When the 2013 Formula One season is all said and done, a key chapter in the sport’s history will be completed as 2.4 litre V8 engines give way to 1.6 litre turbo-charged power units, and ahead of the upcoming Bahrain Grand Prix, we look back on the weekend in Sakhir when the V8 era began.
The sound of screaming V10s would no longer reverberate around the world’s grand prix circuits, unless you include the heavily restricted Cosworth powerplant in the back of the Toro Rosso, but the loss of 200 bhp would not have a detrimental effect on the racing, as the season opener in the desert would demonstrate.
After seeing their five year spell of domination finally ended, Michael Schumacher, Ferrari and Bridgestone were intent on re-establishing their superiority with Felipe Massa joining the fold at Maranello. Rubens Barrichello had departed to join the previously named B.A.R team, now under full Honda ownership, with Jenson Button staying on for a fourth year with the Brackley squad. After arguably snatching title defeat from jaws of victory in 2005, McLaren were aiming to go one better with Kimi Raikkonen and Juan Pablo Montoya but the team they were all aiming to catch was Renault, and in particular, Fernando Alonso. Having become the youngest champion in F1 history months earlier, Alonso was out to retain his crown with Giancarlo Fisichella providing support in the second R26. Renault’s support for their superstar driver would be unwavering too, despite Fernando already announcing a switch to McLaren for the 2007 season.
Last Saturday’s qualifying session in Shanghai won’t go down as a classic among Formula One followers but the knockout system was met with near-universal approval when it made its debut at Sakhir in 2006, providing a pulsating hour of action.
Kimi Raikkonen would have been part of the minority lamenting the new method of shaping the grid after his McLaren suffered a spectacular suspension failure on his first flying lap of Q1. Much like in China last weekend, the majority of the field had stayed in the garage for the first half of the session and the unforeseen stoppage forced them into a desperate scramble in the final four minutes once the mess had been cleared.
With the notable exception of Raikkonen, the four teams expected to contest the victory all reached Q3 unscathed but with race fuel still a factor in the pole position shootout, Fernando Alonso took a back seat as the two Ferraris argued over top spot along with Jenson Button. Despite being given an almighty fright by his new teammate, Michael Schumacher took the honours to draw level with Ayrton Senna on 65 pole positions, a record he would go on to claim for himself three races later, at Imola of all places. Massa would line up second with Button third despite finishing just a tenth shy of Michael’s benchmark time while Alonso’s fast-starting Renault would sit alongside on row two.
The world champion wouldn’t stay back in fourth for long, utilising the Renault’s speed off the line to great effect and passing the slow starting Button. Schumacher was safely through turn one in the lead but Massa’s grip on second wasn’t so secure with Alonso piling on the pressure into turn four. The Brazilian went defensive into the right hander but the tighter line gave Alonso the perfect opportunity to sweep through on the exit, releasing him into a crucial second place.
Having talked up his victory chances before the race, Button had an awful lot of work to do with his teammate making life far from easy. After outbraking him into turn one on the second lap, Jenson was repassed by Rubens a couple of corners later but a repeat performance on lap four would finally secure fifth place and allow the Briton to give chase to Montoya’s McLaren.
Schumacher eased away from Alonso in the early stages with the advantage reaching three seconds after seven laps. Fernando’s immediate concern was the other Ferrari of Massa and the second scarlet car couldn’t have been much closer to the Renault when he locked the rear brakes into turn one, sending him into a wild spin. Only the swift reactions of Alonso prevented a collision but Massa was relegated to fifth before a pitstop to replace his flat spotted Bridgestones dropped him to the back of the field.
Another sensational move on the brakes into turn one saw Button snatch third from Montoya but the Honda was thirteen seconds off the lead after his early adventures. The fight for victory was between the reigning champion and the man he dethroned with Schumacher carrying a six second lead into the first round of pit stops.
Unsurprisingly given his qualifying pace, Michael was the first to blink on lap fifteen with Alonso able to complete nineteen laps on his initial fuel load, proving that the two were evenly matched on Saturday despite their relative grid positions. Running four laps longer had enabled the Spaniard to slash the deficit to the race leader to just over a second and the McLaren of Raikkonen was coming into play for a podium place too after fuelling for a one stop strategy from the back of the grid.
Renault were keeping their main man fully informed on the radio as to how close they needed to be before Michael pitted for the second time and when that moment arrived on lap 35, Alonso’s task was made crystal clear by his race engineer Rod Nelson, drive “winning laps” to turn a one second deficit into a lead. Ferrari’s mechanics did their utmost to ensure that wouldn’t happen by turning Schumacher around in 8.7 seconds and their driver responded with the fastest first sector of all. Alonso’s charge was hindered by traffic but his pace was still exceptional and after three extra laps, he dived in for his final stop. With less fuel required than Michael, Alonso was back on his way after 7.7 seconds and that extra second in the pitlane would make all the difference as the Spaniard exited alongside Schumacher, edging him off the racing line as they rounded turn one side-by-side. The race had been decided by the finest of margins.
Michael’s last throw of the dice would come with five laps to go as the leading duo were boxed in behind Nick Heidfeld’s BMW Sauber but a lunge into turn one wouldn’t quite come off and Alonso wouldn’t let his pursuer get so close again, taking victory in the end by just over a second. Raikkonen’s one stopper saw him jump the battle between Button and Montoya to claim the last podium place with the leading Honda just six tenths behind the Finn at the finish. Mark Webber took sixth for Williams with his teammate Nico Rosberg producing a memorable debut drive to snatch seventh from Red Bull’s Christian Klien despite a first lap front wing change, setting the fastest lap in the process.
After such an intense Grand Prix, Alonso was quick to dedicate the victory to his mechanics upon crossing the line, telling them “this is your victory”, but to win a fierce head-to-head battle such as this one, a faultless performance behind the wheel was also required. Renault certainly had that from Alonso with Rod Nelson summing it up perfectly on the radio, it was “a champion’s drive”.
Photo(s) Credit: Lorenzo Bellanca/LAT Photographic, crash.net, Steven Tee/LAT Photographic, Scuderia Ferrari