Issue 9: Bahrain Grand Prix Review

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8 April 2014

Race Summary: Lewis Hamilton took victory in a close fight ahead of his team-mate Nico Rosberg. Sergio Perez finished third for Force India ahead of Daniel Ricciardo’s Red Bull who passed his team-mate after starting 13th on the grid. Sebastian Vettel came in sixth ahead of the three-stopping Williams drivers. Ferrari endured a poor race with Fernando Alonso and Kimi Raikkonen finishing ninth and tenth.

‘Taxi Driving’ at Sakhir

I defy anyone to say that the Bahrain Grand Prix was boring. What a race! No team orders at Mercedes and an unlikely safety car period late on gave us a thriller of a race. Some may complain that the new formula has simply swapped Red Bull’s supremacy for total domination by Mercedes, but don’t think for a moment that there isn’t a fight for the drivers’ world championship. We are in for a season-long classic as Hamilton and Rosberg exchange blows at the front of the field. I like this kind of domination. Two of the best drivers in F1 today delivering their maximum. 2014 could well turn out to be reminiscent of the 1988 season when Ayrton Senna and Alain Prost, two drivers at the top of their game, utterly dominated the season, winning every race for McLaren bar the Italian Grand Prix.

For scintillating drives in Bahrain, look no further than Lewis Hamilton. His was a season-defining performance. To defend against the hard-charging Rosberg for the final 10 laps whilst on the slower medium tyre and without the car handling to his liking was a brilliant achievement. This was all about racecraft and defensive driving skill. Hamilton positioned his W05 extremely well when Rosberg attacked on Lap 52, cutting back inside the German at Turn 1 and then forcing him out wide at Turn 4 as he took the racing line. Rosberg had responded impressively to Hamilton’s gauntlet from Malaysia a day earlier by securing pole position. However, Hamilton edged out his team-mate in the opening phase of the race, built-up a healthy 10 second lead in the second phase, before using all his skills to hold track position in the final dash to the finish line after the safety car period. The battle echoed that between Fernando Alonso driving for Renault and the faster Ferrari of Michael Schumacher at the 2005 San Marino Grand Prix when Alonso defended superbly for the final 12 laps to hold on for the win by just 0.2 seconds. In Bahrain, punch and counter-punch were made strongly but fairly by both Hamilton and Rosberg to deliver awesome wheel-to-wheel racing.

This was edge of the seat stuff. This was F1 back to its very best.

The struggle for the lead rather (or should that be rightly?) overshadowed some other excellent drives further down the field. Competition for the final podium position was fiercely contested by Force India, Williams and Red Bull. The Force India drivers – Perez in particular – performed superbly, taking the fight to Williams in the first half of the race and then holding off the Red Bulls in the closing phase. Perez, by finishing on the podium and putting one over ‘The Hulk’ who had up till now received all the plaudits, showed that he still has plenty to offer F1. However, had it not been for Hamilton’s drive, the star of the race must surely have been Daniel Ricciardo. Yes, the safety car period helped him out a bit. However, his gritty drive from 13th on the grid to fourth at the chequered flag was characterised by aggression and bold overtaking moves, not least on Nico Hulkenberg on Lap 54 and significantly on his team-mate four laps earlier. It is always a pleasure to watch a driver who’s willing to attack the race as the Australian did. For my money, Ricciardo is currently out-performing his team – and that includes Vettel.

All power to Mercedes; no power to Ferrari

The closing phase of the Bahrain Grand Prix was significant as it revealed the true extent of Mercedes’ competitive advantage over everyone else. The performance gap wasn’t really a gap at all. It was a gaping chasm. To illustrate, by Lap 50, only three racing laps after the end of the safety car period, Hamilton had built approximately a 9.5-second lead over third-place man Perez. Staggeringly, that is a rate of roughly 3 seconds a lap. Yes, track layout certainly favoured Mercedes, but 3 seconds a lap! Now I’m wondering what chance the rest really have of catching Mercedes this season. Closing the gap, yes, but catching them seems a tall order. After all, homologated powertrains will make it very difficult for Renault and Ferrari to redesign their powertrains to match what Mercedes has achieved. Of course, they can play around with engine mapping as well as ensure that the powertrain’s main components – Internal Combustion Engine, Energy Recovery System and turbo – work together for maximum power output, but that is not likely to suffice to overcome Mercedes. Red Bull looked feisty enough in the closing laps, more than a match for the Mercedes customer teams, but they are a long way behind the works team on straight-line speed and driveability.

And Ferrari? Their performance was frankly embarrassing. It’s no wonder that Ferrari President Luca di Montezemolo left Sakhir early as it would not have been easy to watch the pride of Italy being so easily outdragged on the straights. It’s ironic actually. Ferrari historically prided itself on building powerful cars, yet for a team with reportedly the second-largest budget in F1, Ferrari don’t appear to do hybrids – or aerodynamics for that matter – and that matters in 2014. The result of this was that in qualifying, they were only 15th and 16th fastest in the speed trap, just ahead of Max Chilton’s Marussia, also Ferrari-powered.

The constantly switching competitive order

The beauty of the competitive order in F1 this season is that behind Mercedes at least, it’s likely to shift from team to team more regularly than in previous seasons. The upshot of this is that we can expect close-quarter racing and unpredictability, two essential qualities for attractive Grand Prix racing. Some teams have engineered a better chassis (Red Bull), enabling better cornering performance, whilst others have more power, giving them better straight-line speed. Significant differences in aerodynamic downforce and power output therefore mean that track layout is a factor too. Sakhir, for example, requires power and traction, hence the strong performances by Mercedes-powered teams, but aero-dependent circuits (Sepang) require downforce, giving Red Bull an edge over the Mercedes customer teams. Some cars are kinder on their tyres, notably Force India, enabling fewer pitstops, whereas the Williams FW36 eats its rear tyres forcing its drivers towards shorter stints and more stops. So there is more variation in strategy. Furthermore, F1 teams develop their cars at different rates during the season, which matters more in 2014 as the cars are at the beginning of their conceptual lives so bigger performance gains are there to be found. Red Bull (again) and McLaren have proven capability here and are therefore more likely to out-develop those teams that don’t have the budget or brainpower to keep up. Finally, the weather matters too. As qualifying in Australia and Malaysia highlighted, wet track conditions prevent Mercedes from deploying its full power advantage, enabling Red Bull in particular to narrow their performance deficit to Mercedes.

In short, more technical variables matter in 2014 than has been the case in recent years, thereby breaking the dominance of the aerodynamicists, for now at least.

Let’s rejoice in that and roll on Round 4!

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