The Bahrain Race We Didn’t See…
I know that makes no sense, there were cars on the track, at the end we had a winner and two runner-ups. So yes, in that respect a race was held at the Grand Prix of Bahrain. But was that the race we all wanted to see? I have a hypothesis: what we wanted to see was the RB9 and F138 go head to head with Sebastian Vettel and Fernando Alonso mano a mano, and for a fourth race in a row that has yet to happen. Let me explain. The opening race, held in Australia in weather that was less than ideal, with a track that is not typical of the F1 calendar and tires that no one really knew anything about in race conditions, was not a very typical Grand Prix. I think it is safe to say that very little knowledge was gained regarding how the teams, top and midfield, ranked in comparison to one another. Since this was the first race of the season, there was a little bit of everybody’s just happy to be back. Don’t get me wrong, on race day it was all business, but many things were yet to be sorted out.
Next up was Malaysia; again the weather was a major player over the weekend and at the start of the race. We have the Ferraris and a Red Bull up front and closely matched. So the stage is set to see some outright pace and some great racing from two of the tops teams and two of the top drivers. Lights out, and Alonso has a brilliant start, passes Felipe (what a shocker) but then, because of an uncharacteristic error, robbed everyone of what was going to be a great battle by running into the back of Vettel. Unbelievable. You know how the story ends.
China, before any racing even starts we were guaranteed of no real race if you are to believe the propaganda by Red Bull. The tires this, the tires that. The fans are up in arms, the teams are up in arms, and even the drivers are up in the arms. Back to Red Bull. They don’t have the pace to challenge for pole and decide instead to change up the strategy and start from 9th by not setting a time in Q3 and race the hard tire for the first two stints. This effectively made any and all meaningful comparison between the Ferrari and Red Bull impossible. Thus, Fernando goes on to have a stellar drive, wins with no real challengers due to the fact that Kimi runs into the back of Sergio Perez’s McLaren and damages the nose of the car, Lewis Hamilton’s Mercedes gobbles up it’s tires and the best that Vettel can do is fourth. Which is almost third, so considering all their weeping and moaning about tires, is pretty darn good.
Ok, three up, three down. The F1 world goes to Bahrain and the conversation that is dominating is that Pirelli has opted to change the allocation for this race to the medium and hard compounds. Paul Hembery went out of his way to diffuse speculation that this was done to appease Red Bull and Mercedes by explaining that the decision was taken after Malaysia. I am inclined to believe him (sorta). The claim that there would be no way to change the allocation right after China and produce the needed amount of tires seems plausible but one does wonder. Let’s look at all three practice sessions shall we.
Friday practice 1
1. Felipe Massa 1m 34.487s
2. Fernando Alonso 1m 34.564s
3. Nico Rosberg 1m 34.621s
4. Sebastian Vettel 1m 34.790s
5. Paul di Resta Britain 1m 34.949
Friday practice 2
1.Kimi Raikkonen 1m 34.154s
2. Mark Webber 1m 34.184s
3. Sebastian Vettel 1m 34.282s
4. Fernando Alonso 1m 34.310s
5. Paul di Resta Britain 1m 34.543s
1. Fernando Alonso 1m 33.247s
2. Sebastian Vettel 1m 33.348s
3. Mark Webber 1m 33.380s
4. Kimi Raikkonen 1m 33.446s
5. Lewis Hamilton 1m 33.455s
You see where I’m going with this…
Qualifying didn’t go exactly as most people expected. However two of the four protagonists are in the top three and so the stage in now finally set. The Ferrari and Red Bull seem evenly matched with Vettel three-tenths faster over his qualifying lap. We know that in race trim the Ferrari is usually faster that some of its rivals and throw in the fact that the Ferrari is kinder to its tires and now there is almost nothing to separate these two cars.
By this point I am rubbing my hands together. I can’t wait! This will be the first of hopefully some great battles between Vettel and Alonso. This is what F1 needs right now. Not a chassis that dominates the way Red Bull did in 2011 (no offense). Not a driver leading the championship because of the misfortune of others (sorry Fernando), but a straight, no holds barred, tong and hammer, knockdown drag-out fight. Similar to those two wonderful years right before Ferrari and Michael dominated everything. When it was Mika vs. Michael and McLaren vs. Ferrari, race after race and they battled for that top step.
I wrote a post on that, if you’re interested: Close Racing, There Is Nothing Better. The gist of it is that when the racing is close there is nothing more thrilling to watch. It is sometimes said that F1 is most of the time a procession. Unfortunately there is quite a bit of truth to this, it has been this way ever since I can remember, and I don’t think that this aspect will be changing much any time soon. What remedies this is that odd year when you have two or three teams that are evenly matched for whatever reason.
So pardon me while I wax poetically about the race we are going to see. Lights out and Fernando has one of his rocket starts challenging Vettel straight away. Alonso completes the pass, only to be re-passed by Vettel on the same lap. Yep this is exactly what I was expecting, it’s a street fight already. These two didn’t even wait for the beginning laps to settle down. Poor old Nico in the Mercedes while he did his best to stay in front almost looked relieved to let Vettel and Alonso duke it out by themselves. But alas, it was all to good to be true. On lap 6 or so, the DRS mechanism that controls the rear wing flap on Alonso’s Ferrari decided that close racing was not the order of the day and checked out. I can’t believe what I’m seeing. And so with that we were denied the race that we all really wanted to see.
I can only speculate how the race would have unfolded. One thing that needs no speculation was the fact that both drivers in their respective cars were ready to give it their all, if the first laps were any indication. Bernie Eccelstone said a few years back, that drivers in second and third like to cruise around to just collect points and protect their championship. He had some idea about awarding medals, gold silver and bronze. The driver with the most gold medals at the end of the season wins the Driver’s Championship. Ok it sounds goofy but at the time he might have been on to something. However, on this day neither Vettel nor Alonso was going to be happy with anything less than 25 points. No medals required here folks.
Like most of you I like all forms of racing, Le Mans or Endurance, DTM, WRC, AMLS, BTCC, Moto GP, (hell even some good ol’ American drag racing every once in a while), with F1 being at the top of the list. I can remember a year that Audi and Peugeot were neck and neck in the final hour of the 24 hours of Le Mans. Audi is in front, but not by much, and the Peugeot is coming, catching up. A simple math calculation puts them nose to tail before the end of the 24th hour. All of a sudden an issue took the Peugeot out. The camera feed is immediately on Dr Wolfgang Ullrich, Director of Audi Motor Sport and instead of delight, or relief, a look of grave disappointment, and sadness is all over his face. After the podium ceremony Dr. Ullrich was interviewed and asked to explain his reaction. He very simply says (I’m paraphrasing here) that this was not the way Audi wanted to win the race.
Dr. Ullrich understands what it is like to race, truly race your competitors all the way to the finish line. All victories are sweet (and reliability is part of the game, no question) but it must feel that much more gratifying when you know that everyone including your competitors gave it all they had, that the competitor’s car was optimized to its fullest. That no funny things like weather or another car or some bizarre such and such affected the outcome of the result.
So still we wait, for that perfect race. It may not happen in two weeks time at the circuit in Cataluña. I doubt it will happen in Monaco. But when the F1 gods convene, and the stars align, we the fans will see two titans clash for what I think will be the race of the season, no matter who takes the championship at the year’s end.