APRIL 4, 2005
BAHRAIN GP - SUNDAY - RACE REPORT
The shape of things to come?
Fernando Alonso won the Bahrain Grand Prix. No, he didn't. Fernando Alonso waltzed to victory, his second in as many weeks and Renault's third win on the trot.
But it was more than that. Alonso saw off Michael Schumacher with a carefree wave of his magic wand. One had the impression that Michael thought that the arrival of the new Ferrari F2005 would put him back on the top of the Formula 1 pile and it must have been a nasty surprise to discover that this was not the case at all. There were signs of it throughout the weekend. When he qualified second on Saturday Michael seemed disappointed. He had not expected that. Experienced Michael-watchers reckoned that Michael was probably running light, taking a risk and trying to pull off a win with a car that was not really up to the job. The only way that was likely was for him to get into the lead and then try to control the pace. If he could do that he might avoid another humiliation of Malaysian proportions. We will never know for certain whether Michael was running light or not because in the end the new Ferrari failed beneath him after just a few laps of the race as Michael was trying hard to get ahead.
"I think he was quicker than me but as we know it is very difficult to overtake," said Alonso. "I was quite sure that my long runs would be better than him. I was not too worried if I had Michael in front of me because I knew that our strongest point would be at the end."
Or to put it another way, Alonso had this thing completely under control.
"To see a driver control a race like Fernando did this afternoon is an impressive sight," said Pat Symonds of Renault. "His performance is even more remarkable when you consider that he did not even use all the revs available on the engine in the opening laps. He seemed capable of increasing his pace when necessary, without putting undue stress on the car."
That will not be something that the people down Maranello will want to be hearing.
Ferrari may say that Michael could have sustained the pace but the evidence is not good. Rubens Barrichello's car faded as the race went on as the rubber gave up the ghost.
"We must work very hard to understand our problems in this area," said Rubens at the end of the day.
The tyres were so shot by the finish that Alonso lapped the number two Ferrari in the closing stages and on the last lap David Coulthard forced his way ahead and deprived Ferrari of the one World Championship point that it might have left Bahrain with.
The evidence points strongly to the fact that the Ferrari-Bridgestone combination may qualify well but when it comes to consistent running there is no-one who has things sorted out as they have between the Renault and Michelin. The Toyota-Michelin combination is close, there is no doubt about that. At the start of the race Jarno Trulli tried to drive round the outside of Michael Schumacher and would have made it if the track had not narrowed at that point. Jarno let Michael go and then sat there, shadowing Michael and Alonso and then, after Michael disappeared with a hydraulic failure (his first mechanical failure in 58 races), the Renault. Trulli was still there as the pit stops approached. We knew that if the Toyota went two laps longer than the Renault, it would be ahead and perhaps we would have a different story. Fortunately for Renault the Toyota went only one lap longer and that was not enough. And after that when they were back out on the track the Toyota begin to slip behind as the tyres faded. The Toyota challenge was a strong one and even Ralf Schumacher was able to make up for a poor qualifying and climb from sixth to fourth, despite a couple of off track excursions, which are rather typical of Ralf these days.
The action in the midfield in the early laps was most entertaining as the wheat and the chaff sorted themselves out. We lost Giancarlo Fisichella early on with an engine failure, which dropped him out of eighth place. The BARs were just not on the case in traffic and we lost Takuma Sato in mid-race with no brakes left.
The two Williams-BMWs were running fourth and fifth early on and then third and fourth after Michael retired but it was clear that they were not good enough to challenge the men ahead and were going to come under pressure from the men behind. Of the chasers there was no doubt that McLaren was strongest but because the modern generation of F1 cars is so sensitive that any overtaking is tough, they were (once again) bottled up for a lot of the time. One day soon the McLaren Genie is going to come out of the bottle. The day a McLaren starts at the front, Renault will be under threat. But for now the team is still not doing it right. Kimi Raikkonen was once the man most likely to challenge Michael Schumacher to be the top man in F1 but that glossy image is dulled somewhat now. Raikkonen qualified only ninth behind Pedro de la Rosa. We assumed that he had more fuel in his car but the race proved that this was not really the case. The two men pitted within a lap.
This makes de la Rosa's job all the more impressive. Pedro was drafted in after Juan Pablo Montoya had an unfortunate encounter with neither a tennis ball or a motorcycle depending on who you listened to. It did not really matter. Montoya was not there and Pedro grabbed the chance to revive his F1 career with both hands. And how! Raikkonen drove a strong race despite one small off. He went from ninth to fourth and then pressured Webber into a mistake and took third. De la Rosa , who had not raced for two years, was a little rusty on the first lap and went from eighth to 10th, keen to stay out of trouble but then he buckled down and began to charge. For the first stint he was stuck behind Sato (as were several others). After the stops he caught and passed Jenson Button for seventh place and went after Rubens Barrichello. He dealt with him on lap 41 and two laps later set the fastest lap of the race. That took him up to sixth and his next target was Webber. This was the high point of the race. Nick Heidfeld had departed early on when his BMW engine gave up the ghost. The team had been running everything to the limit and in Nick's case the limit was too far. Webber's engine had been wound down a little to help it survive and his tyres were past their best. His dreams of a podium finish disappeared when under pressure from Raikkonen he spun at high speed on lap 34.
"I was driving on the absolute limit," said Webber. "I knew Kimi was going longer so I was really pushing hard. As hard as I could. I went deep into Turn 10 and went a little wide. It was only a small mistake but it had huge implications because it was dirty offline that it just went away from me and I had a big old spin. I didn't try to brake because I did not want to have flat spots on my tyres but the vibration after that was really bad. The mirrors were on the verge of falling out, they were bouncing about so much."
In the circumstances he was not in a position to offer much resistance to the rampaging de la Rosa - but he did. And he did it brilliantly. Wherever Pedro wanted to be, there was Webber. There were times when you could see that Pedro was a bit rusty but he kept his head, thought out the problem and tried again. This was racing for grown ups with none of the unsporting lunges and crashes that have typified the Schumacher era in F1. It was motor racing like it used to be and how it should be. Both men obviously respected the other and trusted him. It was a cat and mouse game but not the slapstick of Tom & Jerry that one sees all too often. Webber did everything he could but in the end, with just three laps to go, Pedro finally foxed him into submission. Mark reckoned that he had even that move covered but at the critical moment he found that his front tyres had no grip left. It was all over.
Except it wasn't. Even as Webber faded behind de la Rosa, behind them Coulthard was on a roll. He had saved everything for the final dash and when he came upon Jacques Villeneuve he was caught out by Jacques braking earlier than he expected. The Red Bull punted the Sauber off. DC was not yet finished for in the last couple of laps he closed and then passed Barrichello, to finish eighth, one place behind Felipe Massa, who had driven a good solid race to seventh. Villeneuve had done better and his quickest lap was close to that of Massa although Jacques was on soft rubber and Felipe was running on hard tyres.
Tiago Monteiro and the two Minardis both survived the race but Narain Karthikeyan went out early with an electrical failure.
After the race the Bridgestone press release gave us all a laugh: "Bridgestone encouraged by Bahrain performance", it was titled. Yes, perhaps in comparison to what happened in Malaysia but in outright terms there is still a long way to go. Bridgestone is working flat out. Ferrari is working flat out. The rest are working flat out within the confines of the self-imposed testing deal which Ferrari refuses to join. With such an advantage Ferrari should catch up soon but then when success does come, its value will perhaps be limited as everyone will know that the red team had an unfair advantage. At the moment, however, that is all irrelevant. Ferrari has 10 points. Renault has 36 and between them there are Toyota (25 points), McLaren (19), Williams (13) and even Red Bull with 12. And one day soon BAR-Honda is going to get on the board.
Ferrari may have more rope than anyone else but the mountain that needs to be climbed is a big one.