MANAMA, Bahrain (AP) — The switch from a steamy Malaysia to a night race amid the sands of Bahrain is unlikely to be enough of a shift to prevent Mercedes this weekend from a hat trick of victories to open the Formula One season.
After Nico Rosberg won the season-opener in Australia, his teammate Lewis Hamilton took victory at Malaysia last weekend, leading home his teammate in a one-two finish that underlined the degree of dominance Mercedes is enjoying in the early stages of the new V6 turbo hybrid era.
Rival teams made no discernable progress in challenging Mercedes in the two weeks between the races, so they stand little chance in making headway in the one week between Malaysia and Bahrain, which has switched to being a night race, joining Singapore as F1′s only races under lights.
The only succor for those in Mercedes’ wake is that the two drivers split the honors in the first two rounds, and Hamilton gathered no points in Australia due to an engine misfire, meaning the drivers’ championship is more open than it otherwise could have been.
Chief among those rivals is Red Bull ace Sebastian Vettel, who was third in Malaysia but worryingly for the team, he had higher fuel consumption rates than the Mercedes pair just trying to keep up, and that compromised his capacity to challenge at least Rosberg in front of him.
Beyond the Mercedes drivers and the indefatigable Vettel, it is hard to make a case for any other winners in Bahrain, with its stable weather and low incidence of safety car periods, although many teams are still having teething problems with the new engines, so a surprise is possible.
“I’ve finished on the podium a couple of times here but, for one reason or another, I’ve never managed to get the win,” Hamilton said. “Until last week it was the same story for me with Malaysia, so fingers crossed this can be the year of breaking those cycles.
“We know it’s going to be tough to maintain our current form, particularly at a circuit where every team has had so much running time over the winter.”
Vettel’s new teammate, Daniel Ricciardo, has suffered a cruel reversal of fortunes since he celebrated on the podium in front of his home fans in Australia. That second place was taken off him due to the team exceeding new fuel-flow limits, and then in Malaysia he was running fourth before a botched pitstop cost him vast amounts of time. To make matters worse, he will have a 10-place grid penalty in Bahrain as a result of that pitstop, with stewards ruling the car was released when it was unsafe to do so, as a wheel was loose.
Williams appeared to have the race pace to challenge Mercedes, based on the Australia performance, but in Malaysia, as in Melbourne, they were hampered by rain-affected qualifying sessions which exposed the team’s relative lack of downforce.
They are much more likely to get suitable conditions in Bahrain, although scattered thunderstorms and high winds are forecast over the coming days. The switch to a night grand prix also complicates matters for teams, as the race will start around sunset, and in a low humidity setting this can cause a quick drop in temperatures which can affect engine performance. At least all teams have plenty of data available to them after preseason testing at the Sakhir circuit.
Team boss Frank Williams and his daughter and trackside chief Claire Williams have had more than downforce to worry about since Malaysia, where Felipe Massa ignored repeated instructions to let his teammate Valtteri Bottas through to pursue the McLaren of Jenson Button.
Having always regretted pulling aside for then-Ferrari teammate Fernando Alonso in an infamous incident at the 2010 German GP, Massa was not about to do the same for his junior teammate this time, and insisted after the race he was in right. It will take major fence-mending by Williams to placate the two drivers – one aggrieved for being asked to move aside and the other annoyed that his teammate put team considerations a distinct second – and to rekindle the harmony that Williams had been boasting of.
By contrast, the driver pairing many feared would cause headaches – Fernando Alonso and Kimi Raikkonen at Ferrari – has shown no indication yet of developing into conflict. For now, both drivers are preoccupied in trying to improve the team’s mediocre performance. The Ferraris have looked solid and reliable but are a long way off in both qualifying and race pace.