F1 Debate: Bahrain Grand Prix – F1’s damp squib

The interest in Formula One over the winter saw unprecedented hype and arousal.  Michael Schumacher’s return to the sport, two British back to back World Champions in the same team at Mclaren and  Fernando Alonso spear heading Ferrari’s comeback were just some of the sound tracks that got the main stream media in a frenzy and F1 commentators in a palpitating mess.

However on Sunday the fire and excitement was firmly distinguished during the 49 laps of the Bahrain Grand Prix which played out a pretty boring and stale form of sporting entertainment. A lack of overtaking, drivers commenting after the race that they couldn’t follow closely enough to attack the car in front  and a lack of variation in race strategy  conspired to bring down the seasons opening round in a pretty depressing mood.

Monday mornings press was full of it, criticising the new rules and regulations for destroying the excitement of the sport. F1 fans on Twitter and blogs critised all and sundry for the lack of overtaking and enjoyment of the race and now some of the sports leading figures are coming out with comments urging another round of regulation changes in order to spice up the show.

There are however hardened F1 fans calling for calm, stating the wise rhetoric that we shouldn’t panic and not form wild generalisations about F1 just on the back of one race.  In this article we discuss, who is right, those pressing the panic button or those who would like to stick with the current regulations for 2010.

A tweet from Sunday summed the race up.

“The race was boring, it was just 49 formation laps, as there was very little in the way of overtaking

I would go along with this, there were no real battles for any places in the top 10 throughout the race. The cars were generally split by a couple of seconds throughout the race.  Although the race was not void of any overtaking as some people are claiming.  Rosberg passed Hamilton at the start, Webber re-passed Button also on lap 1 and  Hamilton took Barrichello just after his pit stop, sure these are just a handful, hardly an overtaking-fest, however there was additional overtaking in the pit stops with Button and Hamilton jumping their rivals, and there was at least two drivers that demonstrated that overtaking is possible.  Both Robert Kubica and Adrian Sutil found themselves at the back of the field on Sunday after a crash at turn 2, only to work their way back up through the field at the end of the race.

The statement that there was a lack of overtaking I am happy with. In truth, at the sharpe end of the grid, there wasn’t in this race, but that doesn’t explain everything and would be wrong to conclude that F1 cars are flawed on the back of this race – why? Lets consider now reasons that could have conspired to create this perfect storm.

This was the first race of the season, many of the teams are still urgently scurrying around trying to understand their new cars and how best to maximise them.  With a limited number of testing, new drivers and teams are not able to get fully up to speed during the winter.  So Bahrain had some elements of first day back at school.  Teams and drivers were never going to be on the top of their game.  Lets take Mclaren for example, some way of the pace, neither driver was really in a position to get their cars in the leadership battle. I am pretty confident in a few races they will, same with Mercedes, Michael Schumacher was familiarising himself and was no way on the front foot.  My point here is the 4 way battle for the championship, that the “press” had almost promised us never materialised.  But it will, I am sure of that.  Mclaren demonstrated last year that it is able to close the gap to other teams, so this race was not a true reflection on how competitive the field are.

The new tyre rules were yet to be fully understood in Bahrain, we didn’t see any real variation of drivers preserving their tyres and going longer in order to benefit from better rubber towards the end of the race.  Jenson Button’s comments after the race proved this.  He was driving with the aim to go 5 laps longer than the guys in front of him, however his team, made a call perhaps without understanding that Jenson might make an advantage if they went longer. Instead they pulled him in to keep in line with everyone else.  Drivers who can manage their tyres will be pushing for more flexibility within their teams to call the shots.

The track in Bahrain should also be considered in its part in producing a dull race.  Firstly the race is in a desert which sees only a fraction of the race day fans turn up to watch. Agreed it is a long way to go for a race, but I wonder if many fans would choose to go to Bahrain on the strength of the track to produce exciting F1 races.  It is designed by Herman Tilke, who also designed tracks for Malaysia, Turkey, Abu Dhabi, and China.  All circuits which are modern and have pretty predictable corners which offer very little in terms of challenge for the driver, hence why we see very chance for the drivers to make up time or lose time to the opposition.  If the race had been in Canada, Brazil or Belgium on Sunday we might not have seen the same conclusion.

At this point, the wise old heads for F1 fans calling for calm seem to be winning over on the argument about Bahrain’s race.  But what about the comments from F1 drivers and team principles that F1 needed to urgently address the show. Surely they have to be right?

Mark Webber was strong in his comments after the race that it was just too hard to follow the car in front.  This indicates that it is an aerodynamic problem. Over the Winter very little was done in the way of addressing the problem of cars being dependant upon the aerodynamic front, and rear wings to enable to car to go through corners quickly.  The double decked diffusers which pioneered by Brawn GP last year, but that were protested against the spirit of the law were passed legal this time last year, meaning every car now has an even greater effect on a following car by disturbing the air flow over the following car.

This area of Aerodynamic regulation is where the sport needs to get a grip on if it wants overtaking.  In 2011 will see double diffusers banned, but it needs to do more that this.  In my view there should be a ban on diffusers all together – they do not serve the public’s interest in this area of design, so hence we should get rid of them.  Secondly an aerodynamic rule should be made that the front and rear wings can only produce a set amount of downforce.  For example if a car weighs 180 Kilograms, then the wings can only generate 2 or 3 times this amount placing emphasis on mechanical grip from tyres and cars suspension – all elements that are relating to driving control and ability.

So the wise heads are right, we need to keep calm about Sunday’s Bahrain Grand Prix, as there were many contributing factors to the poor race.  Unfortunately the next round in Melbourne isn’t a typical F1 track and while it has produced surprising results every now and again, my fear is that we will have to wait quite a few races before we really start to understand if there is a problem that is fixable this year.  Long term the sport needs to address aerodynamics and the power it has to hinder close racing.  I certainly don’t feel the banning of fuel stops meant there was less overtaking, it just felt like it with the fury of mid-race stops now removed.

In a funny kind of way, I understand and share some of the panic in some F1 fans views.  Should F1 turn in to a series of boring races, then, sponsorship will pull out and teams and drivers will disappear, so it is important that races carry some degree of unpredictability and entertainment.

Ending on a positive though, it does not look like we have one team that will run away and win 6 out of 7 races like last year with Brawn – which was very predictable and must have been equally as boring for some fans.  This year Ferrari, Redbull, Mercedes and Mclaren are all in the hunt, and in Michael Schumacher’s words “Bahrain was one race, there are eighteen to go”

Bahrain Grand Prix Report

Fernando Alonso (ESP) Ferrari F10 passes team mate Felipe Massa (BRA) Ferrari F10 at the start of the race.Formula One World Championship, Rd 1, Bahrain Grand Prix, Race Day, Bahrain International Circuit.

The start saw Vettle lead away from the lights from both Ferrari’s of Massa and Alonso, as the pack headed in to turn’s 1 & 2, Alonso was able to get the inside line for turn two and thus overtake his team-mate Massa.   Mark Webber’s Redbull then blew a large thick cloud of smoke, most probably due to an overfilled oil tank, which caused the chasing pack to be momentarily blinded.  Victims of this were Renault’s Robert Kubica and Force India’s Adrian Sutil, who touched as they went through Webber’s smoke at turn two, resulting in both drivers spinning across the track as the field ploughed they way through.

Lewis Hamilton was on the move as the pack reached turn 4 and was trying to go round the outside of Massa for 3rd place.  However the Briton left his breaking too late and Massa was able to defend him off, and which also allowed Rosberg in the Mercedes to snatch 4th place.

Despite not knowing anything about the cloud of smoke that his Redbull had created, Webber was down to eight having been jumped by Button at turn 2. However the Aussie was able to reclaim his 7th place when Jenson got out of shape midway through the new section of the lap.

So the order at the end of the first lap was: Vettle – Alonso – Massa – Rosberg – Hamilton – Schumacher – Webber – Button – Liuzzi – Barrichello. Unfortunately that was pretty much how the top of the pack stayed until the pitstops for tyres.

First retirement of the season went to Karun Chandhok who crashed on lap two, after spinning on a bump.  While the team would be disappointed to see the Indian driver lose vital running time, considering the amount of time the driver had on the track, it was perhaps inevitable that could happen.

Di Grassi was next to join him in exiting the race, having to pull off with suspected hydraulic failure.  Moments before the Brazilian pulling off the track, new boy Nico Hulkenburg had an embarrassing moment when he lost control of the rear of his car while under pressure from Buemi.

Back on track, and Vettle seemed to have perfect control of the race.  Perhaps enjoying a lighter fuel load that the two Ferrari’s behind him because of the fuel-efficient Renault, he was able to pull out a lead of around 5 seconds.

It was Mclaren & Mercedes who were first of the big guns to stop, bringing in Lewis Hamilton & Schumacher respectively on lap 16.  Rosberg moved to cover this next lap round, however lost out to Hamilton when his exit from the pit box was delayed slightly by Webber who was coming in to the pits at the same time as the German was exiting.  Button who also pitted at the same time as Rosberg and Webber was able to leapfrog the Redbull driver when the Aussie was delayed slightly with a sticking wheel during his pit stop.

Alonso was the first to stop of the first 3 to stop on lap 17, which then triggered Vettle to cover the Ferrari. This defensive style a seeming legacy of the new pitstop regulations, in which drivers are not wanting to allow their chasing rival to have too much time on new rubber.

Timo Glock brought the curtain down on the Virgin team’s first race on lap 18 with dreaded hydraulic problems that hampered them all through winter testing.  Bruno Senna was next to fall on the following lap with a Cosworth engine going up in smoke.

The second stint of the race started with Alonso managing to draw in Vettle, bringing down the lead to around 1 second. Massa still in 3rd was a further 2 seconds back behind Alonso. Midway through the race and we heard radio reports from the Ferrari team to both Alonso and Massa asking their drivers not to follow too closely or directly behind the car in front because they were suffering from high engine temperatures.

Then at the star of lap 34 the Redbull of Vettle crossed the line sounding very sick, and with Alonso right on his tail.  The team reporting back to Vettle that a suspected exhaust was causing a dramatic lost in top speed.  The poor Vettle was able to hold of Alonso for best part of a lap, until he had to reliquish the lead to Alonso at the last corner, and by the time the German had reach turn 1 of lap 35 he was 3rd with Massa gliding past on the straight.

It was bitter luck for Vettle who had driven a faultless race up to that point to have a seemingly assured 25 points in his pocket taken away from him by yet another mechanical problem.  However it was a question of if he would be caught by Hamilton, but whether the Redbull would finish in the points at all.

Vettle did a great job of bringing the car home, sticking it out, despite losing a podium position to Hamilton on lap 38 he was able to hold of Nico Rosberg to keep 4th place.

As the chequered flag dropped Alonso brought the Ferrari home to score his 22 victory and to claim victory at his first race for Ferrari, equalling Kimi Raikkonen and Nigel Mansell who also achieved the feat in the modern era. Massa completed a superb come back drive, taking 2nd place and Lewis Hamilton come home an impressive 3rd considering the problems with the cars handling that were mounting up over the course of the weekend.  Rosberg took first blood to his team-mate Schumacher to 5th place. Schumacher who had an un-eventful race came in 6th. Button took 7th on a day that indicate just how much work he and his new team need to do in order for the 2009 World Champion to mount a solid defence of his crown.

Credit also goes to Liuzz and Barrichello who took the final two points places, and Kubica will be disappointed  with 11th, but he did well to recover after being last at the end of lap 1.

Lotus took the plaudits for the new teams, in being able to get both cars to the finish, but Sauber will be disappointed in their form after being tipped as dark horses.

So it is on to Melbourne, Australia next for the 2nd round, Redbull will be looking to strike back after their disappointment  in Bahrain, Mclaren will need to improve the downforce on its new car and Mercedes and Schumacher will want to be nearer the sharp end of the field.

This was a poor spectacle of a F1 race, with very little overtaking or action, here’s hoping it was a one-off because otherwise this could be a slow old season.

1. Alonso Ferrari 1h39:20.396

 2.  Massa         Ferrari                    +    16.099
 3.  Hamilton      McLaren-Mercedes           +    23.182
 4.  Vettel        Red Bull-Renault           +    38.713
 5.  Rosberg       Mercedes                   +    40.263
 6.  Schumacher    Mercedes                   +    44.180
 7.  Button        McLaren-Mercedes           +    45.260
 8.  Webber        Red Bull-Renault           +    46.308
 9.  Liuzzi        Force India-Mercedes       +    53.089
10.  Barrichello   Williams-Cosworth          +  1:02.400
11.  Kubica        Renault                    +  1:09.093
12.  Sutil         Force India-Mercedes       +  1:22.958
13.  Alguersuari   Toro Rosso-Ferrari         +  1:32.656
14.  Hulkenberg    Williams-Cosworth          +     1 lap
15.  Kovalainen    Lotus-Cosworth             +     1 lap
16.  Buemi         Toro Rosso-Ferrari         +    3 laps
17.  Trulli        Lotus-Cosworth             +    3 laps
Retirements                                Lap
De la Rosa    Sauber-Ferrari               30
Senna         HRT-Cosworth                 18
Glock         Virgin-Cosworth              17
Petrov        Renault                      14
Kobayashi     Sauber-Ferrari               12
Di Grassi     Virgin-Cosworth              3
Chandhok      HRT-Cosworth                 2