A new circuit is the least of the challenges F1 teams will face at this weekend's inaugural Bahrain Grand Prix, including high temperatures, desert sand, no pit babes and fruit juice on the winners' rostrum!
A new circuit is the least of the challenges F1 teams will face at this weekend's inaugural Bahrain Grand Prix... high temperatures, desert sand, no pit bunnies and fruit juice on the winners' rostrum!
In a complete break with tradition, the winner of the Gulf Air Bahrain Grand Prix will celebrate on the victory podium with a drink specially produced for the first F1 race in the Middle East.
To respect the culture and traditions of the Kingdom of Bahrain, the first three drivers in the Grand Prix will celebrate their success not with champagne but with "warrd" - a blend of locally grown fruit (pomegranate and trinj) mixed with rosewater. Bottoms up, boys...
But on a more serious note, temperatures are expected to be possibly as hot as Malaysia, but with lower humidity. Questions have been raised as to the problem of sand being blown on to the track and the race organizers have tackled this by spraying the sides of the track with a powerful adhesive. Can we expect a race of high attrition?
The Herman Tilke-designed Bahrain circuit, located in Sakhir, is 5,4 kilometres long, has 15 turns, one long straight and two shorter ones. Performance and data from locations with similar climates will have been scrutinized by the teams searching for indications of the set up, downforce and tyre choice required.
"We are anticipating drifting sand, both on and off the track, in Bahrain," said BMW motorsport director Mario Theissen. "It will limit the level of grip on the track and could cause damage to engines."
To that, Ferrari technical director Ross Brawn added: "I think most people have got much thicker air filters on the engine and are looking at any little orifices where sand can get in. And it's not the sort of sand that we see on the floor. It's a very fine powder that hangs in the air. That's the thing that's going to hurt us."
However, Michael Schumacher had a more positive outlook: "I don't think it will be a problem of sand or dust sticking to the tyres, although the track will potentially start 'green' again on Saturday and Sunday morning.
"But mechanical components like the drive shafts, steering rack and maybe damper shafts - anywhere that can absorb very fine particles. The dust goes underneath seals and starts making those seals leak. Those are the sort of problems you're going to face."
Contrary to the predictions of many, Ferrari's Bridgestone tyres coped well with the Malaysian heat, which is not great news for the Michelin teams. Rubens Barrichello's downfall was an error of judgement in opting for a harder compound, which left him struggling. However, Schumacher only enjoyed a few seconds lead over Juan-Pablo Montoya, which perhaps points to the Ferrari's performance being the advantage rather than the tyres.
Ross Brawn this week said that the new track would allow one of the rubber manufacturers to dominate this weekend.
"I think there's greater potential for one of the tyre companies to do that," he said. "We might easily see one of them dominate. It tends to happen the first time that we come to a circuit. When there is no data available there is a considerable amount of guess work involved which is not the case when you come back the following year."
Since Williams-BMW test driver Marc Gene drove around the circuit at the inauguration of the track last week, Michelin has realised that it can run a softer tyre than it intended in Bahrain. Apparently, Michelin has been producing tyres for the event until the 11th hour.
But Ferrari continues to look the strongest team even though the competition was much closer in Malaysia. Williams and Renault showed good pace over the Sepang weekend and McLaren was improved from Australia. Montoya's second was a solid drive but Ralf Schumacher's blown engine was a nasty surprise. The Renault drivers made errors in qualifying and couldn't hold the race pace after the early stages.
"Our clear target is to achieve absolute reliability in the races and practice sessions and to improve our lap times from race to race," said Mercedes motorsport director Norbert Haug. "The Bahrain Grand Prix is therefore a challenge in every respect."
Williams-BMW chief operations engineer Sam Michael anticipates a strategy gamble in Bahrain: "Strategy may prove different to the trend of three short stint pitstops we've seen in recent races, because we have no information on the amount of time we'll lose in the pitlane, tyre degradation or what the fuel penalty will be."
Barrichello view of Ferrari's performance for the coming weekend was as follow: "The F2004 has proved to be competitive at the first two races," said the Brazilian. "So I don't see any reason why that should not be the same here."
Given Ferrari's performance so far it has to be a strong contender but the Michelin runners should be giving the scarlet duo a run for their money. And the dark horse team for this weekend?
"I think at the moment the best car in the pit lane is the Renault," Ralf Schumacher said on Thursday. "When you consider that the team is alleged to have 80 or 90 horsepower less than the top squads, they are pretty quick.
"The car looks very nicely done and seems to have good aerodynamics, as they had last year. In Malaysia it came from the back and in Australia they were ahead of us by 25 seconds or so," he added.