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Alonso Wins in Bahrain – Race Analysis

Fernando Alonso on his way to his maiden Ferrari win at Bahrain

Fernando Alonso opened the book on his career at Ferrari with a win at the season-opener at Bahrain on Sunday.  It was something of a lucky win for the Spaniard, as pole-sitter Sebastian Vettel had looked to be in control of the race from from the start.  Vettel’s fortunes faded, however, when he suffered a dramatic power loss which dropped him back to fourth slot in the latter stages of the race.  A broken exhaust header was originally suspected as the culprit, but the team later confirmed that a faulty spark plug was at the root of Vettel’s problem.

Inheriting the lead by default did nothing to tarnish the shine on Alonso’s achievement, however.  The Spaniard had run a savvy and measured race prior to Vettel’s problem, sliding past team mate Felipe Massa at the start, and shadowing Vettel closely thereafter, always remaining within striking distance.  As he admitted in the post race interviews, he’d actually had additional pace “in the pocket,” and had been biding his time, waiting for the right moment to launch an attack on Vettel. Ostensibly, this would have occurred when Alonso was close to his pit stop window, when he could risk graining his tires from a bit of aggressive dicing.

Whether he could have gotten by Vettel, of course, is pure conjecture.  The fact is, virtually every driver on the grid complained that it was impossible to overtake.  As we’ve seen in years past, such on-track overtaking that did occur was primarily in the rear of the field, and involved cars which had a disparities in relative performance.  For cars that were closely matched, it was a different story.  The only significant change in running order, after the opening lap scramble, occurred when Vettel’s engine faded.

In any case, it was a sunny day for the Scuderia.  Last year, they began the season in the weeds, and this year they appear to be the team to beat, along with Red Bull.  On the winner’s podium, Alonso looked happier than he has at virtually any time since 2006.  Massa, too, seemed pleased with his result.  No doubt, he would have preferred to win, but Bahrain was his first race since the accident at last year’s Hungarian Grand Prix, which sidelined him for the remainder of the season, and he was thankful to have simply regained his old form.  He also allowed that he’d had overheating concerns during the latter stages of the race, and he’d received instructions from the pit wall to preserve his engine.

Both Ferraris had an engine change prior to the race, as the team had been worried about sand and grit that might have been ingested by the powerplants during practice and qualifying. Apparently this precaution paid off.

Lewis Hamilton rounded out the podium, and he too felt that he was a bit lucky, inasmuch as the McLaren is a shade off the pace compared to the Red Bulls and Ferraris.  Many paddock prognosticators have speculated that Hamilton would struggle under the new refueling ban, the thinking being that heavy fuel loads and fewer pit stops would hamper his aggressive driving style.  According to this theory, Jenson Button, who is known for his smooth driving style, would excel in this environment.

This was patently not the case, however.  Hamilton had the measure of his new McLaren team mate all weekend.  This was even more pronounced in the race than in qualifying.  Hamilton himself has rubbished the comparisons made between his driving style and Button’s.  He has correctly asserted that a good driver adapts his style to the circumstances, and he has also indicated, with no false modesty, that he can be as smooth as anyone else when the occasion calls for it.

Button was, if anything, a bit too smooth.  He finished seventh, compared to Hamilton’s third, trailing his team mate by 22 seconds.  Button later admitted he’d driven too conservatively, in an effort to protect his tires.  Arguably, one characteristic which separates a driver of Hamilton’s caliber from one like Button is the ability to read race conditions correctly, and adapt accordingly.  Both drivers would have had the same information from the pit wall.  Clearly, Hamilton, as is his wont, elected to press a bit harder, and a podium finish was the result.

It must also be said that after mid race pit stops were completed, the running order of the top eight drivers was essentially fixed, excluding Vettel’s sudden drop.  Although Alonso was able to take the checkers with a 16 second gap over runner-up Massa, the five drivers who trailed the podium finishers (i.e. Vettel, Rosberg, Schumacher, Button and Webber) ran virtually nose to tail much of the time, with a span of less than eight seconds covering the lot of them at the finish.  Not once did we see any of these drivers attempt even a tentative overtaking maneuver.  It was a proverbial Formula 1 freight train.

The final running order in the race, as in qualifying, was no real surprise.  The Big Four teams dominated, and commanded the top eight slots.  An initial pecking order has developed, with Ferrari and Red Bull as the best of the best, and McLaren and Mercedes close behind, rounding out the first tier.  The second tier on the grid is clearly defined by the other established teams, i.e. Williams, Sauber, Force-India and Toro Rosso.  The third tier is obviously comprised of newbies Lotus, Virgin Racing and HRT.

Among the Big Four, driver comparisons will inevitably be made.  Alonso and Massa ran close to one another all day, occasionally trading fastest laps.  Many observers will be watching Alonso closely, to see if he is able to assume a de facto number one status in the team.  He’s been number one in most of his team settings (McLaren excepted), and while Ferrari publicly eschews a designated team-leader policy, this has clearly not always been true in practice.

In fact, Alonso’s proven leadership skills provided much of the rationale behind Ferrari’s dumping Kimi Raikkonen in favor of the Spaniard.  Team boss Stefano Domenicali made no secret of the fact that they needed a Schumacher-like driver who was not only a quick and aggressive racer, but also had skills in car development, data analysis and team leadership, all in one package.  Excluding Schumacher, Alonso is widely considered to be the most complete driver on the grid.

It will be interesting to see how the team dynamics evolve over the coming months.  While Massa might be beloved by the team, if Alonso begins to show superior form, clearly the team’s center of gravity will shift in his favor.

As for the other teams, already it seems clear that Hamilton will easily have the measure of Button.  While Button might be able to claim that he’s still getting acclimated to his new team environment, he’s never shown that extra margin of performance that separates the good from the best.  He won last year’s title by being in the right car at the right time, and in this respect he recalls drivers such as Damon Hill and Jacques Villeneuve, two one-off champs who benefited by being at Williams when that team was still in its prime.

The Red Bull pair have reaffirmed their relative positions from last year.  Although Mark Webber acquitted himself well in 2009, taking his first two wins, he was generally outperformed by his younger team mate, Sebastian Vettel.  Based on Sunday’s race, this dynamic seems unlikely to change.

The question mark among the top eight drivers seems to be the Michael Schumacher/Nico Rosberg pairing.  When it was announced that Schumacher would partner the younger German at Mercedes, many onlookers rolled their eyes and suggested that the seven time champ would bury the youngster.  Rosberg, for his part, claimed that he would hold his own against Schumi.  It must be said that Rosberg had the edge over Schumacher all weekend, in practice, qualifying and the race.  While Schumacher finished the race just four seconds behind Rosberg, it was hardly the dominating performance that many expected.  The real question here is, what exactly should we expect?

Schumacher is 41 years old, and hasn’t been actively racing for the past three years.  Schumacher himself said he was quite pleased with his performance, all things considered.  Even Ross Brawn, prior to the race, had made comments to help frame fans’ expectations.  He said that he thought the two drivers were close in performance, and that Schumacher would need a few races to find his old form and get fully up to speed.  Certainly, it’s reasonable to suppose that even a driver of Schumacher’s caliber would need a bit of time to get back to a 100% performance level.

The question is, will Schumacher’s best of today equal his best of ten or fifteen years ago?  I suppose only Schumacher himself will know for certain.  Many observers, including Eddie Jordan and former team mate Eddie Irvine, have suggested that while Schumi might not be as quick as he once was, he’ll certainly be quick enough to win races, and give his rivals cause for concern.

I suspect that Schumacher’s pace will improve over the next few races.  His initial goal will probably be to outperform Nico Rosberg consistently.  This is every F1 driver’s first target, as one’s team mate is the most relevant yardstick for one’s own performance.  As for winning races and titles, Schuamcher has already acknowledged both he and the team have these goals, however it’s clear, after Sunday’s race, that Mercedes must up their game a bit if they’re to catch the leaders of the pack, Ferrari and Red Bull.

As for the remainder of the field, Tonio Liuzzi in the Force-India, and Rubens Barrichello in the Williams, took the final points paying positions.  Second tier teams formed the remainder of the classified finishers, with the exception of Lotus, who did well to have both of their cars running at the end, even if Kovalainen and Trulli were one and three laps down, respectively.

The other new teams didn’t fare so well, all of the Virgin and HRT entries suffering retirements, either due to driver mishap or mechanical error.

In the past 24 hours, the racing press has been full of commentary on how boring the race was.  It’s true, there was virtually no overtaking, and overtaking, in one form or another, is the essence of racing.  There is already talk among team principals about possible remedies, including either mandating an additional pit stop, or instructing Bridgestone to provide softer tire compounds that would degrade more quickly, which would be a means of forcing additional pit stops without amending current rules. Also, increasing the prime/option tire compound differential would induce performance differences that would likely open up overtaking windows.

Clearly, if Bahrain was a harbinger of things to come, something needs to be changed, as much of Sunday’s event seemed like an extended parade lap rather than an actual race.

Pos. Driver Team Time
1 Alonso Ferrari 1h39:20.396
2 Massa Ferrari + 16.099
3 Hamilton McLaren-Mercedes + 23.182
4 Vettel Red Bull-Renault + 38.713
5 Rosberg Mercedes + 40.263
6 Schumacher Mercedes + 44.180
7 Button McLaren-Mercedes + 45.260
8 Webber Red Bull-Renault + 46.308
9 Liuzzi Force India-Mercedes + 53.089
10 Barrichello Williams-Cosworth + 1:02.400
11 Kubica Renault + 1:09.093
12 Sutil Force India-Mercedes + 1:22.958
13 Alguersuari Toro Rosso-Ferrari + 1:32.656
14 Hulkenberg Williams-Cosworth + 1 lap
15 Kovalainen Lotus-Cosworth + 1 lap
16 Buemi Toro Rosso-Ferrari + 3 laps
17 Trulli Lotus-Cosworth + 3 laps
NC De la Rosa Sauber-Ferrari 30 laps
NC Senna HRT-Cosworth 18 laps
NC Glock Virgin-Cosworth 17 laps
NC Petrov Renault 14 laps
NC Kobayashi Sauber-Ferrari 12 laps
NC Di Grassi Virgin-Cosworth 3 laps
NC Chandhok HRT-Cosworth 2 laps

NC = not classified/retired.

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