Monday, 7 April 2014

Brilliant Bahrain

The Sakhir circuit in Bahrain has never been associated with the best Grand Prix, but in 2014 it delivered one of the sports greatest ever races. Combined with the launch of the 2014 GP2 season and some FIA announcements, there is plenty to be talking about between now and the Chinese Grand Prix.

The first Bahrain Grand Prix under the lights became an instant classic.

As expected for a Grand Prix in the desert, there was dry running all weekend which removed the veil of the rain affected qualifying sessions in both Australia and Malaysia. It left Mercedes completely unopposed at the front with only themselves to fight it out for the pole and subsequently the race victory. The other teams are adamant that they can catch Mercedes, and they themselves have confirmed their expectation in that happening sooner rather than later. They are therefore going about building an unassailable lead whilst they enjoy this large margin over their competitors, something that has served teams like McLaren, Williams, Ferrari and Red Bull well in periods of a single team domination. The great news for the fans though is that the Mercedes team are not strangling the excitement out of the season with their competitive level. It would be very easy to set up a team order stating whoever leads into the first corner / after the first pitstops / after the second pitstops will be allowed the victory. Mercedes are instead allowing 2 of the most skilled combatants behind the wheel to take the fight for each victory and probably ultimately to be the 2014 world champion. It is all smiles from the 2 men at the moment, but how each side of the garage is maintained is crucial and the team are doing an outstanding job currently.

Lewis Hamilton and Nico Rosberg demonstrated supreme racecraft in both attack and defence around the Sakhir circuit.

The victory itself was a fantastic steal by Lewis Hamilton, with Nico Rosberg holding a pace advantage across the entire weekend. His start gave him the lead of the race, but the Sakhir circuit allows overtaking with most outside lines becoming the inside line at the following corner. Hamilton used all of his racecraft to both defend his lead, and retake it immediately after Rosberg made a move stick. Lewis Hamilton looked comfortable within the second stint, able to make and then maintain an 11 second margin to Rosberg that seemed to be enough. The safety car then changed the favour back to Rosberg on the fresher, softer tyre compound. Rosberg will no doubt wonder how he was unable to make a pass stick with all of the tools available to him, and with the world championship at stake he needs to take every opportunity presented to him.

Mercedes management of their drivers will be crucial throughout the season, both to championship aspirations and to the overall spectacle.

The domination of the Mercedes team has not gone down too well with some Formula 1 personalities. Always someone to speak out when other won't (or shouldn't?), Luca di Montezemolo was in Bahrain to discuss changes he would like made to Formula 1 to improve the show. The noise of the new power units has come under a lot of fire, but it wouldn't be a surprise is Luca di Montezemolo was more interested in seeing his red cars back at the front again. The Ferrari engine is rumoured to be too heavy, despite their interpretation on the engine regulations allowing them to run without a ballistic cover on their turbo (a saving of around 3kg). Bahrain also showed that it is not achieving the same power level or smooth torque delivery that makes the Mercedes engine the best in the field. The FIA World Motorsport Council are meeting this Friday to discuss some of the suggestions for potential trialling as early as the Spanish Grand Prix in May. Given how spectacular the show was in Bahrain I hope they do not change too much, with suggestions such as shortened races and removing the fuel flow limit swirling around.

The comments made by these 2 in 2014 have left them with egg on their face after Bahrain.

The noise situation is not the only topic of discussion later this week, as significantly the Formula 1 cost cap plans have been abandoned. This was announced with the news that the Gene Haas application to join the grid in 2015 has been accepted, along with the idea that a 13th team be allowed to enter as well. That 13th team has no official details yet revealed by the FIA, however it is believed that it is Colin Kolles looking to return to F1. The cost cap was put in place to help new teams to be both sustainable and competitive, after the controversies surrounding the introduction of 3 new teams back in 2010. It is maintained however that the cost of running a Formula 1 team will be maintained by both the sporting and technical regulations instead, so I await what these proposed changes will be.

Both Virgin Racing and Lotus Racing joined in 2010, and have not yet fully close the gap to the midfield. They have at least survived though unlike the Hispania Racing Team.

Behind the Mercedes team, the battle to be second best has intensified greatly with Force India, Williams, Ferrari, McLaren and Red Bull all in the fight. the 3 races have highlighted that the apparent advantages and disadvantages of these teams can alter significantly based on track conditions and circuit demands. Bahrain being a high speed circuit with plenty of traction zones out of corners, the teams running Mercedes engines enjoyed an advantage both in ultimate power and in the smooth torque delivery of the 2014 power units. Force India had looked the 4th best Mercedes team so far in 2014, but they turned the tables brilliantly in Bahrain with a stunning podium for Sergio Perez. Perez himself showed that he will not be taken lightly despite the hugely talented Nico Hulkenberg in the garage opposite his. Williams enjoyed a better race thanks to a dry qualifying session, but will have to look into their use of the Pirelli tyres and their need to 3 stop whilst others could 2 stop. The safety car helped them out with this strategy yesterday but they may not be so lucky if the degrading is this extreme again.

The fight is heating up nicely to be the second best Mercedes powered team.

McLaren, Ferrari and Red Bull have spent seasons in the midfield, but never in the same season as all 3 teams struggled under the Sakhir spotlights. McLaren looked like the 4th best Mercedes team all weekend, but Jenson Button still claimed they had pace in reserve for the remainder of the race prior to their double retirement with clutch issues. Red Bull's issues were countered effectively by both their decision to strip away aerodynamic pieces for better straight line speed, and the late safety car that put them back into striking distance of their rivals. The front wing they ran in Bahrain was very bare compared to what we have seen recently in Formula 1 and they may have to employ it more often than they would like until the Renault power unit can produce competitive power to their rivals. The Ferrari team struggled the most though, with Fernando Alonso struggling with diminishing power output throughout qualifying and both drivers falling through the field in the race. Kimi Raikkonen started ahead of Alonso, but was behind quickly thanks to another aggressive start from the Spaniard. Raikkonen was also hampered on the first lap by another coming together with Kevin Magnussen but it wasn't as damaging to their races as the collision in Malaysia. With the rise of Force India and Williams, the big 3 are definitely all in damage limitation mode.

Ferrari, Red Bull and McLaren are all used to having a lot more cars behind them.

Despite being far from competitive levels expected for these teams, they are still not struggling as much as the Toro Rosso, Sauber and Lotus teams. The frail Renault engines have hurt Toro Rosso and Lotus, with the latter struggling even to make a full race distance in Australia and Malaysia. Sauber are having to deal with the heavier Ferrari power unit, and are combating that with a new lightweight chassis they hope to race from Spain onwards. I wrote about the drivers weight at the end of last year and the advantages with being lighter than your rivals. Adrian Sutil being one of the heaviest drivers on the grid is struggling especially, and the techniques being used by some of these drivers to claw back some weight deficit are absurd. The most eye catching is the way in which Sutil is dehyrdating himself before qualifying and within the race. The weight of the fluid along with water bottle itslef can be as much as 1kg, and I fear the weight loss does not justify the action should the dehydration cause a lapse in Sutil's concentration. the lighter drivers have petitioned against any weight increase, which is understandable given the advantages they will lose, but if it does become a matter of safety then I am sure that the FIA will need to step in and make the change.

Adrian Sutil is going to extreme methods to ensure he is competitive, but I hope his concentration does not suffer as a result.

Both Saubers were victims to the 2 most serious incidents during the race. It says much of Saubers struggles that Sutil clashed with Jules Bianchi twice whilst fighting for race position. The initial incident was a clash of tyres at turn 4 as Sutil passed Bianchi, but the Marussia driver didn't give up on the position and tried to retake it from Sutil at turn 1 on the following lap. It was a clumsy move from Bianchi who is maybe used to racing against Chilton and the Caterhams only, whose main objective is to finish the race. Sutil was already thinking about catching the car ahead, and so also was probably not as wary as he ought to be. Nonetheless, Bianchi should have known better than to try the move from so far back, and banked a decent finish having now been beaten by Max Chilton in every race so far in 2014. Chilton's incredible run of race finishes continued, and his 13th place moves Marussia back up to the hotly contested 10th place in the constructors championship.

Marussia are much closer to where they want to be in 2014. Caterham are not far behind though.

The most spectacular moment of the race came when the the other Sauber of Esteban Gutierrez was flipped in the air by the Lotus of Pastor Maldonado. Maldonado's move to Lotus over the winter was met with very negative reviews from the fans, having had a number of high profile incidents in recent years. This clash was no better as the Venzuelan was emerging from the pitlane, and tagged the Sauber very late in the corner. He had plenty of time to react to the situation, but claimed he had nowhere to go on the inside of the corner. Gutierrez was already accelerating away, had no idea he was there (the wing mirrors would not have shown Maldonado was to his far right), and had left space on the inside of the corner as well. The Sauber driver did everything he could to avoid a crash and was very lucky to escape unharmed. I'm not entirely sure the penalty applied then fitted the crime, as Maldonado received a 10 second stop go in a race already affected by his own mistake. The grid penalty will of course affect his next Grand Prix as well, and he did receive points on his license, but it is the quantities I question. Daniel Ricciardo was dropped 10 places for an unsafe pit release when a wheel was not tightened. Yes it was a dangerous situation, but twice as dangerous as the Maldonado move? He received 3 points on his super-license, just 1 point more than Jules Bianchi for the incident above. Again, was it not more dangerous? I think Maldonado could do with a race ban to really understand why he can't keep crashing into things, after all just look at what it did for Romain Grosjean's career in the other Lotus garage...

It was feared the low noses may cause more aerial crashes in Formula 1, but this scary incident was the result of wheel to wheel contact.

We now have a chance to catch our breaths after the thrilling weekend of motorsport, but there will be plenty to digest between now and the Chinese Grand Prix on April 20th. On top of the 2014 regulation meeting to discuss noise levels, we will find out the result of Red Bull's appeal over Daniel Ricciardo's exclusion from the Australian Grand Prix next Monday. If the wait for motor racing is too long then there is also the start of the Formula Renault 3.5 Series this weekend in Monza. Having given the Formula 1 grid many of it's graduates, you can be sure that at least 1 future Formula 1 driver will be on the Italian grid and it is always worth keeping an eye on the potential talent pool.