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The Bahrain Grand Prix Preview 09 Mar 2006

Jenson Button (GBR) Honda F1 Racing. Formula One Testing, Jerez, Spain, 18 January 2006. World ©  Patching/Sutton A Ferrari mechanic sits on the Ferrari 248F1.
Formula One World Championship, Rd 1, Bahrain Grand Prix, Preparations, Bahrain International Circuit, Bahrain, 8 March 2006 Giancarlo Fisichella (ITA) Renault R26. Formula 1 Testing, Barcelona, Spain, 21-24 February 2006. World ©  Capilitan/Sutton BMW Sauber F1.06 bodywork in the pits.
Formula One World Championship, Rd 1, Bahrain Grand Prix, Preparations, Bahrain International Circuit, Bahrain, 8 March 2006 Bahrain circuit diagram in the Ferrari area.
Formula One World Championship, Rd 1, Bahrain Grand Prix, Preparations, Bahrain International Circuit, Bahrain, 8 March 2006

Will Renault and McLaren carry on where they left off in 2005, when the red lights go out in Bahrain this weekend? It may seem a reasonable assumption, given the amount of mileage and the speed both teams have shown in testing. However, it also begs the question: who might challenge them?

The definite answer is Honda.

Jenson Button has covered more test mileage than anyone else, and set the fastest time during the last run in Barcelona. As we have mentioned previously, there is a menace about Honda this year that is wholly reminiscent of their halcyon days with Williams and McLaren in the 1980s and ‘90s.

Honda also have arguably the strongest driver line-up, in terms of speed, precision, level-headedness and resistance to silly mistakes or self-inflicted wounds.

Renault start the season as favourites, and in world champion Fernando Alonso and Giancarlo Fisichella they too have a very strong driver line-up. But Honda have also tested recently in Bahrain (together with Ferrari and Toro Rosso) and that may be a key element in this hot race.

“We would hope that our recent test there would give us a little advantage over those who didn’t go,” says sporting director Gil de Ferran. “It wasn’t easy logistically but we always felt it was going to be a beneficial exercise. It has helped us with our choice of tyres, chassis set-up and with our understanding of the engine performance around that particular circuit, as well as uncovering any unforeseen issues. Apart from all of that, it was good for the drivers to experience the V8 engine and new car in a realistic race environment. Of course, we hope that our decision to go to Bahrain will pay us dividends come the opening race but, as ever, we will have to wait and see.”

McLaren’s pre-season testing was hampered by unreliability of the Mercedes-Benz engine which required the revs to be restricted, but towards the end of the test sessions it was clear in Valencia that the engine was working to full tune as Kimi Raikkonen set the fastest time. He and Juan Pablo Montoya are another very strong pairing, provided they can be steered clear of distractions or silly errors respectively.

The possible answer to the original question is Ferrari.

It is difficult to know precisely where the Scuderia will fit in this weekend. Much of their testing has been done with the new 248 F1 V8, but they also ran the restricted V10-engined F2004 a lot and it was quicker. The 248 F1s are due to run this weekend and next, and though Ferrari also gained valuable knowledge testing in Bahrain recently, their reliability was disappointing. Michael Schumacher believes they will be competitive, but the question remains how competitive.

The key issue here will also be tyre performance. Renault, McLaren and Honda all run Michelins, while Ferrari now have Toyota and Williams for company on Bridgestones, along with Midland and Super Aguri. The feeling remains that Michelin have the slight edge, but with tyre changes allowed once again during races, a smart team with good strategy should be able to minimize any gap. This is going to be one of the fascinations of the new season.

So too is the new qualifying format, outlined previously, in which two lots of six cars are knocked out in the first two sessions, leaving the final 10 to shoot it out for pole.

"I think the qualifying system will be good,” Button says. “I think it will be great for the crowd as they'll see a lot of cars out on the circuit, which is important for Formula One, and after the first qualifying session, people will get used to the format.”

Where will the others fit in? Toyota will be strong, but how strong may depend on the competitiveness of the Bridgestones. The same applies to Williams, whose Cosworth engine has been super-reliable while still running at competitive speeds.

Red Bull are uncertain whether some testing issues have been resolved on their RB2 which David Coulthard and Christian Klien will drive, but surprises are expected from Toro Rosso after Tonio Liuzzi’s very quick test performance here against Honda and Ferrari in February. There is a feeling that the restricted V10 package may have been sandbagging at times during the winter.

BMW Sauber have been quietly getting on with the job of honing their new F1.06 while further integrating the links between Munich and Hinwil, and the signs have been promising. Midland, too, have made a lot of progress, while Super Aguri will simply set about learning the business of Formula One racing in these opening rounds.

The Sakhir circuit is similar to Montreal in demanding a great deal of the brakes as drivers slow from over 300 kph to first or second gear on three occasions. Between turns 4 and 13 there is little chance for the brakes to cool much, as the corners follow each other in quick succession.

A car must be well balanced to minimise oversteer on the exit of slow corners, not just to maximize acceleration but also to avoid excessive rear tyre wear. The sandiness of the region can also be a problem; everyone will have extra filters to protect pistons, rings and valves against the ingress of sand. Cooling is also critical, even though the new V8 engines do not have such a high cooling demand as the V10s.

The race is 57 laps of the 5.412 km (3.363 mile) track, and starts at 14.30 hours Bahraini time, which is three hours ahead of GMT.