F1 has been quiet since the Turkish F1 GP in early November. Discussion after that round focused on the track and its recent resurfacing. Attention turned to Bahrain and the Gulf Air sponsored round, the first of two at the track a week apart. It’s the first race of the season to be run under lights with an 18:10 local start time. Discussion of the track and its safety levels had been a key point of the drivers after Turkey.
The practice sessions normally don’t throw out anything of major note, however Alexander Albon found a reason to have FP2 made notable. A tightening right-hander, a possible misjudgement of when to lift from the accelerator, a greasy and dusty corner, and one wrecked Red Bull.
Albon had been quick in practice and was looking pacy when the left wheels appeared to grab hold of the painted ripple strip, flicking his car left momentarily left. It’s here that he kept the foot buried and the Red Bull snapped back underneath him before a high-speed impact on the right side ripped off both right-side wheels, the tailplanes, the nosecone, and bending the left side wheels.
It’s not awesome timing for Albon as there are just three races, including Bahrain, for him to confirm to Red Bull management he should stay with the team. Rumors have Sergio Perez possibly being the man to partner Max Verstappen however it seems Red Bull is giving Albon time to impress or lengthen the rope.
Some lighter moments came not long after the track reopened, as a dog had somehow made its way onto the circuit, prompting race control to red flag the session and ensure the dog would be safe. The quiet comedian part of Ferrari, Sebastian Vettel, was heard to sing the “who let the dogs out” refrain in response.
Through the two practice sessions, newly crowned champion Lewis Hamilton was quickest. Verstappen and Valterri Bottas were under a second adrift of Hamilton. Perez, mindful of what is potentially on offer, clocked 4th quickest and was fractionally ahead of Daniel Ricciardo. After FP2, the Aussie predicted that the Bahrain event was shaping to be a two-stop setup. “In the morning we were steady but the evening we picked it up and [made] a few changes for FP2 and yeah, the car felt good. I think one lap pace was decent; long runs, I think it’s going to be a two-stop, quite clearly, here.”
Eyes, too, on the Haas team as they are yet to announce their driver lineup for 2021 after sensationally dumping Kevin Magnussen and Romain Grosjean. A somewhat exasperated team principal, Guenther Steiner, said in response to what would appear to be an endless request for information: “We plan to announce this before the season is ending; we don’t know exactly the date yet but it’s not long to wait. It’s a maximum of two weeks, so please be patient.”
Qualifying and Red Bull pulled one out of the hat. Verstappen will start P3, and in an incredible effort, the team rebuilt Albon’s wrecked machine to the point he muscled his way to P4. Econ said later: “The car felt awesome. Today I felt it was a great lap coming around. Daniel is two-thousandths ahead of me. He’s blessed! When it’s that close, it’s always in his favor.”
Mercedes have locked out the front row again, with Hamilton and Bottas split by just under 0.3. Pole for Hamilton has him on 98 starts from P1.
Sergio Perez made it to P5, just ahead of Ricciardo. His P6 has him in a top-six start for the fifth time in the last six Grands Prix. Esteban Ocon may rue a blink somewhere as he missed out on P6 by 0.002 of a second and pipped Pierre Gasly by 0.03. Lando Norris and Daniil Kvyat make up the top ten. That’s a good result for AlphaTauri, the former ToroRosso, as it’s the third time in a row they’ve made the top ten.
Ferrari will fill P11 and P12, with Vettel outqualifying Leclerc for the second race in a row. Lance Stroll with his third Q2 elimination in four races and George Russell follow, with Carlos Sainz behind them. Unfortunately, his times weren’t helped by a mechanical failure that sent his car into a spin in Q2. He was in a strong position, at at least P5, where it appears that an axle seized, locking the driveline.
A disconsolate Sainz: “We don’t know exactly what’s the cause of the problem but very disappointed because I had just come through Q1 with only one set of tires, I had just saved some softs for later in the quali and that set of mediums, it’s so important this weekend, it looks like it’s completely flat-spotted and I’m not going to be able to use them.”
Giovinazzi, Raikkonen, Magnussen, Grosjean, and Latifi fill in the blanks. It’s a crucial time for Hamilton, as with two races to go (a second Bahraini round and Abu Dhabi for the season finale), it’s entirely possible that he can finish the 2020 season with 100 pole positions to his name, capping a stellar year. For this race though, he’ll need to watch his mirrors as Max Verstappen feels confident of a good run. “My lap was pretty good, just lacking a bit of rear grip in the lower speed corners to my liking. Overall I think it was quite a decent qualifying and let’s see how we will go tomorrow in the race because it is very hard on tires, so I hope we made the right compromise on that.” he would say at the post-qualifying presser.
Race time and it took less than a lap to get proof that the concerns of drivers for safety standards at the Bahrain circuit were justified.
Romain Grosjean is exceptionally lucky to be amongst the living after his Haas was tipped into a barrier, split in half and exploding. Grosjean somehow managed to scramble free, suffering minor burns to his hands and feet. Contact with Daniil Kvyat (who would also be involved in another incident after the restart) when the Haas of Grosjean inexplicably moved right unsettled the car and at high speed would plow straight into the metal barrier.
It makes the fact that Hamilton won ahead of Verstappen and Albon almost irrelevant. Buried in the aftermath of discussion will be that Red Bull placed P2 and P3, with McLaren taking P4 and P5, with Norris and Sainz placing ahead of Gasly and Ricciardo. This makes the constructors’ championship race even more important. Into this mix will be the second impact involving Kvyat.
A packed right-hander, an unsighted Lance Stroll, and he’s turned hard into the left of Kvyat. The end result has been a slow speed roll for Stroll, ending up with the halo of the Racing Point on the tarmac. It’s a blow for Racing Point as heading into the Bahrain Grand Prix the team were just five points ahead of McLaren and 18 ahead of Renault in the very tight battle for P3 in the constructors’ championship.
Bottas, Ocon, and Leclerc finished the top ten. Kvyat placed P11, ahead of George Russell in a great result for the struggling Williams team, Vettel, Latifi, Raikkonen, Giovinazzi, and Magnussen. The other heartbreak of the race was for Sergio Perez. Well placed to be on the podium for a P3, with three laps to go his engine puffed smoke once, twice, thrice, before erupting into a fireball. The hapless Perez could do naught but pull his Racing Point vehicle into a slip lane.
Mused the man known as “Checo”: “A day like today is hard to digest, for me, for my team,” he explained. “It’s extremely painful in the championship – those points were extremely valuable to us and can make a huge difference come the end of the season.”
The result opens up the lead McLaren has over Racing Point and Renault, with 171, 154, and 144. Finishing in the top three means a better percentage of the winnings.
The penultimate race is at the same circuit for the Rolex Sakhir F1 on December 6. race start is at 20:10 local.