Thursday 26 April 2018

F1: Desert heat turned up on four champions battling to be No 1

Bahrain's Grand Prix should bring great racing – and controversy, says David Kennedy

The Bahrain Grand Prix takes place today amid controversy about the presence of Formula One in the Persian Gulf state.

Once again opinion is divided. Should the race have been cancelled or is taking part affording protesters the oxygen of publicity they need to promote their cause.

In truth, not everybody in F1 gives Bahrain a second thought as to what goes on there politically. F1 is a narcissistic sport, it is essentially self-obsessed and prone to a great deal of navel-gazing, and by that I don't mean observing the US's fifth fleet which is based in the capital Manama.

The F1 fraternity suspects that something is rotten in the state of Denmark but Bernie Ecclestone doesn't run a moral compass over the global map when he decides where to set up his roadshow. Some teams have more than a vested interest in the Kingdom, not least McLaren, a company that is 50 per cent owned by the Bahrain Mumtalakat Holding Company. The dollar is a powerful anaesthetic to a guilty conscience.

The difficulty is when sport is hijacked and used as a political football, where do you draw the line on which country gets boycotted and from whose perspective does that judgement come? The FIA, Ecclestone and F1 in general have all been criticised for ignoring the elephant in the room. But then again Bernie is no wildlife conservationist, and if he – metaphorically speaking, that is – has to kill it to get his supply of tusks, he will do so.

There are two types of ivory, hard and soft, not unlike the Pirelli tyre choice. The season so far has been a tale of ingenuity and strategy that has given us three winners in as many races; we're unlikely to repeat the seven winners in seven races that 2012 brought us but the mix is heady enough already for optimism.

For those drivers who are wishing for Yeats' metaphorical cloths of heaven, they know they have to tread softly on their Pirellis or they will tread on their dreams. Only in Malaysia did pole position translate into a race win when Sebastian Vettel hit the jackpot.

Pirelli is certainly lending plenty of entertainment to F1's theatre. Now we have a vaudeville show of multiple talents in different acts. That can be confusing for the casual observer who doesn't know if it's an illusion when one car is quicker than another because they've used DRS or softer tyres. But aficionados will appreciate that it has drivers operating at the sharp end of their wits and we the viewers are the winners.

In China, a record 190,000 spectators came to the Shanghai International circuit, the highest attendance since its inauguration in 2004 but it's small fry when compared with the city's population of 23 million. With China's gross national income per capita the equivalent of the price for a corporate hospitality suite, you can be sure the elite made up the bulk of that audience.

Red is a colour synonymous with China so when Fernando Alonso won, in sublime style, in a Ferrari, it was a popular choice, particularly for Ferrari's extensive Asian corporate guests. You could say that, commercially speaking, this was a strategic Grand Prix to win.

The Italian manufacturer sold a thousand cars in China in 2010 at an average price of a million dollars each and their sales are growing exponentially. China is set to become the world's biggest luxury market by 2020.

The rumour mill is in full swing with the news that Red Bull is pitching for Kimi Raikkonen's services for 2014 to replace Mark Webber, who is being linked to Porsche's Le Mans/LMP1 Sportscar programme.

Lotus is not amused. If they have to, they'll sell the family silver to procure enough funding to pay Raikkonen whatever salary he demands. They'll have their work cut out to retain him.

Despite him winning the opening race, finishing runner-up in the third round and going into Bahrain three points off the leader, Raikkonen knows a Red Bull Renault engined car is a golden opportunity. Instinct will tell him to go for it. Lotus may have a chassis that complements Pirelli's delicate balance this season, but that could prove ephemeral when major regulation changes come into play next season. Who better to interpret those and be quick out of the box than Red Bull's design supremo, Adrien Newey?

If Webber's days are numbered at Red Bull, he will be more determined than ever to pepper his final season with victories, if he's afforded the largesse to do so. The team seems to be suffering from a malaise brought on by too much success with one driver. Even Vettel's mechanics would probably be cheering if Webber won a race. Everybody loves the underdog and at this stage Webber probably has his own kennel at Red Bull, relations have got so bad.

After Bahrain, it's back to Europe on May 12, to the Circuit de Catalunya in Barcelona, which will also be the venue for the first race of the season for GP3.

Lewis Hamilton has been taking the Mercedes to new heights but it's a work in progress. Fernando Alonso is looking forward to racing on home turf then. Last year he finished second to sensational winner Pastor Maldonado in the Williams. Raikkonen and Romain Grosjean were third and fourth.

One name that didn't even feature in the top five on the leaderboard after Bahrain last year was the man who eventually finished third in the championship – Raikkonen. Already he's lying second. He'd like nothing better than to see Webber escalate his battle with Vettel and derail the German's fourth championship aspirations.

Today in Bahrain, four prime contenders have seven world championships between them, so great racing at the highest level is expected. Whatever the outcome, everybody will breathe a sigh of relief to be back on mainland Europe. It's no fun being caught up in a political storm when all you want to do is compete in your chosen sport.

Bahrain GP, Setanta Ireland, Sky Sports F1, 1.0

Irish Independent

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