• Bahrain Grand Prix preview

Rubber and rubber bullets

Chris Medland April 19, 2012
The Bahrain International Circuit remained empty on race weekend last year © Sutton Images
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Will they? Won't they? They will. Formula One returns to Bahrain despite the ongoing unrest in the country, and while it will arrive with a degree of trepidation it also is an excited paddock that is preparing for the fourth race of the season. The season so far has seen three different race winners from three different teams in echoes of 2010 when we had four drivers in with a chance of the title come the final race of the season. There's a new kid on the winner's block, too, as Nico Rosberg was finally victorious, and Bahrain will tell us if the Mercedes drivers should be considered as genuine championship contenders.

On Form

Nico Rosberg. After 110 races Rosberg finally stood on the top step of the podium at the 111th attempt. The perfect qualifying lap on the Saturday was the foundation for his victory, as Rosberg silenced doubters who claimed he was unable to produce his usual one-lap pace when faced with a genuinely competitive car. Faultless in the race as well, he won comfortably as half of the field battled for second place behind him. This is not only a case of being on form, however, but potentially a prediction of greater things to come if the first win lifts the pressure on his shoulders.

Out of form

In such a close season so far, Toro Rosso appears to have been slightly left behind. While the midfield battle has been tight, having two new drivers has left the team on the back foot and they could only finish 16th and 17th in China. The car is not a bad one, but the lack of experience in the cockpit is proving crucial in a season where using the Pirelli tyres has become an even more integral part of the race. As evidenced by the dismissals of Jaime Alguersuari and Sebastien Buemi, Red Bull will not tolerate average performances and - while some leeway will be allowed - both drivers need to pull the team right in to the mix soon.

Kimi Raikkonen's strategy meant he was unable to hang on to second place last weekend © Sutton Images
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One to watch

After running strongly in China Kimi Raikkonen dropped away late in the race when trying to cling on to second place on heavily-worn tyres. In two laps he lost 11 places and ended the race comfortably out of the points, but his qualifying performance and early pace showed that the Lotus can challenge at the front. The team needs to get the strategy right in the heat of Bahrain but it should have learnt from its mistakes at the last race and if it can get the updates it brought to China to work then Raikkonen will be aiming for a podium at the very least.

Talking points

Safety In a season when the racing has been enthralling so far, it's a real shame that the sport's image is being tarnished by the off-track situation in Bahrain. Formula One is taking a real risk by being present in the country, as evidenced by the incident on Wednesday night which led to a Force India team member returning home. While the government opposition insists Formula One will not be targeted, the danger comes as teams and media could get caught in the crossfire as they travel between Manama and the circuit. Unfortunately, we can expect more stories from away from the track as the weekend progresses.

Tyres When attention does turn to the action, the Pirelli tyres are once again going to be the focal point for the teams. Temperatures in Bahrain are expected to be much higher than seen in China, and as a result the track temperature will climb too. It poses a different challenge from last weekend when teams struggled to get heat in to the tyres, but the compounds supplied are the same as in Shanghai so setups will need to focus on preserving the rubber. It will be the acid test of Mercedes' competitiveness.

Schumacher's future Schumacher didn't enjoy the same success as Rosberg in China as a loose wheel caused his early retirement, but his team-mate's victory was a significant one for him too. Schumacher has said that he would wait to see how competitive Mercedes is this year before deciding on his future and now the team has emphatically delivered. While Mercedes is clearly improving, Schumacher is doing the same with his starting positions this season reading fourth, third, second. We all know what's next in that sequence and if he can add to his tally of 68 pole positions and 91 victories this weekend, the question about what he'll do in 2013 will be asked again.

Sebastian Vettel and Mark Webber had different bodywork layouts in China © Getty Images
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Red Bull exhausts Sebastian Vettel ran the launch-spec car in China but will revert back to the newer exhaust solution in Bahrain. It transpired that the team used the race in Shanghai as an extended test to compare the two layouts in order to gather more data, and Vettel ran the older exhaust as he is struggling to adapt to the newer configuration. It's an area that appears to be the focus of Red Bull's attention at the moment, and if it has made any progress between races then it could see both Webber and Vettel closer to the front.

Trivia

  • The circuit used a special extended layout in 2010 to commemorate 60 years of Formula One
  • In 2007 Sakhir became the first active grand prix circuit to be named as an FIA Centre of Excellence for safety
  • Four of the seven race winners have gone on to win the world championship, while six times the winning team has become constructors' champions
  • A special adhesive is sprayed on to the sand around the circuit to help prevent large amounts drifting on to the track surface

Fast facts

  • This is the eighth Bahrain Grand Prix to take place since it joined the calendar in 2004, having become the first in the middle east at the time
  • DRS has never been used on the circuit before due to the cancellation of the 2011 race
  • Drivers will be at full throttle for 14 seconds on the pit straight, while 70% of the lap is also spent at full throttle
  • The highest winning grid position is fourth place achieved by Fernando Alonso in 2006 and Jenson Button in 2009, while three of the seven races have been won from pole position

Circuit

The 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.

FIA driver steward

Former Benetton and Scuderia Italia driver Emanuele Pirro remains as the FIA's driver steward having fulfilled the role in China last weekend. It will be his fourth appearance.

© ESPNF1
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Weather

Two words for Bahrain this weekend: dry and hot. If the weather matches the forecast it will be the first race weekend of the season to remain completely dry and will help teams set up their cars for the race as they look to get a handle on the tyre issues that will occur as a result of the high temperatures.

Betting

Lewis Hamilton leads the betting at 9/4 with Jenson Button available at 12/5 as McLaren holds on to the favourites tag. Nico Rosberg is now third favourite after finally breaking his duck in China, just ahead of Sebastian Vettel at 9/1. Fernando Alonso is one to keep away from at 18s, but Pastor Maldonado is good value for a top six finish at 5/1. The best qualifying odds are with Michael Schumacher, who is 7/1 to take pole.

ESPN prediction

In such a close season it's becoming increasingly difficult to try and read form prior to the final five laps of the race, but all of the factors are pointing towards a Jenson Button victory. Having struggled to heat his tyres in China he still finished second, and is notoriously good at looking after the Pirelli rubber in hot conditions, which is likely to be a crucial factor on Sunday.

Chris Medland is assistant editor at ESPNF1

© ESPN Sports Media Ltd.

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Chris Medland is assistant editor at ESPNF1 Chris Medland, who in his youth even found the Pacific GPs entertaining, talked his way in to work at the British Grand Prix and was somehow retained for three years. He also worked on the BBC's F1 output prior to becoming assistant editor ahead of the 2011 season