Sakhir: A feeling of déjà vu in the desert
17 April 2013 – When the words Bahrain and Formula 1 appear in a sentence, racing is rarely the subject matter. Protests and violence are again making up the headlines as the Grand Prix fraternity descends upon the Gulf State, with the questions posed 12 months ago resurfacing. But for the moment, at least, we’re going racing.
We need to be clear. The issues in Bahrain have not suddenly occurred. The majority Shia population has long been yearning for improved human rights and greater political freedom. In 2011, the situation boiled over and the race was cancelled amid a still prominent fight against the government. It has since become a target for protestors who want their voices to be heard by as many people as possible.
Let’s stop here. There are plenty of in-depth political views on offer around the web and in the printed media, but journalists dedicated to Formula 1 should be focused on the tarmac within the gates of the circuit. Political correspondents do not publish race summaries, just as Formula 1 reporters cannot pretend to be experts on a vastly complicated situation which began well before the country joined the calendar. Formula 1 cares about the Bahraini people, of that there is no doubt. But the FIA has its finger on the button and if the race is staged, those involved must follow suit.
Putting the troubles aside, the paddock arrives in Bahrain on the back of a thrilling start to the campaign which has seen three different winners in as many races. Before the Chinese Grand Prix, I mentioned the strong possibility of Fernando Alonso and Kimi Räikkönen fighting back. They did exactly that and we now have a fascinating championship battle on our hands. In plain mathematics, Red Bull’s Sebastian Vettel heads a quartet of title-winners covered by just 12 points...
No matter whom we’re talking about, however, tyres have been on the minds of all 22 drivers. Pirelli has come under a massive amount of criticism for degradation levels so far this season, but it is fair to say we have seen a fair representation of the pecking order with Lotus, Red Bull and Ferrari sharing the spoils. All three outfits are capable of fighting for victory again in just a few days’ time, although Räikkönen and Lotus may just hold a slight edge due to their traditionally strong tyre management.
A little further back, Mercedes was not able to live up to increased Shanghai expectations and has admitted that it is using the disappointment of a third place finish as its motivation for future success. Although Lewis Hamilton drags every tenth and one more from any car he is given, it is difficult to see them challenging for much more than the final step on the podium. Reliability is also an area of focus, which could have a slight impact on outright performance.
One man looking for a vast improvement in Bahrain is Mark Webber. On the back of the ‘Multi 21’ drama, the Red Bull driver was firstly excluded from qualifying at Shanghai due to a fuel bowser issue, before he clashed with Jean-Éric Vergne in the race and later lost his right-rear wheel. He was hit with a three-place grid penalty for this weekend’s race and rumours of a Porsche LMP1 deal surfaced. However, a spokesperson for the marque told GPUpdate.net that nothing has been confirmed. There’s plenty of fight left in the Australian and he simply needs a smooth run.
The battle for the final places in Q3 is also providing plenty of excitement. McLaren, Force India, Toro Rosso and Sauber are all in this group at present and have front-running drivers at their disposal. More interestingly, Nico Hülkenberg has led the most laps (38 to Alonso’s 37) over the past four races. Should he have been the man to fill Lewis Hamilton’s significant void at McLaren? Sergio Pérez will surely make strides as the campaign wears on, but it’s a valid question at this stage.
At the rear of the field, Jules Bianchi is still producing fantastic performances and has impressed leading figures at Ferrari, who have been nurturing him for some time. We also have the return of former race winner Heikki Kovalainen, who has been drafted in by Caterham to complete free practice milage at Sakhir and the Circuit de Catalunya. This has been described as a development role as the team seeks to improve its CT03 chassis, but it puts the pressure on Charles Pic and Giedo van der Garde.
I’m looking forward to this one...