ROSBERG KEEPS HIS HEAD
Nico took his second win of 2016 as chaos and drama struck key rivals
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”.
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.
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