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.

1 comment:

AERO_HDT said...

I agree wholeheartedly with the notion that the lack of pitstops takes away some excitement and my first thought was "we gotta pray for rain on race day now", but F1 has never really been boring and there's always excitement in the bigger picture.

Being a Melbournian, I'd be biased in saying Bahrain was not the greatest opening race, but whether or not that was a matter for the event organisers or whether or not it was just the rule changes and race itself is a hard guess.

I'm just happy to see Schumacher back on track again - he got me into F1 back in 1993, and here we are, 17 years later...