Four months and eighteen days after the engines fell silent in Abu Dhabi last November, the F1 seasons finally kicks off again in Bahrain this weekend.
With the much talked about rule changes of banned refuelling, narrower front tyres and no wheel fairings, the teams are packed into a tightly competitive bunch. Or perhaps its fairer to say three bunches, as Ferrari, McLaren, Mercedes and Red Bull fight for the front positions, the new teams will bring up the rear, sandwiching a mid field almost too close to separate on pace. Certainly a bumper year for F1 and no doubt some bumping going on over the opening laps as the drivers vie to make their mark early in the season.
Looking to the opening race, the teams will have a challenge with the revised Sakhir track. Its not that the track layout is particularly demanding, indeed the tracks previous character of medium speed corners has been dumbed down with a new twistier section added. Instead it’s the heat that will punish the teams, who of course have only tested pre-season at cold or wet Spanish tracks.
This year the track has been revised with a new section after turn4, adding nearly a kilometer of slow twisty turns before rejoining the track at what was turn5. Making the track totally incomparable to last year and offering no particular excitement in terms of added overtaking opportunities. . Thus the track remains a typical modern F1 track; long straight, lots of medium\slow turns and no fast corners to speak of. This change brings down the average speed and the percentage time spent at full throttle. Plus sand blown onto the track surface will compound the new narrower front tyres tendency to understeer. As result teams may opt for slightly higher downforce to gain lap time, but the straight remains at one kilometer long and provides nearly the only scope for overtaking in the race. Set up is going to be a tricky balance between race and qualifying, especially if the wind is variable and bearing in mind the added question of set up compromise between qualifying on a light or heavy fuel set up.
Even if the long straight demands a low drag set up, teams will be forced to trade aerodynamic efficiency for cooling. Plus the new infield section will see the cars at lower speed for a longer period, which will reduce airflow through the radiators, especially coming not long after the long main straight with the engine flat out. Already in testing we have seen teams running outsized cooling outlets in preparation for the heat of Bahrain. These bodywork sets may be put away after this race and brought out again in Malaysia, after running in Australia with a more efficient set of bodywork. Typically teams will run larger outlets, cut back ‘coke bottle’ bodywork and supplementary panels around the sidepod front and cockpit to gain every possible square centimeter of cooling exit area.
Braking is considered heavy at Bahrain and although brakes are less susceptible to ambient heat, they will demand larger ducts to cope with the slow down from 300kph off the main straight with a 5g deceleration into the first turn. Additionally the new in field section will not allow the brakes to cool as much around the lap.
As the first race of the year, Bahrain will also see the first of many new ‘firsts’; new teams, new tyres and Cosworths & Xtracs return to F1 racing. It will also be quite exciting to see the sub-3 second pit stops during the race. More technically interesting, Bahrain will see the first chance for the FIA to inspect all the cars at scrutineering and there is a possibility McLaren rear wing may provide the controversy having been bubbling up from winter testing. For the spectator this will also be the first opportunity for the cars to be seen in race conditions. For us technical fans this not only means on track, but also the cars being parked in their garages unprotected by roller screens, that are curiously allowed in testing but barred from races for safety reasons! It is normal practice that wings and bodywork are left on trestles in the pit lane, open for all to see (although so far McLaren have been hiding their shark fin top body section in the garage). Equally new homologation rules this year mean that the design of the; tubs, crash structures and wheels used at this race will remain on the cars until the final race, safety and reliability issues aside.
From a competitive point of view this will be our first chance to look at the cars in actual race conditions, although relative pace will not be clear until qualifying is over, even then the teams differing qualifying\race set up strategies will not be clear until the race end. Even then the Bahrain track and the other flyaway races are not fully representative track. Spain and turkey are more conventional but by then we will be seven races into a nineteen race season. Raising the question what is a conventional circuit these days, if the classic European tracks are in decline?
Updates are expected from many teams for this weekend, perhaps the most hotly anticipated is the Mercedes definitive 2010 bodywork. Having run 2009 Brawn wings an floor for the winter tests, internet rumours abound about what is expected. A controversial diffuser has been touted, while I have even heard noises about a switch away from the now bulbous nose. The team conducted a straight-line test at the UK Rockingham track, allegedly with the new set up fitted. Sadly no pictures merged from this test.
McLaren’s Jonathan Neale commented they have some upgrades due too, including a more conventional rear wing to counter any possible scrutineering issues. Additionally the team have some diffuser tweaks and an option on which sidepod fins to fit.
Renault have announced an aero upgrade, no doubt including the dramatic Front wing and ‘faired’ wheels seen on the last day of testing.
Of course for the new teams the race will be a learning experience. With Lotus running reliably, unlike Virgins whose Hydraulic problems cost them any chance of longer runs in testing. Clearly Hispania Racing will hard pushed to get two completely new untested Dallara chassis out of the garage enough to make any impact and sadly no USF1 cars will race this year.