Sunday, 22 April 2012

Bahrain GP Race Report: The good side of F1

F1, or at least those in charge of it, can be exasperating. They can often struggle to miss an opportunity to make the sport look foolish. But by contrast, for an hour and a half on a Sunday F1 is often wonderful. And if we did see F1 doing a fine job of making itself looking foolish in extremis over the past few days, we also today saw a really rather special motor race.

Don't let anyone tell you that F1 is a) boring or b) predictable. Today's race, just like all of them this year, was neither. It was a tight battle for most of the way, and the protagonists at the sharp end, Sebastian Vettel edging out the Lotuses, particularly closely in the case of Kimi Raikkonen, were unexpected.

Seb had hinted at a comeback by sticking his car on pole yesterday, as well as that the Red Bulls looked better handling all weekend than they had done in a while. There were still doubts about their race pace however, especially in comparison to that of the McLarens. But not a bit of it today: it was just like what we saw every Sunday last year it seemed, Seb got a great start and simply checked out, 2.2 seconds clear after a lap, upwards of five seconds clear before you knew it.

Sebastian Vettel is back in the winner's circle,
after a strong drive in Bahrain
Credit: Morio / CC
But just when you thought Seb was going to pull off his 2011 party piece unhindered, he got a genuine threat behind, and from an unlikely source. The Lotuses, who'd qualified a mere seventh (for Romain Grosjean) and eleventh (for Raikkonen), early on showed themselves to be the quickest things out there, and there was something slightly unreal about the way they moved smoothly past the McLarens and Webber and took up chase of Vettel by the end of the first race stint. Raikkonen, on softer tyres, moved past Grosjean and cruised onto Vettel's tail before the final round of pitstops. For a time it seemed a done deal that Kimi would take the lead, giving us one of the most unexpected victories in a good while. But Seb's not got where he is today by being easy to dislodge from first place. He defended the (what turned out to be only) stab at passing him that Kimi made, they pitted on the same lap (apparently Lotus was reluctant to do an undercut due to Webber being probably in the way after a stop), and Seb looked a bit happier on his final set of tyres, thus the result was set.

It was a magnificent drive by both, the first scrap seen between the two, and for Seb, winning in a car that was probably the third fastest out there, it was the sort of drive that shows exactly why he's a twice World Champion. And it leapfrogs him to the top of the drivers' table. Of course, it remains to be seen the extent that Red Bull have found something, or simply found the track and temperatures characteristics of the Sakhir track to their liking (my money's on the former). But just as with Mark Twain, the obituaries written about Seb and his team were premature and the reports of their death greatly exaggerated. Both were too good to be down for long.

It was just like old times with Kimi Raikkonen today,
as he finished second
Credit: Morio / CC
All of the debate over the logic of Kimi's comeback is also now resolved it seems. Today, he looked just like the Kimi at his peak from 2003 and 2005, capable of some the most rapid and crisply aggressive drives you'll ever see from anyone. It says something at the end that he was only disappointed not to have taken the win. Well done to Grosjean as well for another strong drive and his first podium finish in F1. And finally we saw what the Lotus can really do (and indeed it's threatened to do ever since the E20 first turned a wheel in pre-season testing), without circumstances impeding them in qualifying or the race (or both) as they did in the first three rounds. It's no exaggreation to say that race wins for that team in 2012 are not out of the question.

That makes it five teams at least who can hold out reasonable expectation of wins this season. And today continued the tight, competitive and unpredictable 2012. To underline this, it is the first time since 2003 that four different drivers have won the first four races, and it's the first time since 1983 that they've come from four different teams.

Behind the three main protagonists, Mark Webber made it four fourth places in four 2012 races, and thus takes the 'Mr Consistency' prize from Lewis Hamilton. Hamilton had a frustrating time of it, neither he nor Button had their expected pace during the race, but in Hamilton's case it was compunded by three botched pitstops from three, the first two taking in the region of ten seconds (a lifetime in F1 terms). In a tight race this condemned him to finish eighth. Button's afernoon turned out even worse: he was on course for P6, but incurred a puncture then a mechanical retirement late on, making it two nil points results from four this year. McLaren probably have had the most consistently competitive car of any this year, and yet drivers and team are behind in their respective championships. It may be a premature thing to say, but you wonder if, in a tight championship wherein their rivals are bound to improve as the year goes on, McLaren will look back at the opening rounds with some regret. I know it's apples and pears to some extent, but compare it with how Vettel and Red Bull had their opponents utterly on their knees at this stage last year.

Nico Rosberg couldn't continue his or Mercedes's form of last week as he tailed in a fairly distant fifth, in a drive only distinguished by twice seeking to drive opponents off the road (first Hamilton, then Fernando Alonso). He wasn't punished for either move, and he can consider himself a lucky boy. He even had the temerity to claim that Hamilton had erred onto the wrong side of the rulebook by passing him with all wheels off the course. That was because you'd forced him off the course, Nico.

And Ferrari continued their damage limitation: Alonso finished seventh and Massa had his second good drive in a week, and scoring his first points of the season in so doing, by coming home ninth. Indeed, mid-race he seemed the faster of the two Ferraris, and better able to make the soft tyres work. More drives like this one is exactly what the Scuderia require from him. Alonso probably would have bitten your hand off had you offered him 10 points off the drivers' table top after four rounds, but Ferrari's season now hinges on the forthcoming Mugello test and what improvement they can find there.

The lesser-spotted Paul Di Resta finished sixth
Credit: Morio / CC
And 'invisible man' Paul Di Resta was the only one to enact a two stop strategy, and he was rewarded with a worthy sixth place at the end. We still didn't get to see much of him on TV. Not that I draw any conclusions from that.

And after all of the acrimony of recent days, wherein F1's decision-makers haven't always made the sport look good, and the mainstream media have dragged F1's name through the mud (compounded by F1's powers that be failing to see it all coming, or else chose to ignore the prospect), it was a relief to have an entertaining, exciting race and for F1, on track at least, to show what it is we all love about it. Despite everything.

Race results

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