Preview of the Bahrain Grand Prix
Should Formula One be in Bahrain? Whatever your feelings, for good or bad, Grand Prix racing is in town and holding its breath that everything will go smoothly. Putting the politics aside, there a race to be run and Mercedes will be looking to repeat their victory in China. However, with three winners in as many races it’s any one’s guess as to who will come out on top in this one.
One thing to note is that the twisty and decidedly bumpy in-field section is gone. Introduced in 2010 it failed to win over any fans in the paddock, particularly at McLaren who were notably uncomfortable with their stiff chassis.
So what should you expect this weekend?
Track and Conditions
After experimenting with a lengthened circuit in 2010, the organisers returns to the original layout. Sakhir offers no less than four straights leading into tight corners – something of a trademark of circuit architect Hermann Tilke. In theory, the design encourages overtaking at Turns 1 and 14, a feeling that is further encouraged by the large run-off areas which make this track one of the safest in the world, and yet the circuit is regularly criticised for a lack of overtaking. The reason for that is quite simple – stray off the racing line and the track is sandy and dusty, rendering drivers short of grip until their tyres clean up again. To keep sand off the track, the dunes have been coated in adhesive, but the effect is minimal and teams are still forced to run heavy-duty air filters to keep damaging particles from their engines.
The middle of the lap has a couple of tricky turns, most notably as the drivers come around to run parallel to the pit straight. An off-camber corner makes braking difficult due to the lateral forces on the car and it’s easy to lock the inside front wheel. At the same time, the sequence is followed by a relatively long straight and therefore it is important to carry as much speed into it as possible.
Once the first-lap is out of the way, there are relatively few retirements due to collisions and accidents which means, helped by the generous run-off areas, the safety car hasn’t been called into action in the last five years. However, the heat, dust and early position on the calendar have combined to produce a circuit with above average number of mechanical retirements (ranked 4th highest over the last five years.)
The climate is invariably dry and sunny although it’s not the inevitability that you might think for the desert-based circuit as heavy rain isn’t unknown at this time of year. Not this year though.
The long straights all terminate in tight, low-speed corners making Sakhir one of the most demanding circuits on the calendar for brake wear. The run between turns 4 and 20 is particularly tough as the corners follow each other in quick succession and the brakes have little opportunity to cool down – efficient brake ducts in the hot climate are essential. Engine cooling is just as important but complicated by the ever present sand and dust necessitating heavy duty air filters.
The very different characteristics of the layout test teams in terms of suspension set-up which will be a compromise between good mechanical grip through the slower corners and stability through the faster ones with a similar compromises for the aerodynamics dictated by the long straights and the twisting in-field section.
With the race cancelled last year, this will be Pirelli’s racing début on the circuit – however they conducted two tyre tests there ahead of last season so will be better informed than they were on most of last year’s tracks. Pirelli bring the medium and soft compounds to the show – the same compounds as used in China and Australia although with considerably higher track temperatures expected, they could behave quite differently. Tyre degradation may be higher than usual as the track has had less use and is likely to be relatively dirty when the teams arrive. Pirelli’s early prediction is that three pit stops will be the most common approach. The higher temperatures may see the teams favour the more durable medium tyre over the faster soft compound and there will be plenty of scope for strategy variation.
One thing teams shouldn’t rely on in their strategies is an appearance by the safety car deployment – Bahrain has one of the lowest historical probabilities of Safety Car deployment.
Bahrain is often derided by fans as boring but the season-opening 2006 race was a triumph of strategy and defensive driving. It quickly boiled down to a straight fight between Fernando Alonso and Michael Schumacher. The latter led for most of the race but at the second round of pit stops the later stopping Alonso exited side-by-side with his rival, which is how they headed into the first corner. The Renault driver held the inside though, and emerged in the lead which he never relinquished. Meanwhile, Kimi Raikonnen completed the podium having started at the back of the grid.
Ones To Watch
Fernando Alonso has won three times around Sakhir and Ferrari four times although it would be a surprise if the combination produced a victory this weekend. More realistic may be Nico Rosberg who also has a bit of a thing for Bahrain – he made his Grand Prix debut on the track in 2006, recording the fastest lap of the race on the way to finishing seventh and in the points.
Food for Thought
Should Formula One be in Bahrain this year? Who do you think will come out on top in the race?
Circuit Profile – Bahrain International Circuit
Between a Rock and a Hard Place
Photos: Tilke GmbH, Sauber Motorsport AG, Williams F1/Glenn Dunbar/LAT Photographic, Bridgestone Corporation