By Bob Constanduros
The 2018 Formula One World Championship is just one race old, but already the series faces a stern test with its first double-header of the year, kicking off with Bahrain this weekend and continuing to Shanghai the weekend after.
Melbourne was considered to be a relatively relaxed first round of the series, although in some ways it wasn’t. But on the circuit, the demands weren’t too severe, certainly not in terms of conditions. Bahrain is expected to be tougher, partially due to the sand and dust inherent of this desert Kingdom but also the heat. That and four long straights place specific demands on the engine, at elevated temperatures. Cooling will be vital here.
In Melbourne, we saw an interesting shuffle in terms of the hierarchy, certainly in comparison to 2017. It was no real surprise to find Mercedes, Ferrari and Red Bull at the top of the tree, where we saw a fantastic qualifying lap from Lewis Hamilton and Mercedes, followed up by victory for Sebastian Vettel and Ferrari after a glitch in the timing of Hamilton’s pit stop under the safety car. Max Verstappen and Valtteri Bottas both made costly errors, so Daniel Ricciardo claimed fourth place behind the second Ferrari of Kimi Raikkonen.
As usual, it wasn’t a fantastic race in terms of action. Melbourne is having to have a rethink to increase the spectacle. There was little overtaking – as should have been predicted – but what was interesting was the new hierarchy behind the top three teams. Force India, after an average pre-season test, was shuffled towards the back of the pack after its fourth place in the Constructors’ series last year. Instead, it was McLaren, Renault and – controversially – Haas who emerged as best of the rest, with Williams’s inexperienced pairing being nudged down the pecking order with Force India.
Off the track, there were some interesting adjustments from Liberty Media, mostly in the right direction, although US television viewers were left frustrated that their commentary – imported from Sky – made no allowances for their ad breaks, producing the kind of almost amateur coverage that we’re used to from Eurosport here in the UK.
Indeed, there was almost a naivety when it came to some of the changes made and these were met with some frustration from the host nation. The Australian Grand Prix is a legacy and tribute to Ronald Walker who was its mastermind for many years in Melbourne but who passed away in late January this year. He would have been pretty unhappy with some of the hoops that his organisation had to jump through last month. Observers aren’t unhappy with the changes that are being made in Formula One, it’s just the way that they are being implemented.
And changes is what this Bahrain weekend it going to be all about. Ross Brawn and his team – and he does have a team – have been working on the future direction of Formula One, principally from 2021. This is the magic year when many current contracts and technical regulations run out and Ross has been working on how Formula One will look from that year onwards. His suggestions are due to be announced this weekend. Of course, this is a process that also has to involve the FIA, so it can only be a list of proposals for discussion. But with Bernie Ecclestone also in attendance as well as FIA president Jean Todt, a lot of ink and air time is going to be devoted to politics this weekend.
And at the same time, we have this tough Grand Prix which we’re all looking forward to. As I mentioned, there are four straights here, where cars top 300kph on each occasion. That’s going to place demands on engines, already hot in elevated ambient temperatures. But at least spectators are going to see a lot more track action.
Firstly, teams will be using the same selection of Pirelli tyres as last year – white sidewalled mediums, yellow soft and red supersoft – but they are all a stage softer this year, of course. Last year’s strategy involved two stops for the first 10, including the use of used supersofts for the first six. There were over 40 overtaking manoeuvres last year, only a third of them thanks to DRS; there are only two DRS zones as usual although one of them has been lengthened.
A lot of the drivers have quite considerable form here in Bahrain. Lewis Hamilton has had two poles, including a win from pole and another win from second on the grid, six podiums in all. Teammate Valtteri Bottas claimed his first pole position here last year. Sebastian Vettel has had two poles, including winning from pole in 2012 plus two other wins. It will be his 200th Grand Prix this weekend.
Kimi Raikkonen has never won here but has been on the podium eight times: five second places and three thirds. Neither Red Bull driver has been on the podium here but both Perez and Grosjean have. Alonso has won three times and like Hamilton, Bottas, Perez, Hulkenberg and Grosjean, has been classified in every single Grand Prix he’s taken part in. that’s remarkable reliability from a tough race.
The four rookies have all raced here before, with some success. Sergey Sirotkin and Pierre Gasly both raced in all four GP2 races in 2015. Charles Leclerc won the sprint F2 race here last year, while Brendon Hartley made all four of his 2012 GP2 starts here and has also raced Porsches in four of the November six hour WEC finales.
On track, we will all be looking for confirmation – or otherwise – of the Australian Grand Prix hierarchy. Off track, we shall be fascinated to hear Ross Brawn’s proposals for the future of Formula One – and the reaction of others to it. And there are many more side stories to come as well. Should be a good weekend, and if we don’t like it, there’s another Grand Prix just eight days later in China.