Ferrari are off at a gallop
Quietly confident in testing, Ferrari played down expectations before the season opener. After Bahrain, though, their form cannot be denied and on this performance they are title contenders. The car is fundamentally quick and is a well-balanced platform at which they can begin to throw upgrades as fast as Maranello can churn them out. Equally, in Charles Leclerc and Carlos Sainz they have a driver pairing more than capable of making a tilt at titles. Leclerc, especially in the manner of his victory, was superb. Calm, confident and driving with steely grit, he has made unforced errors in the past but there were none in Bahrain. Best of all was his no-nonsense precision in the thrilling scrap with Max Verstappen. The Dutchman is used to muscling around the track but when they went wheel to wheel and Leclerc came back at him, particularly at turn four – heading to the outside, braking late and then turning in across the Red Bull – he laid down his own marker in emphatic terms.
Mercedes contemplate the mountain to climb
Third and fourth for Lewis Hamilton and George Russell with a 27-point haul was realistically far more than the team would have expected. They did so well because both the Red Bulls they were trailing retired. Had they not, Mercedes were very firmly the third fastest cars on the track and by some distance off the pace of Ferrari and Red Bull, indeed to the tune of a full pitstop behind Leclerc by mid-distance. Their problem is the porpoising – bouncing – caused by their ground-effect aero stalling on the straights. The team principal, Toto Wolff, has admitted that even contemplating fighting for the championship at this stage is not viable. Yet Wolff, Hamilton and Russell still all exude a quiet calm. There is confidence in the team they will solve the issue, but it will clearly not be in the immediate future. More pain is likely in store in Saudi Arabia and Australia at very least but there is also the suggestion that when the car comes good it will boast fearsome downforce and pace. If they can stay in touch with the leaders until then, and with 23 races planned, no one is writing off the silver arrows just yet.
Haas and Magnussen writing a fairytale
Another key factor in Ferrari’s success was the step forwards they have clearly made with their engine, a fact emphatically backed up by the similar pace shown in the Ferrari-engined Haas and Alfa Romeo cars. The turnaround at Haas has been a truly remarkable tale. They were pointless in 2021 as they focused on building this year’s car and their new season opened in the turmoil of dropping their Russian title sponsor and its pay driver, Nikita Mazepin. Kevin Magnussen was drafted in to replace him, a deal that brought no financial largesse but returned a genuine talent to the team. He put the Haas in Q3 in qualifying for the first time since 2019 and followed it with a consummate drive to finish fifth in the race. Behind Mercedes, Haas were the strongest team in the midfield, while Aston Martin languished at the back and McLaren struggled to solve their brake-cooling problems. “You cannot write a story like this,” said the team principal, Guenther Steiner, impressively given his emotion, managing not to pepper his comments with his usually highly entertaining use of expletives.
Red Bull pay price for pushing the limit
Red Bull didn’t quite have the pace of the Ferrari in race conditions but they were on it enough to challenge until what the team principal, Christian Horner, described as the “nightmare” of both cars retiring with a fuel system problem. It appears likely the issue was to do with the high temperatures of the fuel as the final few litres moved around in the near empty tanks The temperatures are higher this season anyway because of the new part biofuel mix being employed and this can cause evaporation, which damages the fuel pump, ultimately disabling it. Red Bull were the only team not to run a full race distance simulation in testing, when this issue would have manifested itself. They brought so many major upgrades to the car at the last minute their plans were compromised as they had to focus on making sure all the new parts worked. This was successful in that the car is very quick but at the cost of a potential failure that they did not see coming and that proved costly. In their favour is that if they have identified the problem, a repeat is unlikely.
Jury out on new rules
Designed to improve the racing, in the cars’ ability to overtake and to follow one another on track, the biggest regulation change since the 1980s has a lot riding on it. One race was never going to be definitive, indeed a real picture will not emerge until F1 returns to Europe from the outlying circuits of the opening rounds. Yet drivers did generally concede that following was a little easier than it had been and certainly Leclerc and Verstappen diving across one another seemed to back that up, but Bahrain has always lent itself to allowing overtaking. Of more concern at this stage is if the cars can mix it up, whether the tyres are fit to allow them to do so. The new Pirellis appear somewhat fragile, with a range of drivers concerned at how quickly they were degrading and how delicately they had to be treated on opening a stint to maintain their life. This, too, will become clearer as Bahrain is hard on rubber and on brakes, but if the aero plans are working out they will only be successful if there is confidence in the rubber to back them up.