The season-opening Australian Grand Prix produced equal mixes of delight and disappointment depending on who you asked. As the Formula 1 World Championship regroups for its second race of the 2019 season in Bahrain, the question on everyone’s lips will be whether Ferrari can take the fight to Mercedes after getting thrashed by the Silver Arrows in Melbourne.
|Bahrain International Circuit|
|Location||Sakhir, Bahrain||Circuit Length||5.412 km / 3.363 mi|
|Opened||2004||First Grand Prix||2004|
|Lap Record||1:31.447 – Pedro de la Rosa – 2004||2017 winner||Sebastian Vettel|
The entire concept of racing in the Middle East and Gulf states has been bubbling under the surface since the early 1980s, but it took almost a further 25 years to turn the dream into reality when the tiny island kingdom of Bahrain played host to the third round of the 2004 Formula 1 season, at the Hermann Tilke-designed Bahrain International Circuit.
Costing some $150 million to construct, there were initially fears – it being positioned in the middle of a desert and all – that sand billowing across the track would pose a problem. But organisers found a clever solution: spraying exposed sections of sand with a chemical adhesive to bind it together!
The track layout is typical Tilke fare: long straights, big braking zones and a fiddly, twisty middle sector of the lap to punish tyres and cars with handling deficiencies. It’s one of the toughest circuits on traction, brakes and cooling, with track temperatures regularly nudging upwards of 50 degrees Celsius or more.
The decision to switch the Grand Prix to a night-time schedule from 2014 onwards made for a spectacular backdrop in the desert, but also created its own unique set of challenges. The rapidly cooling track surface sees a marked shift in how the cars handle, calling for a set-up that is focused on compromise between managing snap oversteer and countering mid-corner understeer.
A change for the 2019 event is the addition of a third DRS zone on the already overtaking-friendly circuit. With DRS zones already in place on the start/finish straight and the ‘back’ straight between Turns 11 and 12, the drivers will get another bite of the cherry on the straight between Turns 3 and 4.
|Formula 1 Gulf Air Bahrain Grand Prix 2019 – Schedule|
|Event Dates||29-31 March 2019||Free Practice Session 1||Fri 14:00-15:30|
|Free Practice Session 2||Fri 18:00-19:30||Free Practice Session 3||Sat 15:00-16:00|
|Qualifying||Sat 18:00-19:00||Race (57 laps)||Sun 18:10-20:10|
Session times quoted in Arabia Standard Time (UTC/GMT + 3:00)
Rewind to 2018
Last year’s Bahrain Grand Prix threw up plenty of excitement and disappointment in equal measures, depending on which team you were barracking for. After claiming victory at the season-opening Australian Grand Prix, Sebastian Vettel delivered benefited from another smart tactical call by Scuderia Ferrari to outfox Mercedes and claim a narrow victory from Valtteri Bottas.
The race opened up when Ferrari and Mercedes opted for different tyre strategies during their first pit stops – the former opted for a second set of Soft tyres, while the latter took on the Mediums.
Vettel would need to pit for a second time, while the Mercedes’ could run until the chequered flag. In the end it was a close-run affair as Bottas hunted down Vettel in the final laps, with the Finn halfheartedly attempting a pass up the inside of the Ferrari on the final lap. Vettel hung on for victory, his 49th Grand Prix win in his 200th race start.
Mechanical dramas for Lewis Hamilton saw the Englishman line up ninth on the grid thanks to a five-place grid penalty, but the defending World Champion drove superbly to take the final podium spot, despite contact with Max Verstappen that gave the Red Bull Racing driver a puncture.
As Verstappen limped to the pits, his teammate Daniel Ricciardo pulled off the circuit with a total shutdown on his car, making the weekend a double-disaster for the Milton Keynes team.
The second Ferrari of Kimi Räikkönen also had major dramas when the Finn was released too early from his pit bay during his second stop and ran over one of his mechanics. The poor pit crew member suffered a sickening shinbone and fibula fracture, while the Finn – whose car had an improperly attached left-rear wheel – was forced to stop his car and retire.
Behind the top-three, Pierre Gasly claimed Scuderia Toro Rosso’s best finish of the season with a sensational drive to fourth. Kevin Magnussen was an impressive fifth for the Haas F1 Team, while both McLarens finished in the points with Fernando Alonso and Stoffel Vandoorne finishing seventh and eighth respectively.
Tyre Compound Selections
The challenging and abrasive nature of the Bahrain International Circuit, coupled with the race being run under floodlights, creates a unique situation for Formula 1’s tyre supplier Pirelli. The Milan-based company will supply the three hardest compounds in its range (C1, C2 and C3) as the Hard, Medium and Soft compounds respectively.
With the race starting at twilight and finishing in the night time, the rapid drop in track temperature plays a critical role in race strategy by encouraging drivers to gamble and lengthen their stints on each compound. Friday’s second practice session will be the only directly relevant session before Saturday evening’s qualifying session.
“Although the key to Bahrain is managing the rear tyres, not many teams have chosen an extra set of the hard compound,” Pirelli’s Head of F1 Mario Isola noted. “As always, the challenge consists of dealing with the traction demands on a variable track with falling temperatures, as well as the roughest asphalt of the year.”
The Bahrain Form Guide
The conspiracy theorists have whipped themselves into a frenzy over Mercedes’ outstanding pace at the season-opening Australian Grand Prix. Has the team really been sandbagging for the entire pre-season?
That seems unlikely given the genuine surprise expressed by Valtteri Bottas and Lewis Hamilton at the W10’s pace in qualifying trim which saw the duo lock out the front row to the tune of seven-tenths of a second over Ferrari. Bottas then went on to thrash the field in the race and claim a superb victory, leaving teammate Hamilton to nurse a floor-damaged car to second place – although even with its problems the Englishman’s car was still comfortably quicker than either Ferrari.
Another reason why Mercedes looked so good was down to Ferrari looking so ordinary. Gone was the well-balanced car that was the quickest in pre-season testing, and in Melbourne the SF90 lacked pace, balance and grip. More worryingly, the team admitted it had no idea why.
To be fair to the Scuderia, Melbourne’s Albert Park Circuit is simply not a good barometer of a form guide for the rest of the year. Finding a new car’s sweet spot is tricky on this bumpy semi-street circuit, and it’s a stark contrast to the more traditional ‘Tilkedrome’ that is the billiard table smooth track in Bahrain.
|2019 Bahrain Grand Prix Weather Forecast|
|Friday||19°C – 26°C||Saturday||21°C – 26°C||Sunday||23°C – 29°C|
Images via Formula1.com, Pirelli Motorsport, Red Bull Content Pool, Scuderia Ferrari