Bahrain GP: New kids on the block steal the show

Against the Saturday backdrop of aggravation and absurdity, on both grand prix Sundays so far this season fans have headed into the races with a sense of trepidation of what may be about to unfold. But what we have seen on Sundays so far has been incredible racing all through the field in both races. Brilliant performances by young drivers, eager to show their team bosses they are worth a place in their teams, a bit of mayhem during the start of the race, and a decent helping of unforced errors and unreliability. Perhaps almost against the odds, Bahrain mustered all of the above.

But first, the qualifying saga rumbled on. After the farcical qualifying session at Melbourne, the powers that be initially decided to revert to the 2015 qualifying system with immediate effect. Then came the customary backtracking, and suddenly it was announced that elimination qualifying was to be tried once again in Bahrain. It is a common saying that the definition of insanity is “trying the same thing over and over again and expecting different results”. The theory was insane but the result was timid, with the response to Saturday’s session being arguably worse than Melbourne. The team bosses were unified in their contempt, Toto Wolff even going as far as suggesting that any bosses who blocked scrapping the system this time should be “crucified”. However, during the crunch meeting on Sunday morning, Bernie Ecclestone and Jean Todt blocked any notion of returning to the 2015 system. It would appear that the old 2005 aggregate system will be used in China, to the despair of pretty much everyone in the sport, given that this system failed spectacularly eleven years earlier.

However, the only cloud to be seen in the entire state of Bahrain had a silver lining attached. Pascal Wehrlein earned plaudits for very nearly recording Manor’s first Q2 appearance since Jules Bianchi’s heroics at Spa in 2014. The current DTM champion made fantastic use of his equipment, fighting in the lower midfield all afternoon. Seeing Manor battle with Force Indias and Saubers is a heartening sign of the progress that has been made at Banbury. When the German’s appointment at Manor was confirmed, several quarters including one of the authors of this piece expressed concern, citing Pascal’s relative lack of single-seater experience. However on the evidence of this weekend’s performance, Wehrlein can definitely claim to be in Formula One on his own merits.

It also appears the team have begun to resolve their tyre wear issues, though Wehrlein’s strategy was still on the conservative side. The slippery package coupled with the Mercedes engine will certainly be one to watch when the paddock moves to a circuit where engine power is paramount, like Montreal or Monza. Should Manor be able to keep up pace in the development race, it’s not inconceivable that Wehrlein could sneak into the lower points on occasion. Rio Haryanto on the other hand seems to be the latest evolution of the slow and steady pay driver type. The Indonesian managed to outqualify Nasr, but he was completely shaded by Wehrlein all weekend. Despite taking an early lead in the Driver of the Day standings, Haryanto failed to emerge victorious, no doubt to the dismay of flag-waving Indonesias everywhere.

Whilst Wehrlein starred, another Mercedes customer toiled. Bahrain has been kind to Force India over the years, where the team has racked up a number of top six results. This year though, all the boys from Silverstone earned were a lapped 15th and 16th, and the coveted Reject of the Race award. Both Nico Hülkenberg and Sergio Pérez sustained front wing damage in the first few laps, and whilst this didn’t kill their chances of scoring completely, a botched strategy consigned them to a lapped finish, with only Haryanto finishing behind them. With problems regarding Vijay Mallya’s business dealings developing off-track, the last thing Force India need is a downturn in performance.

The other major news story that broke before the weekend concerned Fernando Alonso. About 24 hours before FP1 started, the FIA announced that Alonso had not been cleared to race due to injuries sustained in his incredible Melbourne shunt. Those injuries involved broken ribs and a pneumothorax. However, Ron Dennis still tried between FP2 and FP3 to get Alonso in the car for this weekend, to no avail. What a fantastic display of confidence in Alonso’s replacement, reigning GP2 champion Stoffel Vandoorne, this was! Having only found out a few days before that he would be driving, the Belgian out qualified Jenson Button on his first attempt, before driving a feisty race to finish 10th in his grand prix debut, scoring McLaren’s first point of the season, and earning himself the Infinite Improbability Drive of The Race award. Surely McLaren cannot let the Belgian slip this time, unlike a certain Danish driver.

That certain Danish driver was once again beset with bad luck. This time, Kevin Magnussen was forced to start from the pit lane after failing to show up at the weight bridge, thinking Daniil Kvyat was the one getting weighed at that point in time. Despite this, Magnussen rallied to 11th position by the chequered flag. Jolyon Palmer’s hydraulic system failed on the formation lap, consigning the Brit to a DNS. Magnussen drove a spectacular race considering that the Renault is a hastily cobbled-together chassis designed initially for a Mercedes engine. While the Renault engine is a massive improvement over last year’s, it is still down on power compared to Mercedes and Ferrari. No one seems to have told Magnussen that, as he spent the race battling equally with Mercedes and Ferrari customers.

It does make us wonder initially: what was Ron Dennis thinking when he fired Magnussen by email? Combined with the Friday night debacle from his efforts to shoehorn Alonso back into a drive against FIA orders, one could argue that old Ron is definitely past it. However, there is a possibility that both moves were actually forced upon Dennis by the Bahraini investors within the team. Remember the long-drawn-out driving signing in the last months of 2014. With Alonso already signed, McLaren had a choice of Button or Magnussen for the second seat, and several sources indicated Dennis had asked Magnussen to find Danish sponsorship, which suggests he wanted to keep the young Dane in the team. Whilst Button had won the inter-team battle in 2014, the 2009 champion was a legacy of Martin Whitmarsh’s time at the team. However, it seems the Bahraini shareholders would rather have aging world champions on their books instead of young drivers. Dennis is powerless, because he needs the money they invested, as he appears to have priced McLaren out of the sponsor market.

Whilst an interesting race was developing behind him, Nico Rosberg put in a calm and measured drive to win his fifth consecutive Grand Prix. The German driver took the lead from Lewis Hamilton into turn 1, with the British driver involved in a collision with Valtteri Bottas. Hamilton survived with a damaged car, illustrating the strength of the Mercedes, while the Finnish driver received a drive-through penalty, having been deemed at fault. Rosberg was also aided by the expected Ferrari challenge falling apart. During the end of the formation lap Sebastian Vettel’s engine decided it would rather emulate its great ancestor – the mid-80s V6 turbo – by blowing up in spectacular fashion. Kimi Räikkönen was swamped at the start, dropping down to 7th position. The Finn rallied to 2nd by the chequered flag, but never looked like challenging for the win.

A question which continues to be asked is that despite Ferrari’s apparent performance gains, how much of that has come at the cost of reliability? Two engine component failures from two Grands Prix will certainly worry Maranello, and with 19 races still to come, losing engine parts this early in the season could be crucial. Ferrari are already 50 points behind the Silver Arrows in the constructors, and they simply cannot afford to fall further behind. Ferrari has already announced that they are bringing a new turbo for the Spanish Grand Prix, in hopes of improving reliability. Whether this will allow the team to make up the ground lost to Mercedes so far remains to be seen.

Haas continue to impress as Romain Grosjean utilised an aggressive strategy to finish 5th. What was notable was the way the Frenchman despatched the Williams duo, simply outdragging them on the back straight with Ferrari power, which will no doubt cause Maranello to worry if they’ve sent all their good engines over to the Americans. Not only are Haas close to unrejectification, they have also scored more points in these two races than McLaren have for the past year. In our Australian review, we compared Haas to Toyota. However, it’s much fairer to compare them to the last two great rookie teams: Sauber, when they joined in 1993 and Jordan in 1991. Clearly the way Haas have built their squad is the way rookie teams should be built in this new age of Formula One. Partner with a manufacturer squad, and exploit it as far as the rules will allow. What Haas have ended up with after two years of preparation is a car that is overall, a fine piece of engineering.

It is believed that the car’s strengths lie in tyre management. In Melbourne, Grosjean was able to run from the red flag to the end on one set of medium tyres, and at Bahrain he was able to run 3 consecutive super-soft stints. Sadly for Haas though, Esteban Gutiérrez’s car didn’t last long, and the Mexican hasn’t still finished a race this year. But even so, Gutiérrez seems to have improved from his Sauber stint two years ago, which produced one 7th place and a Reject of the Year award. He seems much more on pace with Grosjean; a driver regarded far higher than Esteban’s previous team mate Adrian Sutil, and was running in the points when the car broke down.

The final three teams who scored points were Red Bull, Toro Rosso and Williams. Toro Rosso again showed some strong pace and in a minor miracle the team were hot on strategy, as Verstappen ran a very fast last stint to capture 6th place from Massa in the dying laps. Carlos Sainz Jr however continued to live up to his billing as the unluckiest driver in the field, having a tyre sliced by Pérez in the chaotic first few laps of the race. The senior Red Bull team consolidated their position as “best of the rest” with another good performance from Daniel Ricciardo, despite nursing a broken front wing. Daniil Kvyat was caught out in qualifying once again, but this time clocked his first racing laps of the season with a fine drive to 7th.

Williams however must be worried. Felipe Massa and Bottas nailed the start to run 2nd and 3rd. However, the team completely botched their strategy, the only team fully committing to a two stop strategy. They leaned heavily on the medium compound for Massa especially, leaving him a sitting duck when Verstappen came marching along near the finish. Despite their efforts over the winter, their problems regarding downforce generated by the chassis is still apparent. Much hilarity ensured when the team claimed after qualifying that Massa’s lack of pace was due to the new front wing they brought this weekend produced “too much downforce”. It also appears their attempted tweaks to solve their weakness on high downforce circuits have affected their performance on low downforce circuits. While their 2014 and 2015 challengers were often the fastest cars at the speed traps, the 2016 chassis appears to have been left standing still, evidenced by the way Grosjean and Verstappen with the customer Ferrari units were able to pass them on the straights.

As the review draws to a close, so too may the existence of the team from Hinwil. Circumstances are starting to look utterly wretched for Sauber, the blue of their livery accurately describing the mood within the team this weekend. Rumours about cashflow problems continue to rumble on; to the point where David Croft and Martin Brundle acknowledged mid-race that the team might not be present in China in a fortnight’s time.

The ill winds certainly seem to be affecting Felipe Nasr more than Marcus Ericsson. For the second successive weekend he was comprehensively beaten by the less-heralded Swede, even radioing his team mid-race to complain how poor his car was. Nasr appears to struggle with a car that simply refuses to turn into corners properly. Ericsson meanwhile must wonder if he’s the reincarnation of Eric van de Poele, with every team he’s driven for with the exception of DAMS either running out of money or sold off. If this was the last time we see Sauber in Formula One, the Swede went down fighting, doing his utmost to drag the C35 up the order. A 12th place is scant reward for a sterling effort. It may not even be enough to secure Sauber a top ten place in the constructor standings, given Manor’s pace.