...but lap times at least give some cause for optimism
If anyone but Ferrari were worried after Australia and Malaysia, Bahrain defined absolutely and precisely what challenge rivals face in 2004. Michael Schumacher and Rubens Barrichello were unchallenged virtually from the first lap of Sunday's race.
And since Ferraris never break down these days Michaels last mechanical retirement came courtesy of a fuel pump failure in the German Grand Prix at Hockenheim in 2001, 40 races ago all they had to do was keep their cars off the dusty bits and they were home free. Without any challenge, they did this with majestic ease.
There was also the matter of qualifying to take into account. The drop in ambient and track temperature certainly hurt Michelin, as did a change of wind direction, but remember how Schumacher wasnt fantastic in the first two sectors, yet corrected that with a fabulous performance in the third? Indigestible food for thought for rivals.
Having kept their hopes alive after Melbourne and Sepang, Williams and McLaren were finally acknowledging the magnitude of the challenge in Sakhir. While Ralf Schumacher was busy playing bumper cars with Takuma Sato, Juan Pablo Montoya was holding a distant third place until his Williams dispensed with all of its gears but fourth.
They had to take what comfort they could find, and Montoya admitted: Its clear that we are not quick enough to match Ferrari at the moment, but today we were the quickest on Michelin tyres and this is very important for us. But he also admitted: Maybe I went for the wrong tyres, as they didnt prove as quick in the race as I was expecting.
BMW motorsport director Mario Theissen admitted that Montoya was losing half a second to Schumacher before his transmission problems intervened.
McLaren had a disastrous weekend, with Raikkonen starting at the back after an engine fire necessitated a change of V10 after qualifying, and the replacement lasted seven laps before fireballing him out of a fight for 11th place. Coulthard fared better, and was heading for what would eventually be seventh place, when he pitted for attention to falling pneumatic pressure in the Mercedes V10s valvegear. He didnt make it to the end of the pit lane.
The entire team will continue the efforts to optimise our package and whilst we have had a difficult start to the season Im confident that we will improve, Ron Dennis said. Currently McLaren lie fifth in the constructors championship on four points; Ferrari have 51.
Besides Ferrari and Williams, ahead of them are also Renault and BAR. The former had relatively low expectations of Sakhir, but were bucked up by Jarno Trullis fourth place even if he should have been able to hold off Button for the final podium slot. Fernando Alonso had all sorts of wars but showed what a charger he is with a great fight back to sixth place. The result boosted Renaults score by another eight points, to 22.
And then there was BAR. Buttons pace all through practice was a big fillip, and both cars led the race, albeit for a lap apiece. Button drove superbly for a second consecutive podium third place, while Sato did his reputation a lot of good by fighting back from a one-time low placing of 14th to fifth, fending off Alonso from the 41st lap onwards. The cars are strong and reliable, and the team are making solid progress.
While all of them were beaten on race pace by Ferrari, there is cause for some hope. Michael Schumacher set the fastest lap in 1m 30.252s, but Alonso managed 1m 30.654s, Ralf Schumacher 1m 30.781s and Button 1m 30.960s, so at least Renault, Williams and BAR are in the same time bracket. The low track temperature (31 degrees Celsius) favoured Bridgestone. It remains to be seen how quickly the others can find that half second that they need, before Ferrari kick ahead again.
Strategy also played a key role. Once again Ferrari elected to run lighter than their opposition in Sakhir, so they could annex the front row and then control the race. It worked to perfection.
Who else had anything to be happy about? Well, Jaguar saw Mark Webber fight hard in a car that was never fully sorted for the track, and his first finish of the season brought the team their first point. They also saw Christian Klien blossom over the weekend, and his two passing moves on Raikkonen wont be forgotten in a hurry, even if neither fully came off.
The circuits requirement for traction over high-speed aero tended to flatter the Toyotas, while the Saubers were disappointing in the race after Giancarlo Fisichella looked promising in qualifying. Jordan and Minardi pretty much achieved all they could have hoped for.
Now there is a two-weekend gap before the San Marino Grand Prix at Imola, which will mark the 10th anniversary of the deaths of Roland Ratzenberger and Ayrton Senna. The teams will be testing in Barcelona next week, and most of them will have updated packages to play with there. But dont bet the house against another home win for the red cars.