After months of anticipation and despite a mouth-watering line-up of teams and drivers, not to mention the biggest grid in 15 years, the Bahrain Grand Prix was a damp squib. And that’s putting it politely.
But the F1 community – be it the fans, the teams or the rule makers – should not be too hasty to jump to conclusions after just one race.
And blaming the refuelling ban for yesterday’s uninspiring race would overlook more serious problems with competition in F1 that need to be fixed.
Long-time readers of this site will know I never had much time for F1’s refuelling era and was glad to see it dropped. Artificial jumbling of the running order holds no excitement for me.
I enjoy proper wheel-to-wheel racing. Genuine passes for position on the track and robust defensive driving. Neither of which we saw much of yesterday – or in quite a few races last year for that matter.
Blaming the refuelling ban for the lack of overtaking yesterday is a simplistic, knee-jerk reaction to a problem which has been around much longer and whose roots are more complicated.
Over the winter the designers were left free to push the development of their cars’ aerodynamics without new restrictions. And, as has always been the case when they’re allowed to do that, the cars now produce more downforce and so are more sensitive to running in the air of a leading car.
That much was clear in the opening stages of yesterday’s race when Lewis Hamilton was unable to get within half a second of Nico Rosberg despite having a car that was up to a second faster per lap in clean air and the fastest in a straight line.
The improved aerodynamic performance of this year’s cars has been accompanied by a reduction in mechanical grip due to the narrower front tyres. The balance of the cars’ performance has shifted away from mechanical grip – which is not impaired by running behind another car – to aerodynamic downforce – which is impaired by running behind another car.
But it’s not just aerodynamics which has made it harder for one F1 car to follow another closely.
Running in the hot air of another car causes cooling problems, as we saw when Fernando Alonso caught Sebastian Vettel in the later stages of yesterday’s race. Alonso had to pull out from behind Vettel on the straights in order to keep cooler air flowing into his radiators.
This brings us to a third problem – the need to conserve car and engine life. Felipe Massa was being urged not to run closely behind other cars to avoid overheating his engine, which will have to do at least one, possible two more Grand Prix distances after this one.
In short, since the last race of 2009 it’s become harder for F1 cars to follow each other. And with none of the cars able to use KERS for a handy power boost, hardly anyone was able to get in range to make a pass.
From the moment we first laid eyes on the revised Bahrain circuit, used for the first time by F1 this year, people were saying it would be no good for overtaking.
From the satellite photo alone you could tell it was too tight, too slow and too narrow. The race proved the organisers’ promise the section would “provide new overtaking opportunities” was well wide of the mark.
It wasn’t just in the F1 race that cars found it hard to pass on the new section. The GP2 Asia drivers couldn’t do much with it either but could still pass on the rest of the circuit. Incidentally, these are cars with tightly restricted spec aero, spec tyres, and no refuelling, and have consistently produced the best single-seater racing I’ve seen over the past six years. Sadly last weekend was their last scheduled outing.
The sheer length of the track played a part as well. The longer the lap a car has to do the less likely it is to encounter other cars. At around two minutes per lap every car on the grid could circulate five seconds apart. It’s no coincidence that Interlagos, which consistently produces some of the best races we see, is also one of the shortest tracks.
At the very least the circuit organisers should switch back to the normal layout for next year’s race. It’s no classic, but it’s far better than the configuration they used this year. And if they really want to make things interesting and increase opportunities for overtaking, they want to use their shorter ‘outer’ track.
The first race was always going to struggle to live up to the pre-season expectations. We all wanted to see Schumacher battling with Alonso and the fight for supremacy at McLaren. What little racing there was seemed to be between the Virgins and Lotuses at the back of the field.
And in one respect we were unlucky. The Vettel/Alonso/Massa battle for the lead was getting close when the Red Bull driver’s exhaust packed in, spoiling the fun.
But we shouldn’t judge the entire season based on one race. The first Grand Prix of 2002 was a thriller but the rest of the year was largely forgettable. Was yesterday’s race really any worse than Istanbul or Singapore were last year with refuelling? I don’t think so.
The real problem
The fundamental problem is still that cars can’t follow each other closely. This is what the FIA needs to fix. Bringing in more mandatory pit stops and reintroducing refuelling would be like putting a sticking plaster on a broken leg.
Instead of over-reacting in a panicky fashion with ill thought-out changes the rule makers need to look at the big picture and understand how many of the technical changes in recent years have conspired to make it hard for cars to follow each other: engine use restrictions, rev limits, double diffusers and more.
Even after the Overtaking Working Group’s changes last year, F1 cars still can’t follow each other closely enough often enough. Encouragingly the FIA has already taken a step towards fixing it by banning double diffusers for 2011.
But they need to go further and consider not just cutting back downforce, but also looking at this problem of cars overheating when they run close behind a leading car.
That’s the real heart of F1’s overtaking problem. And solving it is much more challenging than just forcing more pit stops or bringing back refuelling.
Overtaking and the refuelling ban