Ahlan wa sahlan! This weekend marks the tenth anniversary of Formula 1’s visit to the Bahrain International Circuit in Sakhir, and to celebrate the Bahrain Grand Prix becomes a night night race. The 5.412 km lap distance has quite aggressive asphalt from sand (due to the fact it’s in a desert), and hard braking areas from wind (also due to the fact it’s in a desert). The twisty nature of the circuit and difficult winds favours a downforce package, making it crucial for drivers to hit the apex of turns 5 through at the beginning of the second sector. The Bahrain International Circuit is a very interesting track, hosting elements seen both in Australia and Malaysia. Drivers must focus on fuel saving, as in Australia, but also be concerned with tyre degradation due to heat, as in Malaysia. It would seem that Mercedes are taking it in turns in qualifying on pole. In quickly cooling track conditions, Rosberg steals P1 at Sakhir Circuit tonight, after Hamilton ran wide out of turn 1. Red Bull’s, Daniel Ricciardo followed closely behind the Mercedes to qualify P3 with 1:34.051.
Mercedes strolled through qualifying tonight opting to not even venture out on the soft tyres in Q1. Throughout the sessions, the only issue Mercedes saw was Hamilton running off track at the exit of turn 1 in the final moments of Q3. The incident hardly caused the team worry as the Brit was merely trying to improve on his current (and seemingly unbeatable) P2. Nonetheless, the off track moment took the pressure off pole sitter, Nico Rosberg, confirming the 1-2 Rosberg-Hamilton order of the grid for tomorrow.
The only other driver to save their soft tyres for later in qualifying was Red Bull’s, Daniel Ricciardo. Qualifying meant more for the Australian tonight as he carries a 10-place grid penalty from his unsafe release in Malaysia last week. Ricciardo delivered the best possible result for the team, qualifying right behind the Mercedes in P3 on the soft tyres, dropping back to P13 with the penalty. Vettel once again struggled with the downshifts of his RB10, but by his own admission, just couldn’t get the pace out of the car. For the second time in three rounds, the reigning world champion failed to make it through to Q3, qualifying in P11. Though given his team mate’s grid penalty, Vettel will start P10.
It was all smiles for the Williams garage today as both Bottas and Massa made it all the way through to Q3. The Williams were the first to swap to the grippier soft compound tyre in Q1, which saw Bottas briefly top the timesheet and Massa close behind. The strategy secured both drivers passage into Q2 where the team again set competitive lap times on both the soft and medium compound tyres. Bottas was faster than Massa tonight, finishing up P4, while Massa qualified P8. With Ricciardo’s penalty, Bottas moves to his highest ever F1 grid placing, P3, and Massa to P7.
Force India had a bipolar qualifying, but not in the order expected by most. Perez outshone Hulkenberg for the first time in their partnership, making it through to Q3 ahead of Hulkenberg’s P12. The Mexican, in the final moments of Q2 set a time good enough for P6 in the session, and good enough push Vettel down into the drop zone. In Q3, Perez went on to improve on his time on softs to finish up P5. Both Perez and Hulkenberg benefit from Ricciardo’s penalty, starting P4 and P11 respectively.
Ferrari are an interesting team to watch in 2014, the team never particularly do anything wrong, but neither driver can particularly do it right either. Raikkonen is once again struggling with the sheer power of the F14 T, looking rather scrappy throughout the session. Despite feeling very uncomfortable in the car, Raikkonen qualified a comfortable P6, starting P5. Alonso had his usual quiet qualifying, until a sudden loss of power to the car saw him severely lose lap times in Q3. As a result the Spaniard is slightly out of place in P10, starting P9.
Both Button and Magnussen made it through to Q3, though the team had a reasonably quiet session. Button out-qualified his team mate for his 250th Grand Prix weekend, in P7 on the softs. Magnussen seems to have calmed down from his initial success in Australia, consistently running in the middle of the time sheets. The Danish driver eventually qualified P9, to start P8. Despite a quiet qualifying, the McLaren package remains promising for the race, and should favour the circuit conditions.
Despite a strong performance throughout practice, both Kvyat and Vergne were eliminated in Q2. The STR9s were about on pace with each other, with Kvyat just out-qualifying Vergne for P13 and P14 by 0.141s. The two are split however by Ricciardo, as he takes his place in P13, bumping Kvyat up to P12.
While performance wise, Sauber delivered, getting both cars through to Q2. Qualifying P15, Gutierrez pushed his C33 to the limit, though still looked comfortable through the twisty circuit, a good sign for a track less focussed on straight-line speed. Sutil however has been handed a 5-place penalty for the race for blocking Grosjean on a flying lap at the end of Q1. Sutil, who had qualified P18, will now start at the back of the grid in P22.
Lotus appear to be finally finding their footing in the 2014 season, and ironing out their reliability issues. Grosjean delivered what he could from the E22, though the lap times didn’t appear high up in the order. Neither car made it through to Q3, though the Frenchman did once again out-qualify his team mate in the final moments of Q2. Both on the soft tyres, Grosjean pushed Maldonado down to take P16 for himself, settling Maldonado for P17.
Again, the usual suspects were out after the first qualifying session. It was a slight victory for Caterham as Kobayashi was able to qualify P19 ahead of the two Marussias, while Marcus Ericsson split both Bianchi and Chilton for P21. For a brief moment it appeared as Bianchi may have broken out of Q1, however Maldonado quickly pushed the Marussia back down into the drop zone before entering it himself. In the end, there were no real surprises at the end of the pit lane with Bianchi qualifying P20, ahead of team mate Chilton in P22. Following Sutil’s penalty however, the back end of the grid reshuffles to Kob P18, Bia P19, Eri P20, and Chi P21.
It feels rather imminent that Mercedes will take another 1-2 finish, but I’m quietly hoping for a Williams on the final step of the podium. It feels like I’ve been saying since Australia that I’ve been waiting for Williams to break out and really deliver on race day, and I’m really hoping that the Bahrain Grand Prix is finally the race. Red Bull could have a unusually difficult race, with both Vettel and Ricciardo starting from unfavourable grid positions, a rather underwhelming Renault power unit, and a circuit setup that the RB10 isn’t particularly fond of. Though I wouldn’t count either driver out for pulling something out of the bag. The Bahrain International Circuit offers a great race, and going from qualifying this could finally be the race that Maldonado completes all 57 laps*.
*But probably not.