With a rash of new teams, an unretired Michael Schumacher, and a very balanced field, the 61st season of Formula One has kicked off in the sands of Arabia. Spoilers below.
Said sands are where we’ve left off in November, as already-world-champion Jenson Button and company inaugurated Yas Marina Circuit in Abu Dhabi, the other Gulf track on the racing calendar. Since then, it’s been a whirlwind of nervous activity in what’s usually a quiet winter.
Winter testing has not helped shed much light on the vastly reshuffled grid. What little emerged from the weeks spent on unusually cold Southern European tracks was that last year’s front-runners Brawn (now Mercedes) and Red Bull have been joined by Ferrari and McLaren at the top. Of the new teams coalescing over the past months, three have made it to Bahrain: Lotus, Virgin and Hispania, the latter known as Campos until very recently.
The early dominance of Ferraris during Saturday qualifying was set back somewhat by Sebastian Vettel in his Red Bull, who claimed pole with a time of 1:54.101 on the lenghtened layout of Bahrain International Circuit, ahead of Felipe Massa and Fernando Alonso.
Vettel, as you’ll remember from last year, is fast. As in fast. Straight off the line, he blitzed away, opening a gap of almost four seconds by the end of lap one. Behind him, Alonso exploited a mistake by his teammate to overtake for second, followed by the Mercedes of Nico Rosberg, the McLaren of Lewis Hamilton, the Mercedes of Michael Schumacher, Jenson Button in the other McLaren, and a big cloud of smoke from Mark Webber’s Red Bull.
Refuelling is gone for the season, which means that drivers take off with a 350-lb load of fuel on the tires they qualified with, rewarding smooth drivers like Button who are easy on their tires.
In the first few laps, apart from Vettel blazing the way up front, it was the Ferraris who were clearly faster than the rest of the grid. A very long, drawn-out grid.
Bringing up the rear were the Hispanias of Karun Chandhok and Bruno Senna, nephew of Ayrton, driving a car eight seconds a lap off the leaders’ pace on what was essentially a shakedown race, not having made it to any of the winter testing sessions. Chandhok hit a bump early on and was forced to retire, but young Senna fought along for 18 laps in his dark gray jalopy, overheating forcing him off the track at last. As he emerged from his spent car and flipped the visor on that very familiar yellow-and-green helmet, the look in his eyes was an eerie twin of his uncle Ayrton’s.
Back up front, the leaders made their sole pit stops to switch for hard compound tires. Lewis Hamilton used the opportunity to slip ahead of Nico Rosberg’s slower Mercedes, while his teammate remained stuck behind Michael Schumacher for the rest of the race.
Almost thirty of the race’s 49 laps were over when Vettel, sitting pretty up front since setting pole, began slowing down—or was it Alonso in the resurgent Ferrari catching up? For a few minutes, it was unclear, then Vettel’s lap times started dropping by two seconds a lap. In an edgy voice, he reported a loss of power on his team radio, but by then, it was already too late.
The twin Ferraris were upon him like sharks. A quick glance in his rearview mirror was all Vettel could do as both Alonso and Massa passed him on lap 34, his Red Bull sounding ragged and damaged, most likely due to a broken exhaust.
But he managed to hold on for the remaining 15 laps. Although he was passed by Lewis Hamilton for third, he held off Nico Rosberg with great gusto as the race went into its ultimate lap.
With a commanding 14-second lead over his teammate Massa, Fernando Alonso launched into the last lap of the race just as our twin zebra finches—Pinky and Agatha, watching the race with me—made a noisy dive into their bird bath for a full-on pool party. It was a rather surprising move, for I’d known the birds as fans of Jenson Button. Apparently, finches know a winner when they see one, and Fernando was nice enough to return the gesture: seconds after he took his third checkered flag in the short history of the Bahrain Grand Prix, he let go of the steering wheel with his left hand and made bird-like hand signals, captured both by the TV cameras and my Crayolas.
Rounding out the points were Rosberg, Schumacher, Button, Mark Webber of Red Bull, Tonio Luizzi of Force India and Rubens Barrichello of Williams.
Alonso received his trophy a very happy man, his first win since the 2008 Japanese Grand Prix, driving what looks like the car to beat this season: the Ferrari F10. Unless Red Bull emerge from their reliability issues, which have cost them many races last year as well. Because in a car that finishes the race, no one in their right mind would bet against Sebastian Vettel, born with a turbofan engine in place of his seventh thoracic vertebra. But the finches will tell, won’t they?
As for the old man in the Mercedes, Michael Schumacher was beaten by his teammate Nico Rosberg and finished sixth. On the other hand, Rosberg could be his kid, if he was not 1982 world champion Keke Rosberg’s kid. And he did mention on Friday that he was feeling “rusty”. Even Schuminators need a drop of oil from time to time.
Racing will take a break next weekend and return with the Australian Grand Prix in Melbourne on March 28. As drivers old and new get used to the new rules and their new cars, I have a feeling that this will be a season to remember.
Photo Credit: Paul Gilham/Getty Images, FRED DUFOUR/AFP/Getty Images, Mark Thompson/Getty Images, KHALED DESOUKI/AFP/Getty Images and the author. All drawings by the author.