3 April 2014
The F1 circus arrives at the Sakhir International Circuit for Round 3 of the World Championship. However, if there was one place on the calendar that I wish F1 did not race at it would be Bahrain. It’s not just that it’s another Tilke-designed circuit, it’s also the way F1 has been used by a range of actors in Bahrain since 2011. However, the sizeable race hosting fee (reportedly in the region of $40m) that F1’s commercial rights’ holders collect each year takes precedence.
Sakhir itself is instantly forgettable. It has no memorable corners or distinguishing features, except for the vast run-off areas that allow the drivers to escape any serious punishment for being greedy on the brakes or throttle. The circuit is characterised by slow corners and long straights, especially in Sectors 1 and 3, and is tough on brakes due to the big stops at Turns 1, 4 and 14. Turn 1 offers the prime overtaking opportunity for faster drivers as the cars decelerate to 40 miles per hour from over 185 miles per hour to make the tight first corner. Performing well at Sakhir requires a car with high top-line speed, stability under braking and good traction – exactly what the Mercedes W05 offers. Unfortunately, Sakhir has produced few memorable races since it first held a Grand Prix in 2004. The 2013 running was notable for Mercedes’ rather dramatic slide from pole down the field as their rear tyres overheated and gave up. The 2012 event was brought to life in the dying laps when Vettel battled Raikkonen’s Lotus for the win, eventually finishing only 3 seconds in front of the Finn.
Turning to 2014, it is unlikely that the competitive order will have changed much in the week since Round 2. Barring an unlikely downpour, qualifying will take place in the dry and will crucially give us the first proper measure of relative single-lap performance this season. Sebastian Vettel almost took pole in Round 2, but the wet track enabled Red Bull to get closer to Mercedes than they’ll manage in the dry. Mercedes will almost certainly secure pole again and probably a front row lock-out such is their speed. On single-lap pace, I expect Ferrari and Williams to challenge for Rows 2 and 3 on the grid along with Vettel. Red Bull, in fact, enter qualifying (and the race) at somewhat of a disadvantage given Daniel Ricciardo’s 10-place grid drop and Renault’s power deficit to Mercedes (reportedly in the region of 80bhp). They do, however, have a stable car under braking and will probably perform strongly in Sector 2 given its higher speed corners.
In the intra-team battle at Mercedes, it will be interesting to see whether Rosberg can respond to Hamilton’s marker in Malaysia. The German is certainly good enough to do so, but the character of Hamilton’s drive at Sepang indicated that the Briton is finding the sweet spot with the W05, so he could just as easily outperform Rosberg again. In fact, Hamilton’s post-race comments after the Malaysian Grand Prix revealed a driver very confident in the car underneath him. Feel, especially on the brakes, and confidence is particularly important to a driver like Hamilton. As he said, the W04 in 2013 was a quick car, but he did not feel confident driving it. That piece of the puzzle appears to have been filled this year. It will be a tall order – though not impossible – for Rosberg to beat a resurgent Hamilton. Further down the field, I expect Williams to be ahead of McLaren and probably fighting Vettel and Alonso for the final podium position. McLaren, like Williams, will benefit from the Mercedes’ lower fuel consumption rate and straight-line speed advantage, but I think that Williams have fundamentally a faster car than McLaren at the moment. McLaren have been sending out mixed messages since Malaysia with Racing Director Eric Boullier saying that McLaren’s poor performance in Round 2 will not be a one-off, although Jenson Button claimed that the downforce demands of Sepang masked McLaren’s development progress. Either way, my sense is that McLaren will be battling Force India rather than challenging for the podium. Two drivers that I think will be worth watching closely are Daniel Ricciardo and Kimi Raikkonen. It should be exciting to see Ricciardo come through the pack after he starts in the midfield. Raikkonen, on the other hand, said that Ferrari will bring an update to his F14 T this weekend in an effort to give him the handling characteristics he is looking for. If that’s successful, I doubt it will be long before the Finn is on terms with Alonso.