Ahlan wa sahlan! Welcome to Bahrain, and the first night race of the season at the 5.412km Sakhir Circuit. The flowing nature of the circuit has a rather rhythmic nature through sector two. Straight line speed is an advantage, though for the race a higher downforce package where balance is key will usually yield the best results. As a result of Sakhir’s rather deserty location, extreme tyre degradation from sand, and tricky braking zones through turn 11 especially, prove to be a difficult combination. Fuel saving, as seen in Australia also comes back into consideration in Bahrain. Turn 4 is a favourite for overtaking if you can be late on the braking and get a wide entry into the corner. Lewis Hamilton made it four for four by securing pole position underlights, ahead of a Ferrari’s Sebastian Vettel, leaving Nico Rosberg chasing up with rear to start P3.
Mercedes both went out on the prime tyre in the beginning of Q1, getting in a few laps to wear the rubber in, before swapping to the option with five minutes remaining. It was no surprise that both Hamilton and Rosberg had an easy passage through to the final session. When it came to crunch time however, Lewis Hamilton had the momentum to continue his perfect form over the weekend, topping all three qualifying sessions. The reigning world champions final run on two lap old soft compound tyres snatched the provisional pole for Vettel with a blinding 1:32.571. While Rosberg’s best time of 1:33.129 can hardly be considered slow, it does show that the team have somewhat underestimated the new found pace in the Ferrari (and possibly the fact that there is a four-time world championship driver behind the wheel). Rosberg therefore settles to start P3 for tomorrow’s race.
Ferrari flew through qualifying, as both Vettel and Raikkonen put in impressive lap times. The battle to out-qualify one another was separated by a mere tenth of a second, with Kimi and Vettel taking it in turns to challenge the Mercedes. In the end it was Vettel who was quickest, pulling out a 1:32.982 on the softs for P2. Kimi’s qualifying got off to a bumpy start, literally, from vibrations due to a rear lock up on his opening lap. The rest of the Finn’s evening was much smoother however, comfortably making his way through to Q3, where a 1:33.227 (0.245s off Vettel) on the option tyre secured P4.
Williams were back on form as both Bottas and Massa put in strong performance to lock out the third row of the grid. While on the soft tyres, Valtteri initially struggled to maximise the pace of the FW37 package, lapping a few tenths off of Felipe’s time. In the final session, Bottas managed to put a near perfect lap together for 1:33.381 for P5. Massa, was 0.363s off his team mate’s pace to secure P6.
Red Bull had the most bipolar qualifying (bar McLaren), with ten places separating the two. Daniel Ricciardo, sporting the lesser of the two downforce rear wing made it through to Q3, where as Kvyat with the higher downforce set up was eliminated after the first session. Seeing as the RB11 is down on speed from the Renault power unit, Ricciardo’s P7 is a massive step in the right direction for the team. On fresh option tyres, Ricciardo was very briefly quickest in Q3, setting a blistering 1:33.850. While the Aussie improved on his time to 1:33.832, it wasn’t for pole, but P7 is still pretty good. Bringing up the rear, Daniil Kvyat qualified in P17.
The Force Indias were strong in qualifying, and unlucky for both not to get through into the top ten shoot out. Hulkenberg’s afternoon went largely without hitch, with the German setting 1:34.450 on the soft tyres for P8. Perez was right on the cusp of Q3 after initially setting the pace with a 1:36.354 on his first Q2 run. As the session wore on and the VJM08’s tyres wore in, Perez improved to a 1:34.704. Unfortunately for the Mexican, his effort was pushed down to P11.
Carlos Sainz just managed to scrape into Q3 with 1:34.641 on the option tyre, out qualifying his team mate. His penultimate run in Q2 nearly went up in dust after running wide through the final corner, though the rookie was able to recover to make it to the top ten shoot out. Sainz knocked a further two tenths off his lap time for P9 with 1:34.462. Max Verstappen couldn’t match Sainz’s pace in the STR10 didn’t make it through the opening session, being eliminated with 1:35.103 for P15.
Lotus’s pace fell away with Romain’s tyres towards the end of qualifying, Grosjean will start from P10. A pace more representative of the E23s competitiveness was seen in Q2 by the Frenchman, who’s P8 could easily have been improved on. Maldonado suffered a rear brake problem in Q1, calling an early finish to the E23’s session. Managing a 1:35.677, Maldonado will start towards the rear in P16.
Both Saubers were absent from the top ten shoot out, despite having a reasonably strong qualifying. Felipe Nasr will start P12 with 1:34.737, ahead of Marcus Ericsson in P13 with a 1:35.034.
McLaren had a rather bittersweet qualifying session. Fernando Alonso made it through to Q2 quite comfortably in P9, while Jenson Button didn’t complete a lap in Q1. Starting P14 with 1:35.039 on two lap soft tyres, Alonso showed promising pace for McLaren, which no-doubt we would have seen from Button too should his McLaren chosen to behave. Jenson Button went out of Q1 with a bang, the MP4-30 stopped on track before completing a single lap. The Briton’s engine, radio, and telemetry switched off completely, hopefully an easy fix for the team.
Rounding out the back of the grid, Manor F1 Team had made very promising progress since the season opener, both cars ran in the qualifying session, and managed to compete with one another for pace. Will Stevens in P18 with 1:38.713 out qualified Robero Mehri P19 with 1:39.722, both within the 107% rule. Go Manor. Soft compound option tyres will be the best bet for Manor ahead of tomorrow’s race, having to make the most out of their stints.
All eyes will be on the top three for tomorrow’s race to see if Hamilton can secure the victory from pole, or if Vettel can lay a challenge. Rather more excitingly, eyes will be on Nico Rosberg to see how the Mercedes driver performs under pressure. One thing is for sure, the first night race of the season will be exciting. Welcome to the sandpit.