Rencken: Red Bull bounces back
Two multiple World champions, both German: one took top spot in Bahrain, the other finished at the far end of the points-paying scale, 10th. That’s the tale of a race that will for ever be recalled as the UnuniF1ed Grand Prix, aka the 2012 Bahrain Grand Prix, the fourth leg of the 20-round Formula 1 World championship.
It was also the race in which Red Bull used its rubber to bounce back...
Sunday’s race, held under the slogan 'UniF1ed - One Nation in Celebration' in the hope of massaging away the kingdom’s troubles, was anything but a unified event, not for the sport, not for the teams, the news media, the spectators or the TV audiences.
Even as the teams flew in from the previous weekend’s race in China rumours swirled across the circuit’s surrounding desert sand that it could still be cancelled – although what that would have achieved, given that F1 was in the place, remains open to question.
SIGHS OF RELIEF
The weekend got off to bad start when a Force India minibus found itself in the midst of civil unrest - complete with Molotov cocktails - while Sauber and a journalist found themselves in a similar predicament come Friday night. Force India elected to sit out Friday’s second practice session with a view to having its crew back to hotel and hearth in one piece before dark.
Not the ideal way to prepare for a Word championship event…
In the end the race went off without hitch, delivering arguably the most thrilling grand prix yet at the Sakhir circuit 30km south of the capital, Manama, and sighs of relief were discernible throughout the spacious paddock as F1 personnel went about packing for a return to Europe after four flyaways split into two blocks of two.
It was Sebastian Vettel and Red Bull who shone to take their first win of 2012 - making it four winners in as many races - after the German and his team raced to a perfect three-stop strategy as follows: Soft Used changed to Medium Used on Lap 11, 14 laps before fitting Soft Used, then Medium New on lap 39, which carried him to the end, 3.3sec ahead of Kimi Raikkonen, who managed something in four races that Michael Schumacher failed to achieve in 40: land on the podium after making an F1 comeback…
TREAT THEM RIGHT
Vettel said after the race and his first win since 2011’s Indian GP: “I think we started the season saying the McLaren was the fastest car by quite a bit but on Sunday we saw it can be a different picture. They still have one of the strongest packages.”
Of course Red Bull had improved his RB8 dramatically through experimenting with exhaust layouts but the correct strategy was crucial to 57 laps on a sandy, windswept but unexpectedly cool (32°C) circuit.
“But you need to get everything right, you need to have the right tyres, you need to treat them right, you need to find the right set-up through the course of the weekend, so a lot of things to look out for.” Note Vettel’s reference to tyres…
Mercedes’ Schumacher, after a race he started 22nd after suffering first a DRS problem in qualifying then taking a five-slot hit for a gearbox change, also referred to tyres but was extremely critical of Pirelli’s products, saying he, like others, had been unable to push to the limit throughout.
“I'm not happy about the situation, let’s see what happens in future,” he said. “If it [was] a one-off car issue you could say it's up on us to deal with it but it’s everybody - maybe one or two exceptions. And if it’s 80% of the field that has this problem, then maybe the tyre supplier should think about that.”
TWO LOTUSES ON PODIUM
That was the story of the race, particularly given that Michael had two sets each of Soft New and Medium New – used in that order – after aborting qualifying versus just one set of new and three sets of used tyres for Vettel.
Raikkonen, too, conserved tyres on Saturday, the Finnish 2007 World champion sitting out Q3 to grid 11th, saying: “We took the risk to try to save one set of tyres and didn't go out afterwards when we could easily get in [to Q3],” he said. “We thought it worth it to save the tyres, so we'll see what happens.”
Now we know…
Third place went to his Lotus team mate Romain Grosjean, a GP2 champion worrying those at the sharp end in Australia and Malaysia before mishap interfered in both instances. His strategy was similar to Vettel’s (save for an extra set of MU tyres), while Mark Webber, who overshadowed Red Bull team mate Vettel in the opening trio of races, was today at the receiving end of a superior drive on basically the same strategy. Thus it is clear: optimal tyre use throughout the weekend was the formula for success in the desert.
Fifth went to the man who won in China, Nico Rosberg, the German Mercedes driver in the wars for virtually the full 95 minutes of the race then up before the stewards for his rather robust defence, which included forcing Lewis Hamilton and Fernando Alonso off-track. He was cleared of wrongdoing but Alonso was unimpressed: “I think you are going to have fun in future races! You can defend position as you want and you can overtake outside the track! Enjoy,” he tweeted.
Another to race to a perfect strategy was Force India’s Paul di Resta, who uniquely chose two stops, then made his choice of SU, MN, MN work for him: the Scotsman led a GP for the first time though during a pitting session.
Behind him Alonso, Hamilton and Felipe Massa scrapped away, the Ferrari-McLaren-Ferrari train proving highly entertaining although Hamilton, the meat in the sandwich, no doubt regretted McLaren screwing up his stops and squandering his front-row grid slot, while Massa put in his best drive so far in 2012.
For Ferrari, it was all about damage limitation as it awaits upgrades for the difficult F2012 cars; it was a case of “mission of accomplished”, with Alonso (43 points) amazed to be a tied fourth with Jenson Button in the Drivers’ championship and in touch with points’ leader Vettel, who has 53 to the 49 and 48 of Hamilton and Webber respectively.
Button could so easily have taken the points lead but a series of mishaps dropped him down the order before forcing his retirement on the penultimate lap. “In the last few laps the car sounded really noisy. I think the initial problem was exhaust failure, then my puncture, then a differential failure; so I had to retire,” he said.
That, then, was the fourth race of the year done and (very) dusted with this year’s motto being clear: look after your tyres and wins will look after themselves. F1 now faces a three-week break before the Spanish GP in Barcelona on May 13. A three-day, in-season, test session is scheduled from May 1 at the Ferrari-owned Mugello circuit in Italy.