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Friday, 27 April 2012

Formula 1 - Bahrain Grand Prix 2012

Sakhir International Circuit, Bahrain
Five things about the race:
> No major protests, although some protesters set tyres on fire during the race, with no effect on proceedings.
> Apparently Lotus are fast when it's hot.
> Nico Rosberg defended two drivers off the track between turns 3 & 4, with no penalty.
> Sebastian Vettel partied like it was 2011.
> The track is still quite boring, even if the horrible section between turns 4 & 5 has been ignored this year.

So, despite all the political hoo-hah, despite arrested journalists and a protestor apparently being shot, beaten and burned to death, and despite unwittingly supporting a suppressive and unfair regime, the 2012 Bahrain Grand Prix went ahead without a hitch. Attendance was poor, with the grandstands at only half capacity, but those who were there saw a more interesting race than they did in 2010, even if it didn't match up to China or Malaysia. Saturday saw Michael Schumacher surprisingly knocked out of Q1 by a Caterham, putting him in 17th place on the grid due to problems with his rear wing relating to the DRS (he and Pastor Maldonado then changed gearboxes, putting them 22nd and 21st respectively), but it didn't see Force India at all, as the team were deliberately not filmed at any point during qualifying as punishment for skipping the second practice session "for security reasons". Saturday also saw Sebastian Vettel back on Pole Position at a track known for little in the way overtaking, so you can guess the result...

The Grid:
1st - S. Vettel, 2nd - L Hamilton, 3rd - M Webber, 4th - J Button, 5th - N Rosberg, 6th - D Ricciardo, 7th - R Grosjean, 8th - S Pérez, 9th - F Alonso, 10th - P di Resta.

11th - K Räkkönen, 12th - K Kobayashi, 13th - N Hülkenberg, 14th - F Massa, 15th - B Senna, 16th - H Kovalainen, 17th - Jean-Eric Vergne, 18th - V Petrov, 19th - C Pic, 20th - P de la Rosa, 21st - P Maldonado, 22nd - M Schumacher, 23rd - T Glock, 24th - N Karthikeyan.

SebVet got off to a flying start while the grid behind him piled into the first corners. Daniel Ricciardo had managed to qualify in 6th place, his best ever result, but by the first sector of lap 1 he was already out of the top ten, ending up 17th after two laps. A shame, really. By turn 4, Romain Grosjean and Fernando Alonso had got past Jenson Button, putting the second of the McLarens back in 6th place. Lewis Hamilton and Mark Webber held onto their 2nd and 3rd places, and Kimi Räikkönen had made up four places already, going from 11th to 7th, with Nico Rosberg, Felipe Massa and Bruno Senna rounding out the top ten (the latter two having made up five places each). The big losers at the start were Ricciardo, Pérez, Button and Rosberg. By the end of the opening lap, Pérez had got back up to 10th place as Senna fell behind he and Paul di Resta. Further back, Heikki Kovalainen had picked up a puncture after trying to take Ricciardo on the outside of turn 10 and catching a left rear tyre on his front wing, forcing the Finn into the pits.

By lap 5, Romain Grosjean had passed Mark Webber, and Felipe Massa was battling hard with his former Ferrari team mate Kimi Räikkönen, taking him up the inside/outside through turns 1/2 on lap 3, before Kimi outran him out of turn 5 and won the apex into the twisty downhill section towards turn 8. Meanwhile Grosjean was bearing down on Lewis Hamilton, closing in using DRS on the main straight and eventually passing him on lap 7, the same lap that the other Lotus passed the other McLaren, as Kimi took Jenson Button around the outside at turn 4.

Lap 10 saw Vettel nearly five seconds ahead and Hamilton, Webber and Alonso pitting for Prime tyres. After a sticky rear wheel on Button's car in China, the McLaren pit crew must've got their act together, right? Well, they did Button's stop a couple of laps prior perfectly well, but Hamilton felt the pains of a faulty rear wheel man as he had to wait and wait for the car to hit the ground before setting off, immediately losing places to Mark Webber and Fernando Alonso, before exiting the pits behind his team mate as well, putting him in effectively 6th place. His woes weren't over yet, as Nico Rosberg got past him in the first chicane as well. Frustrated, Hamilton didn't give up. He came back at him on fresh tyres, using KERS to catch right up to the tail end of the Mercedes W03, but Rosberg defended ruthlessly, forcing Hamilton all the way off the track. Thankfully for Lewis, off the track it's just dusty painted concrete, so he kept his foot in it and powered past Rosberg, beating him into turn 4. Nico argued on the radio that he passed him "off the track", which is accurate, but the counter-argument is that Lewis was off the track because he put him there with his excessive defending. In the end, no action was taken by the race stewards.

Hamilton later passed Alonso before Kimi Räikkönen overtook Mark Webber for 4th place. Further down the order, Pastor Maldonado battled with Sergio Pérez, with Paul di Resta following closely in the Force India. As the two of them hassled eachother into turn 4, di Resta saw a gap on the inside and snuck past both of them to go from 12th to 10th in one corner. An opportunistic move and one that's very satisfying to watch somehow. By lap 24 of 57, Räikkönen had caught up to his Lotus team mate Romain Grosjean and DRS'd him into turn 1 without much bother. As the Lotus E20s continued to fly with their high top speed, the next target for Kimi was Sebastian Vettel, whom he closed the gap on in the following pit stop phase.

As Hamilton had a second lacklustre stop a lap later, Fernando Alonso was chasing Nico Rosberg, getting a much better exit out of turn 2/3 and getting exactly the same treatment Hamilton did, getting forced far to the right by the Mercedes. The difference was that instead of staying right, the Ferrari driver flicked left and tried instead to out-brake him on the outside into turn 4, but to no avail. A lap later he tried again and Rosberg defended harder still, forcing him off-track just as he did to Hamilton, but still staying ahead this time. Fernando later complained that "all the time you must leave a space... OK?". This is indeed a rule when defending. Alas, the stewards decided to investigate it after the race and again didn't take any action. I get the impression they just wanted to say no and get out of Bahrain before trouble strikes...

Behind all this, Pastor Maldonado picked up a left-rear puncture and only noticed when he went through turn 3 and the Williams FW24 simply pirouetted around as the rubber shredded up and came off the wheel. He then retired with suspension damage. As the race approached lap 30 of 57, Paul di Resta had managed his way up into a legitimate 4th position ahead of Mark Webber, but not for long, as the Australian simply DRS'd him into turn 1. 5th was still a remarkable place for the Scottish Force India driver to be after starting in 10th place and having a bit of a mixed first half of the Grand Prix. Behind him was Button, and then Rosberg, followed by Alonso, Felipe Massa and Lewis Hamilton (now in 10th place after starting 2nd).

By lap 35 of 57, the race for the lead was really hotting up, as Kimi Räikkönen had caught up to Sebastian Vettel. He chased him throughout the lap, having a look but biding his time until the DRS zone. It seemed he was too far back and would have to simply catch up to him and have another go next time round (much like Grosjean on Hamilton 30 laps ago), but no, the top speed of the Lotus E20 was such that he hit 200mph and was all set up to slip it down the inside and take the lead of the Grand Prix, but Sebastian saw him coming and moved just enough to make Kimi chicken out of it (well, he would've hit the Red Bull's rear wheel otherwise) and stay behind him. In the end, he couldn't get another look down the inside, but stayed with Vettel for the next five laps until they both pitted on lap 40 of 57. Red Bull changed all the tyres 0.7 seconds faster than Lotus did, giving Sebastian an extra bit of breathing space over Kimi. They carried it on a little bit afterwards, with Räikkönen logically having the edge as he had fresher tyres, but Vettel stayed on it and started lapping faster than him, holding him off until the end of the race.

Meanwhile, Paul di Resta's 5th place was being threatened by Nico Rosberg in the last ten or so laps. On lap 52, Rosberg made the move, locking a wheel but getting past di Resta, who had a go in the next few corners but couldn't regain 5th in the end. By lap 54 he was then being hounded by Jenson Button, but the McLaren got a puncture at the end of the lap and dived into the pits, putting Button way down in 13th place and out of di Resta's hair. Not long later, the McLaren MP4-27's exhaust cracked due to excessive temperatures (it was a good 40°C that day) and he was forced to retire. Considering he won the first race, it's all going downhill a bit for the 2009 champion. Nico Rosberg's exhaust cracked as well, but he was able to finish the race before parking his car at the pit exit next to Vettel's (it's unclear why Vettel had to stop, but it'll either be the same problem or due to a lack of fuel). Fernando Alonso caught up to the back of di Resta by the last lap, getting within a second in the final sector, but in the end he couldn't get past him in the last corner and settled for 7th place behind the Scot, who equalled his best-ever finish with 6th place. Michael Schumacher ended up climbing twelve places through the race to finish tenth, but he later complained that the drivers are too restricted by the Pirelli tyres and have to worry far too much about tyre management, a view other teams and drivers share...

Sebastian Vettel is not only the fourth man in four races to win, he's the fourth person to lead the World Driver's Championship. Hopefully he won't now stay on a winning streak and change the randomness of this season so far. On that note, the next race happens after the one-and-only in-season test session, which is taking place at the Mugello circuit in Italy from the 1st-3rd May, where Ferrari will being an "F2012 B" of sorts that carries a lot over from the Sauber C31. Other teams will also test and develop major upgrades and put their cars in the hands of young test drivers at this test. This could mean the pecking order is very different all over again come the Spanish Grand Prix at Cataluña. We'll have to wait and see. Results and points below:

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