As Formula One dribbles into Bahrain, we realise that we’ve swapped Shanghai smog for Bahrain heat. We’ll soon be in the friendly paddock here at Sakhir with its spectacular lighting among the palm trees but the mercury will be in the high thirties – a bit like Silverstone for round one of the WEC apparently!
We’ve been here loads of times before, of course, so we know about its four straights, the slightly sandy surface where the track temperature can reach nearly 60 degrees, a fuller support race programme and a crowd that has entertainment on both sides of the grandstand. Indeed, Enrique Iglesias is due to close proceedings on Sunday night.
And while Pascal Wehrlein is due to return to Sauber after poor Antonio Giovinazzi crashed from hero to zero in Australia and Shanghai, Bernie Ecclestone is also due to return to Formula One as a guest of the Royal Family here. I’d love to be a fly on the wall when he and Chase Carey discuss his meeting with Turkey’s premier Reccep Tayyip Erdogan and the possible return of Formula One to Turkey. In spite of my Greek name, I used to love Turkey and holidayed there several times but I’m not certain now is the right time for F1 to return. I wonder what Donald Trump will say about it.
Looking back at the Chinese Grand Prix, what a lively race we had after all that disruption earlier in the week with the quasi-total cancellation of Friday. But F1 did what it does best and bounced back with a cracking Saturday qualifying – although Max Verstappen and Jolyon Palmer among others would probably disagree – followed by some lateral thinking to ward off any problems on Sunday. In this way, Formula One is demonstrating a degree of flexibility not often seen before.
And then we had a very competitive race on Sunday, one which Ferrari will rue with the knowledge that but for their third driver crashing and calling out the safety car they might have won. Both Hamilton and Vettel were delighted with their performances on Sunday, even if one was first and the other second, but they had both raced, pushed hard, and that was a pleasant change from last year and one they relished. It is already looking as if this pair will fight out the 2017 World Championship; their teammates are not featuring at the moment.
And while Hamilton welcomed the ‘young dude’ in third and hoped that the battle might become a three-way tussle, Max Verstappen was a bit more realistic, admitting that he was not quick enough to challenge those in front and that those behind were too slow, that he was in a lonely bit of a no-man’s land – though he made the best of it on Sunday. It was a classic Verstappen performance, another one learned on a damp afternoon at the Genk kart track when a young man goes out for a bit of fun to try and find where the grip is.
What might make the difference for Red Bull in normal conditions was Daniel Ricciardo saying the car came alive with some more front wing; there’s much more to come from Red Bull which just might put them on a par with the duo ahead. It is to be hoped so.
Sebastian Vettel was a star too, not least for challenging the FIA to do something about his lining up rather advantageously on the grid. Give an inch and you take a mile; if nothing’s done someone will take further advantage and it will escalate until people are lining up all over the place. But he got away with it once; there will be words at the drivers’ briefing. And we also saw that F1 cars can overtake, with a lovely bit of high speed wheelbanging between Ricciardo and Vettel. OK, Daniel might not have liked it much but it’s what the fans want to see.
There was disappointment and optimism, the latter from Sainz again, but also Force India, while their rivals at Williams – beginning to look like a one car team – were unfortunately slipping backwards. Haas looked better while Alonso was again revelling in an average performance from which he finds some absolution.
So we move to the heat of Bahrain, with sideshows from the new F2 – or GP2 as was, complete with old boys Cecotto, Coletti and Canamasas – the TCR touring car series, and the local Porsche series reaching its conclusion – good to see a varied support programme, almost rivalling the races we saw in Australia.
As I look out of the window at 17.25, the sun seems to have set which means that the track temperature will be falling with no direct sunlight on the circuit. Now that Bahrain is a night race – or at least, an evening race – it does mean that the action is held with lower track temperatures but still probably higher than we’ve seen so far this year. The highest track temperature that we’ve seen so far is 36 degrees for the race itself in Melbourne which pretty much matched the highest track temperature in testing in Barcelona. The ambient temperature is going to be higher than that here in Bahrain with a maximum of 38, only falling into the twenties late in the evening, so we’re going to see hotter temperatures for the race itself. And as Lewis Hamilton noted in China, that tends to suit Ferrari – even if the four straights at Sakhir linked by slow to medium speed corners will suit the best engine in the field which is supplied by Mercedes.
Looking at previous form, one wonders if we will see anyone else with a chance apart from Hamilton and Vettel. Hamilton’s had two poles and won from one of them in 2015, but also won the year before, so two poles, two wins. Vettel won from pole in 2012, one of his two wins and two poles, his other win coming into 2013. Massa is a two time winner but Alonso is the most successful driver in Bahrain with three wins in his eleven starts; he’s finished all of them as well but that’s quite a common occurrence, although the current Honda engine isn’t doing anything for his records. If you’re a Raikkonen fan, then you will find his best qualifying was third in 2007 but he has finished second five times – three of them from fourth on the grid and he’s finished third three times, so a total of eight podiums from 11 starts.
Finally, a little comment about McLaren’s bombshell released today regarding Alonso’s entry in the Indy 500. Ok, so the lad’s a bit bored flogging around in midfield at best and he likes a challenge does our Fernando, so why not spend some of May at Indy, something new. As I’ve already noted, McLaren are a bit keen on diversionary tactics at the moment, diverting attention away from the current F1 programme, so this is quite a good one. I couldn’t see Ron Dennis doing this, and I wonder if Fernando will next pop up at Porsche as one of their Le Mans drivers. After all, that seems to be his aim, to take the triple crown of the World Championship or Monaco, Indy 500 and Le Mans 24 hours, something only achieved by Graham Hill.
And who’s going to sub for him at Monaco, not an enviable task? Jenson Button’s the obvious answer but does he really want to attempt to qualify a McLaren-Honda around the most challenging of race tracks? Who would?