Bahrain, Day 1: Mercedes power dominates
The Brixworth-built Mercedes-Benz FO108X continued its domination of the sport into 2010, powering the fastest car in FP1 and the top 4 cars in FP2 at the lengthened Sakhir circuit. It was a good day all round for Germany, with regular 2009 practice-toppers Adrian Sutil and Nico Rosberg heading the timesheets. However, Germany’s biggest name, both in a literal sense and in terms of popularity, struggled to match his team mate’s pace. The one they call Schuey was left frustrated after two sessions trailing young Rosberg, who has only spent a year of his career competing against the great man.
So the World Constructors Champions stole the limelight, but at the back of the grid, things were getting interesting as well, as all eyes looked at Lotus, Virgin and HRT for the first glimpses at how competitive they were. Optimists were left disappointed when they ended up over 7 seconds off the pace in FP1, only to cut that to 5 seconds in FP2. Whilst Timo Glock headed the “mini-series” in the first session, Heikki Kovalainen was on top in the second, and beat his more experienced team mate Jarno Trulli in both sessions, which will give him confidence after a nightmate 2009. However it is worth remembering that Heikki was much faster than Lewis Hamilton in the first session of 2009 so it may not necessarily be indicative of things to come…
But whilst the figures may seem large, it is important to bring this into context. 5 seconds is a lifetime in F1 terms but the truth is this is exacerbated by the fact that the circuit is now so long. You have to look at the percentages to see the real story, and the fact is that Kovalainen’s time was 104.73% of Rosberg’s in FP2. This may be 5 seconds at this track, but if we equate that to the fastest time of Q1 last year in Melbourne, it would be just over 4 seconds off the pace, around half a second shy of where Spyker, an experienced team using a developed car, were for the 2007 race. This is an incredible achievement for a team that has been rushed together with three-quarters of a calendar year. So do not jump to criticise them – they have done a fine job. The same goes for Virgin, although their day was once again blighted by problems, first for di Grassi in FP1 and then for Glock in FP2.
For HRT, though, it was a tougher day again. Having worked incredibly hard since arriving at Bahrain to prepare the cars, hydraulics problems whilst building Karun Chandhok’s car meant the Indian was unable to get the first test of F1 machinery for 2 1/2 years he is so looking forward to. But Bruno Senna did eventually make it out onto track towards the end of FP1, and again did a few laps in FP2, only for his right rear wheelnut to come off at turn 1 after crossing the line to finish his final flier. The car looked a handful to drive but Bruno’s job wasn’t made any easier by the fact that everyone else was catching him pretty quickly, and that he, like his team mate, has only ever driven an F1 car in one test. So whilst his best time, over 11 seconds off Rosberg, may look horrifically slow, again you have to put it into context. For the record, it equates to being 8.5 seconds off the pace at Albert Park, which isn’t bad if you consider that as recently as 2006, Yuji Ide set a best time 9 seconds slower than the fastest man, and if you take into account the story of HRT so far. But I wouldn’t be surprised if they decide not to race, or decide not to “race”.
There were a few other small stories that developed. Red Bull suffered a troubled day, seemingly off the pace of the other leading contenders and with Sebastian Vettel complaining of a lack of grip after going off once in each session. Mark Webber, meanwhile, spent most of FP2 in the garage after driveshaft problems, which will hamper his victory aspirations this weekend. It seems the Mercedes-powered teams are a step ahead already, as are Ferrari, who spent most of FP2 running long-run simulations. FP1 had seen Fernando Alonso and Felipe Massa wind up 2nd and 4th, and their long-run pace compared well with others that tried the same. Whilst the headlines will be elsewhere, they remain strong contenders this weekend.
But then we are none the wiser today of what the pecking order is. Whilst Sutil and Renault’s Robert Kubica, who ended up in between the Ferraris in 3rd, upset the perceived form book in FP1, and Williams’ Nico Hulkenberg ended up 6th in FP2, it still doesn’t provide us with proof. Fuel loads are a complete mystery and some teams may not have shown their hand yet, including Sauber, whose drivers Pedro de la Rosa and Kamui Kobayashi finished a puzzling and disappointing 17th and 18th in FP1, and a more optimistic 10th and 11th in FP2 respectively.
What we do know, though, is that the rookies have acquitted themselves well so far, with Hulkenberg and Petrov showing well, di Grassi just over a tenth off Glock and Senna keeping hold of a wild, untamed HRT. We know that the new cars are quite a bit slower than the rest but then that was to be expected. We know that it is once again seemingly quite close, with a potentially strong midfield to challenge the “big 4” teams. And we know that Michael Schumacher is very annoyed. But then it wouldn’t be the last time that he comes out of practice disappointed but pulls a rabbit out of the hat when it really counts…