- Bahrain Grand Prix - Preview
Desert drivingChris Medland April 18, 2013
It feels a bit like 2012 all over again. Much like last year, we've seen three different winners from the opening three races, and they just happen to be the drivers who finished first, second and third in last season's championship. The war of words at Red Bull might be creating a highly entertaining sideshow, but it shouldn't detract from how close a battle is developing on track, with drivers from four different teams capable of leading the standings at the end of this weekend. Oh, and there's a familiar face back in the paddock...
On FormAfter three races last season, Fernando Alonso had a victory under his belt and was eight points off the championship lead. At this stage the gap might be nine points, but Alonso finds himself in a much more competitive car with which he was able to battle for pole position in China. While there were some complaints about the soft tyres, Ferrari ensured it got its set-up right and delivered a car that was easy on its tyres but still blindingly quick early in the race. Having quickly taken the lead from Lewis Hamilton, Alonso serenely eased away at the front to take a relatively comfortable win. And what's more, he says he had pace in hand.
Out of formThings just haven't started well for Sergio Perez at McLaren, and already patience seems to be running out. Initially, the team was more than willing to dismiss his slightly lacklustre performances as a result of not having a competitive car. However, while the car was still off the pace in China, Jenson Button was able to guide it to fifth place as Perez floundered. Ten laps in to the race the pair were running in third and fourth, just three seconds apart, but from that point on Perez proceeded to slide back through the field to eventually finish outside the points. Team principal Martin Whitmarsh has informed Perez that "he needs to toughen up" despite his collision with Kimi Raikkonen, and the pressure is already starting to build.
One to watchLast year in Bahrain Daniel Ricciardo was the standout performer during Saturday's qualifying session. Having put his Toro Rosso on the third row, however, the race was a different story and he ended up 15th and a lap down. A similar high occurred last weekend when Ricciardo qualified seventh in China and proceeded to hold on to that position at the end of the race to secure his best grand prix finish to date. It's these flashes of quality which Red Bull has been looking for and couldn't have come at a better time for Ricciardo with the recent fortunes of his countryman Mark Webber, and he'll arrive at Sakhir full of confidence.
Talking pointsUnrest outside the gates
I've already said it feels a bit like 2012 all over again, and it's the same feeling of uncertainty that surrounds the race as last year due to ongoing dissent in Bahrain. If you're unaware of the reasons, here's a quick bit of background. Islam is split in to two main strands; Sunni and Shia. Bahrain is ruled by a royal family which is Sunni, but the majority of the Bahraini nationals are Shia. Demonstrations from the unhappy Shia majority calling for more democracy in the country have been ongoing since the Arab Spring in early 2011 but have ramped up ahead of the race as the grand prix provides a global platform for both sides. Last year the race passed off largely without incident - though two Force India mechanics asked to return home after being caught up in a clash between police and protestors - but it remains to be seen if that will be the case this year.
After a poor start to the new season at Caterham, the team's one major upgrade to be introduced in Barcelona has taken on added significance. As a result it has turned to a known quantity in Heikki Kovalainen to drive the car in Friday practice sessions in both Bahrain and Spain. It's a strange step as it clearly displays that the team has a lack of confidence in the feedback of its inexperienced driver pairing - Charles Pic and Giedo van der Garde have just 26 starts between them - and both will be feeling the pressure over the next two weekends. Could this be the first step to a race return for Kovalainen?
Unrest inside the gates
This is a story that won't go away at the moment as the Red Bull in-fighting continues. While we expected a line to be drawn under the matter in China we got quite the opposite as Sebastian Vettel fanned the flames even more by admitting he'd ignore the team order again if in the same situation. What we really all wanted to see was an on-track battle, and while that looked unlikely after Mark Webber's disastrous qualifying, Vettel was right behind his team-mate when Webber ran in to Jean-Eric Vergne and caused an audible sigh from those watching. Conspiracy theories surrounding Webber's misfortune are a bit of a stretch, but with a cleaner weekend we can hope for the pair to be close together on track come Sunday.
In the build-up to the race Jean Todt has been criticised for his planned absence in Bahrain. It was a similar situation last year; the FIA had a lot of questions to answer over Formula One's presence in Bahrain, but Todt himself only reluctantly appeared after the incident with Force India mechanics. Formula One needed leadership then as it does now, yet Todt remains so silent he's been described as "invisible" and "impotent" in the British papers. That Bernie Ecclestone's face appears on protestors posters is only because one assumes the Bahraini people are unaware of who Jean Todt is...
- Nico Rosberg made his debut in the Bahrain Grand Prix in 2006, driving for Williams, and became the youngest man to ever set the fastest lap of a grand prix
- There are two main pit buildings and six potential layouts at the Bahrain International Circuit
- The 2010 race was run on the 6.2-kilometre endurance circuit, while the other seven instalments of the race have all taken place on the 5.4km Grand Prix circuit
- With its location in the middle of the Bahrain desert, 12,000 tonnes of stone had to be shipped in to build the Bahrain International Circuit, taking nearly two years to construct.
- This is the ninth Bahrain Grand Prix to take place since it joined the calendar in 2004 - the 2011 race was cancelled due to unrest in the country
- There were 44 'normal' race overtakes in 2012, and a further 14 moves were made with the help of DRS
- The large run-off areas and lack of grass around the track means there has only been one safety car period in eight races so far
- The highest winning grid position is fourth achieved by Fernando Alonso in 2006 and Jenson Button in 2009, but only four races have been won from pole
CircuitThe third track in a row on the calendar that was designed by Hermann Tilke, it took less than 18 months to build and is extremely versatile. With overtaking at a premium a longer layout was introduced to mark 60 years of F1 but that made things even worse, and so this race will be run on the original 5.412km configuration. Only turn 12 is classed as high-speed, with a number of medium to low speed corners putting an emphasis on traction. There will be two separate DRS zones this year; one on the pit straight and one between turns 9 and 10.
FIA driver stewardMika Salo will make his second appearance as a driver steward this weekend. Salo - who raced for Lotus, Tyrrell, Arrows, BAR, Ferrari, Sauber and Toyota - also undertook the duties in Valencia last year.
WeatherSurprisingly for Bahrain, there is a 10% chance of rain on Friday, but the rest of the weekend is certain to stay dry. Temperatures will remain above 30C all weekend and the heat combined with the abrasive track surface will give a hard time to the tyres. With the circuit's desert location, teams will also be keeping an eye on the wind speed with sand often blown on to the track.
BettingFresh from his impressive victory in China it's Fernando Alonso who is the favourite with the bookies at 15/8, while Sebastian Vettel is available at 5/2. Kimi Raikkonen is worth a look at 4/1, while you'll get good each way odds on Mark Webber at 16/1 to win the race. Jenson Button is good odds at 6/1 to make the podium and Daniel Ricciardo is an outside bet to make the top six at 10/1.
ESPN predictionThe early indicators point to both Ferrari and Lotus being strong in Bahrain, especially with the heat and tyre issues. With his true pace masked by the contact with Sergio Perez in China, we're backing Kimi Raikkonen to secure his second victory of the season and take the championship lead.
Chris Medland is assistant editor at ESPNF1