Latest News / Feature

Bahrain preview - can anybody stop Mercedes?

03 Apr 2014

Mercedes’ rivals come to Bahrain for the country’s first ever night race convinced that the Sakhir circuit’s characteristics will suit the Silver Arrows down to the ground.

Nico Rosberg and Lewis Hamilton were very quick at the desert venue during winter testing, and after dominating the first two races of the year, the points leaders are determined to carry on the good work.

“The first two races have been a great start to my season and I'm already looking forward to carrying on that momentum in Bahrain,” Rosberg says. “It's a great track and I really enjoy driving it. I've never had much luck on race weekends here, but it's definitely the one I'm best prepared for this year. I came to Bahrain for the Pirelli tyre test back in December and during winter testing a few weeks ago. We may be leading both championships at the moment but our rivals are breathing down our necks, so we need to stay focused and keep doing our job calmly and professionally.”

Hamilton, energised by a crushing victory last weekend, is ready for more of the same.

“It was great to kick-start my season with a win in Malaysia,” he explains. “Taking a one-two was also a fantastic result for the team and I can't wait to see what we can do here. I've finished on the podium here a couple of times here but, for one reason or another, I've never managed to get the win. Until last week it was the same story for me with Malaysia, so fingers crossed this can be the year of breaking those cycles!

“Malaysia was a really busy event for the team and we have a test coming up straight after this weekend's race, so it would be great to give the crew another good result to head home with. We know it's going to be tough to maintain our current form, particularly at a circuit where every team has had so much running time over the winter, but I'll be pushing hard to keep those results coming.”

Williams were also very quick here in winter testing, and are determined to push back ahead of Red Bull, Ferrari, Force India and McLaren after a couple of slightly disappointing showings in Australia and Malaysia, and to regain that momentum.

“Sakhir is well known to all of the teams as we spent eight days testing there in February and March with our new cars this year,” says Williams chief test and support engineer Rod Nelson. “It's the circuit with the highest brake energy, and common issues are high brake wear combined with high brake temperatures. Due to a high track roughness and some of the highest track temperatures of the year, tyre wear and thermal degradation could both be issues here.

“We expect daytime temperatures to be several degrees higher than when we were here last. However for the first time in the race's history we are to have a night race. This can present its own problems, with temperatures dropping after the start which is almost the same time as the sun sets. We often have quite high winds from the Gulf and not only can this affect car balance it means that sand on the track can be an issue, particularly at the start of the day.”

Red Bull boss Christian Horner said after the Malaysian race that his team don’t expect to challenge Mercedes here. He pointed out that the rain in qualifying for both previous races helped Red Bull to gain high grid positions, and that the straights here and the lack of high-speed corners will also hurt the RB10s. "I think Mercedes’ advantage in Bahrain could well be greater here than it was in Malaysia,” he said.

Red Bull’s Daniel Ricciardo faces a particular struggle this weekend, as he carries a 10-place grid penalty from Sepang for his team’s unsafe release during the race.

Elsewhere, there appear to be mixed feelings at Ferrari. Kimi Raikkonen says he’s pinning his hopes on some updates, but Fernando Alonso said he doesn’t expect an upturn in performance this weekend.

"Unfortunately, I see not much to do in terms of magic changes, because it's only five days, but no one in the team is giving up,” the Spaniard says. “It's going to be tough again, but somehow we manage always to be in the top five, which at the moment with the performance we have is giving us some good points."

While Lotus have their tails up again after Romain Grosjean’s strong run to 11th in Malaysia, McLaren race boss Eric Boullier is worried that his MP4-29s won’t be any quicker than they were in Malaysia.

"Our lack of downforce is making the car slide more and when the car slides more the tyres get hotter, and if you pass the limit of the surface temperature you get in trouble,” he explains. "This is exactly what happened to us. It was very hot and we were struggling with the grip.

"Strangely there was not much reliability issue in Malaysia, and it's true our strategy to be reliable was good in Melbourne but there it didn't pay off because most of the cars saw the chequered flag. We know that performance-wise we have to massively catch up and aggressively develop the car."

Elsewhere, of note, Robin Frijns is scheduled to have his first Friday FP1 run for Caterham, who had their best overall Grand Prix showing ever in Sepang. The Dutchman will drive Kamui Kobayashi’s car. Compatriot Giedo van der Garde also gets a an FP1 outing at Sauber, in place of Esteban Gutierrez.

“I’m excited about being back in the car for my first FP1 of the 2014 season, especially as I already have experience of the car at Bahrain from the day I did in the pre-season tests,” Frijns says. “It’ll be interesting to see how much progress we’ve made across the whole car since I last drove it, but my focus will be on helping the team prepare for the race weekend, something I know I can add value to.”

The big news from the track’s point of view this year is that the Grand Prix will start at 1800 hours local time meaning that it will start at twilight when the temperatures will just be starting to drop. As in Singapore and Abu Dhabi, the drivers will be racing under newly-installed floodlights.

In terms of characteristics, the 5.412-kilometre Sakhir circuit has four long straights and plenty of slow corners which demand strong brake performance as cars slow from 325km/h to 65km/h at 4.5g and in just 130 metres to negotiate Turn 1. That will upset those who are still honing their fly-by-wire rear brake systems. There’s also a lot of longitudinal energy going through the tyres, especially under braking in Turns 1 and 14, and under traction in Turn 10.

Though the surface is smooth it’s quite abrasive thanks to all the sand, and the rear tyres in particular get a serious work-out in the numerous first, second and third-gear corners. This all exerts a significant influence on tyre life.

Pirelli are bringing their white-marked medium and yellow-marked soft tyres to Sakhir, and the change of race start time will have a significant effect on their performance and degradation. Ambient and track temperatures will fall considerably during the race - a drop of 15 degrees in track temperature is thought possible. That will make the preparation work teams are able to conduct in free practice even more important than usual. We’ve seen teams such as Lotus, Caterham and McLaren suffer problems in these sessions in previous 2014 rounds, but any time lost here could have even more serious repercussions in the race.

“Bahrain is a circuit where we’ve done two recent tests, so we go there with a lot of knowledge of the track, which we certainly benefit from,” says Pirelli motorsport director Paul Hembery. “We know that there’s a big traction demand and that’s why we’re bringing the medium and soft tyres. Temperatures at the start of the race should still be reasonably high. We’ve noted a very big drop in temperature though as soon as the sun goes down: a variation that can be as big as 15 degrees. Managing that very wide range of temperatures to get the best out of the tyres is going to be one of the biggest challenges for the teams throughout the weekend. This should make it quite tactical in terms of strategy, so it should be a very interesting race from that point of view.”

As last year, there will be two DRS zones in Sakhir. The detection point of the first zone is 10m before Turn 9 and the activation point is 50m after Turn 10. The second zone’s detection point is 108m before Turn 14, with activation occurring 270m after Turn 15. Sunday’s race, which like the rest of the weekend is expected to be dry, will be run over 57 laps or 308.238 kilometres (191.530 miles). It starts at 1800 hours local time, which is one hour ahead of GMT.