Three different races; three different winners. Formula One 2012 is proving to be an unpredictable beast.
Jenson Button, Fernando Alonso and Nico Rosberg have all tasted glory across the Far East.
Now the Formula One bandwagon returns to the Middle East to confront perhaps its biggest challenge of the year. Not only are questions of speed, potential and sportsmanship up for debate, but politics and ethics rear their ugly heads once again.
Bahrain is a troubled country, of that there is no doubt. Labour leader Ed Milliband recently lent his voice to those calling for Formula One to abandon the Grand Prix there in the face of continued protest and violent clashes between Police and political activists. For over a year now elements within the country have striven to bring their grievances to the world stage. Abandoning an event that regularly draws more than a billion viewers across the globe then would surely be a mistake?
As Formula One supremo Bernie Ecclestone stated the day before the Chinese Grand Prix, cancelling the Grand Prix will not mean that Bahrain awakes on Monday morning with its problems solved. As the debate rumbles on, Formula One has a unique opportunity to focus the attentions of the international community on Bahrain and perhaps instigate debate and dialogue on the issue. Surely preferable to backing away and losing the opportunity to showcase Bahrain to the world? Whatever, the Bahrain Grand Prix will go ahead this weekend with the firm assurance of Mr Ecclestone.
And what a race it could be. The Sakhir circuit is not known for exceptional races, but a mouth watering collection of variables are all but guaranteed to make it another exciting weekend.
Bahrain last held a race in 2010 when cars were running on the dependable Bridgestone rubber rather than the current degradable, unpredictable Pirelli tyres that have provided such close racing over the past eighteen months. 2010 also featured a revised circuit layout abandoned for this season, making data gathered from that race largely unreliable. So, could 2009 tell us more of what to expect this weekend? Well, no really. Although the track itself is back to 2009-spec, that data is also useless. Contemporary strategies featured re-fuelling, a feature banned at the end of that season. Consequently, 2012 cars are heavier, drive slower lap times and wear those tyres out faster.
What of those that will do battle in the desert then? Mclaren look the pick of the crop at the moment and were perhaps unlucky not to have won in China. The MP4-27 is both fast and kind on its tyres, an important factor in the heat of the Middle East which makes Jenson Button and Lewis Hamilton the favourites for victory this weekend. Of the two fiercely competitive Brits, Button has typically had the edge in warmer conditions by virtue of his famed tyre-management and would have to be the prime bet for the win. However should Hamilton claim his third pole of the season on Saturday he will be going all-out to capture that erstwhile elusive victory. Red Bull could pose a serious threat as well on Sunday for the first time this season. Hampered by a lack of straight line speed in Malaysia and China, the relatively slower layout of the Sakhir circuit could provide them with their best opportunity yet to really get their title defence started. ‘We haven’t been there with Pirelli tyres or the DRS, so it’s going to be interesting to see how those new features go.’ said Mark Webber when interviewed Tuesday. ‘The ingredients are all there for another exciting Grand Prix. It’s going to be important to understand the tyres quickly.’ Australia gave the team a podium finish in the form of Sebastian Vettel in 2nd place and both the World Champion and his team-mate matched the race pace of Lewis Hamilton’s Mclaren, surely giving them confidence for this weekend. Equally Mercedes GP will be desperate to build on their maiden victory in Shanghai, although their double-DRS system may prove less effective this weekend. ‘The team have worked very hard to overcome the tyre issues that affected us at the first two races.’ says indomitable Team Principal Ross Brawn. ‘And it is clear that achieving the optimum performance from the Pirelli tyres is absolutely key to our performance and ability to challenge at the front of the field. The temperatures and track conditions in Bahrain will be very different to Shanghai, however we will work hard to extract the maximum performance from the F1 W03 and have another strong weekend.’ Michael Schumacher may prove to be the fastest of the two German drivers from the Brackley-based team as he bids to reverse his Shanghai blues and newly crowned race winning team-mate Nico Rosberg.
Ferrari, somewhat realistically given their current form, don’t expect great things from this weekend. Fernando Alonso dispelled any illusions the fanatical Tifosi may have when interviewed on Tuesday. ‘I am well aware that in Sakhir, we can expect another difficult weekend, which is only natural, partly because of the track characteristics and also because the car is the same one we had in Shanghai. …this weekend will be all about damage limitation for us.’ Alonso’s Brazilian team-mate Felipe Massa is under immense pressure from himself and his fans, and only a points finish will do for him as he struggles to overcome the bewildering lack of pace that has crippled him ever since that infamous crash at the Hungaroring in August 2009.
After a perplexing strategy call cost Kimi Raikkonen a potential podium last weekend in China, Lotus will be going all-out to ensure a repeat performance doesn’t happen again. ‘It’s likely to be quite hot and our car didn’t like the cold so much when we were in China so maybe the heat will suit us better.’ suggested the 2007 World Champion. ‘A podium should be possible and I think it has been at all the races we’ve been at so far.’ Franco-Swiss team-mate Romain Grosjean comes to Bahrain fresh from his first ever points finish in Shanghai and is confident of more this weekend. ‘The balance we have is pretty good and I’m sure we can achieve something strong. I want to be able to put a proper qualifying and proper race all together.’
In the midfield the slightest error could be costly. With less than a second covering five teams and ten cars battling for honours, reputations and championship hopes will be won or lost more closely than ever this weekend. The staging-point of Bahrain will provide us with the latest spectacle in this gripping struggle for supremacy. Sauber appear to have risen to the top so far this year with outstanding race and qualifying performances from Sergio Perez and Kamui Kobayashi in both Malaysia and China respectively. The resurgent Williams team are snapping at their heels relentlessly and but for bad luck on the part of Pastor Maldonado could be a lot closer in the Championship. ‘On the back of a good weekend in China we are aiming to get both cars into the points again this week.’ Chief Operations Manager Mark Gillan claimed earlier in the week.
Although having slipped from their 2011 heights, both Force India and Toro Rosso remain confident their fortunes will improve this year. The two fought over the highly-prized 6th place in last year’s Constructors Championship, with the Silverstone-based ex-Jordan team emerging on top. Significantly Caterham vaulted ahead of rivals Marussia in China courtesy of an 18th place finish by Russian Vitaly Petrov. Although not exactly the sharp end of the grid, the perennial backmarkers always fight hard over tenth place in the Constructors table by virtue of the all-important TV money it brings in.
So, the world is uncertain, Bahrain is uncertain, many within Formula One itself are uncertain. Only one thing is guaranteed; the Bahrain GP will be an unpredictable one.
TV Coverage in the UK is available live for all sessions via Sky F1 HD and highlights of qualifying and the race are available on the BBC. BBC Radio 5 Live provides live radio coverage of all practice sessions, qualifying and the race, which starts at 13:00 GMT on Sunday 22nd April.