The Bahrain GP weekend was another intriguing F1 race weekend with plenty more talking points. Let’s look at the main points of this weekend’s action.
Button’s pass on Hamilton sets him up to win against the odds. Was it his best performance of the season so far?
Going into the race it wasn’t looking brilliant for Jenson. He had qualified fourth and was surrounded by KERS cars. To make matters worse, the Brawn GP was struggling badly with overheating. The temperature was three or four degrees higher than they could realistically cope with. The Brawn GP car wouldn’t be able to tolerate staying in another car’s turbulent air for too long.
The first couple of laps were going to be crucial if Jenson was going to have any chance of winning. Button got a decent start and was able to get ahead of Sebastien Vettel. Unfortunately, Hamilton pressed his KERS button halfway down the straight, and was able to get ahead. Button was also heavily challenged by the Ferraris but he managed to hold them off. That was critical.
Button was currently fourth behind Hamilton, and the two Toyotas were running away ahead. Button had to pass Hamilton. At the end of the first lap Hamilton made an error at turn 14. This allowed Button to get up right close. Button then nailed Hamilton in a very brave out-braking move into turn one. Had Button not made this move, he would have been stuck behind Hamilton for a long time. He would have then had to hang back so his car didn’t overheat.
However, now he had some clear track, and importantly clean air. He managed to keep the gap to the Toyotas stable. He was running longer and was able to leapfrog the pair of them at the pit stops.
As the Trulli train formed Button was able to get away and build a gap of around thirteen seconds, which he then maintained for the rest of the race.
It was a fantastic performance by Jenson Button. This was his best drive of the season. The car didn’t have the advantage it had at previous events. There was the overheating issue too, which Ross Brawn described before the race as "trouble." He had a lot of work to do at the start to make a victory challenge even possible. He pulled it off brilliantly.
Button has now extended his championship lead to 12 points, and is looking in brilliant shape.
Should Toyota have won their first race?
I think they should have, and they may well look back on this race with some regret. Toyota was very fast this weekend. They were comfortably the quickest in qualifying (and that’s even taking into account the fuel loads). They were also 1-2 in the fastest lap of the race charts. In terms of pace they had the edge on their closest rivals.
In the first stint they were dominating and looking in great shape. However, from the first stop onwards it started to go wrong and they fell backwards.
They decided to switch onto the harder tyre for their long middle stint, which proved to be the wrong move. Both Trulli and Glock struggled for performance on this tyre. Trulli held up Vettel and Hamilton, losing ground on Button with each passing lap. Glock struggled even more with the tyres and fell even further back. They should have put on the super-softs for this stint of the race.
Trulli was then on the right tyre for the last stint. However he then ended up being leapfrogged by Vettel, who was running longer than him in the second stint. If Trulli could have passed Vettel early on, he could have put pressure on Button (who was now doing his stint with the harder and slower tyre), and make him have to push and put his revs up higher. Jarno, however, never got close to attempting a move on the young German.
Trulli ended up with a podium at the end of the race, but it could have been a completely different story. Toyota lost out by being too conservative on their strategy. This is something that they have now conceded.
A key factor could have been Toyota’s lack of experience in racing at the front of the pack. Ross Brawn on the other hand has years of experience at calling the shots at the front. He hardly ever makes a strategic error. I think this is an important difference between the two teams. I am sure Toyota will have learned a lot from this race and their tactics will improve in future.
The team are looking in very good shape at the moment and they will get another opportunity to win soon.
Vettel was the pre-race favourite after the car weights were revealed. Why didn’t he win?
Vettel could have challenged for the win but didn’t end up in clean air when he needed to be. At the start he was overtaken by Hamilton, but wasn’t able to re-pass him quickly like Button was able to. Vettel couldn’t find a way past. Every time Vettel was getting close, Hamilton could defend with his KERS button. He ended spending the whole stint behind Lewis. This lost him over ten seconds.
In the second stint he then got stuck behind Jarno Trulli’s Toyota. At this point of the race Vettel was around one second faster than Jarno but couldn’t find a way through. This allowed Button to drive into the distance.
Vettel managed to leap into second place after the second round of pit stops but it was too late. He also had Jarno Trulli on the super-soft tyre right behind him, and therefore was now defending against him.
Being behind slower cars cost him the potential of challenging for a second successive victory, but second is still an extremely strong result. Maybe he should have tried a lunge into turn one, as Button did to Lewis with success early on in the race.
Could McLaren still win this championship?
It’s not impossible that McLaren could fight back and win a championship this season. The amount of progress that they have made since pre-season testing has been staggering. In the test in Spain they were over two seconds of the pace of Brawn GP.
However, McLaren have immense resources and personnel. If anyone can quickly cure their problems and close the gap it’s McLaren. Remember 2004 when McLaren came back to win at Spa after a dreadfully slow and unreliable start to the season.
Each weekend so far this season they have made strides forward. Hamilton did a great qualifying lap and was fifth on the grid on merit rather the result of a lighter fuel load. He qualified ahead of Barrichello with more fuel on board.
In the race he was able to keep up with the front runners, but fell back a bit in the last stint. Fourth was still a stunning result for the team. This a result which many would have regarded as impossible before the season began.
Perhaps the most impressive fact was Lewis’s position in the fastest laps of the race chart. His lap was less than 0.4 seconds slower than Trulli’s quickest lap. Both of their fastest laps were set towards the end of the first stint. That is now the gap Mclaren have between themselves and the front three of Red Bull, Toyota, and Brawn (who incidentally are now much more closely matched than at the start of 2009).
In Spain, McLaren will be bringing a substantial upgrade. A few weeks ago there were predictions from people inside the team, saying that the car would fly in Spain. That suggestion sounded crazy back then, but after seeing the progress the car is making, then maybe it’s not impossible.
McLaren will have keep control of their expectations as other teams including Ferrari and BMW Sauber are planning massive upgrades as well. Brawn GP are also introducing their first major season upgrade in Spain. Therefore, they can’t be too cocky.
Nobody is going to be standing still between now and Spain. Lewis admitted that there is even a chance of Mclaren falling backwards in Spain. It all depends on how good everyone else’s upgrades are. The order could look completely different in Spain, as the field is so tight. A few tenth’s worth of development will shuffle teams around.
Catalunya is a circuit where it’s important to have really good aerodynamic efficiency, and good tyre management. This is a very demanding circuit where cars with shortcomings are found out. If McLaren can show a good performance there, then signs could be very promising for the rest of the season.
I think McLaren will end up winning races this season, but I feel they will have to wait a bit longer. I can see them returning as regular front runners in the second half of the season.
In terms of the championship it could be too late by then. The gap could be too big to close down. Of course the other factor is what punishment McLaren receive from the WMSC on Wednesday.
Why were BMW Sauber down at the back of the field?
BMW Sauber probably had their worse race since starting out in 2006. Their race went downhill right front the start when they made contact with other cars on the first lap. Both cars lost some aerodynamic parts, and this affected their performance for the duration.
BMW Sauber seem to have gone backwards since the season began, as opposed to making some progress as Ferrari, Renault, and Mclaren have. For a team that were so bullish about their championship chances in 2009 it has been a very disappointing start.
It will feel even more disappointing to the team, since they shifted focus onto the 2009 car after their win in Canada last season. This was despite the fact Robert Kubica was leading the championship after that race.
Any hopes of Robert Kubica leading the championship at some point this season look pretty grim. They have pinned all their hopes on an upgrade in Spain, but everyone will have them. It will have to be a pretty spectacular upgrade if they want to challenge for this year’s title.
They may now regret that they didn’t push harder for the 2008 title. Then again they won’t have been expecting McLaren and Ferrari not to make so many errors in the second half of the season. However if you have any sniff at all of challenging for a title you should always try and push for it.
Instead they pinned 2009 as their major title challenge. Maybe 2008 could have been that year and it eluded them.
Have the teams running KERS lost out?
The three front runners: Brawn GP, Toyota, and Red Bull do not use KERS. The teams that have used the KERS system so far: McLaren, Ferrari, Renault, and BMW Sauber have all endured difficult starts to the season.
It seems that KERS hasn’t given the teams running it, as much of an advantage as predicted in the early stages. It’s useful at the start on tracks with a long run down to turn one. It has also proven to be very useful when defending a position, and occasionally when on the offence.
In terms of the overall lap time KERS hasn’t added that much. Maybe around 0.3 seconds per lap.
The teams operating KERS have spent millions and invested a huge amount of time in getting in the device to work in terms of performance, safety, and reliability. Also they have had to deal with the weight disadvantage. They are not as free to distribute the weight around the car.
The teams who opted not to run KERS have been more fully focused in adapting their cars to the new aerodynamic regulations. There has been more time to be won from adapting this approach. KERS hasnt taken up a large weight on their minds (quite literally).
Those teams who opted to run KERS haven’t spent as much time purely focusing on the aerodynamics, and have been building their car to accommodate KERS.
Toyota has been the most critical of KERS saying that at most tracks it won’t be much of an advantage. So far they look to be right. Many thought teams like Toyota would suffer in races because of not having KERS. It hasn’t worked out that way at all.
Building a car that doesn’t have to accommodate KERS, and focusing purely on the aero has proved the correct decision as it stands.
Will a KERS car win a race this season? I think Mclaren may win a few races later on in the season, but I don’t hold as much hope for the others.
Has overtaking improved?
Bahrain was the first “normal conditions” race. In Australia, the race was in the evening with cooler track temperatures. Also the super soft tyre there turned out to be a disaster. That had a major effect on spicing up that race. Sepang and Shanghai were both wet races.
Bahrain was then a true test of how much overtaking has improved. Overall, it didn’t turn out to be a race with much overtaking. On a track where its meant to be easy to overtake, that’s not good news. We saw quite a few battles in the early laps of the race, but that’s when the field was still bunched together after the start.
The new regulations were supposed to make the following time just one second. Vettel was much faster when he was following Hamilton and Trulli, but he never came close to overtaking them. The Trulli train made an unwelcome return.
The cars look as if they can follow each other a little bit more closely but not necessarily close enough to make overtaking easier. Overall I would say there has been a slight improvement in overtaking, but not the significant improvement fans were hoping. Most of the drivers have all commented that overtaking is still difficult. Timo Glock went as far as saying it was now even tougher.
Overtaking cars with KERS is near impossible if you don’t have the system yourself. A driver who has KERS can press the button when the car behind is in their slipstream and pull away. It’s vital not to end up behind a car that uses the system as some found out to their cost in the Bahrain GP. This is why Button’s move on Hamilton on lap two was so special, and critical to his race result.
A factor in Bahrain was that the slipstreams were very hot due to the conditions. Some drivers may have been holding back, due to overheating issues.
Therefore I think Spain may be the confirmation of whether the racing has improved or not. In Spain, we always tend to get dull races. If we see a few more moves than usual, then there has been a definite step forward. If we get the usual tedious Spanish GP then we know that not enough has been done to help address the overtaking issue. A re-think may be necessary.