16 April 2015
F1’s shifting sands
The Sakhir International Circuit hosts Round 4 of the season. That is, if the pit lane and track has been cleared of sand following the sandstorm that hit Bahrain earlier this week. In 2014, Bahrain served up an absolute cracker of a Grand Prix, which the Mercedes drivers set alight in the final phase of the race after the Safety Car had bunched up the field. Hamilton had track position but was racing on the slower Medium tyre. Rosberg was right behind him and on the faster Soft tyre. The Briton held on to take victory by putting in a defensive driving masterclass. However, it was edge of the seat stuff for the final 10 laps!
Somehow, a bland circuit located in a featureless desert had managed to produce thrilling racing. Can the fans expect more of the same in 2015?
We can certainly expect plenty of overtaking. Sakhir has four long straights where the cars reach speeds of 190mph before slamming on the brakes for slow-speed corners. The start/finish straight in particular offers a good chance to slipstream past other cars while those late brakers can make Daredevil moves dives down the inside into Turn 1. There are similar opportunities to pass on the straights between Turns 3 and 4 and Turns 10 and 11 (DRS-assisted). The constant pattern of acceleration, hard braking and re-acceleration, especially in Sectors 1 and 3, stresses the tyres, brakes and fuel consumption. Tyre management as well as engine power and driveability are at a premium. Additionally, the track surface at Sakhir is highly abrasive, which compounds the thermal degradation experienced by the tyres. In short, the hot track temperature, rough surface and traction demands mean that Bahrain will be a rear tyre-limited race. As well as higher than average thermal tyre degradation to contend with, sand drifting onto the track often reduces grip levels too.
In Sector 2, good high-speed balance in order to take on the medium and fast corners like Turns 6 and 12 as well as stability under braking for the tricky Turn 10 are required in order to set a quick time in this sector. However, cars with a sensitive aerodynamic platform will struggle more in this sector if, as is possible, there is a cross wind blowing across the circuit.
The race will start at 6pm local time, but night falls at around 6.30pm. This means that the track surface is likely to cool throughout the Grand Prix, reducing the thermal degradation on the tyres. Practice 2 will probably provide the best indicator of race performance given that it is also scheduled to begin at 6pm.
Battle rejoined between Mercedes and Ferrari?
What a difference 12 months make. A year ago at Sakhir, the two red cars from Maranello were being overtaken by Force Indias. Now, Ferrari are threatening the Silver Arrows. In the history of sporting turnarounds, Ferrari’s story in 2015 has gotta be up there. But can they topple mighty Mercedes in Bahrain?
I think we’re in for another racing spectacle in Bahrain. My expectation is that whilst the Mercedes will lock out the front row in qualifying, or at least secure pole position, Ferrari will be a factor in the first half of the race when the track is likely to be at its hottest. The heat, combined with the abrasive surface and the constant pattern of braking and acceleration, will probably strain Mercedes’ rear tyres more than Ferrari’s at this early stage of the Grand Prix. Assuming they qualify well, Vettel and Raikkonen will surely be well-placed to pressure Hamilton and Rosberg and perhaps even gain track position over one or both of them in the first round of pitstops.
The race looks to be a two-stopper (not even a Force India kind on its tyres last season could manage a one-stop race in the 2014 event), but Ferrari’s superior tyre management will give them the option of undercutting Mercedes in the first pitstops or overcutting them to spend longer on the faster Soft tyre before pitting for the Medium.
However, as the track cools during the night and the cars switch over to the Medium tyre, expect Mercedes to come racing back at Ferrari if the German marque has lost track position. It’s entirely conceivable that the two Mercedes will need to pass one or both Ferraris on track to win. I hope I’m right, because if so, I cannot wait for the battle!
Forecasting this one is tough, but I will say Hamilton again by a whisker from Vettel.
Further down the field, it’s reasonable to expect Williams will come home in fifth and sixth, but Bottas and Massa will face a challenge from Lotus, Sauber and possibly Toro Rosso and Red Bull as they appear to be struggling for low-speed downforce and high degradation on the Soft compound tyre. At the lower end of the Top 10, I expect a tight battle given Sauber’s impressive straight-line speed and Lotus’ driveability and power. This will be a good scrap!
Red Bull’s ability to fight Williams will probably hinge on them solving their car set-up problems and getting more power from their Renault engine. Meanwhile, after their double-finish in China, I expect McLaren to continue on their upward curve of competitiveness. The Top 10 is likely to still be out of reach, at least until Spain, if not later, however, McLaren’s progress up the competitive order is steady.