season particularly well, the perception had always been that Raikkonen lacked commitment and ambition having already achieved world champion status. What had never been in doubt was the talent at Kimi’s disposal, and however much you had read that on his day Raikkonen was unbeatable, those occurrences became few and far between.

In his last year at Ferrari, Raikkonen did record his customary victorious performance at Spa Francorchamps, albeit after a race-long battle with Force India’s Giancarlo Fisichella. This was an indication of how troubled the 2009 Ferrari F60 was, but Kimi and the team’s sole win of the season came among a short string of impressive results. Being partnered with Badoer, then Fisichella, seemed to spur Raikkonen on to squeeze the best out of a bad car in the last third of the year but it was never going to be enough to keep Alonso from usurping his seat. It was also not enough to guarantee him a drive anywhere else for 2010. There was interest in him from Mercedes GP and more obviously McLaren, but Kimi’s attempts to keep himself in a seat for 2010 seemed somewhat obligatory instead of voluntary. Reports of unreasonable wage demands and low-responsibility contracts inevitably resulted in Raikkonen being left standing when the music stopped.

Should F1 have done more to try and keep one of its most recent and well-supported champions in a seat for 2010? Surely in a year where every top team seems to have a world champion incumbent or at least a serious challenger, Raikkonen could only have added to the hype and the spectacle? This raises the question of where he could have gone, having spurned opportunities to sign for Mercedes and McLaren. Undoubtedly the return of Michael Schumacher is a bigger draw than a former world champion who seems borderline uninterested, so realistically the only other teams that could offer Kimi a tilt at race wins would be Williams and Renault, neither of which would have been able or prepared to pay what Kimi’s management were asking. Not even close.

With his heart turning towards more extreme forms of motorsport able to provide greater thrills than finishing anywhere below 1st in an F1 race, Kimi Raikkonen became a World Rally Championship driver in 2010. After Juan Pablo Montoya’s exit from F1 in 2006, Kimi’s is probably the greatest loss to the sport in recent years. While he may not have been a modern F1 driver in the commercial sense of the word, unsuitable for the demands of many teams, ironically Raikkonen had great personality specifically in his widely perceived lack of it. Without question one of the fastest, most gifted and cleanest drivers throughout the years, when Raikkonen got it right in 2007 he did it his way. While the McLaren duo of Hamilton and Alonso depleted each other, Raikkonen wrapped up the title with win after win.

Depending on who you talk to, Raikkonen should probably already be a 3-time world champion instead of that solitary title in 2007. A late change in tyre rules in 2003 swung the championship away from him and McLaren towards Schumacher and Ferrari. Furthermore, in 2005 Raikkonen and McLaren had the fastest car on the grid, but early season reliability woes allowed Fernando Alonso and Renault to amass an unassailable points advantage despite the fact that Raikkonen scored as many wins that year as the eventual champion. No F1 fan will ever forget what was arguably the greatest victory in modern F1, a last lap pass on Giancarlo Fisichella for the lead at the mighty racing temple that is Suzuka in 2005, having started 17th on the grid. Here’s to the future return of another great F1 champion, who completed his slow descent out of the limelight after being thrust into it so suddenly.

Bahrain Grand Prix 2010 - 15/03/10

The first race of a Formula 1 season is usually very exciting due to regulation changes. Usually. It’s not enough to just label a season as the most exciting prospect in recent memory, you have to cite reasons for such billing. The opportunity to see two-time world champion Fernando Alonso in a potentially championship winning team would allow us to witness again what a supreme driver can do in a supreme car. Add to that the chance to finally compare champions like Button and Hamilton to each other, and more importantly to the legendary benchmark that is Michael Schumacher. The lack of refuelling for 2010 means that a driver’s ability to effectively manage pace, tyre life as well as other systems will be of particular significance and reduce the need for multiple pit stops. Pre-season testing suggested that many cars would be close together on pace with a few surprises, and the new teams well out of the equation. So exactly how much of the above was really expected to create a scintillating spectacle of overtaking and high drama?

With a few small exceptions, qualifying ensured that the fastest drivers in the fastest cars were ahead of the slightly-less faster drivers in similar or slower machines. Without KERS-tastic rockets, a more traditional F1 start meant no big surprises on the run down to turn 1. Sebastian Vettel got away well from pole while Alonso hung around the outside of Massa in turn 1, giving him the inside and 2nd place for turn 2. Rosberg passed Hamilton for 4th shortly after Lewis was given the squeeze by Massa leading up to turn 3. Mark Webber’s Red Bull emitted thick plumes of smoke from the back resulting in Schumacher passing him for 6th. Webber’s race would have been further compromised had Robert Kubica and Adrian Sutil not touched and spun, probably as a result of reduced visibility.

Vettel generally extended the gap to Alonso, while Fernando did the same to Massa. Not a great deal else happened up front until the pit stops around lap 14 to 16. In previous years, due to a lighter fuel load at the end of a stint, it had been more effective for cars to pit later than those around them. Conversely, this year the earlier stoppers have the advantage due to an ever-decreasing fuel load and fresh tyres at the start of a stint. With some slick pit work, the McLaren team had Hamilton stationary for just 4.5 seconds and therefore he jumped Nico Rosberg who stopped a lap later, for 4th. Similarly, Jenson Button who had been following Schumacher and Webber at a conservative distance managed to jump Webber for 7th in the pits. Mark will be rueing another weekend where Vettel’s performance hinted at the chasm between their destinies as Red Bull drivers, having had his average qualifying and bad start compounded by being held up by Schumacher, then Button jumping him in the stops. Button himself later lamented not pushing harder on his softer tyres having tried too hard to preserve them leading up to his pit stop.

On the harder tyres, the Ferraris and especially Alonso, seemed to have more for Vettel. At one stage Alonso took nearly a second out of Vettel after a gentle reeling, but due to the high track temperatures, tyre wear and dirty air, Alonso was staying out of Vettel’s slipstream to preserve his machinery. It was as if he rebounded off a protective field around the leading car and fell into Massa’s grasp briefly, a worrying omen for 2010. On lap 30 it became obvious that Vettel’s Red Bull was ailing having shed a piece of exhaust, and consequently power, at an alarming rate. He was summarily swallowed up by Alonso, then Massa. While there were laps where Alonso closed on the leading Red Bull, and despite Fernando stating he was preparing and preserving his car for an all-out attack on Vettel in the last 10 laps, he had to admit it would have been “Difficult” to catch and pass the incredible German. Subsequently, Lewis Hamilton also passed the slowing Red Bull after a period of great pace that saw him leave Rosberg’s Mercedes behind. According to Rosberg, Vettel’s Red Bull had such good levels of downforce that he couldn’t make any time on him in the closing stages through the new twisty middle sector of the Sakhir track. Rosberg had no doubt taken some significant life out of his tyres catching Vettel.

So it was that Fernando Alonso, like Kimi Raikkonen in 2007, endeared himself to the Tifosi and his new team by closing out his debut GP for Ferrari with some very fast laps, stretching the gap to Massa into double figures. Unlike Raikkonen though, Alonso didn’t need a wake up call from his crew on the radio to prevent him falling asleep in the lead. Massa himself claimed he was asked to look after his car, reporting high temperatures. Hamilton completed the podium with Vettel holding off Rosberg for 4th. Would it not be damning for the current crop of drivers and teams to have Michael Schumacher, 41 years old and 3 years away from racing, to step back in and waltz to the front of the pack? A sixth place finish for Schumi is a more than acceptable and worthy return given what he is up against, the nature of the regulations and competition ensuring he didn’t get any higher (or lower) than 6th place once the stops were done. He will only get better and closer to Rosberg and the rest.

The new teams had the kind of day that you would expect, the experienced drivers staying out of trouble for the most part in young and fragile cars, while mechanical gremlins claimed a good proportion of the newcomers. Glock was probably the fastest of the new teams’ drivers, but Lotus managed to get both Trulli and Kovalainen to the finish. Nico Hulkenburg and Vitaly Petrov had a predictably hard time, but at least Petrov had a great start to run 11th early on and Kubica proved the Renault does have decent pace. Rubens Barrichello brought his late-stopping Williams home in 10th place for a point, just behind Liuzzi who had a solid run in a Force India that will be a thorn in the side of any misfiring top team. Sauber will justifiably be disappointed in how the season has opened for them, their pace from testing promised much but delivered little, both Kobayashi and De La Rosa retiring from the race having never threatened the points scorers. Jaime Alguersuari showed that he was closer to Buemi at Toro Rosso than last year, and that will undoubtedly be an interesting story to follow as the season wears on.

And interesting stories appear to be the main theme of the 2010 season opener, not thrilling on-track action. The level of excitement and satisfaction viewers derived from Sunday’s opening GP will be directly proportionate to what their expectations were. As mentioned previously, opening races are usually exciting, but more often than not that is a result of them being held at Albert Park. Last time Bahrain played host to the inaugural race of the season in 2006, Fernando Alonso came out of his second pit stop mere centimetres ahead of Michael Schumacher and held on through turn 1 to secure first place and a subsequent victory. That was it, a flash of excitement in the closing stages of, Rosberg’s debut aside, an otherwise mostly unremarkable race at the front. The worry is that this year, without the introduction of a mandatory second pit stop or more variation in the tyre compounds, the flash of excitement will occur only at the start leaving viewers praying for rain and failures. Expect a few changes to have been set in motion by the time we reach Australia in a fortnight’s time.

2010 Season Preview (Part 3) - 15/03/10

Toro Rosso

This is the first season where Scuderia Toro Rosso can be considered a proper constructor, no longer using the same chassis as Red Bull Racing. Naturally their 2010 offering can be seen to be an evolution of last year’s Adrian Newey design, but how much longer will Dietrich Mateschitz be able to justify the expense of the second team? Much of that will be down to how Sebastien Buemi and Jaime Alguersuari build on their 2009 campaigns. If either of those two prove capable of breaking into the points and performing above the other midfield runners, thereby staking a claim to a Red Bull Racing seat alongside Vettel for next year, the Toro Rosso project will still hold relevance. As for this season, a strong Ferrari engine will hopefully hold its own against the Cosworth teams who may experience some teething troubles with their package early on, allowing STR to break free.

Buemi started 2009 strongly, and ended the year with flashes of promise while not quite shining throughout. This year he will have to pick up where the last one left off, minus collisions with teammates, minus decorating vital parts of the track with debris and ruining qualifying for championship challengers. Buemi could be one of the rare breed of F1 drivers who never quite excelled in lower formulae, but on his day can outperform the car. A consistent run of results at that level will see him prolong his career. Alguersuari on the other hand was the youngest ever winner of the British F3 title and the youngest ever driver of an F1 car. Thrown in at the deep end, last year’s Japanese GP saw him sink a little beneath the surface with multiple big shunts. A winter break and a proper pre-season testing opportunity should allow Alguersuari to demonstrate the talent he has this year compared to his teammate.


Norfolk’s finest make a return to F1 in 2010 sixteen years after pulling out, but this is definitely no longer Colin Chapman’s team. Tony Fernandes, Air Asia supremo, is the force behind this return and has already shown us glimpses of what to expect by taking jibes about “Proton F1” in his stride, as well as publicly accepting a wager with Virgin’s Richard Branson where the losing team owner will dress up as a female flight attendant. This sense of humour may well come in useful as Lotus have struggled to get their car ready in time for pre-season testing and will undoubtedly play catch-up from day one. Mike Gascoyne will be leading the technical effort and will be hoping to repeat his former successes with start-up operations and low budget racing. The T127 will be running a Cosworth engine, yet there will be question marks surrounding overall reliability and performance. Lotus will be hoping to snap at the heels of midfield regulars at best.

As for the driver line-up, of the new teams Lotus clearly have the most desirable pairing in Jarno Trulli and Heikki Kovalainen. Both have driven for huge teams and won one race apiece, both are considered experienced and without a doubt a major catch for a new team. Neither Trulli nor Kovalainen have demonstrated the consistency to challenge for a title or even maintain top form for any sustained period of time, but Mike Gascoyne retains faith in the drivers he has previously worked with. He will be hoping the sporadic flashes of brilliance from both drivers over their careers so far can be melded into a productive series of results for a team whose name and heritage attract as much support as it does pressure.


Having successfully backed the right horse for his first foray into F1 in 2009, Richard Branson and his Virgin empire have transferred their backing from Brawn GP to what was Manor GP for 2010, creating Virgin Racing. To assume that Branson and co are bringing huge funding to the table is a mistake though, as Virgin are clearly more interested in succeeding on a budget. To that end, the use of a windtunnel has been completely forsaken by Virgin racing and chief designer, Nick Wirth. Virgin are focusing purely on Computational Fluid Dynamics (CFD) for the design and development of their cars. This is a first for F1 and Virgin will be hoping that their progress will justify the 100% CFD route, casting doubt on the need for 24 hour windtunnel usage by the established F1 teams.

The driving duties fall to Toyota refugee Timo Glock and multiple GP2 race winner Lucas di Grassi. Glock’s quality and drive are unquestioned, having impressed in just about every formula he’s participated in. The chance to be team leader and de facto #1 at a team is of course appealing, but this is clearly a step backwards for Glock who was a genuine podium challenger over the last two years. Di Grassi is the unknown quantity despite race wins and championship tilts in GP2 as well as spending time as Renault F1 test driver. Di Grassi finished second in the GP2 championship to Timo Glock in 2007, where Glock already looked the better driver if a little more prone to incidents. The Toyota F1 experience will no doubt mean that Glock will comfortably outperform Di Grassi this year. One just hopes that when the Virgin drivers radio the pits citing technical issues they are not redirected to a Mumbai call centre where they are promised an engineer will be sent out a week on Wednesday.


Campos Meta 1, now Hispania Racing Team, could not have left it later to arrive on the 2010 grid. Dallara chassis and Cosworth engine, a complete lack of testing for the drivers and the team mean that they are almost guaranteed to be the weakest of the new teams, at least initially. Jose Ramon Carabante’s purchase of the squad helped place HRT on the grid in place of USF1. Team principal of HRT, Colin Kolles, will undoubtedly bring some much needed F1 experience to the outfit having progressed beyond the days of being labelled ‘Chavski’ at Midland F1.

Bruno Senna and Karun Chandhok renew a driving partnership first conceived at GP2 championship winning team i-Sport in 2008. Neither Senna nor Chandhok won the GP2 title, but Senna did come very close eventually being pipped by Giorgio Pantano, the only GP2 champion not to make it into F1 after being crowned. The return of the Senna name to F1, stirring as it is, is far more low key than the Brawn GP 2009 deal that never happened. It is a given that Bruno will have many fans and well-wishers throughout the season, but this is the stage that his career has fired him towards. It is also the stage where final judgement will be passed on his merits as a driver with a famous name. As for Chandhok, one really wonders how much preparation he has had for the Bahrain opener. Will Vijay Mallya be keeping a close eye on his progress as a future replacement for Liuzzi at Force India? Neither driver will be short of support, but the rest of the F1 fraternity will not welcome a team whose very first run of the car will be during first practice at Sakhir.