Thursday 3 April 2014

Sakhir Preview: Here comes Bahrain again

And so it comes around again. The F1 race that you may feel that you have to brace yourself for. The one that has formed a scar on whatever in this sport most closely resembles a conscience.

Yes, this weekend we have our latest Bahrain Grand Prix. The race's history stretches back to 2004, but as far as the event is concerned the problems started in 2011. As part of the Arab Spring civil unrest started in the country early that year, with mass protests calling for political reform and increased heed of human rights. Violence followed, as did death - including that resultant of troops opening gunfire on protests. Evidence of brutal repression of the protests and protestors has continued to seep from the Kingdom, including that of prisoners of conscience, of torture and of death in custody, with repeated promises of reform from the regime coming to not very much apparently. And given that it has come from the likes of Amnesty International, the US State Department and the UN-backed Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry (which was set up by the King of Bahrain) it's hard to argue that the evidence has come from fly-by-nights.

The Bahrain Grand Prix remains an uncomfortable one for F1
Credit: Derek Morrison / CC
The 2011 race was cancelled (eventually), the next year's though went ahead amid much controversy with matters apparently barely moved on. And last year we had roughly the same again. In neither event has the unrest impacted directly on proceedings (aside from in the PR stakes) though in 2012 there was a close shave involving some of the Force India team.

Since the last year's visit there has been a WEC round as well as two pre-season tests this year at the Sakhir venue, among other things, which passed without incident, but like it or not a Grand Prix is something else. And as a consequence in each gathering in Bahrain it has been rather easy to perceive the sport at best as rather greedy (given the vast money on offer to F1 for being there) and uncaring; at worst on the side of oppression.

Some have argued that other governing regimes of F1 hosts are just as bad, which is true but the matter seems especially acute in Bahrain, as probably in no other Grand Prix does a regime associate itself with the event as closely, and seek to legitimise itself via the kudos of an F1 event as transparently. If you missed all of the other evidence of this latter point the 'UniF1ed' slogan to promote the 2012 race really should have removed all doubt. And it rather blew apart the line used in the race's defence, that 'sport and politics don't mix'. Probably related to these points the existence of the Grand Prix has been a clear focus for Bahrain's protestors over time.

The F1 race has been a clear focus
for Bahrain's protestors
Credit: Mohamed CJ / CC
And the latest charge against the event and the regime that sanctions it is that the apparent calm around proceedings may be no surprise as dissidents in Bahrain as well as a number of human rights groups have claimed that the country is on effective lock-down for the weekend in which the world is watching. The claims include enclosing villages in barbed wire, excessive siting of police checkpoints and of firing tear gas into residential areas, imprisoning protesters, as well as deporting journalists or denying them access to the country. If this stuff is true then surely whatever remnants that linger of the discredited 'we don't get involved in politics' defence of the race surely are blown away.

If it doesn't seem too callous I now move onto on-track matters. As if to prove once again that F1 exists on fast forward this year marks the tenth anniversary of a Grand Prix that still feels a little like an arriviste on the calendar. And to mark it for the first time it will be a night race, run under floodlights. It seems an odd decision, given that unlike F1's one other (fully) night race that takes place in Singapore there is not the spectacular city night-scape in the background, nor the vibrant nightlife nor is the later start time particularly more suitable for the mass European TV audience. But hey.

The hosts pull out all of the stops to ensure the fraternity feels a warm welcome as well as to assist the event's smooth running (though perhaps too much, as outlined), and they cannot be faulted for ambition; not just with F1 but also for hosting motor sport more generally. But still the Bahrain Grand Prix has yet to become one to quicken the pulse particularly. The crowd in attendance, sparse at the best of times, dwindled to close to nothing in the post-unrest era - thus further undermining the organisers' 'there's nothing to see here' claims about the local situation. Some of their claims in response to this - such as that there was plenty of fans there but they were gathered behind the grandstands watching the race on a big screen - were laughable.

The facility is a Hermann Tilke-penned one (natch) with everything that entails. Indeed, even as the Tilke tracks go this is one of the more tepid; a sort of triangular one dominated by long straights separated by tight turns, with quick corners in there but rather minimised (a little redolent of the A1-Ring except in the desert). Along with braking and traction, straightline speed and fuel efficiency are key discriminators at the Sakhir circuit. Which means advantage Mercedes, probably even more so than we've already got used to already in the 2014 campaign.

It looks like Mercedes will be on top again, but can
Nico Rosberg get closer to his team mate?
Photo: Octane Photography
For the win it'll likely again be the Merc cars versus each other versus reliability. And while he leads the drivers' table Nico Rosberg you feel needs something like a bounce back after the goings-on of Sepang last week, which at least needs to involve getting get a lot closer to his similarly-equipped rival Lewis Hamilton than he did on the preceding Sunday. If he doesn't, then Lewis will have plentiful amounts of that most precious of sporting commodities called momentum.

Bahrain is a happy hunting ground for Nico however - he took a surprise and impressive pole position here last here, once upon a time won his GP2 crown at Sakhir as well as on his F1 debut at this very venue became the youngest ever claimant of the fastest lap. But then again Malaysia was meant to be happy hunting ground for him too.

The other Mercedes power unit runners have a good chance of being next up. The Williams cars' fuel economy (apparently neither car started with the full 100kg in Malaysia) and responsive front end should suit this track and thus they should be well-placed to make good on the FW36's potential which has been dangled tantalisingly so far but hasn't yet converted into proportionate hard results.

The Sakhir track also is the one that Williams wowed us all on in testing of course. Plus keep an eye on Felipe Massa for whom Bahrain, like Interlagos, is one of those tracks that he specialises on.

And Nico Hulkenberg and the Force India will be ones to watch too. While the resurgent Williams and McLaren have got a lot of attention this campaign you could argue that despite the lower profile the Silverstone squad is another British effort (well British-based effort) getting more in the way of consistent results. In the Hulk's hands it has anyway, and as we know he took fifth place in Malaysia and left Williams and McLarens far behind in so doing. And the Force India often goes well at this Sakhir venue, indeed last year Paul di Resta ran in the top three for most of the way and was only denied a podium finish late on (it also turned out to be by far the closest anyone outside the big four teams got to a top three finish in the whole of 2013). He also finished sixth here the year before.

Force India and especially Nico Hulkenberg will be
worth watching
Photo: Octane Photography
Force India may be able to benefit from strategy too; the tyre compounds on offer are softer than those in Malaysia (the soft and medium will be available) and here the choice between two and three stops in the race is often a close one. The track can be demanding on the rubber too, thanks in combination of traction zones, potential for lock-ups under braking and a fairly abrasive surface. Sand getting onto the track can exacerbate these problems. That the race is to be run after dark and therefore the temperatures should drop may nudge some towards two stops, while as we saw last Sunday Hulkenberg was one of only two to go for a two-stopper, reflecting that the VJM07 is gentle on the Pirellis. It's open to debate just how successful the strategy was there (despite the good result) but it may be more fruitful still this time.

As for McLaren, the optimism from its Melbourne result and chat about finding another half second per lap of improvements rather evaporated on-track around Sepang. Jenson Button attributed the underwhelming show to the Malaysia heat and the track's high speed. The trouble is that Sakhir might not offer too much relief on these two counts.

Red Bull meanwhile is predicting a struggle, and there is evidence that it is not merely a deliberate management of expectations. This time the team almost certainly will not have rain in qualifying to help it up the order, while the long straights around the Sakhir track will count against the RB10s, or rather its Renault power unit, too (Christian Horner's stated that on the two lengthy straights at Sepang they lost half a second to the Mercs every time). Indeed, Ferrari has been whispering that - with what it reckons is better fuel economy than the Renault - it's got a good chance of usurping the Bulls this weekend.

It seems very hard to envisage - barring very unusual occurrences - that it'll usurp the Mercedes though. Or that anyone else will.

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