Bahrain GP Preview: Start of a golden era

A golden era of Formula 1 beckons

Mar.11 (2010) Finally the 2010 F1 season is nearly upon on us. Soon we will start finding out the answers to the questions we have been asking ourselves over and over for the past few months.

Jenson Button will be defending his F1 World Championship crown

How close can Button get to Hamilton?
Will Schumacher be on the pace straight away?
Massa or Alonso?
Vettel or Webber?
Who will be the best new team?
Will the re-fuelling ban encourage more overtaking?
And the list goes on and on………

Of course as die hard F1 fans we are always excited before the start of any new season, but never has there been this much anticipation.

Even since the chequered flag was waved at Abu Dhabi fans have been talking about the prospects for 2010. Then along the way there have been developments that have made it even more tantalising. Firstly Jenson Button announced his shock move to McLaren to join fellow Brit and champion Lewis Hamilton.

Mercedes took over the Brawn team followed by Michael Schumacher’s incredible decision to return to F1 full time.

Then in the New Year testing revealed that the established teams were separated by little over a second.

Can Michael Schumacher make it eight F1 titles?

It’s safe to say that Formula 1 is in rude health and in a much better position than at the start of the last decade.

Back in 2000 McLaren and Ferrari were miles ahead of anyone. Michael Schumacher and Mika Hakkinen were the only two superstar drivers competing for the championship. Everybody else was just picking up the remains.

Fast forward a decade and there is nothing to choose between Ferrari, McLaren, Mercedes and Red Bull. Within those teams we have the best drivers in Formula 1 including four world champions. It doesn’t get much better than that!

It was great to see two new teams at the front in Brawn and Red Bull in 2009. However it was a shame McLaren and Ferrari weren’t there with them. There were some big names who took no part in last’s driver’s title battle

In 2010 it’s going to be great to see all four teams locking horns, and the likes of Fernando Alonso, Lewis Hamilton, Felipe Massa, Michael Schumacher, Sebastien Vettel and Jenson Button all going for the championship crown.

Ferrari a formidable force in 2010 with Felipe Massa and Fernando Alonso

Normally the midfield are too far behind to make an impact but not the case in 2010. They are close enough to get involved in the action, and even sneak a race victory if they have a very strong weekend, and other factors go in their favour. We could see some drivers from the midfield teams really making a name for themselves.

The quality of the 2010 grid draws comparisons to the calibre of drivers we saw back in the 80s when Aryton Senna, Alain Prost, Nigel Mansell, Nelson Piquet, Alan Jones and Keke Rosberg were all sharing the same piece of tarmac. Many regard the 1980s as the most enjoyable era of Formula 1 history. The way things are going the 2010s could start a new golden era of racing.

For the first time since 2006 Bahrain will be opening the season. The circuit will give us a good indication of who is quickest.

The new section added in the infield looks pretty slow. With three long straights, and the extended tight and twisty infield you could say that Bahrain is a mix between Monza and Budapest. Two complete opposites.

Could be a big year for Red Bull's Sebastian Vettel and Mark Webber

Therefore teams will need to compromise between low downforce to achieve good speed down the straights, and high downforce for the slow infield section. Ultimately more emphasis will be placed on the infield as more time can be won in slow corners.

Due to the re-fuelling ban there is going to be much more pressure on the brakes, particularly when the fuel tanks are full at the start. In Bahrain there are three major braking zones. We have seen teams have brake wear issues in the past here, and under the new regulations the problem could be worse than normal. The teams and drivers will need to do everything they can to manage and keep the brakes cool.

Lewis Hamilton pre-season favourite?

For the first time the teams will be driving on a boiling hot track. The temperatures throughout the race weekend are expected to exceed 30 degrees, therefore the track temperatures could reach the late 40s. This is much higher than anything the teams have tested in over the winter so this could have a major impact.

So who is going to be on top this weekend?

It’s just really hard to tell. Any of the anticipated top four teams could come out on top or we could see a surprise from further back. Never before have we been so in the dark over who is likely to be fastest in the first race of the season. Putting all the contenders on a target on the wall, and throwing a dart blind-folded is probably as accurate as any other method of making a prediction.

Much will depend on who will be best suited to Bahrain’s characteristics. The pecking order will shift from race to race as we go to tracks with different configurations and characteristics

Something else to consider is that some teams may bring some major upgrades to the first race of the season. With the field so close any sizeable chunk of time could completely change the order.

2009 Bahrain GP race winner Jenson Button on the podium with second placed Sebastian Vettel and third placed Jarno Trulli

Out of the front runners McLaren and Red Bull have pretty much ran the car that they will be bringing to Bahrain. Mercedes on the other hand will be bringing a super double diffuser. Could this put them ahead of the whole pack?

The teams haven’t had many dry days of testing in 2010. So they come to Bahrain perhaps not as fully prepared as they would like to be. With the ban on re-fuelling there has been much to think about. Such as how to approach the strategy and how their car’s characteristics change as the fuel level goes down. The fuel consumption of the engine will also be very important. Teams don’t want to be carrying more fuel than they need to be as that will lose them valuable tenths in the race.

Bridgestone F1 tyres will play a crucial role in the season ahead

For the drivers there has been a lot to adapt to as well. Tyre management will become more critical, and being able to adapt to the varying characteristics of the car on different fuel loads. Adaptability will be as important as raw speed this season.

This weekend it could well be the teams and drivers that have done their homework best in the short space of time that will emerge triumphant.

Some of the teams and drivers may take a little longer to adapt to the new regulations than others. The most experienced and adaptable drivers could have the advantage early on.

The Ferrari/Alonso combination look like the most likely to hit the ground running straight away. Ferrari have covered the most miles over winter testing and have had very few problems. In Alonso they have one of the most adaptable drivers on the grid.

Expect Michael Schumacher to make an instant impression, and be one of the stories of 2010’s opening race. He has a strong chance of winning in the first race of his return.

Nico Hulkenberg is this writer’s shock tip to spring a mega surprise in Bahrain. The Williams has looked very strong and consistent in testing, and Hulkenberg looks as if he has taken to F1 like a duck to water.

For new teams Lotus, HRT and Virgin it’s going to be all about trying to get to the finish of their first GP. In the past we have seen a high rate of attrition in the first race of the season due to drivers being a bit rusty after the winter, and reliability not quite up to scratch. There is an outside of chance of one of them snatching a point In Bahrain.

Here is my top 10 prediction (remember points go down to 10th place this season)

1. Fernando Alonso
2.
Michael Schumacher
3.
Nico Hulkenberg
4.
Lewis Hamilton
5.
Mark Webber
6.
Jenson Button
7.
Pedro De La Rosa
8.
Rubens Barrichello
9.
Sebastien Vettel
10.
Robert Kubica