- Jul 23, 2014
Formula 1's fourth championship round takes place in the desert kingdom of Bahrain. And don't look now, but in the last three years, the cradle of motorsport in the Persian Gulf has been the host to some of the most consistently entertaining races of the Formula 1 season, peaking with an all-time classic in last year's Bahrain Grand Prix, the first to be held at night time under artificial lighting.
Bahrain was the first titanic battle between Mercedes teammates Lewis Hamilton and Nico Rosberg in the 2014 season. It was full-contact, wheel-to-wheel competition between teammates for the lead in the closing laps after a late safety car period brought the title rivals to an even footing on track. Rosberg, with the overwhelming double-whammy of fresh option tyres and DRS, had ample opportunity to pass Hamilton for the lead and the victory. He could not. Hamilton drove at ten-tenths against an impossible advantage to defend his position until the chequered flag, and secure his third victory of the 2014 season - a victory that may have set the tone for the season as a whole, with Hamilton triumphant as champion, and Rosberg falling just short at the end.
It saw a rejuvenated Sergio Perez climb back on the podium for the first time since his breakout season of 2012 - holding off the eventual breakout star of 2014, Red Bull's Daniel Ricciardo, for third place at the line. Luca di Montezemelo flipped his wig and stormed out of the Bahrain paddock as his Ferrari team sunk down the running order in the race - foreshadowing his ultimate "Bye Felicia" act later in the year when he stepped down as Ferrari chairman. Esteban Gutierrez flipped onto his lid thanks to an assist from the ever-popular Venezuelan wunderkind, Pastor Maldonado.
Much has changed in F1 since then, but the fight is still on at Mercedes-Benz - though at the trending rate, it may be tilting to a lopsided affair in favor of the champion Hamilton. A frustrated Rosberg let his temper boil over in China - he may now be struggling not only to keep pace with his two-time World Champion teammate, but the genuinely new-found pace of Scuderia Ferrari teammates Sebastian Vettel and Kimi Raikkonen may see him supplanted as Hamilton's main title rival at the rate he's trending. To prevent that, Rosberg will need to engineer a drive more like his debut performance, staged here in 2006, when Rosberg was a 20-year-old rookie fresh out of winning the inaugural GP2 Series title and drove back from last place after an early spin to finish eighth place.
Speaking of Ferrari, my, what a year of administrative upheaval will do to a team's fortunes. Last year, they were lucky to cling to a mediocre finish of 9th and 10th for their two world champion drivers, Raikkonen and Fernando Alonso. Stefano Domenicali proved to be just the first of many to quit or fall on the axe over the next several months, and his exit came right after this race last year. This year, with a totally revamped team headed by the charismatic Mauricio Arrivabene, a reinvigorated Sebastian Vettel leading the charge, and a car that has genuine race-winning pace, the four-time World Champion Vettel could add a third Bahrain GP victory to his resume this weekend and, more importantly, push back against the man who toppled him off the champion's throne last season. Ferrari have more wins than any other team at this event with four.
Fernando Alonso is the winningest driver here, with three victories in Bahrain (2005, 2006, 2010). But this year, he may be fortunate if he can just steal a point, as will teammate Jenson Button - as McLaren Honda continue to try and squeeze whatever extra horsepower they can out of a deficient power unit that is doing very little to flatter what is actually a very efficient and capable chassis. Incremental gains have been made since Melbourne, but unless McLaren and Honda have found a figurative desert oasis of five seconds' worth of pace, neither Alonso or Button will be a factor this weekend.
For this weekend, Williams Martini Racing just becomes Williams Racing thanks to the national ban on alcohol advertising. The team itself has had a dry start to 2015 - no podiums yet for either Valtteri Bottas or two-time Bahrain winner Felipe Massa, but every race they've run, they've finished in the points. Bahrain is less of a downforce-heavy track than Sepang or Shanghai, which could favor Williams and their low-drag FW36 - a podium would not be unrealistic for either driver.
Fifty-seven laps around the 5.412 kilometre Bahrain International Circuit in Sakhir will prove to be a great challenge for all the drivers. It skews more towards an intermediate-downforce circuit than the last three rounds of the season, with several long straights and more genuine opportunities for passing than you'd expect from a modern "cookie-cutter" track. And with the Pirelli tyres no longer subject to the harsh desert sun any more, they can run the soft and medium compound tyres as they did last year - which should once again create a must-see event for fans around the world.
- In China, Romain Grosjean picked up his first points finish since the 2014 Monaco Grand Prix, in which he finished eighth - one place ahead of the star of that event, Marussia's Jules Bianchi. Afterwards, the Lotus lead driver dedicated his seventh-place finish to his friend and fellow Frenchman, who has now been recovering from severe head injuries for over six months.
- This will be Jenson Button's 250th Grand Prix entry this weekend. Button's only Bahrain victory came here in his improbable romp to the title in 2009 for Brawn GP. Don't expect that to change after this weekend, but full marks to Button, who at this point just six months ago, wasn't sure if he'd even be around to celebrate a 250th Grand Prix - he's a standard bearer of longevity and an absolute class act in a sport that exports causes for cynicism like it was a natural resource. Not bad for a driver who moved up to Formula 1 fifteen years ago despite only finishing third place in his only year in Formula 3. Speaking of which...
- Man, Max Verstappen is good. Three races in, and he's proven that at seventeen years of age, he shows the maturity of a seasoned veteran twice his age - bold, yet fair overtaking maneuvers combined with genuinely impressive pace and a consistent approach, but he's been let down by a woeful Renault power unit twice in three races. Many have tried to find a nickname for the son of "Jos the Boss" since nothing good really fits along those lines for Max. "Max Attack" has been a popular pick, but I'm starting a campaign in favor of "The Bandit". He carries number 33, a number made famous by the popular Skoal Bandit cars driven by the likes of Teo Fabi and Harry Gant in North America, and the way he's been stealing the spotlight from the senior Red Bull team all year, "The Bandit" may be a more fitting name than I thought of at first.
- Verstappen is not the only rookie to exceed the pre-season expectations of the cynical masses. Felipe Nasr came into the season being painted as little more than a mediocre pay-driver. Instead, he's now lying seventh in the championship, with a 9th place grid and 8th place finish in China demonstrating that his and Sauber's great performance in Melbourne was no flash in a pan. He hasn't been quite as dynamic as Verstappen or Carlos Sainz at Toro Rosso, but he has proven to be a very capable and productive Formula 1 driver who deserves a grid spot on his merit, not just his sponsorship.
- Force India have a recent history of doing well here in Bahrain. Sergio Perez and Nico Hulkenberg finished third and fifth here respectively. Paul di Resta came within a hand's grasp of his only F1 podium finish the year before. But the Anglo-Indian squad enter this year as a distant eighth-best team in the pecking order behind Manor and McLaren. They will probably need to get crafty with tyre strategies to come close to replicating that success.
- Jolyon Palmer gets a second FP1 running in Bahrain for the Lotus F1 Team. Last year, he finished third in the feature race, and won the sprint race in the GP2 Series events here in Bahrain, the start of his successful run to the 2014 GP2 Series championship.
- And just like last year, the GP2 Series will start its 2015 campaign here this weekend. McLaren's top prospect, defending feature race winner, and RaceDepartment member Stoffel Vandoorne is the odds-on favorite to win the title for ART Grand Prix in his sophomore campaign, but he won't have an easy fight against a field stacked with great talent like reigning GP3 Series champ Alex Lynn, his DAMS teammate Pierre Gasly, Ferrari Driver Academy star Raffaele Marciello, top American hopeful Alexander Rossi - now in Hulk Hogan's red and yellow colours thanks to his move to Racing Engineering, two of Aston Martin Racing's young drivers Marco Sorensen and Richie Stanaway, and Mark Webber's protege Mitch Evans. Even though unleashing the DRS kraken on GP2 is total overkill for a series that already had plenty of aggressive racing, it may still offer the best pound-for-pound racing action on the Bahrain GP itinerary.
- Free Practice 1: 11:00-12:30 GMT
- Free Practice 2: 15:00-16:30 GMT
- Free Practice 3: 12:00-13:00 GMT
- Qualifying: 15:00-16:00 GMT
- Race: 15:00 GMT