By Tom Keeble, U.S.A.
Autosport Atlas Writer
After two dominant wins in Australian and Malaysia, Renault will be looking for the hat trick in Bahrain. Their rivals, however, will be looking to stop the French squad, with World Champions Ferrari introducing their new car earlier than planned, in the hope of bouncing back from their poor start. Tom Keeble previews the race and rates the teams' chances of success, ahead of the third round of the 2005 season
With Renault delivering on their pre-season testing form at the opening races of the season, a number of teams are looking to level the score at Bahrain. Bridgestone had a tough weekend in Malaysia with Ferrari, but they are now working with the new F2005, so hopes are considerably higher. The leading Michelin runners, meanwhile, are looking to show that they can keep up with Renault.
This circuit was purpose built, coming into action for the first time last season. The inaugural event went very well, winning acclaim for the Kingdom for the quality of the facilities.
Track: the features that make this circuit stand out are not the layout of the track - though it is well thought out. The combinations of slow and fast corners promote overtaking opportunities, though some hard kerbs will punish the unwary. There is not much in the way of high speed corners - certainly not when compared with Malaysia - but the big stops at the end of the straights are going to stress brakes almost as much as Canada. However, the unique problem of fine sand on the track makes it very slippery off the line - or on it, if someone runs wide and drags any on - and offers the potential for an abrasive to be introduced to the inner workings of the car. Accentuating this problem, high temperatures will call for teams to run near maximum cooling.
The circuit offers few opportunities for the driver to make much difference, so it should be a good indication of package performance - it would be little surprise to see most teammates alongside each other at some point in the weekend.
Tyres: although Bridgestone took the fall for the Ferrari performance in Malaysia, it is worth remembering that the tyres they are using this year are designed with the F2005 in mind: the new Ferrari has similar characteristics, but is far kinder to the tyres, permitting softer compounds to be run. Considering the high temperatures that suited them so much better than Bridgestone in Malaysia, Michelin should still hold the upper hand, but less markedly. Both companies are anticipating their wear issues to be on the rear tyres as a consequence of the long traction areas on this circuit, and limited high speed corners.
Weather: with winds predicted for Friday and Saturday, getting the cars set up for the race could be tricky. Particularly if it is gusting, the drivers will face a tough qualifying session. However, there is almost no chance of rain, and the temperature should hold steady in the mid thirties for the weekend.
Strategy: the obvious strategy here is two stops - with drivers who carry a little more than their competitors in a position to make up places during the stops. Qualifying well is not vital, as overtaking is possible, but clearly being well placed at the start is a big help. Teams or drivers who are marginal on brake wear could opt for more stops.
Surprises: based on their surprisingly strong qualifying in 2004, Toyota could outperform expectations here.
Conclusions: with McLaren and Ferrari looking to bounce back, and Williams and Toyota hoping to confirm their improved pace, Renault should not have this weekend all their own way. The circuit permits overtaking, so getting strategy right and managing tyre wear will be key - this race could get more interesting as it runs.
Team by Team
Last season saw a dominant Ferrari performance in qualifying and the race: despite looking average in practice, the team did their homework thoroughly and took home a one-two. Things are not so hot this year, with Malaysia proving a big disappointment to the team, who never looked close to getting on the pace: attempting to do so put significant loads on to the Bridgestone tyres, leading to the rears wearing out.
Package: rolling out the F2005 for this event is not considered a big risk: the old car is not scoring points effectively and the new one is clearly faster. Reliability could be compromised, but early testing has been promising, and this car is considerably easier on its Bridgestone tyres than the predecessor. Gaining somewhere close to a second a lap should allow the team to qualify better, but the real gain should come towards the end of the race, provided the improved the drivers have been able to look after their tyres.
Drivers: Schumacher's dominance last season was clear, but Barrichello seems to have had the better of his team leader over the first couple of weekends - though the new car could re-invigorate the World Champion. Both drivers are clearly comfortable at this circuit and should perform to the limits of their package.
Objectives: podium finish
Despite finishing on the podium here last year, repeating the experience is not going to be easy for BAR in 2005. Performance in Australia and Malaysia was not up to scratch, particularly with both cars expiring three laps in to the last race. That, at least, should be put to rights.
Package: despite early exits at the last race, both drivers were running at a good pace, and from the fuel loads had potential for strong races. However, without actually experiencing the actual wear rates, predictions are difficult. Provided the engine holds together, Bahrain should show its strength: this is an opportunity for BAR to have one of their better races of the early season.
Drivers: Both Jenson Button and Takuma Sato showed well last year, with Sato having an edge in qualifying, before being assisted off the track by Ralf Schumacher in the race. Whilst unlikely to get on a par with Renault, both drivers should relish the potential to race for good points.
Objectives: both cars in the points; podium finish at a stretch.
In 2004, Renault had a difficult weekend in Bahrain, but they still scored good points in the race. This season, coming off strong performances in Australia and Malaysia, they are arriving as the team to beat.
Package: this Renault is a very accomplished package, rounded off by the manner in which it looks after the tyres over a race distance. Importantly, the car is also relatively easy to drive, which gives the drivers confidence over the qualifying laps: it could be a factor if the wind is up during those sessions.
Drivers: Fernando Alonso worked his way up from 18th on the grid last season to finish sixth: riding high after winning in Malaysia, he will be tough to beat. However, Giancarlo Fisichella is driving the same car, and although he is probably not going to be right up to speed until nearer the middle of the season, he should be able to take the race to Alonso. Both drivers will be regarding Ferrari's latest offering with some suspicion, but their real concern is McLaren, who have had poor luck so far.
Objectives: winning - with both cars on the podium.
Despite landing a podium in Malaysia, the jury remains out concerning the team's current potential. Mark Webber's early exit after tangling with Fisichella was unfortunate, and clearly ended hopes of finishing with two cars in the points. Last season, Ralf Schumacher had a combatitive race, colliding with Sato and Fisichella, but Montoya ran strongly until a gearbox issue ended hopes of a podium.
Package: having tested further at Barcelona since the last event, Williams are expected to have some new components on the car this weekend. Some of the improvements are aimed at making life easier for the drivers - which should reduce fatigue and consequential errors - but some of the improvements to low speed cornering and acceleration should maximise the BMW engine. This unit is still reputed to have plenty of power, but delivering it without wearing out the Michelin tyres is going to be a battle.
Drivers: Mark Webber and Nick Heidfeld should be well balanced in Bahrain: and both need to put together strong performances if they are to fight for podium finishes. Last season illustrated Webbers ability to hold off faster cars, so defending a decent qualifying session should be possible up to the pitstops.
Objectives: finish with both cars in the points. Podium is currently possible, but winning is a stretch.
After Montoya's strong outing in Bahrain last season for Williams, and his drive to fourth in Malaysia, news that he may not be able to run in Bahrain due to a hairline shoulder fracture (sustained playing tennis in training) is a blow to McLaren. Raikkonen's Malaysia experience was included a flat tyre that probably cost a podium finish, so the car is clearly not so far off Renault's pace.
Package: despite diverting resources to ensure there is a third car that Wurz can fit in to, the team are looking to make a good showing this weekend. Performance has not really matched up to expectations so far, but this has been put down to a large extent to poor luck. Preparations have focussed on tyre work and cooling.
Drivers: Kimi Raikkonen's luck has not been too good this season, so a change in fortune would be much appreciated by the team this weekend. If he gets a clear run at the weekend, then McLaren can reasonably expect to be on the podium - and taking the race to Renault. Despite still being new to the team, Montoya would also be expected to bring home a strong points finish, but if he is not able to take part, Pedro de la Rosa is expected to take his place. Although de la Rosa has not run at this circuit before, he has some solid race experience, and as third driver and tester, is familiar with both the car and the McLaren way of working at weekends.
Objectives: winning - with both cars in the points.
Malaysia was not especially kind to Sauber, with Massa finishing down in tenth and Villeneuve spinning out.
Package: even with a Ferrari engine powering them, the Sauber package is not quite up to scratch. The package is pretty good, featuring an excellent aero and strong engine; however, it is not really delivering so far. Villeneuve is complaining about the way the car handles under braking, leading to poor confidence in the car, whilst Massa has been looking for consistency to go with his pace.
Drivers: Jacques Villeneuve is coming under increasing pressure. The '97 World Champion has not been able to get the most out of his car - and whilst the issues behind that are complex (time testing the car, working on braking characteristics and more) it leaves critics suggesting that Villeneuve's days are numbered. A strong performance in Bahrain is not especially likely, but it would do a lot to put off the pundits and let him get in to the rest of the season. Felipe Massa did not match Fisichella last year, but he is capable of putting together quick laps. Realistically, however, points are expected to be tough to earn.
Objectives: qualify in the top ten; score a point.
Red Bull have confounded their critics by running well this year, and both cars were in the points on merit in Malaysia - Coulthard finished ahead of Schumacher and Ferrari. Bahrain was not kind to Jaguar last year, but the much improved chassis offers them some hope for the forthcoming race.
Package: this year's far more powerful engine is helping the team to put on a better show - and Bahrain should offer marginally better opportunity for showing it off than Malaysia. However, this time around, Ferrari will be racing their new car, so finishing ahead of Schumacher is not a likely repeat experience.
Drivers: David Coulthard seems to have found some good racing form this season: qualifying has been acceptable, if imperfect, but his races have been very solid. Just as importantly, he is working well with Christian Klien, and can take some responsibility for helping to ensure a solid team performance - Klien has also been in the points.
Objectives: qualify in the top ten, score points. Beat Sauber.
When Jarno Trulli finished on the podium in Malaysia with Ralf Schumacher fifth, it made life for the managers at Toyota considerably easier - besides confirming that the team really have made progress this year. Considering their reasonable showing in Bahrain qualifying last year, they are looking forward to this season's visit.
Package: the circuit is expected to reward a good engine, excellent braking and good mechanical grip characteristics; this ought to play towards Toyota's strengths better than Malaysia, though the car looked good there; the team see no reason why they should not be able to consolidate their second place in the Championship.
Drivers: Ralf Schumacher had a tough race in 2004, contacting both Sato and Fisichella over the course of the weekend; Jarno Trulli, on the other hand, had a quiet race to fourth for Renault. The car appears to have solid potential, but realising it is going to require the drivers to have a good weekend; Trulli is the more likely candidate to do so.
Objectives: podium, with two points finishes. Race win is ambitious.
Jordan have produced a reliable car this year, but seem to be struggling to make the most of their Toyota engine. Then again, the package is based around last season's car, they have novice drivers, and the team are clearly already looking forward to next year.
Package: the car appears more stable than last year's, but it is still difficult to drive compared to the others on the grid, making it difficult to unlock its full potential.
Drivers: Narain Karthikeyan has been getting the better of Tiago Monteiro so far this season, but neither has really had a chance to show anything against another team, as Jordan has been operating in the space between Minardi and the midfield. The drivers can do little more other than continue to learn their trade, race each other, and stay out of the way when being lapped.
Objectives: make a showing, beat Minardi, continue putting miles on the car and drivers.
The continued emphasis on reliability from the rules has no helped Minardi at all: now, not only are they struggling to produce a car that is competitive, but they can no longer hope to pick up points from the other teams' poor reliability.
On the positive side, even though the odds on scoring points in Bahrain range somewhere from slim to none, this is a good venue to get out and go racing. It offers the novice drivers just about as close as they will get to a level playing field - no-one has been here more than once, after all - and the aerodynamic deficiencies of the package will be less obvious here than at many other venues. If it goes well, they could give Jordan something to worry about.
Objectives: complete race distance.
Last season, Bahrain's inaugural event guaranteed that even if the dominant display from Ferrari was to continue, there would be plenty else worthy of attention. Pre-race speculation was all about fear of the damage caused by sand being ingested into engine, uncertain running temperatures and unknown levels of grip.
After some lacklustre running in practice, Michael Schumacher again turned up the gas when it mattered to deliver pole position for the third consecutive race. Barrichello filled out the Ferrari front row after a scare with Montoya in the second session that threatened to put the Williams there instead; however, the Columbian made a mistake at the final corner and had to settle for the second row, alongside teammate Ralf Schumacher.
Takuma Sato led BAR on the third row, pipping Jenson Button to fifth place. Jarno Trulli put in a solid lap for seventh, leading Olivier Panis and Cristiano da Matta, who put on a solid show for Toyota. Coulthard filled out the top ten after miserable practice sessions - McLaren were having a terrible weekend.
Further back, Alonso made mistakes during qualifying, setting a time that earned seventeenth on the grid, whilst Raikkonen had engine problems and aborted his qualifying lap.
Race day came with lower than expected temperatures - courtesy of a sandstorm that also left a layer of fine sand on the circuit - playing away from the perceived strength of Michelin.
Off the line, the Ferrari's and Montoya kept station, leading a charging Sato into the first corner. Ralf regained a spot from Trulli after the first corner, with Button seventh and Panis completing the top eight. It was soon clear that the Ferraris were not going to be caught...
As the Ferraris pulled away, Ralf and Sato battled hard for fourth. The German eventually found his way inside the BAR at the end of the straight, only to discover Sato was not going to hand the position over: he remained on the outside, to take the inside line into the next corner. However, when Ralf turned in, there was insufficient space, and the Williams rear will touched the BAR's front, spinning Ralf around. Both cars continued, though Ralf stopped for fresh tyres.
On lap eight, Raikkonen's engine put on a firework display, just before the first round of stops. These went with little change at the front - despite Barrichello stalling.
On lap fifteen, Sato lost fourth place to Button after riding roughshod over a kerb, damaging a front wing and the underside of the car and leading to a pitstop for repairs: Alonso by now had worked his way up to Massa and was looking to take thirteenth from the Sauber driver.
The second round of pitstops saw little change, except Button took fourth place from Trulli. It also saw Alonso close on Webber, beginning another tough battle for the Spaniard. Ralf was also battling again - Fisichella this time - and again made contact, causing the Sauber to spin.
The last round of stops again saw little change, but shortly after, Montoya's Williams developed a gearbox problem, and he soon ceded third place to Button, then continued to lose ground, eventually finishing thirteenth. Coulthard also developed problems, and pitted for the mechanics to attempt repairs, but to no avail.
In the end, an easy win for Ferrari, with Button putting in a solid showing for another podium finish.
Point Paying Positions
Pos Driver Team 1. M.Schumacher Ferrari (B) 2. Barrichello Ferrari (B) 3. Button BAR-Honda (M) 4. Trulli Renault (M) 5. Sato BAR-Honda (M) 6. Alonso Renault (M) 7. R.Schumacher Williams-BMW (M) 8. Webber Jaguar-Cosworth (M) Fastest Lap: M.Schumacher, 1:30.252, lap 7 Classified: 17 from 20 starters