Rencken: Why race in Bahrain?

2013-04-18 07:50

For the fourth round (of 19) in the 2013 FIA Formula 1 World Championship, Formula 1 returns to Bahrain for the second time in three years, having sat out 2011 due to the desert island’s on-going political strife.

Despite the 2012 race at the Bahrain International Circuit went off without a major operational hitch, the sport has few qualms about returning – although most working in the sport wonder why its powers-that-be insist on racing in the Middle Eastern kingdom if, as he vows, Bernie Ecclestone has filing cabinets filled with race hosting applications.


Why not simply scrap the race until enduring peace returns to Bahrain; why put teams, partners and personnel (and their families) through the pain of racing in what is - in parts of the island, certainly - a conflict zone?

Possibly the fact that the F1 tsar was unable to fill the empty slot left by New Jersey’s withdrawal and haggled desperately to save Germany’s race – the event is said not to pay hostings fee, with Ecclestone instead taking the gate – explains this conundrum…

However, back to sporting matters: The 2004 Bahraini Grand Prix marked F1’s debut in the Middle East, with the first seven editions of the race being borefests deluxe, with three winners starting from pole, and an equal number coming from the first two rows. The 2012 race, saw the winner (Sebastian Vettel/Red Bull Racing) start from pole, but the tedium was at least relieved by DRS and Pirelli’s magic mixes –enabling the two Lotus drivers to complete the podium.

The 5.4km BIC circuit, situated in Sakhir in the centre of the oval island, has 15 corners (6L/9R), and four straights on which cars reach over 300km/h – with full throttle being demanded for 70% of lap distance, while the longest foot-flat section lasts 13.5 seconds.

Three each corners are taken at over 250km/h (T5, 9, 12) and below 100 km/h (T1, 8, 10), delivering a qualifying average of 210 km/h. However, in common with most decade-old circuits, the lap record was set during 2004 – at the height of the V10 engine/tyre war era – in this instance by Michael Schumacher.

The circuit is one of the most demanding of all on tyres, and not only due to the region’s blistering temperatures (forecast maximums of 33°C on all three competitive days) and high g-forces (T1 sees drivers brake from 315km/h to 60km/h in just 130 metres, encountering 5,77g in the process), but also due to the area’s fine desert sands which blow across the circuit and not only increase degradation, but clog intake and cooling systems.


Having initially specified a Soft/Hard compound choice, sole tyre supplier Pirelli will now provide its two most durable compounds, expecting the Hard (Orange sidewall) to last between 15 and 17 laps and its Medium (White) two laps less respectively. The 2012 race saw the top five run to three-stop strategies, and Sunday should deliver more of the same.

As in Shanghai, two DRS zones will operate in Bahrain: on the pit straight (as in 2012) and on the straight between turns 9 and 10. They will have individual detection points.

Although it rained briefly on April 18 2013, the wet stuff is expected to remain absent this weekend; in its place, though, should come sporadic 25km/h gusts, which will further play havoc with aero settings due to their unpredictability and sudden changes in direction.

However, one car unlikely to be troubled much by the conditions is the Mercedes SLS Safety Car, for since 2004 driver Berndt Maylander has been called to action just once. With an incidence of 13% teams are unlikely to build strategies around Safety Car deployment.

This race marks the last in a set of two double-headers flung as far apart as Australia, Malaysia and China, which has left precious little time for intensive development. However, the sun never sets on F1, so performance enhancements can be expected across the grid.

The 2012 Bahrain race celebrated the season’s fourth winner in as many races – the tally eventually grew to seven in a row - and, after Fernando Alonso, who has won no less than four times here to be BIC’s most successful exponent, won for Ferrari in China to become the third 2013 victor, that trend could well continue.

Vettel’s Red Bull seems fastest over a single lap, but is hampered by tyre wear, while the Ferrari seems the more user-friendly race car.  The Lotus is, though, right up there as proven by Kimi Räikkönen’s opening round victory and strong second in Shanghai despite a crooked nose, so it is on this trio that the money is being waged.


However, their respective team mates Mark Webber, Felipe Massa and Romain Grosjean have all come on strongly recently – particularly first-named in Malaysia – so cannot be disregarded.

Thus all eyes will again be on Red Bull’s duo, particularly as Mark suffered an atrocious weekend in Shanghai, mostly not of his making. At the 2013 Chinese GP neither Red Bull driver made a secret of his loathing for the other, with team boss Christian Horner virtually admitting that he is unable to impose lasting order in his stable.

Webber is at his best when under pressure, so watch him…

Mercedes cannot be overlooked either, for Lewis Hamilton’s China pole was top drawer stuff, but the team openly admits it is not yet a genuine victory contender – however, give the Briton a whiff of victory, and he is through. Team-mate Nico Rosberg, though, has suffered two DNF’s in three races, so surely is due some better fortune.

McLaren are (again) in the process of turning a sow’s ear into a silken silver car, and, while progress has been made, there remains a long way to go. Expect the team’s smooth-driving pairing of Jenson Button and Sergio Perez to run two-stoppers – and improved performance from the latter, who last weekend was told in no uncertain terms to up his game.

Sauber recruit Nico Hulkenberg took the Swiss grey car to places it had no right to be in Shanghai, and if there is a driver knocking on the door of his maiden victory it is the lanky German, but only if all the cards fall his way on the day.

The 57-lap race on Sunday, April 12 starts at 2pm local time, with qualifying at the equivalent time on Saturday, April 11.