ROS­BERG KEEPS HIS HEAD

Nico took his sec­ond win of 2016 as chaos and drama struck key ri­vals

Motor Sport News - - Bahrain Gp Report - BY ANTHONY ROWL­IN­SON

The 2016 Bahrain Grand Prix prob­a­bly won’t be re­mem­bered as an out­right clas­sic. But it nev­er­the­less served up a healthy slab of on-track en­ter­tain­ment that re­minded all present what F1 does best, when its sup­posed lead­ers aren’t suck­ing it into an abyss of ac­ri­mony over changes to the qual­i­fy­ing reg­u­la­tions.

And of more last­ing sig­nif­i­cance than the tran­sient bick­er­ing was the point-scor­ing For­mula 1 de­but of a young Bel­gian called Stof­fel Van­doorne. Sub­bing for an in­jured Fernando Alonso, he out­qual­i­fied Jen­son But­ton in a car he drove for the very first time in Fri­day prac­tice and went on to score Mclaren-Honda’s first 2016 point. One day those present will be able to re­flect: “I was there”.

Qual­i­fy­ing

Boom! With a lap of 1m29.493s, Lewis Hamil­ton took pole po­si­tion for the 2016 Bahrain GP, and trans­ported For­mula 1 back to the fu­ture.

Not since 2005, that grunty year of three-litre V10s, a Miche­lin v Bridge­stone tyre war and loads of downforce, have F1 cars qual­i­fied at this desert track in un­der 90s. But they did last Satur­day. Alonso set the pre­vi­ous mark of 1m29.848s in his Re­nault R25, tak­ing pro­vi­sional pole for the sec­ond Bahrain GP (which he went on to win).

Eleven years added, 1400cc taken away, but tur­bos, MGU-HS and MGUKs bolted on and F1 proves once again that what­ever reg­u­la­tory re­stric­tions may ap­ply, speed will find a way. Still needs a handy ped­aller to turn the wheel though and in fall­ing ear­lyevening tem­per­a­tures on the Sakhir cir­cuit, Hamil­ton proved once again he is one very spe­cial rac­ing driver. This was his 51st pole po­si­tion and it was as slick as any from the Hamil­ton back cat­a­logue.

Pur­ple in the first sec­tor, pur­ple in the sec­ond and there it was: a Sil­ver Ar­row at the front once again. Hamil­ton’s glee was clear to see. He pat­ted the nose of his W07 as he trot­ted away from parc ferme to the press con­fer­ence, an en­er­gised, de­lighted spring in his step. His “sexy lap” was all the more im­pres­sive for hav­ing been knit­ted to­gether af­ter a slightly duff first run in Q3 that left him only P4 and chas­ing two Fer­raris and team-mate Ros­berg for pole. Lewis had over­cooked the penul­ti­mate cor­ner – T14 – com­pro­mis­ing his line into T15 and forc­ing him to over-run the exit.

At this stage Ros­berg was sit­ting on pro­vi­sional pole, with a stonk­ing lap of his own, 1m29.750s, that he later ad­mit­ted he thought “good enough for pole”. Hamil­ton was hav­ing none of it, though, set­ting a mark 0.077s quicker and liken­ing his stan­dard-set­ter to “scor­ing a goal”. “It was a pres­sure lap,” he ad­mit­ted, “be­cause I knew I had to im­prove. I was just re­ally happy fi­nally to pull it all to­gether.” The only blem­ish was a later FIA rep­ri­mand for a mi­nor ‘reversing in the pit­lane’ in­fringe­ment. But no penalty would ap­ply.

Ros­berg ap­peared con­tent with his P2, as did Se­bas­tian Vet­tel, in third for Fer­rari. He and team-mate Kimi Raikko­nen had been com­pet­i­tive through­out free prac­tice and ended up top­ping FP3 in VET-RAI or­der. “I’m op­ti­mistic,” he ad­mit­ted. “Last year we were strong [Raikko­nen fin­ished sec­ond in the race] and the car feels good in dif­fer­ent track con­di­tions. Today it kept get­ting bet­ter and my con­fi­dence is high.”

It was some small com­fort for F1 that two com­pet­i­tive teams en­sured a qual­i­fy­ing shootout that ran al­most to the end of the ses­sion. But no amount of gloss could mask the still-flawed na­ture of the 2016 ‘elim­i­na­tion’ for­mat. With more than five min­utes of the ses­sion re­main­ing only two sil­ver and two red cars were still lap­ping. Be­hind them Daniel Ric­cia­rdo (an ex­cel­lent fifth), two Wil­liamses and Nico Hulken­berg’s Force In­dia had all ‘de­clared’, hav­ing deemed im­prove­ment im­pos­si­ble and seek­ing, there­fore, to save tyres for the race.

“It’s just not right when you have the last four min­utes and noth­ing’s hap­pen­ing,” said Vet­tel. “That’s usu­ally when peo­ple should be smash­ing the lap times: not only in Q3 but also Q1 and Q2.”

Im­per­fec­tions aside, the qual­i­fy­ing hour still of­fered chances to shine for those bold enough to step up. Q1 hero was Pas­cal Wehrlein, who steered his Manor to P16, ahead of far more fan­cied run­ners such as the Re­nault pair and Ser­gio Perez.

Hon­ours in Q2 went to Van­doorne, who rather burst But­ton’s bub­ble in tak­ing P12. But­ton could only man­age P14, de­spite hav­ing lapped quickly enough to record third-fastest time in sec­ond prac­tice. The im­prov­ing MP4-31 was a Q3 can­di­date, but through grit­ted teeth But­ton ad­mit­ted he should have done bet­ter: “They weren’t great laps, so I’m very dis­ap­pointed. I added half a turn of front wing and got mas­sive over­steer. We knew how quick Stof­fel was and he did a very good job today.”

Not half. The reign­ing GP2 champ, this year com­pet­ing in Ja­pan’s Su­per For­mula se­ries, had only ar­rived in Bahrain on Fri­day morn­ing, hav­ing jet­ted over to sub for Alonso. The twotime champ had been barred from com­pet­ing ow­ing to a cracked rib sus­tained in that mon­strous Mel­bourne crash.

Never hav­ing driven the MP4-31 be­fore and af­ter only two wet-weather F1 tests this year, at Paul Ri­card, Van­doorne was ex­cep­tional in shad­ing a vastly ex­pe­ri­enced world cham­pion team-mate. Not that he was go­ing to shout about it. “I knew af­ter yes­ter­day that I had quite sim­i­lar per­for­mance to Jen­son,” was his phleg­matic as­sess­ment. “I had a rough build-up to qual­i­fy­ing, with an oil leak in prac­tice, but we more or less max­imised ev­ery­thing. Fernando [who re­mained in the Mclaren garage through­out prac­tice and qual­i­fy­ing] re­ally brought me on a lot this week­end.”

Sev­eral ob­servers won­dered whether F1 had just wit­nessed a chang­ing of the guard.

Race

When a driver ad­mits that he and his team have cho­sen “the safest strat­egy” for a grand prix, you know they haven’t had their tough­est ever day at the of­fice.

So it was for Ros­berg – com­fort­able, com­posed win­ner of the 2016 Bahrain GP, back-to-back vic­tor this year and now with a five-race win­ning streak stretch­ing back to Mex­ico last sea­son.

Can this be the foun­da­tion for his first world ti­tle? Cer­tainly, he couldn’t have hoped for more from the first two GPS of the sea­son. But ques­tions re­main as to the fun­da­ments of Nico’s wins. At the end of last year, as he rat­tled in a Mex­ico-brazil-abu Dhabi hat-trick, we won­dered if Ros­berg’s per­for­mances had gen­uinely been the re­sult of su­pe­rior per­for­mance or whether they were the con­se­quence of a post-ti­tle lift­ing of the gas by the hith­erto dom­i­nant Hamil­ton. This year it must be noted that both Ros­berg’s wins – im­mac­u­late though they have been – have fol­lowed start­line prob­lems for Hamil­ton.

The gen­er­ous might in­fer that the

in­nately an­a­lyt­i­cal Ros­berg will have quickly un­der­stood the po­ten­tial for mishap in­tro­duced by this year’s new sin­gle-clutch start pro­ce­dure, and stu­diously pre­pared him­self to be best prac­ticed for the change. Those who be­lieve Hamil­ton the more gifted of the two will sim­ply say ‘wait un­til he nails it’.

These two re­main a ter­rif­i­cally closely matched pair, with the slight­est ad­van­tage in any area of per­for­mance – be it me­chan­i­cal, psy­cho­log­i­cal, emo­tional – enough to tip the bal­ance in their favour. For the past two sea­sons that ‘edge’ has clearly favoured Hamil­ton, par­tic­u­larly so in 2015.

This year, well, let’s just say that when the 21 races are done, maybe we’ll look back and re­alise that the tiny start pro­ce­dure ad­van­tage Ros­berg found over the 2015-16 off-sea­son had been suf­fi­cient to see him to a world ti­tle. Maybe.

Any ad­van­tage ei­ther finds will be telling and al­most cer­tainly tem­po­rary. In qual­i­fy­ing they were sep­a­rated by just 0.077s, to share the front row. That gap equated to just one car length around Bahrain’s 3.4 miles and both driv­ers’ times were good enough to beat the 2005 record.

Mercedes re­tains a per­for­mance ad­van­tage over its clos­est chal­lenger, Fer­rari, and that was best dis­played by a sec­ond con­sec­u­tive re­cov­ery drive from Hamil­ton. Into T1 af­ter the start, he was skew­ered by a rocket-launch­ing Valt­teri Bot­tas, whose Wil­liams nerfed the right side of Hamil­ton’s W07 and pitched it into a half-spin. Bot­tas lost his left front-wing end­plate in the col­li­sion; Hamil­ton picked up dam­age that cost him an es­ti­mated one sec­ond per lap. Both con­tin­ued, though Bot­tas would later re­ceive a driv­ethrough penalty that con­trib­uted, along with a ques­tion­able tyre strat­egy, to a slump to ninth place. With Felipe Massa fin­ish­ing eighth, hav­ing qual­i­fied sev­enth and run sec­ond early on, Wil­liams left Bahrain with re­newed ques­tions as to their con­sis­tency of per­for­mance.

In the gag­gle be­hind Fer­rari and Merc, any lack of pace, or any ques­tion­able strat­egy call, will im­me­di­ately trans­late into lost po­si­tions, with so many ea­ger, swift, com­peti­tors around. Wil­liams’ choice of ex­tended stints on Pirelli medi­ums for both its driv­ers was just such a call, in the con­text of Red Bull, Haas and Toro Rosso all ma­jor­ing on softs and su­per­softs.

Each of these mid­field hus­tlers had rea­son to be cheer­ful at flag­fall, but what of Fer­rari, self-anointed Mercedes-de­nier in 2016? It was an­other Mel­bourne-like mixed bag. Vet­tel suf­fered an en­gine fail­ure on the warm-up lap, which, fol­low­ing Raikko­nen’s mo­tor-re­lated re­tire­ment in Aus­tralia, sug­gests re­li­a­bil­ity con­cerns for the Scud­e­ria that have al­ready un­der­mined its ti­tle hopes.

Raikko­nen, mean­while, started poorly, blam­ing his “fin­gers slip­ping” on the steer­ing-wheel-mounted clutch pad­dle. His tar­di­ness and Vet­tel’s ab­sence cleared row two, al­low­ing Bot­tas to have the sling­shot into T1 that would prove so sig­nif­i­cant for the even­tual top-three plac­ings. But Kimi has been ex­cep­tion­ally con­sis­tent at this cir­cuit over the years, and he re­cov­ered with a de­ci­sive, drama-free run to sec­ond, 10 sec­onds be­hind Ros­berg. It was his eighth Sakhir podium since 2005, though none of them have been as win­ner.

Be­hind the likely ti­tle con­tenders came the ever-charg­ing Daniel Ric­cia­rdo. He had al­ready per­formed with elan in qual­i­fy­ing to start from P5 in a car less pow­er­ful than those ahead and im­me­di­ately be­hind; to gain a place when all around are los­ing theirs in­di­cates yet again that Red Bull and its star lead driver have lost noth­ing in per­for­mance, de­spite the on­go­ing de­fi­cien­cies of the Tag-heuer/ Re­nault en­gine.

They will, though, be look­ing over their shoul­ders at the emerg­ing threat of Haas F1. Yes, re­ally.

Ro­main Gros­jean, start­ing from an ad­van­ta­geous P9 (giv­ing Haas a free tyre choice for the race, un­like the first eight, who must carry their Q3 tyres to the start­line) was char­ac­ter­is­ti­cally fleet and (now) er­ror-free on a charge to P5, built on an ag­gres­sive strat­egy of three sets of su­per­softs plus one soft. “It’s an Amer­i­can dream,” said Ro­main post-race. For all but Haas’s big­gest and best-funded op­po­nents, they’re rapidly turn­ing into an Amer­i­can night­mare.

And a de­but point for Van­doorne? This was the stuff of cham­pi­ons, have no doubt. ■

Raikko­nen (l) took sec­ond, while Van­doorne im­pressed on de­but

Ros­berg leads as Bot­tas heads to­wards Hamil­ton Win num­ber 16 for Ros­berg

Hamil­ton re­cov­ered to third

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