Sunday, 6 April 2008

Bahrain Race Report - Massa Shows Stomach for the Fight

Under-pressure Ferrari driver Felipe Massa answered his critics in the best possible way with a faultless victory for the second year running in Bahrain. It was an imperious performance from the Ferrari team all round as Kimi Raikkonen took the lead in the World Championship race after finishing second. Interestingly the cars that were closest to challenging the Ferraris were not McLaren-Mercedes, they were the BMW F1.08s as Kubica showed that his pole-setting pace was no fluke. BMW are the real deal, no doubt about it. And what of the McLarens? Well Hamilton had a poor start and a crash and ended up a lowly thirteenth, while Kovalainen showed that the McLarens probably didn't have the pace in the car to challenge the Ferraris anyway.

The race had drama from the very first seconds of the race as Lewis Hamilton didn't get the car away from the line at all well. Whether that was a problem on the car or driver error remains to be seen, but either way he found himself plummeting down the field, eventually emerging from the first couple of corners down in tenth place. To make matters worse for McLaren Felipe Massa had managed to get ahead of Kubica into turn one and had clean air to drive away from the pack at the front. Elsewhere on the first lap Jenson Button managed to pick up a rear puncture. The unscheduled stop ruined all his brilliant work from yesterday's qualifying. Also shortly after the start Sebastien Vettel's engine lunched itself, another curious Ferrari engine failure.

The biggest talking point of the race was to come on lap 2. On the run up the hill towards Turn 4 Lewis Hamilton was chasing his old adversary Fernando Alonso when Hamilton crashed into the back of the Renault's right rear tyre. Hamilton's car was launched up in the air briefly and his front wing was torn off, effectively ending all hopes he had of getting any decent points. It was certainly a highly unusual accident. Seeing cars collide like that under braking is not that unusual, as a fraction of a second earlier/later onto the brakes can create a huge speed differential in an F1 car. To see it happen under acceleration is just bizarre. I can't remember ever seeing an incident quite like it. One wonders whether McLaren will ask the race stewards to investigate the matter further to look into just why Fernando Alonso seemed suddenly so slow.

The news of Hamilton's demise would have been music to the ears of the Ferrari drivers, and things were about to get better for the Scuderia as on lap 3 Raikkonen was able to dive past Kubica for second place. It was becoming clear that this was to be a straight battle between the Ferrari drivers for the race win; nobody else had a hope. Elsewhere Nico Rosberg put an excellent move on Jarno Trulli to get up to sixth briefly. However, it transpired that the Williams didn't really have the pace to live with the Toyotas and Trulli was able to retake the position shortly after. McLaren's hopes rested on the shoulders of Heikki Kovalainen but instead of taking the fight to the Ferraris and Kubica he was slipping back into the clutches of Nick Heidfeld. The MP4-28 seemed to be struggling with traction out the slow corners, whereas the BMWs were superb in those areas. It didn't take long for the opportunity to present itself to Heidfeld and sure enough he was able to put a good passing move on the Finn. It was all going wrong for McLaren.

At this early stage of the race all four British drivers were bunched together at the very back of the field. Hamilton eventually started to make progress through the field, but it was clear from the onboard TV shots that his car had suffered some damage aside from the front wing and wasn't handling at all well. Things were about to get worse for two of the other Brits in the race. Button was on a charge in the Honda and was rapidly catching Coulthard's Red Bull. DC seemed to make a sight error in turn 6 as Jenson got an excellent run on him coming through 7. Button took a gamble and went for an ambitious move down the inside into turn 8. DC second guessed the move and closed the door before it had really opened. Button was already committed and had nowhere to go. He took evasive action but it was always going to end in tears. They tangled and both went off the track, and the Honda emerged minus its front wing.

At the first round of pitstops we learned that Kubica was indeed the lightest driver on the grid, perhaps explaining some of his qualifying pace. There was something of a surprise when it turned out that Raikkonen was the first to pit. The fact that he was in the lightest Ferrari and could only manage fourth on the grid shows that it was a rather mediocre qualifying effort form the world champion yesterday. The front runner emerged from the pits without any changes in position.

There was an interesting battle brewing at the back of the field with the two Super Aguris running nose to tail for the entire race. Sato lead through most the race after getting the jump on Davidson from the start. But by the end of the race Davidson emerged victorious, one of the few times that the Brit has managed to get the better of his more experienced teammate on the track.

Throughout the race the Ferraris were in a race of their own. They exchanged fastest laps throughout the race and there was certainly no suggestion of Massa yielding to Raikkonen. They were racing hard, which is refreshing to see from the Ferrari team. Raikkonen's big chance would be to get ahead at the final pit stop. Sadly we were robbed of seeing a really close battle between the two as Kimi ran into very heavy traffic on his out laps, costing him vital seconds. Massa was able to keep the lead with room to spare. And that was how it would finish.

The two BMWs were comfortably in third and fourth behind the Ferraris, with Kovalainen's McLaren a lonely fifth place. Trulli put in another good performance for the Toyota team in sixth, fending off the attentions of Mark Webber. Rosberg picked up the final point on offer with Glock and Alonso rounding out the top ten. The other notable performance of the day was Giancarlo Fisichella taking an impressive 12th place for the fledgling Force India team.

So after three races we can be in no doubt that Ferrari are strong favourites to emerge with the two championships come October. After a sticky start they have bounced back in style, leaving their rivals with a lot of work to do. None more so than McLaren, who now appear to have slipped behind BMW in terms of raw pace. You can be sure there will be plenty of updates coming for all teams for the start of the European season in a couple of weeks, and McLaren will be praying that they help them claw back some of Ferrari's current advantage. Roll on Barcelona...

Provisional Race Result

1. Massa
2. Raikkonen
3. Kubica
4. Heidfeld
5. Kovalainen
6. Trulli
7. Webber
8. Rosberg
9. Glock
10. Alonso
11. Barrichello
12. Fisichella
13. Hamilton
14. Nakajima
15. Bourdais
16. Davidson
17. Sato
18. Coulthard
19. Sutil
ret Piquet
ret Button
ret Vettel

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