The Chinese Grand Prix emerged from the shadows of multi 21 to provide us with a thrilling race, revealing that four teams are currently in the running for the championship after Ferrari, Lotus, Mercedes and Red Bull occupied the top four. It may be a far cry from the “seven in seven” that 2012 offered to us, but it appears that we are in for an equally as thrilling championship.
Fernando Alonso’s win in China was a great show of how strong pace and good tire management can synthesise to result in a relatively easy race win. Ferrari seem to be in a good place right now, and may have the out-and-out fastest car for the first time since 2010. The conditions in Bahrain look set to further their dominance, and Alonso will be chasing his fourth win at the Sakhir International Circuit. For Felipe Massa, this track is the sight of two of his best victories, and he will be keen to make up for the mistake in strategy which cost him the chance of a podium in China.
Mercedes’ pace is something of an enigma. Although Hamilton stuck the car on pole and Rosberg qualified 4th, they both struggled for race pace. Whether it is a case of tyres or heavy fuel runs is hard to tell, yet there is something not quite “there” compared to Ferrari, Lotus and Red Bull. Lotus look to be running well, especially with Raikkonen doing so well despite his busted front wing. If Grosjean can support him (a la Bahrain 2012), then it could be a very good weekend for the team. Red Bull and Sebastian Vettel appeared to struggle on the harder compound in China, so the late change in the option tyre by Pirelli could aid them. Vettel also has a good record in Bahrain, but with Webber’s morale at an all time low, the team will be seeking a win to silent their critics. Not enough holes are being plugged in Red Bull’s sinking ship.
For Sauber, Bahrain will be an interesting race. It is hard to tell where the Swiss team stands in 2013. Hulkenberg was leading the race at one point and ahead of Vettel on the same strategy, yet he dropped right down to finish P10. Gutierrez made a rookie error to end his race and that of Adrian Sutil, and he is yet to prove himself so far this season. Similarly, Valtteri Bottas appears to be struggling, although the FW35 is also exposing the flaws in Pastor Maldonado, and Williams are hoping to bounce back at the Spanish Grand Prix. They are trailing Toro Rosso by quite a margin on the track, with Daniel Ricciardo finally proving himself. P7 was a superb achievement given that he had to make an unscheduled pit stop after clashing with Rosberg, and the Australian driver finished just 1.8 seconds behind Massa to underline his good pace.
Jenson Button drove strongly in China to finish 5th, and there is an air of the Ferrari F2012 about this team: dog of a car, yet one driver can make it work. Button made his strategy work, which is all McLaren can really rely on currently, and it will be an on-going process to improve the MP4-28. The race in China did reveal how Sergio Perez is struggling though, as he failed to score any points. However, this will be part of his learning curve, and he will be keen on impressing to make up for it. Force India appear to be in good shape though. di Resta excelled to finish P8, although the clash between himself and Sutil certainly made for a heart-in-mouth moment. Most importantly though, the car is very strong, and Bahrain may suit the team who will be chasing a repeat of di Resta’s P6, if not better.
The shake-up at Caterham suggests that all is not well. This may be the CT-1.5, as it is largely a reworking of last year’s car, yet their failure to compete with Marussia is concerning. There is a certain gulf in class between the two sets of drivers in the teams: Bianchi races Pic, Chilton races van der Garde. The battle at the back is only becoming interesting due to Bianchi’s great potential, and everyone is waiting for him to make Q2 for the first time, and perhaps outrace one of the Williams drivers on-track. With Heikki Kovalainen representing Caterham in FP1 in Bahrain, they will be keen on making changes to the car for the Spanish GP, although if the Finn can excel, he could step up at the same time.
With another hot race ahead, this weekend is likely to be another difficult one to call. However, the four way scrap is set to ensue for all to see as the first batch of flyaways comes to an end in Bahrain.
Images courtesy of Octane Photographic.