World champions' best efforts come to nought
Renault and Toyota maintained their superiority in Bahrain, but Ferrari left empty handed despite high hopes for their new F2005.
Sooner or later Michael Schumachers incredible record of races without mechanical retirement was going to end. But if he had had a choice the world champion would surely not have chosen his 59th race for it to succumb to the hydraulic failure that prevented his Ferrari from downchanging properly.
What he most needed in Bahrain was a strong points finish, something to offset Fernando Alonsos increasing lead. That was why Ferrari rushed their new F2005 through instead of waiting until Barcelona. But you cannot win them all, and their best laid plans did not work out.
In the final analysis, Renault left Bahrain looking as strong as they did in Australia and Malaysia. Especially when you bear in mind that executive director of engineering Pat Symonds revealed afterwards that Alonso had not been using full revs to fend off Schumachers attack in the opening laps.
But there are signs that not everything is perfect. After all, Giancarlo Fisichellas R25 lasted only four laps before a rare Renault RS25 V10 failure stopped him. In fact, the unit began ingesting itself by the second lap.
Then there were the fastest laps. Fastest was Pedro de la Rosa on 1m 31.447s (interestingly, a lot slower than Michael Schumachers 2004 best of 1m 30.252s), and third was Kimi Raikkonen on 1m 31.822s. Alonso was second on 1m 31.713s. Once again, then, the McLarens were very quick in the race, though still they do not seem to be able to unlock the true potential when it matters in qualifying. But at least with third and fifth places the team came away with a decent haul of points.
Toyota, too, had a great deal to cheer about in the desert, and indeed they did precisely that in the paddock afterwards with team photos and signs proclaiming the teams best-ever result. Trulli most likely lost his real chance of beating Alonso when he got pushed off the front row of the grid in Sunday morning qualifying, and youd have been hard pressed to find many people outside Ferrari who didnt believe that Michael would have stopped some time before either Fernando (who went to lap 20) or Jarno (who refuelled a lap later).
Nevertheless, Trulli nearly pulled off a great move round the outside of Schumacher in Turn One, but had to yield as the track turns back on itself for Turn Two.
With 12 points from Malaysia and another 13 in Bahrain, its small wonder that Toyota team principal Tsutomu Tomita was moved to remark: It is still like a dream to find ourselves in such competitive shape after only three years in the sport.
But one mans dream is another mans nightmare, and only Renaults R25 is currently ahead of Mike Gascoynes TF105, with 36 points for the blues compared to 25 for the red and whites. For sure, Fisichellas retirement hurt. McLarens performance garnered another 10 points, promoting them to third on 19.
Williams showed signs of progress in Bahrain too, but Nick Heidfelds engine failure was a big disappointment, and Mark Webbers car didnt use its tyres as kindly as the McLarens did. Thus for the third race in succession the Australian saw the prospects of a podium finish evaporate and was far from satisfied with sixth. Interestingly, because he had to change the engine after his shunt with Schumacher in Australia, Heidfeld was the only runner in Bahrain who used the same engine as he had in Malaysia, and Williams were at the limit of their thermal cooling even with the maximum ducting they took to Bahrain.
For much of the race Red Bull seemed unlikely to maintain their record of points in every race, especially after Christian Klien was pushed off the grid prior to the start with an electronic problem that stalled his engine on the formation lap. It never did start, wasting his fine seventh place starting position. Then David Coulthards RB01 was savaged on the opening lap by Christijan Albers and Rubens Barrichello, and later the Scot used it to savage Jacques Villeneuve, so it had a hard race. On the final lap, however, the Scot slipped ahead of Barrichellos Ferrari as the Brazilian struggled on his worn Bridgestones, and grabbed the final point. Red Bull are thus fifth on 12 points.
Sauber got their 2005 campaign underway finally, and fittingly, in their 200th race. Felipe Massas choice of the harder Michelin served him well and he was strong and consistent all the way through, gaining ground on Barrichello at the finish to snatch what should have been eighth place but by then had become seventh because of Jenson Buttons retirement. Team mate Villeneuve should also have challenged for the final point, but got hit by Coulthard and retired with his rear suspension broken.
Ferrari, of course, were the top losing team, and they had entertained very high hopes after Schumachers performance on Saturday and his pursuit of Alonso in the first 11 laps. But this was not to be their day. There had been all the gearbox dramas with Barrichello in practice, and now Schumachers downshift malfunctioned and prompted his first mechanical retirement for 58 laps. Then Barrichellos competitive sprint up to 13th from the back of the grid on the opening lap, and thence to fourth by lap 25 during the stops, faded with his tyres efficiency. Part of his problem was that he had done so little running with the car all weekend (his gearbox trouble occurred on Friday morning) that his F2005 was not as well set up as Schumachers. I think this has been a weekend for me to forget, he suggested, and perhaps that goes for the whole Ferrari team, though they will have learned a lot which will make them much more competitive by Imola at the end of the month.
Button will also be hoping for a similar upturn at BAR, after another unproductive outing which saw him retire with an ongoing clutch problem and Takuma sato with brake trouble. Button lost places early on when he got held up by the ailing Fisichella, and like Sato was also having brake problems. The only consolation here is that he set fifth fastest lap of 1m 32.411, right behind Trullis 1m 32.324s.
Like Red Bull, Jordan lost their 100 per cent 2005 finishing record when electrical gremlins struck down Narain Karthikeyan on the third lap, but offsetting that Tiago Monteiros 10th place was their best result so far.
Minardi got both cars home, with Patrick Friesacher taking 12th after Albers first lap contretemps with Coulthard prompted an extra pit call for a replacement nose. The Anglo-Italian team are still hopeful of getting their new PS05 ready in time for Imola.
Certainly, the first European race of the year will see further developments and possibly even a change in the pecking order, for the majority of the leading runners will be undertaking intensive testing in Barcelona and Paul Ricard before the San Marino Grand Prix on April 24.