Martin Brundle: Contrasting Bahrain GPs for Ferrari, Mercedes and Red Bull as F1 2022 starts in style

Highlights of the opening race of the 2022 season from Bahrain.

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Highlights of the opening race of the 2022 season from Bahrain.

Highlights of the opening race of the 2022 season from Bahrain.

That was a promising start for the new aerodynamics and 18-inch wheel era of Formula 1.

I left for the airport more than just relieved that we’d seen close racing, I thoroughly enjoyed the race and all that it promises for the seasons ahead, and the cars look great both stationary and out on track, if a touch ponderous in the slow corners.

It wasn’t a total revelation, and as Ross Brawn’s engineering mind puts it ‘we only have a sample of one so far’, but it was clear from the testing and particularly racing in Bahrain that the drivers can follow each other more closely and without experiencing anywhere near as much unpredictable sliding followed by overheating of their tires.

The cars remain very heavily aero loaded, of considerable girth, and extremely fast, and so they’ll never trade paint and places with each other like a hoard of Minis or Formula Fords, but that’s fine so long as we can experience the attack and counter-attack we witnessed between Charles Leclerc and Max Verstappen over three lapses on Sunday night.

It was very interesting to observe those two slugging it out. Max would slice up the inside into turn one having used the slipstream, DRS rear wing open, and superior straight-line speed to remarkable effect down the pit straight, along with late braking.

Max Verstappen and Charles Leclerc battle for the lead of the Bahrain Grand Prix.

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Max Verstappen and Charles Leclerc battle for the lead of the Bahrain Grand Prix.

Max Verstappen and Charles Leclerc battle for the lead of the Bahrain Grand Prix.

Charles was measuring this constantly in his mirrors, accepting the inevitable, and then intelligently ensuring he was second because past the DRS detection point, meaning he could get the rear wing open on the way up to turn four and regain the lead.

Verstappen’s defense was firm but very fair, and with significantly less aggression than he dished out to Hamilton last season. Indeed, it was Leclerc who sliced ​​across his nose into turn four on one occasion. It will be fascinating to see how this plays out as the championship unfolds.

F1 in ‘better place’ with Ferrari in the fight

Now McLaren, Williams and Aston Martin in particular are not going to agree with this statement, and so we’ll politely ignore them whilst they head off to make significant adjustments to their bodywork and design concepts and hope to welcome them to the podium soon, but F1 feels in a better place when Ferrari are genuinely on the pace, unlike 2019 when there were fueling question marks.

Ferrari didn’t have to fight for last year’s championship thereby freeing up plenty of resource and focus for this new era, and the latest regulations designed to keep the tallest and best performing ‘sunflowers’ in the shade for a while mean that Ferrari have 10 per cent more aerodynamic development time than Mercedes. And they’ve used it very well.

Formula 1 chief Ross Brawn said he was 'delighted' with the racing on show in the season-opening Bahrain GP.

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Formula 1 chief Ross Brawn said he was ‘delighted’ with the racing on show in the season-opening Bahrain GP.

Formula 1 chief Ross Brawn said he was ‘delighted’ with the racing on show in the season-opening Bahrain GP.

Furthermore, we’ve moved to E10 sustainable fuel and fundamental engine development has now been frozen and homologated until 2026, and from September this year the energy recovery systems are similarly locked off from development. Judging by how well the Ferrari-powered Alfa Romeo and Haas teams went in Bahrain, along with their own one-two, then Ferrari have aced the power unit too.

Despite all of that, given their pure pace and data from longer runs, it was still perceived by many that Red Bull had the edge on speed and were the team to beat for the race.

But Leclerc was in sensational form and had other ideas, and would go on to secure pole position, lead every lap, take fastest lap, victory, and fans’ driver of the day. All with a great big cheery smile, and even mischief enough to frighten his team on the radio that he had an engine problem on the last lap.

Delving into Red Bull’s reliability woes

Verstappen seemed angry for much of the race. Angry that he perceived he was not allowed to push hard enough after his first two pit stops to undercut Leclerc and have track position out front, angry that his tires faded quite quickly, then very angry that his power steering had taken a knock after being lowered off the front jack on his final pit stop, and then the cruel race-ending reliability issues.

I was doing the post-race interviews and so left the commentary box a couple of lapses early. When I went into the pedestrian tunnel under the pit straight I was thinking Verstappen had a real chance of using his prodigious straight-line speed to win the race on the safety car restart subject to his power steering issues, and by the time I had emerged he was in all sorts of trouble.

The cruel irony for Red Bull is that the safety car was triggered by a fire in the sister team’s Alpha Tauri driven by Pierre Gasly. I’d mentioned earlier in our Sky F1 show that few teams had done a hot run-out fuel test with the new E10 fuel; it’s quite a difference when the remaining fuel gets ever hotter in the tank in the closing stages of a race. I know these things only because knowledgeable people tell me.

A look at how defending champion Max Verstappen's race played out over the Red Bull team radio.

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A look at how defending champion Max Verstappen’s race played out over the Red Bull team radio.

A look at how defending champion Max Verstappen’s race played out over the Red Bull team radio.

Furthermore, and unusually, teams had been given an extra ‘curfew’ working hour on the Saturday night to check the standard-issue fuel lift pumps on their cars. As I’m writing this column I don’t yet know, but after the safety car period this could well have counted for the double Red Bull retirement.

Carlos Sainz drove a fine race to make it a glorious one-two for Ferrari. He was unquestionably overshadowed by the flying Leclerc in the race, but by the slimmest of margins in qualifying. Post-race, he beat up on himself to do better next time, and whilst I respect that humility and honesty, there are plenty of people out there who want to criticize everything and everybody, and so go easy on yourself – at least publicly.

Mercedes capitalizes with unlikely podium

With Red Bull’s demise, the Mercedes boys Lewis Hamilton and George Russell came in third and fourth with what is currently the third-fastest car in F1. The W13 looks a technical beauty and for me seems like a car which is a couple of aero updates away from joining the Ferrari and Red Bull party. Or could it turn out to be similar to the 2003 McLaren MP4-18, a car that was an equally tightly packaged beauty but never raced?

The W13 has now raced of course, and the irony here is that Lewis’ third position is one better than his opening race finish for his last world championship in 2020, and fourth place is George Russell’s best F1 result in a race which actually took place , unlike Spa last year. There’s significant latent potential all round at Mercedes and no doubt they’ll be back soon enough.

Lewis Hamilton says it was 'remarkable' to finish on the podium, given the problems the Mercedes team encountered over the weekend.

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Lewis Hamilton says it was ‘remarkable’ to finish on the podium, given the problems the Mercedes team encountered over the weekend.

Lewis Hamilton says it was ‘remarkable’ to finish on the podium, given the problems the Mercedes team encountered over the weekend.

Time will tell over the next few races how relevant this is, but four of the top six cars were Ferrari powered and the last six cars to make the checkered flag were all Mercedes powered.

This could be aero and not power unit related but, nevertheless, Kevin Magnussen had a dream start on his return to Haas and F1 with a fine and well-deserved fifth-place finish. They had speed and reliability, and Mick Schumacher only just missed out on a point in the second Haas too.

Meanwhile, Valtteri Bottas drove a fine race for Alfa Romeo in sixth place despite too much wheelspin costing him heavily away from the start, which impressively was alongside Hamilton on the third row of the grid. Valtteri has fallen from the mighty works Mercedes team and landed securely on his feet at Alfa Romeo it seems, and I’m very happy for him – he’s a great driver and a thoroughly good man.

Backing him up in 10th place and becoming the 66th driver to score a point on his F1 debut was the impressive Zhou Guanyu (that should be the 67th because my fifth place in Rio was stolen from me back in 1984, but that’s another story). He drove well to navigate his way through a busy race.

As F1 heads to Saudi Arabia this week Ferrari top the constructors’ table and Red Bull are last on zero points along with Aston Martin, McLaren and Williams. It’s going to be intense.

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