Four races down in 2012 and we’ve had four different winners and four different leaders of the world championship. Has Formula One ever been more unpredictable or exciting?
Sebastian Vettel qualified 11th in China last weekend and finished fifth, yet he started from pole in Bahrain and dominated the race to take Red Bull Racing’s first win of the year. It was an impressive turnaround in form and the question now is whether or not the team can maintain that level of performance going forward.
“It’s incredibly close this year,” says Red Bull Racing team principal Christian Horner. “But we’ve always believed in the potential of the RB8 and this race was the first time this year that we’ve extracted the maximum from it.”
There was a frenetic build-up to the race at Sakhir as the freight only arrived from China on Tuesday evening. That gave the teams only Wednesday in which to strip and re-build their cars ahead of scrutineering on Thursday and the opening practice sessions on Friday. But this is F1 and all-nighters are what mechanics do so well; every car was ready when first practice got underway at 10am on Friday.
The Bahrain International Circuit has several unique characteristics. First, the asphalt is very slippery: high winds blow sand from the surrounding desert onto the racetrack and the surface is very dirty every morning. Second, the cloudless blue skies push track temperatures higher than at any other venue on the calendar. That has a big impact on tyre wear, as does the predominance of slow and medium-speed corners, which put the rear tyres through a lot of stress under acceleration.
Red Bull Racing’s RB8 featured no major upgrades in Bahrain, but it was clear from the outset that the team was in for a more competitive weekend than in China. Vettel and Webber were both in the top three during Friday practice, and repeated that form on Saturday morning when doing a qualifying simulation.
Three drivers held pole position in the dying moments of qualifying. First Webber held it, then Lewis Hamilton and Vettel finally pinched it by 0.098s. The top four cars were separated by just 0.289s on the 92-second lap.
“It’s unbelievably close this year,” said Vettel afterwards. “You have to get everything right if you’re going to get pole; your car needs to be perfect and you need to drive the perfect lap.”
Another driver to nail a good lap was Daniel Ricciardo in Toro Rosso’s STR7. He set a time just 0.091s slower than Shanghai winner Nico Rosberg, and he lined up ahead of both Lotus drivers.
“I got better and better in each of the sessions,” said Dan. “You don’t always have a day like today, so I’m going to enjoy it, bearing in mind that it’s tomorrow that counts.”
F1 is unpredictable this season, but one undeniable fact remains: the car starting on pole position is most likely to win. Button won from pole in Australia and Rosberg won from pole in China. That placed the favourite tag on Vettel and he didn’t disappoint. He pulled out a lead of 2.2s on lap one and increased that by 0.7s on lap two, 0.4s on lap three and so on. He was never headed during the 57-lap race.
The interest behind Seb revolved around the progress made by Lotus drivers Kimi Raikkonen and Romain Grosjean. Having started 11th, Kimi carved his way through the field and was up to second by lap 26. With Grosjean in third, Webber was pushed back to fourth – his fourth fourth place of the year. “That’s better than four fifths,” said Mark.
Having started sixth, Ricciardo had a torrid race. He dropped 10 places on the opening lap and came home 15th, one place behind his team-mate Jean-Eric Vergne. “That is not what I was hoping for,” said the Western Australian. “The opening lap changed my whole race because I lost a lot of positions and damaged my front wing. I need to be hard on myself now and find out what I did wrong to make sure I don’t do it again. It was a race to forget.”
With Red Bull Racing leading the constructors’ championship and Vettel sitting atop the drivers’ standings, the team is in a good position as the series heads back to Europe for the Spanish Grand Prix in three weeks time. Let’s hope Red Bull Racing can continue where it left off in Bahrain.