After a dismal (by their standards) start to 2005, Ferrari have pressed their new car into action two weeks ahead of schedule. Can they close the gap to Renault, or will the technical Bahrain circuit reveal that their true weakness is their Bridgestone tyres?
The 2004 Bahrain Grand Prix won the FIA’s award for best organised race, but it didn’t take any prizes for the action on the track. That combined with the uninspiring setting made for a thoroughly underwhelming experience for many F1 fans. But with the fight for first place potentially much closer than last year and a further 12 months development gone into the circuit, the second race Bahrain should be better.
Renault are looking for their third consecutive win, which they never achieved in their first period as a constructor (1977-85). Fernando Alonso has already stated that he fears the opposition will be closer to them at Bahrain because he feels the track doesn’t play to the car’s strengths. From the outside though it might appear that the Renault’s strong acceleration from slow corners and good straight-line speed are made for the stop-start nature of Bahrain which, like Sepang two weeks ago, is a Tilke track.
In the immediate chasing pack we have McLaren and Toyota, neither of whom were anywhere at Bahrain last year – Toyota out of the points, McLaren not finishing. Juan Pablo Montoya, then at Williams, had a strong run to almost-second until his gearbox packed in – but after suffering a tennis injury this week his participation is in doubt. Toyota were a pleasant surprise at Sepang, with Trulli on solid form and substantially quicker than ream-mate Ralf Schumacher. Expect them to be back in the hunt for points again. Williams should also be there or thereabouts, but do not look like victory contenders yet. All have had their Bahrain preparations disrupted by rain at the recent Paul Ricard test.
After the humiliation of finishing seventh at Malaysia, the question of whether Ferrari should bring their new car to Bahrain was a no-brainer for them. As predicted by F1Fanatic (in our 2005 preview issue) Ferrari have reacted to the pace of Renault by rushing their new car for round three. The strength of the F2005 will be the first thing to keep an eye on in Bahrain.
The new car has been around 1s per lap quicker than the flailing F2004-M in testing, which relative to the opposition would put them right in the thick of the chasing pack behind Renault. It could set us up perfectly for a spine-tingling race – or we could find out they’ve been sandbagging and are miles ahead of the opposition. But with Schumacher finishing almost 80s down on Alonso last time out, and the Bridgestone tyres clearly not up to the performance of the Michelins, it would be a serious shock to see them as far ahead as they were this time last year.
Bahrain is generally angular and tight, with a preponderance of slow, sharp corners. This does promote overtaking where there is a sufficient speed differential between the cars, but is less demanding of outright driver skill. Turns 11 and 12 are the major exception, curving uphill at speed and bound to be murder on the tyres.
We could well see more argy-bargy along the lines of what occurred in Malaysia. In 2004 Ralf Schumacher clumsily removed himself from the running by tripping over Takuma Sato at turn two. Expect the dusty, sharp turn one to invite incident on lap one. Michael Schumacher locked his wheel hard here in 2004 – if anyone does the same this year they’ll suffer for it throughout the race, as Montoya did in Malaysia.
As with most tracks this season, Bahrain will invite a two-stop fuel strategy which will give any overtaking-shy drivers a chance to leap ahead of slower cars without having to really work for it.
We’re still yet to see much from the much-hyped McLaren driver rivalry. Montoya has outscored Raikkonen at both races, but his Finnish team mate has been far quicker and lost out through minor problems. Montoya is showing early signs of struggling with the need to preserve his tyres over a race distance – running wide in Australia and flat-spotting a front Michelin in Malaysia.
Alonso obviously struck back hard against team mate Giancarlo Fisichella last time out, and Bahrain will be the first sign if Fisichella has any response. Ralf Schumacher will need to start out-performing Jarno Trulli at some point, if only to justify his bafflingly huge pay packet. Frank Williams has made a point of publicly praising Nick Heidfeld who has done a solid job in his first two races for Williams, while Mark Webber needlessly jeopardised his race in Malaysia and paid the price for it.
But it is starting to look like only a miracle can save Jacques Villeneuve, and it is understood that Anthony Davidson, Alex Wurz and other drivers a jockeying for his Sauber seat. Would you put any money on Villeneuve still being there come his home Grand Prix in June?