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Race analysis - title tension builds 16 Apr 2007

(L to R): Kimi Raikkonen (FIN) Ferrari; Jean Todt (FRA) Ferrari Sporting Director and Felipe Massa (BRA) Ferrari celebrate.
Formula One World Championship, Rd 3, Bahrain Grand Prix, Race, Bahrain International Circuit, Bahrain, Sunday, 15 April 2007 (L to R): Lewis Hamilton (GBR) McLaren, Felipe Massa (BRA) Ferrari and Kimi Raikkonen (FIN) Ferrari on the podium.
Formula One World Championship, Rd 3, Bahrain Grand Prix, Race, Bahrain International Circuit, Bahrain, Sunday, 15 April 2007 Robert Kubica (POL) BMW Sauber F1.07 leads Giancarlo Fisichella (ITA) Renault R27.
Formula One World Championship, Rd 3, Bahrain Grand Prix, Race, Bahrain International Circuit, Bahrain, Sunday, 15 April 2007 Mark Webber (AUS) Red Bull Racing RB3.
Formula One World Championship, Rd 3, Bahrain Grand Prix, Qualifying Day, Bahrain International Circuit, Bahrain, Saturday, 14 April 2007 Lewis Hamilton (GBR) McLaren in parc ferme.
Formula One World Championship, Rd 3, Bahrain Grand Prix, Race, Bahrain International Circuit, Bahrain, Sunday, 15 April 2007

Little to choose between red and silver in Bahrain thriller

If the Bahrain Grand Prix is any indication, this is going to be one of those enthralling seasons when the advantage swings like a pendulum between Ferrari and McLaren. In Australia it was with the red cars, in Malaysia with the silver arrows; in Bahrain it swung back in Ferrari’s favour but could so easily have gone McLaren’s way.

And just to spice things up a little more, a look at the fastest laps shows that the BMW Saubers were in the same 1m 34s bracket as the two top teams.

In the end, track position proved crucial. Felipe Massa won the start, and won the race. Lewis Hamilton could run with him in the first and third stints, but as Massa pointed out the second was crucial, for that is where he built the cushion that served him so well when Hamilton turned hunter in the final stages. Lewis thought that he would have pulled away had he been able to win the start or to sneak ahead of Felipe on the opening lap, but this time the Brazilian made no major mistakes, and the Englishman had to remain a follower.

They were only a second apart by the first stops, which Hamilton initiated on lap 19, but by the second Massa had built a lead of 10s as the McLarens struggled on scrubbed rubber. This time it was the red cars that flew on it. When it came to the final stint, and they were all on the hard compound, it was the Ferraris that struggled, but Massa had enough in hand to win the day. So Ferrari went home happy with the victory, and McLaren firmly believing they had closed the gap.

First and third for Ferrari gave them 16 points; second and fifth for McLaren garnered them 12; overall McLaren still lead the world championship for constructors with 44, to Ferrari’s 39.

Nick Heidfeld’s stunning race drive was rewarded with fourth place ahead of Fernando Alonso, whom he passed on the 32nd lap courtesy of a set of new tyres for his second stint. The McLaren was quicker in a straight line, but Nick waited for Alonso to make a mistake, and pounced when it came. On a day when a relatively high wind played havoc with cars’ handling lap to lap, errors were easy for even the best to make.

Robert Kubica was happy to score his first points of the season, though at one stage the aerodynamics were affected as his fuel filler sprang open, and the team were pleasantly surprised to find that they had gained pace without changing the F1.07s since Sepang. “Obviously the track suited us,” Heidfeld said.

Once again Toyota gathered two points courtesy of Jarno Trulli’s efforts, and he was in a fantastic scrap with the Williams-Toyotas of Alex Wurz and Nico Rosberg which saw places change frequently. The TF107 was down on top speed since qualifying, for reasons that the team are still analysing, but a long middle stint helped to offset that and enabled Trulli to challenge the Red Bulls for seventh place. When both of the Renault-engined cars retired - David Coulthard’s from 16th place (he was seventh before his second pit stop) with a broken driveshaft on lap 37, and Mark Webber’s five laps later with gearbox gremlins - he was able to challenge Giancarlo Fisichella’s Renault and to snatch the place. Ralf Schumacher fared less well, failing to dial in his car all weekend, running near the back, and striking debris late in the race. He finished 12th.

For Renault, this was a very tough weekend, and a single point for Fisichella, who finished just ahead of rookie team mate Heikki Kovalainen, showed how far down the order the champions have slipped. The R27 just doesn’t generate the grip of its predecessors, and it was only when he went to the hard tyres for the final stint that the Italian was able to challenge Trulli again. By then it was too late.

Like Kubica, Webber was annoyed by an open fuel filler, but overall the Red Bull organisation showed signs of improvement even if they didn’t make the flag.

After the early promise, Williams had to be content with 10th and 11th places courtesy of Rosberg and Wurz, who battled tooth and nail not just with Trulli and the Renaults, but also with each other. However, a combination of oversteer for the Austrian and brake problems for the German ultimately stymied their challenge. After Malaysia, that was a serious disappointment.

Disappointment summed up the feeling at Super Aguri, too. Anthony Davidson drove a blinder and seemed set for a competitive 12th, perhaps better (he was right on Kovalainen’s tail), when his Honda engine went the way of team-mate Takuma Sato’s and scattered itself on lap 52. The Briton had been a long way ahead of the Japanese driver when both were running, having found the balance that eluded Sato, so the failure was a tough break.

Spyker and Toro Rosso have become inured to misfortune of late. The former saw Adrian Sutil involved in a first lap incident for the third time in his three-race career - “Turn Four is maybe my special turn!” the German suggested - as he lost his front wing in the incident involving Scott Speed and Jenson Button. Bent nosebox pins meant that it took a while to repair the damage, so while Christijan Albers struggled with oversteer, a radio that didn’t work and a hydraulic problem late in the race on his way to 14th place a lap down, Sutil had to make do with 15th, four laps adrift.

Toro Rosso didn’t just lose Speed early on; Liuzzi had a hydraulic problem too, and a radio that malfunctioned, which is why he overtook Ralf Schumacher under the safety car. The resultant drive-through penalty simply added to the frustration of a bad afternoon, which negated his gamble on starting with hard tyres in the (correct) expectation that the safety car would be deployed early on. The hydraulic problem stopped him for good on lap 27.

Finally, Honda took nothing away from Bahrain. With Button out on the opening lap, two broken engines for the Super Aguris, and Rubens Barrichello’s 13th place, there was absolutely nothing to cheer there.

There might not be any racing for four weeks now, but every team will be working flat out on ways to improve their performance and/or reliability in time for the Spanish Grand Prix on May 11-13.

David Tremayne