F1: Form book back to normal in the desert?

By LJ Hutchins

CalendarFriday, April 24th, 2009

 
 

One thing’s for certain about the Bahrain Grand Prix.

There may be sand on the track, drivers and teams may be in a jetlagged no man’s land between Asian and European time zones – but at least the weather should be fine.

Following the gloaming that descended on the later Australian laps, the monsoon in Malaysia and the diversion of the Yangtze River onto the track in Shanghai, everybody is yearning for a little bit of predictability.

And Bahrain is nothing if not reliable.

Whether the same can be said for Red Bull’s form will be one of the big questions in the minds of fans on the eve of this race.

Another will be whether the ‘big three’ of McLaren, Ferrari and BMW (and also possibly Renault) have done enough car development to knock Jenson Button off his drivers’ championship perch.

The Brawn GP team are going into this weekend on a relative high note, having had time to absorb the news that their ‘trick’ diffuser is considered legal, and also to consider the growing feeling that KERS brings more disadvantages to a car than it does advantages.

However the decision of more drivers to employ their power boost devices may concern Brawn, should his men find themselves near the front of the grid, as he has openly admitted in the past that he dreads the KERS-equipped cars at the race start.

He said in his team’s preview: “It has been an intense and demanding start to the season. Australia, Malaysia and China produced some fantastic racing and I am very pleased with how the team responded to the challenges that we have faced.

“Looking ahead to this weekend, we are expecting a dry weekend which will allow us to really put the BGP 001 through its paces and assess our performance.

“The track characteristics of the Bahrain International Circuit should suit our car and we do not expect any concerns from the high ambient and track temperatures.”

Championship leader Jenson Button added: “Bahrain is always one of my favourite races on the calendar as I love the country and the circuit has some great fast-flowing sections which really suit my driving style and allow you to push the car to its limits.

“It’s a good circuit for overtaking, particularly at turn one after the long straight where you brake very hard from over 300kph in seventh gear down to first gear.

“People tend to brake surprisingly early here so you can make up crucial ground if you are brave. Confidence under braking is the key to a quick lap. You have to believe in the car’s performance and have full confidence that you can stop effectively.”

It is widely believed that Red Bull is going to have trouble maintaining its race-winning pace in the dry this weekend, and that the Brawn cars will re-establish their dominance.

Chief technical officer Adrian Newey is approaching the race cautiously: “The big teams like Ferrari, BMW and McLaren are currently on the back foot, but they won’t stay there of course.

“I think that’s refreshing and healthy for Formula One. It creates more interest, seeing different teams and drivers at the front.

“It’s difficult to know [how Bahrain will play out] as circuit specific advantages come into play. From our point of view, we don’t really know yet what the different strengths and weaknesses of our own car are, compared to those of our competitors at individual tracks.”

McLaren has a lot more on its mind this weekend than racing. If the FIA decides to impose a ban at its hearing on Wednesday, this could be the last we see of Lewis Hamilton for a while.

He was determinedly staying upbeat in the run-in to the race: “I’m looking forward to Bahrain. It’s a circuit I enjoy and I think it should be good for us – the nature of the circuit, the long straights and the heavy braking zones mean it is a theoretically strong place for KERS.

“In fact, it’s got the highest brake-wear of the season so far, so it will be interesting to see how well KERS can be exploited around the lap.

“Most importantly, we seem to have a solid direction within the team – all our upgrades invariably bring a laptime improvement and our direction on set-up and strategy shows what a strong group we still are.

“I still think we are several races away from being truly competitive but a straightforward race at Bahrain would give us a very good opportunity to accurately assess where we sit among our rivals.”

But Norbert Haug, head of motorsport at the team’s engine partner Mercedes, delivered a wake-up call: “We lost already six points in Australia by our own faults and also in Malaysia we should have scored more than one point.

“In China we achieved for the first time what was achievable, but fifth and sixth places cannot be the target for the team starting with numbers 1 and 2 on their cars.

“After the first four flyaway races we have to deliver presentable progress in the next four races in Europe. However, it will be very challenging to move into the top three of the team ranking in such a short time.”

Some facts and figures: the Bahrain International Circuit, designed by Herman Tilke, is 20 miles south of capital city Manama and staged its first Grand Prix in 2004.

The circuit is just over three miles long with top speeds approaching 130mph along its four long straights, particularly the pit straight, which is the fastest. The race will be 57 laps long.

High ambient temperatures mean tyres and driver fitness are always issues and sand blown onto the track surface in can play havoc with grip levels.

Other points to watch: whether Flavio Briatore’s seemingly inexhaustible patience with Nelson A Piquet can last the weekend; whether Massa can repeat his feat of last year and use a favourite circuit as a springboard to a revamped season; and whether we learn anything meaningful about the KERS effect.

Enjoy the racing!

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