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”