Monday, 15 March 2010

Ferrari kick start their 2010 campaign with a 1-2 finish in Bahrain

Driving in his first ever grand prix for the Scuderia Ferrari Marlboro, double World Champion Fernando Alonso enjoyed a dream start with his new team by leading home a 1-2 finish at the season opening Bahrain Grand Prix. His team-mate Felipe Massa, driving in his comeback race after the horrific accident at last year's Hungarian Grand Prix Qualifying, finished in 2nd place and recorded his best start to a Formula 1 season ever. For the legendary Italian team based in Maranello, this was the best possible start they could have imagined for themselves after a disastrous 2009.

Ferrari ditched the development of their 2009 car half way through last year and put in all their efforts on their 2010 contender instead to avoid the mistakes of last year, when Ferrari started the season with a car that was well over a second off the pace of the front-runners. During the 2010 pre-season testing, it was looking like those efforts were about to pay off as Ferrari's new F10 seemed to be the car to beat. However, with some major changes in regulations, most important of which is the ban on mid-race refuelling, it was very hard to read anything into the lap times set during the test sessions. All that meant that coming into the first race weekend of the year, it was nearly impossible to say who had the fastest car. What was clear is that the likes of Ferrari, Red Bull, McLaren and Mercedes all had very strong cars.

The Qualifying session on Saturday gave everyone the first real chance to learn the true pace of all the leading cars. Qualifying this year remains pretty much the same as last year, the only difference being that in the third part of Qualifying, Q3, the top ten cars do not have to carry race fuel anymore. Although the leading cars can now do their fastest lap in Q3 on very low fuel, the new regulations mean that they have to start the race on the same set of tyres that they set their fastest Q3 lap on. The option tyres, super-soft during this race weekend, was clearly the faster tyre over one lap, which is why most of the front runners qualified on those. Although both the Ferraris were looking strong contenders for pole position, Massa and Alonso had to settle for 2nd and 3rd repectively as Sebastian Vettel pulled in a brilliant lap right at the death to grab the season's first pole position. McLaren's Lewis Hamilton qualified on 4th, ahead of Rosberg in 5th, Vettel's team-mate Webber in 6th, the returning seven times World Champion Michael Schumacher in 7th, reigning World Champion McLaren's Jenson Button in 8th, with Kubica and Sutil completing the top ten.

At the start of the race, Vettel had a clean getaway up front. Massa, starting from 2nd but on the dirty side of the grid, lost out a position to team-mate Alonso as the Spaniard took the inside line into turn 2 to overtake and get into 2nd place behind Vettel. Due to the mid-race refuelling ban which has been re-introduced to the sport for the first time since 1993, all the cars started the race with more than 160 kilograms of fuel on board, enough to last an entire race distance. Because of that heavy fuel load, all the drivers were taking it a bit easy in the first few laps, eager not to overheat their brakes or destroy the tyres. Despite all previous worries, the super-soft tyres on the front-runners were holding up pretty well for the first 8 or 10 laps. Race leader Sebastian Vettel had soon built up a 5 second lead over the two Ferraris, and Alonso and Massa were not able to close the gap as the Red Bull seemed slightly faster on the option tyres.

Around lap 14 or 15, all the front-runners started to make their first and only pit stop. Ferrari brought in Alonso one lap before Vettel and put on a fresh set of the medium compound prime tyres. Massa came in a lap later and also switched to the primes. After the round of pit stops, Alonso had managed to close the gap with Vettel to about 3 seconds, with Massa close behind. About half way through the race, both the Ferraris were starting to eat into Vettel's lead, and before long, Alonso was just over a second behind the race leader and was prepping himself up to attack.

However, following Vettel's car closely was proving difficult for Alonso as the slipstream from the Red Bull was creating a lot of heat, thus damaging the Ferrari's tyres and the engine. Around lap 34, Vettel suddenly started to lose a bit of pace and immediately, Alonso was all over on his back end. Vettel then came on the team radio and was complaining of a lack of power from his Renault engine. Although at the time, Red Bull thought it was an exhaust problem that was causing the lack of power, it was later clarified to be a faulty spark plug. Because of reduced power, Vettel was pretty much helpless and could not do anything to stop both Alonso and Massa drive past him to take 1st and 2nd places. The young German eventually limped to the finish line to take 4th place, behind Hamilton's McLaren.

As soon as Alonso had past Vettel and was now into the clear air, the Spaniard just blitzed it and started rapidly pulling away from his team mate. Driving in 2nd place, Massa was being told by his race engineer Rob Smedley to conserve the engine a little bit as the car was having some problems, possibly due to some debris picked up somewhere on the track. That problem meant that Massa was forced to run a richer mixture of fuel, which results in higher consumption for the engine, and so he had to back off the pace a little bit to enable him to last the remaining of the race distance. However, without any of these problems, Alonso was setting fastest laps after fastest laps in the lead. His ultimate fastest lap of the race was over a second quicker than anyone else's time. Despite that, Alonso said in the post-race press conference, that he still had some speed to spare with the car. This should act as a huge warning shot to all his competitors and also act as an ominous sign that the double World Champion means business.

The other Ferrari driver Felipe Massa also drove brilliantly to take 2nd place with relative ease. The Brazilian had been out of competitive action since his accident in July last year, and was very pleased for himself and the team for having made a successful comeback. He will now be more than eager to prove that he is a match for his double World Champion team mate, but it will require Massa to raise his personal game once again - as he has done so several times over the past three or four years - if he is to have a chance of beating Alonso.

Talking of comebacks, seven times World Champion Michael Schumacher, on his return to Formula 1 with Mercedes, started the race in 7th and finished in 6th place, thus not quite having a fairy tale comeback. The legendary German did admit to the press after Saturday's Qualifying, that he feels a bit 'rusty', particularly over one lap. His much younger team-mate Nico Rosberg out-qualified and out-raced him, which should be a bit of a concern for someone like Schumacher. However, given a bit of time, the winner of a record 91 grands prix should be fully back up to speed.

Among the new teams, Lotus proved to be the most successful as both their cars managed to finish the race. However, the other two new teams Virgin Racing and Hispania Racing, were less fortunate as none of their cars managed to last the full race. Lotus, and to a certain extent Virgin, do have some potential of development in the future and it will be interesting to see how they fare as the season moves on. Hispania Racing, renamed and rebranded under a new owner of what was the previous Campos Meta Racing, had never turned a wheel of their new car before coming into this race weekend. They were clearly miles off the pace, and both their cars suffered a lot of reliability problems, with one of their drivers Karun Chandok only getting to drive his car for the first time during Saturday's Qualifying session. His team mate, Bruno Senna, nephew of the legendary Brazilian driver Ayrton Senna, did manage to get a few laps during Friday practice, but with a lack of proper testing, both the rookies failed to the finish the race.

Fernando Alonso now joins a legendary group of drivers, the likes of Juan Manual Fangio, Nigel Mansell and Kimi Raikkonen, who managed to win their first ever race driving for Ferrari. Alonso has already won over most of the Tifosi with his display of love and passion for the Scuderia, and has built up a great working relationship with his team-mate Felipe Massa and all the personnel from Maranello. The scene is set for Ferrari to create history one more time, as they have done so many times before, not least due to one Michael Schumacher.

The next round of the World Championship takes us to Australia to the semi-permanent Albert Park race track in Melbourne. Will Ferrari continue their dominant run? Will Red Bull be able to sort out their reliability issues? Will Mercedes or McLaren be able to catch up with Ferrari and Red Bull by then? We will find out in two weeks' time. Until then, drive safely!

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