Conventional wisdom has it that when you make a big change to the F1 rules, the better-resourced teams steal a huge advantage. 2006 has already turned that on its head.
The new 2.4-litre V8 engines are the most substantial individual change to the technical rules since the imposition of grooved tyres and narrow-track chassis in 1998. On that occasion, McLaren-Mercedes turned up with a car whole seconds per lap faster than the opposition.
But this year we have Renault, Ferrari, McLaren, perhaps Honda and maybe even Williams already wielding competitive packages. And of the team with the greatest financial clout at their disposal, Toyota, well, the less said the better, really.
Nor has the switch from V10 to V8 engines greatly diminished the show, as many had feared. Yes, the cars now have 200 bhp less, but teams have accommodated this by running less downforce and lower-drag body kits.
The return of tyre changes has provoked softer tyre compounds giving greater grip, and it’s perhaps thanks to this that we had particularly good racing and not so much in the way of complaints that aerodynamic disturbance made it too difficult for one driver to closely follow another.
Even the substantial changes to qualifying have, on the whole, worked. The scramble for quick times in the first two sessions and the intrigue of who would be ‘knocked out’ made for an excellent spectacle. It was particularly good to see the back of the link between a driver’s finishing performance in the last race and their ‘qualifying slot’ for the next, which only seemed to doubly punish unfortunate drivers.
If we have 17 more races like we had in Bahrain, 2006 will be one of the best years ever. But whenever teams are close in terms of performance it almost always makes for good racing. The 2004 Belgian Grand Prix was a fine race in a dismal season, because Kimi Raikkonen got his McLaren on terms with the usually dominant Ferraris.
Thankfully, the 11 teams have already taken one major step towards making sure the close racing we saw in Bahrain continues all year – by signing an accord limiting the amount of testing they can undertake. Let’s hope they stick to it, and save the action for the race track.