Sunday, March 14, 2010

Bahrain Grand Prix Qualifying Report

Finally to the first qualifying session of the season in Bahrain, although quite why it is F1 races here is bemusing to say the least. A race in the desert where there are very few fans and is very hard to get to makes very little sense, especially as the circuit lacks character or incident over the years it has run there. This year there is an extended section of the track for which the drivers have almost unanimously derided as dull. However the length of a lap has increased to almost 2 minutes and is only second in distance to the much faster Spa. The two tracks, though, are very much chalk and cheese. Once we get over the sport's administrators filling their boots with oil money though, it was time for the first qualifying for years where the fastest over one lap, regardless of fuel, claims pole.

Q1 was all about the new teams. Astonishingly the Hispania car of Karun Chandhok was turning its wheels for the very first time. This weekend is nothing more than a high-profile testing session for the team, let's hope they make it to the end of the race safely in one piece. Chandhok is on the back row alongside teammate Bruno Senna, nephew of legend Ayrton. Surprisingly perhaps the best of the new teams was the excellent Timo Glock in the Virgin car, just ahead of Jarno Trulli and Heikki Kovaleinen in the Lotus cars. Also out in Q1 were Lucas di Grassi in the other Virgin and Jaime Alguersuari's Toro Rosso.

The second session threw up few surprises, the most exciting moment was whether Jenson Button would squeeze his McLaren into Q3 which he duly did in 10th place. Not making it through were Vitaly Petrov, making his F1 debut in the Renualt, Sebastian Buemi's Toro Rosso and both of the Sauber's. This was a little perplexing given the Swiss team's strong showing in winter testing, just going to show you can't trust those early times. Vitantonio Liuzzi finished in 12th, sandwiching the two Williams cars who may throw up a good performance in the race.

So to Q3, all cars on empty tanks going fully flat out. Sebastian Vettel set a sensational time to take pole over just a single run, ahead of Felipe Massa and Fernando Alonso - the Spaniard appearing annoyed at having been beaten by the Brazilian. In terms of speed though, the Ferrari's look well set over the long runs and are favourites for the race given that the Red Bull car appears to work its tyres hard. The front 3 are over a second ahead of the rest, a major upset as the 4 big teams seemed so closely matched. Lewis Hamilton appeared relieved to be in 4th but downplayed his chances in the race, as did teammate Button down in 8th. Nico Rosberg proved his consistent pace having been around 3-4 tenths quicker than the returning 7 time champion Michael Schumacher who starts 7th. Mark Webber lamented a small driver error that cost him crucial time leaving him in 6th. A final mention must go to the pacy Robert Kubica who caused a minor shock by getting what many believed to be a slow car into 9th. Adrian Sutil demonstrated the rapid improvements of the Force India team by making it into 10th.

So to the race. The first since 1993 without in-race refuelling. Having practised over the winter, the teams can supposedly change all 4 wheels in around 3 seconds. It remains to be seen whether the 'new' format will make the racing more exciting. It will certainly make the races easier to understand, nobody will be on different strategies and running on different weights. Hopefully the different degradation rates of the tyres will make things more unpredictable and encourage overtaking. However if one car drives away into the distance it's unlikely that they will be caught. The new points system makes a mockery of F1 history but will in turn reward the winner with a greater percentage of points over the driver finishing 2nd. With an extended grid it seems fair to award points down to 10th place. With 4 world champions and 4 very closely matched teams at the front, with a bit of luck this will be a fantastic season.

P. Driver Team Q1 Q2 Q3
1. Vettel Red Bull-Renault 1:55.029 1:53.883 1:54.101
2. Massa Ferrari 1:55.313 1:54.331 1:54.242
3. Alonso Ferrari 1:54.612 1:54.172 1:54.608
4. Hamilton McLaren-Mercedes 1:55.341 1:54.707 1:55.217
5. Rosberg Mercedes 1:55.463 1:54.682 1:55.241
6. Webber Red Bull-Renault 1:55.298 1:54.318 1:55.284
7. Schumacher Mercedes 1:55.593 1:55.105 1:55.524
8. Button McLaren-Mercedes 1:55.715 1:55.168 1:55.672
9. Kubica Renault 1:55.511 1:54.963 1:55.885
10. Sutil Force India-Mercedes 1:55.213 1:54.996 1:56.309
11. Barrichello Williams-Cosworth 1:55.969 1:55.330
12. Liuzzi Force India-Mercedes 1:55.628 1:55.653
13. Hulkenberg Williams-Cosworth 1:56.375 1:55.857
14. de la Rosa Sauber-Ferrari 1:56.428 1:56.237
15. Buemi Toro Rosso-Ferrari 1:56.189 1:56.265
16. Kobayashi Sauber-Ferrari 1:56.541 1:56.270
17. Petrov Renault 1:56.167 1:56.619
18. Alguersuari Toro Rosso-Ferrari 1:57.071
19. Glock Virgin-Cosworth 1:59.728
20. Trulli Lotus-Cosworth 1:59.852
21. Kovalainen Lotus-Cosworth 2:00.313
22. di Grassi Virgin-Cosworth 2:00.587
23. Senna HRT-Cosworth 2:03.240
24. Chandhok HRT-Cosworth 2:04.904

Friday, March 5, 2010

2010 Season Prix-view

One week to go and everyone is itching to get started again. The winter months are always long ones for the F1 community and its fans. Everyone will be glad to see the back of it and keen to get going, especially new World Champion Jenson Button who nearly skidded into the McLaren sign in the snow and ice on his first day. What a start that would have been.

F1 wouldn't be the same without some sort of fiasco and the past few weeks have proved no exception. Last season both BMW and Toyota decided to quit the sport, mostly owing to the dire financial situation the motor industry currently finds itself in. However poor performances must also have been a contributing factor to the board members. Germans don't tend to greet failure favorably, let's not forget that 2009 was the year earmarked for championship glory; BMW produced an awful car and deserved no more than their 6th place in the table. Toyota were always likely to pull out, even if their announcement came very suddenly. Renault will continue into 2010, albeit in mostly name alone. 75% of the team has been sold on, even of the marque remains for the time being.

So to the fiasco. Normally it takes about 15 months to build an F1 car, from initial conception to final testing. Typically the FIA messed everyone around with their proposals for budget caps and the entry list was not confirmed until the middle of summer, leaving the 3 new teams a very tight schedule. While the governing body were correct in predicting the exodus of the car manufacturers, their inability to nurse them may have contributed to their departure. Of the 3 new teams initially granted a place, Manor were quickly bought out by Richard Branson's Virgin and look set to start at Bahrain. Lotus, who were given a late entry after Toyota pulled out, remarkably have managed to build a car in 5 months and look all set - leaving traditionalists both elated and perhaps bemused by the re-invention of the classic brand. Campos Meta looked doomed until the last minute, being bought out by Jose Carabante and re-named Hispania Racing (HRT). Their Dallara built car will arrive at first practice farcically without having turned a wheel.

So that leaves poor old USF1, with all the vision of a YouTube-backed team that would relaunch F1 in the States to a massive audience. After a sponsor supposedly reneged on a payment the operation stalled despite having signed Jose Maria Lopez to drive for them with massive backing from the Argentine government. The cars were nowhere near completion and the team has had to bail out well before it got close to racing.

All F1 fans want to see grids as full as possible. Logistics today restrict entries to a grid of 26 cars. However this blog reminisces fondly of the days in the early 90s when 40+ cars turned up to each event, with pre-qualifying standard early on a Friday morning. Today it has not been deemed feasible that a team may not qualify for a race having travelled so far, this is probably fair.

The days of the manufacturer era appear to be over, with only Ferrari and Mercedes now being truly totally backed by a car company. Although there will now be a much bigger disparity in the timesheets from front to back - last season the whole grid tended only to be separated by 1.5secs - it may not be a bad thing at all. For the majority of F1 history it has been the case that teams have been purpose-built as racing outfits. They are the enthusiasts and are there for the thrill, just look at Williams. Their raison d'etre is to race. Long may this continue.