Berthold Bouman, F1 correspondent
The Bahrain Grand Prix, round four of the FIA (Federation Internationale de L’Automobile) Formula One Championship was despite its controversial character a success, and more important incident free from a safety point of view. The organizers and the Crown Prince of Bahrain had given the race the thumbs up, FOM CEO Bernie Ecclestone was not in a position to stop the race as British politicians had demanded and therefore on Sunday afternoon two o’clock local time the lights turned to green for what would become a thrilling race in the Bahrain desert.
Many had already written off the Red Bull Racing team, but as Helmut Marko put it, "Those pronounced dead live longest!", and he was right. And thus two times World Champion Sebastian Vettel made a surprising return to the highest step of the podium and won the Bahrain Grand Prix. And he did so in style, but one cannot deny he has more competition than ever this season. The 24-year old German took pole position on Saturday and stormed to the victory on Sunday on the 5.412 km long Bahrain International Circuit, and was only once challenged for the lead by Kimi Raikkonen in the #9 Lotus.
At the start of the race it was business as usual and the German pulled away from the rest of the field and remained in control until the end the race. “A good start was crucial and I was able to pull away from the pack, which was a big advantage as we always had to go on scrubbed tyres due to the fact we had used almost all of them in qualifying yesterday,” the race winner commented, adding, “Kimi was very quick and so was Grosjean.”
Indeed, both Lotus drivers were very quick in Bahrain and Raikkonen had managed to fight his way to second position, and then challenged Vettel for the lead. He was a bit surprised the Finn gave up after just one go, “I think it was extremely tough to keep them behind us. Once he was very close -- I thought that he would get more than just one shot but it turned out to be enough. At the end I was even pulling away a little bit and could control the last stint then.”
The fact the victor parked his car at the pit lane exit instead of driving his usual victory lap, fuelled the suspicions he had almost ran out of fuel, but Vettel professionally dodged the question by stating, “I had some company down there! I think Nico [Rosberg] stopped as well. We were probably surprised by the pace we went in the race. Obviously these guys [Raikkonen and Grosjean] were pushing us so we couldn’t afford to lift but it was enough!”
After a disappointing start of the season for Red Bull -- Vettel was second in Australia, 11th in Malaysia and fifth in China, while Webber took his fourth consecutive fourth place this weekend -- but the Austrian team is now leading the Constructors’ Championship with 101 points, and thanks to his victory Vettel is also leading the Drivers’ Championship with 53 points.
After four races, Vettel reckons the Pirellis are the reason for the four different race winners so far this season, “We know that we know nothing. It is almost impossible to predict in advance how the different tyre compounds are going to behave on race day. You have an idea, but nothing more.”
The Iceman back at the top
Although Vettel could keep Mercedes, McLaren, Ferrari and his team mate Webber behind him, both Lotus drivers stormed to the front and were in fact the only drivers who could have spoiled Vettel’s otherwise perfect weekend. Raikkonen had already said his team needed a bit more luck to finish on the podium, but their main concern had been the Pirelli tyres. In China Raikkonen was also second during the closing stages of the race, but the rapid tyre degradation caught up with the Finn who tumbled down the order and finished in 14th place.
In Bahrain Raikkonen failed to make it into the third qualifying session on Saturday and thus started the race from 11th position. At the start he made up four places and then battled it out with Felipe Massa in the Ferrari for seventh place. Next victim was Jenson Button in the McLaren, no problem for the Finn and by lap 8 he was already in sixth place. He made his first stop on lap 11 and rejoined the race in sixth position; from then on it became a pretty straight forward race.
By lap 15 he was in fourth position, right behind his team mate Romain Grosjean who had started from seventh place on the grid. It wasn’t easy to get past the Frenchman, and later it was suggested Raikkonen would have had more chances to fight for the lead if his team mate would have let him past earlier. But Raikkonen resolutely wiped these arguments off the table. “There are no team orders and we know the rules. I try to get past as quickly as I can but it’s not easy with two similar cars. It’s always easy to say afterwards ‘if we had done that’ but in the end we were not fast enough to win and we have to take the second [place],” he explained.
Raikkonen then started to reel in Vettel, but only had one chance to overtake him. “I got one chance on Sebastian but I chose the wrong side under braking, so that was it really. In the end I didn’t have any other chances to try. It’s disappointing to finish second but after the last race we have to take it and be pretty happy.” Of course he actually had more than one chance to overtake him, but with the Chinese Grand Prix disaster still in mind Lotus decided to not further stress the tyres and settled for second and third position.
Certainly happy was Grosjean, who had a disappointing start of the season, he retired from the first two races, but scored eight points in China after crossing the finish line in sixth place, and this weekend scored his maiden Formula One podium by finishing in third place. He had a great start and was in fourth place after one lap, next was Mark Webber in the second Red Bull, and not much later he got past Lewis Hamilton to take second place.
He stayed in second position until after his second pit stop when Raikkonen managed to overtake him, thus the 2011 GP2 Champion finished in third position. “We knew we had a good car but I think we were surprised at the beginning by how quick we were. And we chose a different strategy to Kimi. It turned out to be not too bad at the end,” he stated.
Team Principal Eric Boullier was also a happy man, “Until now, small details have hindered our performance, so it's almost a relief to finally show what we are capable of. We took a bit of a gamble on strategy and I'm pleased to say it paid off. Both drivers put in a fantastic performance, and to have two cars not just on the podium but so closely matched all through the race demonstrates what a strong line-up we have. I'm immensely proud of what we've achieved today."
Pit stop troubles for McLaren
After Button won the Australian Grand Prix, McLaren was seen as the number one team and the team to beat, but they gradually lost grip, perhaps literally, and their head start was now slipping away and this weekend McLaren wasn’t even the team to beat, as they made so many mistakes they in fact eliminated their chances for a good result themselves.
Hamilton and Button qualified in second and fourth position respectively, normally a good position with a chance to finish on the podium or even win the race. At the start Button was able to hang on to second place, but a charging Grosjean in the Lotus soon took over his second place. He pitted for new tyres after eight laps and rejoined the race in 16th place but due to others pitting he was back in fifth place on lap 15. His second and third stop was no problem either and by the end of the race the Briton was in seventh place, but still for the 2009 Champion far under his usual par.
And Button tells the rest of the story himself, “Some drivers had pushed harder at the start of that [last] stint, but I'd been looking after my tyres. Into the last five laps, I started pushing pretty hard, and I caught up with Paul [di Resta] and Nico [Rosberg]. And he further explained, “But, just as I braked for the final corner [on lap 53], the right-front corner lifted up in the air and I realized I had a [left-rear] puncture. So I quickly radioed the team, and pitted.”
That meant he fell back to 13th position, but his troubles weren’t over yet as not much later a very unhealthy sound emerged from under the engine cover of the McLaren and Button had to retire with a differential failure. “I think the initial problem was an exhaust failure, then my puncture, and then a differential failure; so I had to retire. It's been a pretty difficult weekend for the whole team,” said Button.
The same could be said of Hamilton, but he saw his chances of a podium place go up in smoke after a very long pit stop. On his first stop there were problems with the wheel nut of the left rear wheel, and Hamilton fell back from third to 11th place. One might think the McLaren pit crew had learned from the incident which cost six seconds, but not, as during the next pit stop the exact same thing happened and Hamilton again lost a lot of places.
“By rights we should have been fighting to finish in the top four, but it didn't work out like that in the end,” Hamilton commented. “The delays in the pits were a big part of that, of course. The four points is the only positive I can take away from today. My pace wasn't great. I really struggled to look after my rear tyres through the whole day,” he added. And about the troublesome pit stops he said, “We gave a lot of points away today, which is what championships are lost from. We have to try and make sure we pick it up from the next race because we can't afford to lose points like we did today.”
Disappointing race for Mercedes
The victor of the Chinese Grand Prix, Nico Rosberg, was certainly not in the same shape as in China, he qualified in fifth, and after a troublesome race, he finished in fifth position. During the start Rosberg already lost four places and after he had made his first stop for new tyres he rejoined the race in 17th position. But he did fight back and thanks to a very good race strategy the German was able to score 10 points.
Rosberg stated, “I had a pretty bad first lap today, but after that I was able to recover and get the most of our race. Overall I'm happy with our weekend as fifth place gives me a few more points and I can see that we are making progress.” However, Rosberg had been involved in two incidents with Hamilton and Alonso, and the stewards would investigate these after the race.
Not making any progress was Michael Schumacher, he qualified in 18th place, his own fault as he believed he was safe for Q2 but wasn’t, almost a rookie mistake. To add to his misery he also had to change his gearbox and incurred a five place grid penalty. Thanks to Pastor Maldonado, who also had to change his gearbox, Schumacher started his race from 22nd spot on the grid.
The #7 Mercedes had a great start and jumped from 22nd to 16th place but the seven times World Champion then got stuck behind the Williams of Maldonado. He pitted quickly to get rid of the Venezuelan, but the plan didn’t work and he was again stuck behind the Williams, although this time he had advanced to 13th place. After his second stop Schumacher was still in a very disappointing 13th place, this time the Sauber of Sergio Perez was ahead of him.
After his third and last stop he finally managed to get Perez behind him, but now he had the Mexican’s team mate Kamui Kobayashi in his sight, who in his turn had Massa in the Ferrari ahead of him. Schumacher finally got past the Japanese driver and took 11th place, but he could not reduce the gap to his former Ferrari team mate Massa, finally Button’s retirement meant Schumacher finished in 10th place picking up one point.
"Considering where I started the race today, it's a positive that I was able to fight up to 10th place, score a point and finish a dry race this season,” Schumacher stated after the race. He was convinced the tyres had played a major part in the race and questioned the rapid degradation of the Pirellis. “Sometimes we are driving only 60, 70 per cent through the corners,” he said to the German Bild magazine on Monday.
Ferrari ran out of luck this time
Sixth place at best is what Alonso predicted ahead of the Bahrain Grand Prix, he was right but he never would have predicted he would finish ahead of Hamilton. Alonso started the race from ninth position and made one of his by now famous rocket starts and was fifth after the whole field had passed Turn 3. From then on his race was, apart from the incident with Rosberg, pretty straight forward. Unfortunately the Ferrari also lacks top speed according to Alonso and that makes it difficult to overtake. That was actually the reason he couldn’t overtake Paul di Resta’s Force India during the closing stages of the race.
Nevertheless Alonso was positive about the past four races, “To finish this run of four races in this situation is positive, even if there is no point in denying that we cannot be happy with it in general terms.” He also realizes Ferrari was quite lucky so far, “Now, it's clear we have to make a step forward, because we cannot always count on the failings of others. For example, we closed the points gap to McLaren, something which I certainly would not have believed possible if it had been suggested yesterday.” And Ferrari has some work to do the next three weeks, “We have to improve the car as quickly as possible: in Barcelona, we will have some major updates but so will the others and how good a job we will have done we will only discover on track at Montmelo,” the 2005 and 2006 Champion said.
He also remarked, “So far it's been good that there hasn't been just one driver picking up the maximum points, as happened for example last year.” And he was of course hinting at his Brazilian team mate Massa, who finished in ninth place, and for the first time this season scored points. Massa was happy with the result, but at the same time agreed with Alonso that Ferrari still has a lot of work to do, “It's a nice result at this time, but we are well aware that it is not Ferrari's style to be happy with a ninth place. Having said that, it is a performance that gives me confidence for the rest of the season.”
Ferrari Team Principal Stefano Domenicali commented, “We managed to limit the damage, at least as far as the Drivers' championship is concerned. Now we must look to the future and make a step up in terms of quality which should allow us to fight for the podium and not just a points finish. That's what I have been asking our engineers for several weeks and by Barcelona, I expect to already see the results of the effort we are expending in every area.”
No penalty for Rosberg or Hamilton
Rosberg’s moves on Hamilton and Alonso were questionable according to some, and it was therefore no surprise both were not happy with Rosberg’s actions. Rosberg reported over the team radio Hamilton had ‘left the circuit’ but forgot to mention why. Initially it looked like Rosberg just pushed Hamilton off the track after Turn 3 but a closer examination of the video footage in fact reveals Rosberg moved all the way to the right after exiting Turn 3 while Hamilton was at that moment of time clearly still behind him.
Hamilton wanted to pass the German on the right at the exit of the corner and had already gained enough speed to do so, but Rosberg anticipated his move and moved to the right to block him, which is legal, a driver is allowed to defend his line once. Hamilton was surprised by the move but elected to continue (he could have braked if he wanted to) and therefore had no other choice than to use the run-off area on the right to finish his overtaking maneuver. It was actually Hamilton who made an illegal move; he overtook Rosberg while all four wheels of his McLaren were off the track.
It was exactly the same situation with Alonso, the Spaniard tried to do the same as Hamilton before him had done, but again Rosberg blocked him and Alonso who already had gained momentum moved to the right as well, but he didn’t finish his move, as soon as he realized his right wheels had crossed the line he lifted and moved to the left and tried to overtake Rosberg on the left side, which didn’t work either. Alonso was livid and shouted over the radio, “Okay, he pushed me off the track, I think you have to leave the space, all the time you have to leave the space!”
Again it looked like Rosberg had pushed the Ferrari off the track, but again video footage shows Alonso was still behind the Mercedes when Rosberg moved to the right, so he didn’t have to leave Alonso any space at all, and that is what the FIA also concluded. At no time Hamilton nor Alonso were in front of, or alongside the Mercedes when Rosberg moved to the right and therefore it was a legitimate move.
However, the FIA also concluded, “Had a significant portion of Car 4 [Hamilton] been alongside that of Car 8 [Rosberg] whilst Car 4 still remained within the confines of the track, then the actions of Car 8 may not have been considered legitimate.” About the incident with Alonso the FIA concluded the same, “No part of Car 5 was alongside that of Car 8.”
Alonso still wasn’t happy and after the race commented, “If, instead of such a wide run-off area there had been a wall, I'm not sure I'd be here now to talk about it.” And after hearing the FIA decision he wrote on Twitter, “I think you are going to have fun in future races. You can defend position as you want and you can overtake outside the track! Enjoy!”
Best of the rest
Perhaps not a flattering phrase, and Force India’s di Resta deserves more after the Bahrain Grand Prix, he finished in sixth place, ahead of Alonso, Hamilton, Massa and Schumacher. This was largely the result of the two-stop strategy the team had planned for the Scot, it was risky but it worked. “The team did an amazing job all weekend, the strategy came together and the pit-stops were perfect. We knew it would be a big ask to make only two stops and it was a close run thing at the end because my tyres completely went away on the final lap,” di Resta said. It was a very close finish for him, as Alonso was very close behind him and in the last turn of the last lap he had to use his KERS to keep the Ferrari behind him.
Not a good race for his team mate Nico Hulkenberg who explained, “I think my race was decided at the very start when I had some clutch issues and the anti-stall kicked in, which really compromised my getaway and dropped me right to the back of the pack. From then on it was a long, hard fight back through the field, and it was hard work coming through the traffic. I made it to P12, but there wasn't much more I could do.”
There wasn’t much else to do for Williams as well, as both drivers had to retire. Maldonado made an impressive spin at the exit of Turn 1 as a result of a puncture; he made it back to the Williams garage but had to retire because the punctured rear tyre had damaged the car as well. Just three laps before the finish Bruno Senna had to retire after he had noticed strange vibrations in the brake pedal, the Williams engineers made the call to not take any risks and Senna had to give up his race while in 14th position.
Both Sauber drivers Perez and Kobayashi finished outside the points in 11th and 13th position respectively. Both drivers were on a different strategy, but Perez complained about the tyre degradation while Kobayashi, who was on a two stop strategy, also suffered from severe tyre degradation and was forced to make a third stop just seven laps before the end of the race.
Next on the list is Toro Rosso, although Daniel Ricciardo started from sixth place on the grid, he finished in 15th place, while Jean-Eric Vergne who stated from 17th place, finished the race in 14th position.
Vitaly Petrov was once again faster than Heikki Kovalainen, the latter had contact with another car after the start and had to pit with a left rear puncture which ruined his race, but the Finnish Iceman as his nickname is, was nevertheless not too disappointed and commented, “It's obviously a bit frustrating to have had the puncture on the first lap, but we can take a number of positives from this weekend, particularly from the pace we showed in qualifying and from the way we were able to look after the tyres, so overall it's been pretty good.”
And all the way down the list we find Marussia and HRT, Marussia’s Charles Pic retired after 24 laps with an engine problem, while Timo Glock did all he could do and finished in 19th place, two laps behind the winner. Also two laps behind the winner were Pedro de la Rosa and Narain Karthikeyan, who finished in 20th and 21st place for HRT.
Next stop: Barcelona, Spain
Next stop is the Spanish Grand Prix at the Circuit de Catalunya near Barcelona, a circuit that was also the scene of the pre-season testing, so all drivers are familiar with the 4.566 km long circuit. Also the first race on European soil, latest news is that Catalunya and Valencia will alternate as host of the Spanish Grand Prix, which also means there won’t be a European Grand Prix next year.
Which is just what Bernie Ecclestone wants, as he has more Grands Prix on his list than there are slots on the 2013 calendar. “Under the circumstances, especially the current economic climate, the best solution we could find was that we alternate,” said Ecclestone without moving a muscle in his face. “We are not a European championship,” he said, defending his decision to explore far flung markets. “We are a World Championship, and that means we have to be all over the planet.”