The Sakhir International circuit in Bahrain was described this weekend as an “outlier” by Mercedes George Russell. The strict definition of an outlier is as follows:
“A person or thing situated away or detached from the main body or system” (OED).
Sakhir circuit is special
In lay terms this means there are significant anomalies which make the Bahrain track significantly different from the ‘norm’ the F1 teams experience elsewhere.
Much is made of the abrasive nature of the Welsh granite used and how the bitumen filling the gaps has eroded over the years since the surface was laid in 2003. This then exposes the granite shards even further creating fantastic grip, but degrades the rubber on the tyres more quickly.
Yet its not just the surface that makes Bahrain an unique conundrum the teams must unlock. In 2014 to celebrate the tenth anniversary of the event the race was held at night and has done so ever since.
Bahrain track a complicated problem to solve
This also adds to the “outlier” nature of the event because in the day temperatures exceed 40 degrees celsius whereas for practice two, qualifying and the race temperatures of low to mid 20’s are the norm.
A car setup working well during the daylight hours will perform differently in the cool of the evening.
To complicate matters further the cars can be setup for one lap pace which in Bahrain requires a more oversteering car. However for the longer stints and to save the tyres a car is better setup to understeer.
The complexity of this task was explained well by the Red Bull drivers following the qualifying hour.
Verstappen perplexed at wild stop changes
When asked about how much he’d change his setup as Verstappen appeared to have struggled throughout the weekend he replied, “A lot!”
“I went left and right and back to the middle, found a bit of a compromise.”
“It’s unusual you make such big changes but in qualifying that was probably the best balance I’ve had throughout the weekend so far.
“Race pace should normally be our strong point compared to one-lap pace so hopefully we can show that.”
Perez unusually makes “massive changes”
While Verstappen exhibited the best long run pace during Friday’s FP2, this required the Dutchman to drive counter intuitive to his preferred style which prefers an oversteering car.
Sergio Perez who was P2 confirmed, “the balance has been really different from testing.”
“We’d done lots of kilometres here but then we arrive here to find it very different. We’ve been making massive changes.
“I think in the end we knew we had to compromise the quali pace for tomorrow’s race…. We don’t fully understand why there was so much variation but after the weekend I think we’ll have more of an idea.”
Ferrari better in qualifying than the race
Ferrari are clearly concerned their car is suited better to qualifying and the race because Charles Leclerc opted to save fresh tyres in for tomorrow rather than attempt to win pole position from Verstappen.
“I’d rather start third with a fresh set of tyres,” Leclerc explained, “than second with an old set.”
This will give the Monegasque driver the hope he can match the pace of Alonso and Verstappen over the first stint following the start of the race.
The team were forced into this decision given their performance in the Friday race simulation runs showed them to be 0.7 seconds a lap slower than Verstappen and 0.5 seconds behind Alonso.
Aston Martin chose to ignore qualifying glory
Aston Martin clearly decided not to chase the glory of a front row start and reap the rewards on Sunday with Ferrari beating pace.
Sergio Perez spent a number of years racing for the team that was the predecessor to Aston Martin and he testified to their experience at in race tyre management.
“I’d expect them to be in the fight for the race,” he said. “They are very good on tyres, I know from my time there. I know Jun [Matsuzaki, ex-Bridgestone engineer] and he’s a good guy.
“They have been generally very good with the tyres. I think it’s one of the strongest points of them. They rely a lot on that. When I was there the way they operated was always biased towards the race day. Tomorrow I think we can expect a very strong Aston Martin.”
Ferrari struggles to make the podium
The Ferrari drivers were less than confident when asked about race pace tomorrow, though given the “outlier” nature of the Sakhir circuit this is not a poor omen for the rest of the year.
Mercedes are probably in the biggest trouble given their car’s preference for hotter track temperatures. During the heat of practice 3 Hamilton was lapping within a couple of tenths of Verstappen, though in the cool of the evening this stretched to three quarters of a second.
The once all conquering world champions race pace looks to be poor too. During the FP2 long runs on soft tyres, Russell was 1.2 seconds a lap slower than Verstappen with Hamilton a further 0.2 seconds back.
Mercedes in for a day best forgotten
Russell talked optimistically of a fight for P3 between Mercedes, Aston Martin and Ferrari though it will require a miracle for either Mercedes to make the podium tomorrow.
If Russell or Hamilton run a similar race strategy to Verstappen they will in all likelihood be lapped towards the end of the race.
The temptation for Mercedes will be to one stop, though the lack of hard tyre running this weekend by all the teams would suggest the durability of the rubber is less favoured because it will be extremely slow when compared to the medium C2 tyre.
If Mercedes do try the one stopper, Verstappen, Perez and Alonso will be in their rear mirrors before the race has reached three quarters distance.
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