Although the Bahrain Grand Prix highlighted the ‘nip and tuck’ that looks as though it’s going to characterise this year’s World Championship, there were still a few wild cards which suggested that we haven’t really seen the complete form and story surrounding this year’s entry. It’s tempting, for instance, to say that this year’s series is a two team race between Ferrari and Mercedes, but Red Bull have certainly shown the pace to suggest that they could be more than spoilers in the series. And it’s tempting to suggest that it’s a two-driver race between Lewis Hamilton and Sebastian Vettel, whereas we all know that Kimi Raikkonen has the experience and talent to become involved – not that he’s showing it right now – and that Valtteri Bottas is on the way up to be more than a spoiler in the series.
I had perhaps forgotten that the Sakhir circuit can be really such a tricky one for drivers. Turn ten – the near hairpin leading onto the back straight – just suckers drivers into making mistakes. A sprinkling of the ever present sand can make things difficult and the strong winds that we had on raceday – which coupled with ambient temperatures ten degrees lower than previously seen – required a change of style and a full understanding for aerodynamicists and engine technicians alike – as well as a flexibility demanded by the drivers.
The Bahrain Grand Prix then, third round of the twenty-race championship, kept all the cards in the air. Ferrari won with Mercedes scuppered by just some tiny details which contrived to drop them to second and third, while Red Bull’s promise was never quite confirmed. The rest were left behind, but here again there were promising performances from some teams which we were still waiting on to show their hand. Once again, though, we had five retirements; 15 finishers in China is the most finishers we’ve had this year; 14 classified in Bahrain is the last there since 2005.
If I was a gambling man – which I’m not, I like my money too much – and I really thought about it, I would have put money on Valtteri’s first pole. I didn’t feel that Ferrari were close enough in the mix over one lap, nor were Red Bull and I thought I’d seen Lewis make too many of those tiny mistakes which Sakhir can tempt a driver into making, whether it’s the infamous turn ten – where I’d seen him run wide quite often – turn one, or the final corners. Maybe FOM TV hadn’t shown Valtteri making the same mistakes but the Finn seemed the safer pair of hands – not that Lewis was dangerous but he seemed more prone to those little errors. But there had been four different drivers heading the six sessions in practice and qualifying.
Mercedes then suffered in the race. Ferrari had been the first to seem at a disadvantage with a rare safety car coming out soon after they had pitted for the first set of tyres. But Valtteri was the first to pit for Mercedes under the safety car, being ahead of his teammate at the time. The Finn had already suffered due to the wrong tyre pressures being set after a generator malfunction on the grid, and then had a fractionally slow stop. Lewis, coming in behind his teammate, slowed too much in the pit lane and copped a five second penalty.
It seems that in 2017 Formula One, such errors are crucial. The margins are tiny, overtaking not easy – but not impossible. We had a curious rash of brake problems in Bahrain as well – OK, there are four straights ending with corners of varying severity – one of which claimed a resurgent Verstappen in the race when he thought he would claim second place. But Red Bull were third last in the speed trap stakes, only ahead of Toro Rosso and McLaren. Williams topped the table from Mercedes, Ferrari and Force India.
Vettel superbly claimed the undercut on Mercedes to claim his third win in Bahrain and in subsequent testing, Ferrari made further progress although they would have liked to have made more, but a power failure cost them track time. Bottas was fastest, while his teammate retained his 10 out of 10 record of finishes in the race. Alonso, having a very busy race battling with everyone, retained his classified record in Bahrain even if he didn’t cross the line. McLaren’s rotten season continued with Vandoorne not even starting and further problems in testing.
There were some hopeful signs elsewhere. It was Nico Hulkenberg’s best ever result in Bahrain after an excellent qualifying, and Palmer scored his best ever qualifying result of his career although things didn’t go quite so well in the race after he chose the wrong engine setting mode and then damaged his front wing battling with Kvyat. But Renault have once again proved that they are a front runner in the best-of-the-rest stakes.
Force India also looked better – at least in the race. Perez was way back in 18th place on the grid after waved yellows spoiled his qualifying, but he fought through to seventh at the flag. Teammate Esteban Ocon scored his third tenth place in three races.
It was perhaps apt that Sainz and Stroll should come together, with Sainz a little optimistic that the newcomer would have spotted him coming out of the pits, prompting the collision at the first corner. Sainz had looked good on occasions, but now has a three place grid penalty in Russia for the collision which meant the Canadian youngster has yet to finish a race.
The development race is already beginning and if we don’t see it in Russia – there will be signs in some teams – then we certainly will in Spain where Red Bull are already talking about a new chassis. But those tiny margins I was talking about could well induce several brushes with ever present walls which will have to be avoided in four out of the next five races and where the emphasis could be on spares supply rather than development . A safe pair of hands will be massively important.
By Bob Constanduros