Analysis - a four-team title fight? 13 Mar 2006
What did we learn from the Bahrain Grand Prix? Well, for a start Renault and Ferrari are very competitive. So are McLaren and Honda. Williams were also very fast, and BMW Sauber looked good. Red Bull also have a quick car, but Toyota in particular have a mountain to climb if they are to regain their strong 2005 form.
There is every sign that we could have a four-way fight for victories and the championship, as Bridgestone have caught up again with Michelin in the tyre war. It might even be a five-way fight.
Renault were expected to be quick, as were Ferrari, and the two were evenly matched all the way through the race. The picture was slightly skewed, however, by their respective choices of refuelling strategy which let the red cars qualify higher. Its interesting that the Renault was able to run notably longer while still matching lap times.
Likewise McLaren and Honda were expected to be quick, and given that both Juan Pablo Montoya and Kimi Raikkonen ran with heavy fuel loads their MP4-21s, the former could be happy with lap times in the higher 1m 32s bracket. For your interest, Michael Schumachers best race lap was a 1m 32.523s, Fernando Alonsos 1m 32.534s, Felipe Massas 1m 32.739s, Montoyas 1m 32.771s and Raikkonens 1m 32.864s. That suggests that the McLaren really is a pretty competitive piece of kit and that Raikkonen would also have been a contender without his suspension breakage in qualifying.
Honda were very disappointed that a clutch problem spoiled Jenson Buttons start, because his best lap was 1m 32.729s (at one stage he was the quickest man on the circuit), and that Rubens Barrichello faded quickly with one gear too few which thoroughly compromised his afternoon, but they were buoyed that their car is competitive with their three main rivals.
Given all this, you can imagine how Williams felt. Mark Webber lapped in 1m 32.660s (faster than Button, Massa, Montoya and Raikkonen), while rookie Nico Rosberg was fastest of all on 1m 32.408s. The Cosworth-powered FW28 looks like a very good package, and, like the Ferrari, uses its Bridgestone tyres well. They go to Malaysia looking for a win.
McLaren came away with the same number of points as Renault, 10 apiece, while Ferrari got eight and Honda and Williams five each.
Red Bull Racing also had a reasonably good time with their RB2, especially thanks to Christian Klien. He took the final point, which was all the more impressive given that the car had never completed more than 20 consecutive laps - let alone a Grand Prix distance - during winter testing.
BMW Sauber also had good pace, but only in qualifying. They were disappointed to lose ground in the race, even more so that Jacques Villeneuve suffered a serious engine failure. The unit is already on its way back to Munich for urgent analysis. Without his first-lap kerfuffle with Rosberg, however, Nick Heidfeld could have been in the points, and Villeneuve could have been, too.
Toro Rosso certainly had a more competitive outing than they did when they were Minardi, but in the end a spin hurt Tonio Liuzzis chances of points. He ran really well at times, matching Kliens pace in the RB2, but was hampered by an intermittent engine problem as the power ebbed and flowed. Both cars were reliable, however.
So were the Toyotas, but 14th and 16th places were definitely not what they had anticipated at the start of the weekend. Neither TF106 looked remotely competitive, and that came as a complete surprise to the team. Principal Tsutomu Tomita described the catastrophe as a shocking way to start the year, all the more so because it was such a complete contrast to their excellent progress this time last year.
Midland had one 17th place finish to celebrate, only a lap behind the TF106s which use the same engine, courtesy of Tiago Monteiro who started from the pits in the T-car after his racer suffered a terminal transmission problem before the start. Christijan Albers, however, was the first retirement after a driveshaft broke at the start.
Finally, Super Aguri made it to Bahrain, after one of the fastest start-ups in modern history, and got Takuma Sato home as well. He was four laps behind, after problems with his radio and refuelling rig. Rookie Yuji Ide got a drive-through penalty even before the start as mechanics worked on his on the grid within 15 seconds of the start; then he over-ran during a stop and hit one of his crew; and then stopped out on track with a mechanical problem that the team did not elect to identify.
Already, Ferrari are looking like their old reliable self (though Felipe Massa lost time in his first stop when the right rear wheel nut stuck). McLaren had a reliable race after Raikkonens suspension problem on Saturday. Honda had one reliable car (albeit with that clutch problem) and one that had a gearbox gremlin despite all its many testing miles). And Renault had one totally reliable winner and a hydraulic leak on Giancarlo Fisichellas car that stole engine power. Williams, by contrast, had two very reliable and quick cars.
Malaysia is going to be very interesting.