For nine years the Bahrain grand prix was run under the hot desert sun. For nearly a decade it wasn’t a race marked as one to look forward to and it almost always produced the most lacklustre racing of a season. But it would only take pushing back the starting time a few hours and a few thousand floodlight to ignite the Bahrain Gp into a spectacle of note. And in 2016 it delivered once more.
As if to emphasise its transformation the drama started before a lap could be turned in anger. Ferrari’s Sebastian Vettel was forced into retirement on the formation lap. While Ferrari has stopped short of calling it an engine failure the plumes of smoke pouring from the rear of the car say otherwise. In Australia it was Raikkonen who retired with a turbo failure and there too Ferrari went out of its way to assure that there is no reliability concern. But even though its only two races into the season they’re developing a bit of an uncomfortable and undesirable habit of only getting one car to the chequered flag.
Lewis Hamilton was sitting pretty in pole position with teammate Nico Rosberg alongside on the front row of the grid but it wasn’t to last very long for the Brit. Hamilton struggled to get off the line and ended up tangling with the Williams of Valtteri Bottas and dropped down to seventh.
From fourth place Raikkonen made a poor start and dropped behind a pair of fast starting Williams’ and the Red Bull of Daniel Ricciardo. However, the Finn followed with some tenacious overtaking got himself into second place. By this stage the leading Mercedes of Rosberg was already eleven seconds up the road. The 2007 champion maintained a comparable pace with the Mercedes and even managed to reduce the gap to three seconds through strategy and occasional superior pace. But the number 7 Ferrari was never close enough to challenge for the lead of the race.
As Hamilton recovered to third with some damage to the right-side barge board Rosberg wrapped up his fifth win in a row. For years we’ve been calling for Rosberg to step up his game and make it a championship battle worth watching and he’s done it now. There is still an incredibly long season ahead but Rosberg has started 2016 in the way that he’s needed to, in a way that will give Hamilton a lot to think about.
With the top three positions established the rest of the points paying positions was an intense fight right to the chequered flag. The availability of three tyre compounds once again added a dynamism to the racing as drivers opted for strategies than ran the gamut of possibilities. Red Bull’s Daniel Ricciardo finished fourth thanks an early stop and rolling the dice by running the final stint on the medium tyres.
As the race strategy engineer for the Haas F1 team Ruth Buscombe once again worked a brilliant strategy for Romain Grosjean. The Frenchman ran most of the race on the supersoft compound which allowed him to scythe through the field. He ran as high as fourth at one stage and ultimately finished fifth in what is turning out to be a fairytale debut for the American team.
Toro Rosso’s Max Verstappen finished sixth ahead of Daniil Kvyat in seventh who recovered from starting fifteenth on the grid. After a difficult tyre strategy Felipe Massa and Valtteri Bottas finished eighth and ninth for Williams. Driver of the day belong the final points scorer Stoffel Vandoorne. The 24-year-old Belgian driver stood in for Fernando Alonso who is recovering from fractured ribs sustained in the Australian Gp crash. The difficulty of having to deal with the complexity of a 2016 F1 car, to understand the Pirelli tyres, and to fight with seasoned F1 drivers, must not be underestimated. Vandoorne put all of his talents on display and blitzed his F1 debut.
The 2016 hasn’t begun to hit its stride and already an immense battle is brewing up and down the field. Roll on China.
(All images courtesy of Pirelli Motorsport)