Bahrain - Thursday Preview 01 Apr 2004
Everyone is looking forward to the inaugural Bahrain Grand Prix, which marks Formula One's first appearance in the Middle East since the Moroccan Grand Prix of 1958.
The all-new Sakhir circuit in Manama, designed by Hermann Tilke, boasts an intriguing combination of fast, medium and slow corners as well as some interesting elevation changes. One threat to traction and grip is the sand that blows on to the track surface, and this may also affect engines and components such as wheel bearings and seals.
The circuit and its facilities are state-of-the-art. The track actually comprises five separate circuits, including a 2.5 km oval and a 1.2 km drag strip. The 5.417 km Grand Prix configuration consists of a kilometre long start-finish straight, 12 turns and a relief that ranges between 0 and 18 metres, to give an undulating track. There are three genuine overtaking points, the most exciting expected to be the downhill run into the hairpin at the back of the circuit, and such parts of the track will place a premium on braking performance.
The facilities include a spectacular 10,000-seat grandstand, a total capacity of 50,000, a pit complex for up to 18 teams and a large media centre for 500 journalists. Dominating the circuit is the nine-storey Sakhir Tower, which will host the VIPs attending the race.
None of the teams has any real experience of this exciting new venue, but each of them has conducted some sort of computer simulation as a guide to basic gear ratios and downforce levels. Lap times around 1m 33s are expected as a result, but nothing can beat the real thing.
Fresh from another victory in Malaysia, Michael Schumacher, Ferrari and Bridgestone must start as favourites for a 2004 hat-trick, but the Michelin teams have all been busy testing to try and narrow the gap. At Paul Ricard last week Jenson Button continued to demonstrate the improving form of the BAR Honda by setting fastest time of 1m 10.860s. He was chased by the BMW Williams of Antonio Pizzonia and Ralf Schumacher, on 1m 11.210s and 1m 11.330s respectively. Pedro de la Rosa managed 1m 11.390s for McLaren Mercedes, and Takuma Sato 1m 11.427s on the second BAR. Toyota and Renault also took part, the latter focussing on tyre testing without going for lap times with Franck Montagny.
Button, who visited the circuit late last year, said: "Obviously the whole team is feeling very positive, but we still have a lot of work to do before Bahrain, which is why we have been testing in France. It is very difficult to know what to expect as the circuit is brand new, but from the information we have seen we know it is very dusty, so it will be interesting to see what the track conditions will be like. It would be nice to follow up on our good result at the last race with some more points or perhaps another podium. I am looking forward to the challenge."
Williams, McLaren and Renault will all have minor aerodynamic changes on their cars, with a view to reducing drag while increasing downforce. Renault in particular were surprised how much their handling changed in the heat of Malaysia.
Mark Webber and Jaguar are determined to get some points on the board, following impressive showings in both Australia and Malaysia that ended in retirement for the fast Aussie. "I am really looking forward to this next race," Webber said, "a new track, new conditions and quite a few unknowns for us. I have been doing lots of training in high temperatures and after the humidity of Sepang we are in good shape, both from a driver's point of view and from a cooling point of view on the car. Bjorn (Wirdheim) is testing at Santa Pod this week so we are proactively addressing the areas where we were disappointing in Malaysia. I am confident that the team will take steps forward between now and Bahrain and our goal for the weekend will be to be competitive and to highlight the continuous improvement of the R5."
Fresh from scoring their first point of the 2004 season, Sauber Petronas are hoping to run a new rear wing, the first tangible product of their dramatic 100 percent wind tunnel in Hinwil which became operational three weeks ago. Toyota also hopes to have new aerodynamic parts to try.
Bahrain will have particular significance for Jordan, following Eddie Jordan's series of humanitarian messages on his cars' engine covers which was initiated by His Highness the Crown Prince Shaikh bin Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa. The latest will be unveiled later today, at 1700 hrs in the paddock.
The FIA have confirmed that there will be changes to the qualifying format from this race onwards. The pre-qualifying session will now begin at 1300 local time, while qualifying for the grid will begin at 1400 local time. The other practice sessions on Saturday will also be one hour earlier.
The 57-lap race starts at 1430 hrs local time, which is three hours ahead of GMT. Also on the race card is a Formula BMW Asia race designed to promote upcoming Asian drivers, while ex-Formula One star Jean Alesi will demonstrate Juan Manuel Fangio's 1954 and '55 championship-winning Mercedes-Benz W196 at the formal opening of the new circuit on the Wednesday. Alesi, who raced in Formula One for Tyrrell, Ferrari, Benetton, Sauber, Prost and Jordan between 1989 and 2001, now competes for Mercedes-Benz in the German Touring Car Championship.