Tuesday, 21 April 2015

#F1 – Why does it always Bahrain on me?

When I wrote about last week's Chinese Grand Prix, the focus was entirely on Nico Rosberg's psychological struggles, and how disadvantaged he's been compared to his teammate so far this season.  In Bahrain, Rosberg seemed happier and more relaxed – and as a consequence, he drove better.  He still had to settle for third in the end, though…

Hamilton was relatively comfortable throughout the race, and he led most of the laps.  Ultimately, I don't think the win was ever in doubt, for him.  However, Ferrari showed that their resurgence in Malaysia at the start of the month was not a flash in the pan – they really have got a package which can challenge Mercedes, and two drivers capable of scoring points and podium finishes.  That makes them genuinely threatening.

In the first three races of this year, it has been Sebastian Vettel who has been doing the business for Ferrari, taking the fight to the Mercedes of Hamilton and Rosberg; Kimi Räikkönen, by contrast, has been a little disappointing – often through no fault of his own.  It has been interesting to see Vettel in this role of 'challenger', actually, after he was so frequently criticised during his time at Red Bull as being too reliant on Adrian Newey's masterful engineering, and only being so dominant by dint of having by far the best car on the track.  This theory was borne out last year when Red Bull were no longer the dominant team, and Vettel seemed to fall away as his young teammate Daniel Ricciardo was the one to cease victory from Mercedes on a few occasions.

This season, however, Vettel has definitely answered his critics – and emphatically.  This year's Ferrari is a very good car, but it still plays a meek second fiddle to the might of the Mercedes.  Vettel has been able to match Mercedes, and beat them, in the second-best car.  The answer is that Vettel is not a race winner only when he has the best car – but he is a race winner when he has a car in which he feel comfortable.  Last year's Red Bull was not a car Vettel enjoyed driving, and his performances demonstrated that; at Ferrari, Vettel feels happier, and so he is driving better.

Räikkönen, too, feels much better in this year's Ferrari than he did in last year's car – and this time out, he showed that he is also a threat to the pace-setters at Mercedes.  Räikkönen was his usual, laconic self – but I expect that he will secretly be quite pleased to be back on the podium, and to seem more on level terms with a multiple World Championship-winning teammate in a way he never managed when he was paired with Fernando Alonso at Ferrari last season.

Further down the order, Williams' race was compromised by Felipe Massa's failure to launch for the formation lap, but Valteri Bottas drove an excellent race to keep Vettel behind him and finish fourth.  Daniel Ricciardo is still the real deal, hauling the Red Bull into sixth place where its Renault engine doesn't really deserve to be.  However, his teammate Daniil Kvyat has had a troubled start to this season, with the Bahrain Grand Prix being no exception, which leads me to question Red Bull's strategy of promoting young drivers from their junior programme so soon – I'm not sure whether Kvyat wouldn't have benefited more from a second season at Toro Rosso, rather than being fast-tracked into the senior team, with all the added pressure that entails, at just twenty years old.

For Lotus, a vastly improved car and a switch from Renault engines to Mercedes engines has brought more consistent points finishes – but only from one driver.  Romain Grosjean has brought home all the team's points so far, while Pastor Maldonado has failed to finish a single race this year.  Now that Lotus have a competitive car again, they need two competitive drivers if they are to amass points and realise their potential – there is only so long that Maldonado's erratic ways can be tolerated by a team fighting in a packed midfield.

Finally, I have felt for a long time that it is not right to try and make Formula One 'more exciting' artificially.  Obviously, we all hope races will be exciting – but occasionally they aren't, and that's just a part of the sport.  Much was made of the spectacle created by titanium skid plates sparking against the tarmac during the Bahrain Grand Prix – this does have a practical function, but it is also true that this was a decision made with improving 'the show' in mind.  I am quoted in this BBC Sport article on the topic (rather amusingly described as 'a purist' – they must've read my previous F1 posts!) which goes into more detail in this area.  I will admit that the sparks did look pretty awesome – what worries me, though, is that sparks cease to be a by-product of parts of the car touching the track surface for whatever reason, and start to become an aim in themselves…

If engineers are being required by the rules of the sport to design and create cars which look good, it starts to become theatre, not racing.  Racing cars should be designed to go as quickly as possible (within the rules), and however they look is how they look.  All that matters is the performance.  If designers have to consider aesthetics as well, this could impact negatively on the performance and therefore on the quality of the racing, and this would not be a good thing.

The 'look' of the race should always be secondary to the actual competition of racing; if sparking and other excitement is genuine, that's great – but if it isn't, we shouldn't try to add it in artificially.

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