Blog: Sakhir Preview
Reds in the reckoning?
Typical Tilke. It is a phrase that for better and worse has entered the modern F1 lexicon, reflecting that for pushing the last two decades the architect Hermann of that ilk has been responsible almost exclusively for the sport's new-fangled circuits. And that for the forthcoming Bahrain round embodies the phrase more than most of them.
The Sakhir facility is indeed typical Tilke. It's built from nothing, all clean lines and gleaming architecture. And comes with a sense that everything has been thought of.
Yet it has some of the typical Tilke flipside too. As with so many of these new circuits it represented a large geographical stride into a new world; when it debuted in 2004 it was the first F1 race in the Persian Gulf. Some of course agonise over the extent that F1's been turning its back on its core support, as well as over the motivations of its newer hosts. The Crown Prince of Bahrain has been known to justify the event more in terms of 'national branding' than sport, while as we know this particular round has had controversy attached for much more weighty reasons than that.
It is typical Tilke in its layout too. Much of the fingerprint is there: long straights book-ended by tight corners designed to promote overtaking, with a dash of quicker turns elsewhere. This track is a little bigger on the former at the expense of the latter compared with some of Tilke's other efforts however, its triangular layout somewhat like a flattened-out Red Bull Ring. Like the Red Bull Ring also though it has with reasonable regularity produced entertaining races.
And there are reasons to expect a good race in Bahrain this time, including one right at the front. First off, compare this year's season-opener in Australia to that 12 months previously. The race just passed was close while last year in Melbourne the Ferraris were left by the Mercedes. Add to this equation too that last season in Bahrain the race also was a tight one; indeed arguably the Scuderia should have had a rare triumph in a straight fight. Certainly in Kimi Raikkonen's hands it was the fastest thing out there after the opening stops, on an offset strategy. With a better grid slot, or even had he been allowed to clear his team mate Sebastian Vettel in the opening stint, Kimi might have won. Whatever is the case it could well add up to the red cars putting in a strong challenge to the silver this weekend.
A few things are in Ferrari's favour. The warm temperatures (though less warm than used to be the case now that it's a night race) and abrasive surface means it's a track tough on tyres, and we know that in a long-held James Allison car characteristic the Ferrari is gentle on its rubber. There are few quick turns here where the Merc tends to have its biggest advantage. Plus the circuit is uniquely hard on brakes - a combination of the layout with several big stops and the relative lack of cool air - and Nico Rosberg had brake problems in Melbourne, that nearly forced his team to park him. The Mercs also ran out of brakes here in the final laps last season.
The higher temperatures should also ensure fewer worries at Ferrari in 'switching on' the medium tyre, a concern that rather backed the team into a strategy corner in Melbourne.
But there are considerations on the other side too. One is that the higher temperatures may bite Ferrari also - its reliability has been far from perfect so far in 2016, Kimi of course had to quit in Australia with an airbox fire while suggestions were in pre-season that the team had to open up its cooling due to things running hot. Exactly what you don't need in the clammy desert.
Plus let's not forget that the evidence of the opening race was that the Mercs likely will lock out the front row still, and therefore will be in a position to control things. Assuming they get off the line first...which of course they didn't in Melbourne. Was it something peculiar, perhaps related to the Mercedes clutch not liking having to do a second go after an aborted start, just as was the case in Hungary last year? Or has Ferrari actually found something, as at least one analysis has suggested
? Bahrain should get us closer to an answer.
Let's not forget either that with similar considerations last season at Sakhir, and a close fight with Ferrari, Mercedes still won. It likely would have had a one-two as well without those late brake problems mentioned.
The Merc driver battle remains intriguing also - Rosberg won in Melbourne, his fourth win in a row, but Lewis Hamilton looked the quicker for the most part. Also race day strategy throughout the field should be especially interesting - it got a little swamped by other goings-on but the wider compound selection introduced in Melbourne can be considered a success in making things more variable.
The rest will likely leave the top teams to it out front, but will about as likely have a close scrap themselves. Force India for one has a good record here and Sergio Perez bagged a podium in Bahrain in 2014; Paul di Resta nearly got one the year before.
Its team principal Bob Fernley has suggested
that 'there is a cigarette paper between' those in this fight for third best outfit. Can this time Force India show more of the pace that pre-season suggested, following a Melbourne race that went away from them? Red Bull won the best of the rest award in Australia and looked strong particularly in the race, the Toro Rosso was quicker than its result suggested while Williams too should be in the mix. Felipe Massa indeed is another who tends to go well at this track.
As mentioned the Bahrain race has in its time been associated with controversy. It is therefore almost with a 'when in Rome...' attitude that F1 this time is bringing a lot of controversy of its own. The excruciating new qualifying system on show in Melbourne despite initial reports in fact lingers, presumably the latest manifestation of F1's dysfunctional governance wherein there are too many players and all have their vested interests - some of which are warped - that they seek to promote at all times (don't kid yourself that conflicting views on what would actually be the best qualifying system is at the core of this). In the meantime, as ever, the ones that suffer are us watching on who only fancy, you know, being entertained by what's offered on track.
And sadly there is little reason to think that quali will be any more diverting this time than was so infamously not the case in Australia. The Pirelli compounds are exactly the same, and the factors that ensured the fare we got - such as tyre sets being finite and good for one lap only at full pelt, time taken to refuel etc etc - remain as they were. One thinks of the Albert Einstein line about doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results. We'll therefore have to hold our noses on Saturday.
There also is the GPDA's open letter
on among other things the sport's 'business directions', which should ensure plenty of questions of drivers this weekend to probe on the extent that they agreed with it. As well as to come up with what the letter didn't, exactly what the solution is. Dieter Rencken made a fair point too, that if the drivers and GPDA chairman Alex Wurz want change, wouldn't a better place to start have been talking to their team bosses? You wonder, as Rencken did, exactly what the agenda is here.
Such politicking sadly is another thing typical of modern F1. But hopefully just as was the case in Australia the action on the track on Sunday will be sufficient to take our minds off it, for a little while at least.
Author: Graham Keilloh
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