Less than 100 days after the last season drew to a close, Formula 1 opened its new season with a spectacular race in Bahrain. @ClaireCottingham brought RaceFans readers the news from the track.
The new season got off to a markedly different start for media in the paddock. The FIA has ditched the previous ‘media day’, which includes roundtable interviews with drivers and the press conference, in favour of a new ‘three-day’ event.
It meant the media still had to arrive at the circuit regardless on Wednesday to make sure they didn’t miss out on any extra nuggets from the paddock on Thursday. Therefore some teams also took advantage of the opportunity to ensure they got some extra coverage.
Ferrari were the only team to put their drivers up for the English-speaking print media, with Charles Leclerc first to field questions. With the Ferrari hype train about to leave the station after two win-less years for the team, I asked if he was feeling any added pressure.
Leclerc looked fairly relaxed ahead of the race weekend, joking with his press officer Mia Djacic. Carlos Sainz Jnr looked markedly tenser than Leclerc, dismissing any Ferrari 2022 ‘hype’.
Thursday’s lack of press commitments gave us an opportunity to mingle with the teams. Covid-19 restrictions were eased in the paddock, leaving us to following the advice of the countries we visit.
But lunchtime brought a reminder of the ever-present threat. The news broke that Sebastian Vettel would not be race for Aston Martin as he had become the second driver in a week to tested positive for the coronavirus. Nico Hulkenberg was drafted up, his return adding an extra buzz to the first race of the season.
With the FIA press conference delayed to Friday, plus all the usual practice sessions, we expected an incredible day. And so it proved.
First, four back-to-back driver press conferences. Max Verstappen, who isn’t a fan of press conferences at the best of times, gave off a distinct air of someone keen to jump in the car, not discuss tyre strategies and porpoising with us.
In Bahrain, the drivers use the same entrances as the media, so it is not uncommon to bump into the driver or team principal you’ve just quizzed. Between sessions I dashed past the incoming drivers in order to relay information to RaceFans HQ.
I was rumbled by Mercedes’ George Russell as I dashed past: “Oh, not staying for ours then?” Fleeing down the stairs I responded, “back soon!” And I was – albeit incredibly out of breath.
Ahead of practice, Formula 1 put on a presentation of the new 2022 cars allowing media and others to view the new 2022 machines up close in a way teams would not normally allow.
Inevitably there was a huddle around Lewis Hamilton’s Mercedes W13. Catching a glimpse, I was impressed by the rounded nose and simplified front wing, a vital element in F1’s drive to improve overtaking this year.
I made my way up to Red Bull, before stopping at Ferrari as they had brought their car out of the garage and into the pit lane. I don’t mind admitting this was a ‘pinch me’ moment. The elegant number 16 Ferrari – which went on to win Sunday’s race – glimmered in the sunshine.
It’s easy to get caught up in the admin of a Formula 1 weekend when you’re working it, but I often try to take moments like this to ground myself and remember how lucky we are to be in this position.
With Friday’s practice sessions out of the way, media commitments took over the evening. A huge talking point was Haas’ pace, which was increasingly looking impressive for a team that has struggled for much of 2020 and 2021. Both Kevin Magnussen and Mick Schumacher had huge smiles on their faces, while playing down their promise as it was “just practice.”
I left the track around midnight for dinner and rest, ahead of what promised to be a fascinating qualifying session on Saturday.
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The funny thing about the timing of the Bahrain Grand Prix is you lull yourself into a false sense of security that it is a ‘night race.’ The problem with that is you are back at the circuit the next day at 10am after leaving the night before at midnight, confused about what time zone you’re on. Regardless, I walked through the tunnel to the turnstiles hearing the familiar beep at the paddock entrance and dumped my bags at the media centre.
Heading down to Pirelli to grab vital caffeine I noticed the paddock was starting to come alive. In testing, fewer people attend and the experience feels very insular. Now VIPs were returning, and lucky fans clutched paddock passes from teams, running up and down to catch glimpses of their heroes.
I spotted Jacques Villeneuve coming towards me, holding in his arms tiny baby Gilles, named after his father who passed away 40 years ago this May. This was the second infant I had seen in the paddock that weekend: Magnussen’s daughter Laura also in attendance. It’s a side of Formula 1 we don’t see much anymore these days, except for Sergio Perez, whose family is often present.
After spending much of the morning with W Series driver Alice Powell, I walked to the end of the paddock for third practice to join the photographers who were trackside at the final corner on the circuit in their last runs before qualifying.
The media sessions got underway after the session, the scrum intensifying as each driver came and went. Mohammed Ben Sulayem walked past the huddle of journalists and briefly stopped to say hello. Yet to have the chance to speak to the FIA president this season, the media were very keen to show their interest in his new commitments.
Much later, struggling to find a shuttle back to my hotel, one of the bus drivers took pity on me and added an extra stop to their journey to make sure I arrived safely in one piece.
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In stark contrast to the rest of the weekend, Sunday mornings in F1 tend to be quite relaxed, especially when the race doesn’t start until 6pm. I took in the hustle and bustle of the paddock and stopped to chat to a few friends on the way back to the media centre as anticipation rose before the season-opening race.
With a completely new era of F1 cars, no one had any idea what to expect when the five lights went out with Leclerc on pole. A popular driver – and therefore a popular winner – the media centre cheered as the Monegasque crossed the line in first place.
After the bitter end to the 2021 season, it felt good to have an uncontroversial winner. Leclerc fought hard against the new world champion, and old-school reliability problems added a surprise at the end, to Red Bull’s crushing disappointment.
With the drivers all speaking to the media after the race, it felt refreshing not to hear any mud-slinging, though a glum Lando Norris saw few reasons to be cheerful about McLaren’s dire start to the season.
F1 CEO Stefano Domenicali and managing director Ross Brawn appeared like a two-for-one special before the media, both bosses declaring themselves pleased with the changes they have made to the sport.
With the intense paddock activity over, the frantic typing began in the media centre once again and I made my way back to the hotel to begin the preparation for Saudi Arabia. The wonderful reception staff at the circuit handed me a number plate with the date of the race printed on it as a souvenir of the first start of F1’s new era.
What does the rest of the championship have in store? Hopefully it lives up to the high bar set by a spectacular season opener in Bahrain.
2022 Bahrain Grand Prix
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