McLaren and Michael Schumacher each arrived in Bahrain quietly confident. All the evidence suggested they were going to be in the thick of the action, fighting out the destiny of the race, certain they were about to get their respective seasons off to a flying start, that it was all there waiting to be taken.
Yet, post-qualifying, both were left bewildered and bemused. "Where the hell did that come from?" one McLaren driver was overheard saying to the other, fresh from the cockpit, uncomprehending at how they could be over 1s away from pole. Michael - also well over 1s off the qualifying pace - sat in the Mercedes press conference looking and sounding shellshocked, confounded and almost embarrassed.
The pace of the Red Bull - and to a lesser extent the Ferrari - had indeed come out of the blue. Practice on Friday and Saturday morning suggested a small edge for the Ferrari, but with Red Bull, Mercedes and McLaren all in the ballpark. Mercedes' Nico Rosberg headed one session, the McLaren drivers hot on his tail, Schumacher's long-run times the equal of anyone's. Yet there it was, stark on the screen, on Saturday afternoon: McLaren and Mercedes each 1.1s adrift of Sebastian Vettel's pole.
Was there something they and the watching world weren't understanding here? A vital missing piece of intelligence? Whatever could it be? A little clue: a Red Bull on a non-flying lap moved aside for a car on a flyer. Getting off line, it found some ripples in the asphalt and a plume of plank dust flew out of the back. If the car was grounding out on low fuel, how was it ever going to cope with being loaded with 160kg of fuel on Sunday, when the parc-ferme rules forbid ride heights being changed?
This set in motion a train of thought. What if the car had a mechanism, some sort of linkage, that opposed any increase in weight pressing down upon it, thereby keeping the ride height constant? A ratchet system maybe, working against the third spring of the suspension? It would achieve much the same thing as active ride had all those years ago, keeping the ride height low for devastating aerodynamic effect, but wouldn't be powered - as that is expressly forbidden in the regulations.
With such a car it would not be necessary to run a high ride height in qualifying, because it would automatically compensate for the weight of the fuel the following day. That would give it a huge qualifying advantage over otherwise-similar conventional cars. It would tally that the car would be no quicker than the other frontrunners on a long run, as it would be running a similar ride height to them. The advantage would only show in qualifying.
If the Red Bull - or the Ferrari - were running such a system, it would have been cleared in advance by the FIA. There would be a plausible reason why it was within the regulations, which suggests that for the other teams it would be just a matter of plugging into the right justification. Asking around, they didn't seem to think that technically it would be much of a challenge.
If some mechanical form of 'active' ride has indeed been devised, one of the real beauties of it would be that it's not obviously visible and no-one would be alerted to it - until the devastating qualifying lap, that is. Red Bull denies strenuously it has such a system, that the grounding out of its light-fuelled car was about nothing more than tyres not yet up to temperature and pressure. It's all part of the general paranoia of fiercely competitive entities.
McLaren had been at the centre of controversy, with its ingenuous 'f-duct' system that allowed the aero to be stalled down the straights, reducing the drag. That little trick was doubtless part of the team's optimism. It was a simple, inexpensive bit of innovation that doubtless irritated those who hadn't thought of it. But it was very visible.
At Mercedes much of Schumacher's demeanour will have been about the 0.3s deficit to his team-mate, rather than the bigger gap between the Merc and the front row. This is new territory for him and he appeared genuinely shocked.
Watching these competitors regroup and react to the stark reality revealed by that Bahrain qualifying screen is going to be fascinating.
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