Simon Taylor

Modern Times

That the first Bahrain Grand Prix happened at all was an astonishing achievement of which Formula One can be proud. So can everyone else involved in the miracle of creating, in 480 days, a complete state-of-the-art motor racing facility out of nothing more than a piece of desert and the open wallet of an oil-rich state. That state probably reckons that the estimated £100 million price tag on the Sakhir circuit will, over the next few years, turn out to be a bargain when set against the international attention, prestige and business that comes with the world focusing on your country when the Fl circus hits town. All those negative voices which reckoned that the racetrack would never be finished in time — and then, when it was, forecast disaster at the hands of sandstorms and terrorists — were effectively silenced.

Formula One teams understand that knowledge is power, and in this case knowledge is speed. They like their data and their computer models to be based on actual history and experience. For Sakhir, there wasn’t any history or experience. But that doesn’t mean that the team managers, the engineers and the strategists came to the place with totally empty notebooks and blank screens: modern simulation technologies, particularly those available to the richer teams, allow a lot of the thinking to be done in advance. Anyway, the major teams seemed to cope with the challenge more or less as well as each other, for the balance of competitiveness shifted little compared with Australia and Malaysia. Ferrari was still mighty, Williams still not as good as it hoped to be, BAR still on the rise, McLaren still enmired in embarrassing disaster.

The track itself received little criticism, mainly because everybody felt that Bahrain deserved all the congratulation it could get. And there were places where cars could pass each other: its designer, the ubiquitous Hermann Tilke, said he had kept the need to offer overtaking opportunities front of mind from the start However, most of the corners were sharp, low-gear affairs, and it is a shame that few modem purpose-built circuits seem to have many of the really demanding fast corners that sort the men from the boys.

Of the 18 tracks that now make up the crowded F1 calendar, the ones with open layouts and fast corners — like Spa, Silverstone, Interlagos, Monza — tend to be the older ones. Of course, Spa and Interlagos, and to a lesser extent Silverstone, have been much changed to be more appropriate for modem Fl speeds, while Monza has made do with crude chicanes. But the old tracks still maintain some of their historic corners — Eau Rouge, Stowe, Curva do Sol, the Lesmos. By contrast the recently built tracks, like the Hungaroring, Barcelona, the new Nürburgring, the new Indianapolis, tend to rely on constant-radius, sharp corners. The usual reason given for this is lack of space: you can fit in more track length in less real estate if you have plenty of tight twists. This was evidently a factor in Hungary. But with a whole desert to play with in Bahrain, you would have thought Mr. Tilke could have spread himself a little more.

Nevertheless, behind the dominant Ferraris, we did get some battles, and some overtaking (if you’d told Kimi Raikkonen at the start of the season that he’d be battling for position with Christian Klien, I’m sure he wouldn’t have believed you). It all added up to an entertaining race, in particular from the BARs and the Renaults, with another wonderfully consistent, hard-charging drive from Jenson Button. In Malaysia, his 69th grand prix, Jenson finally got his first podium. To underline the releasing effect of finally getting that particular monkey off his back (and the increasing competitiveness of this year’s BAR-Honda) he managed to do it again two weeks later. Although he was helped by Juan Pablo Montoya’s problems in the final stages with his Williams-BMW, Jenson had to drive very hard for this one, and to go from eighth on lap one to first finisher in the non-Ferrari race was a very worthy effort. Ralf Schumacher didn’t help the Williams cause by driving mindlessly into Takuma Sato’s BAR, but fortunately it was his car that went off the track and the little Japanese wasn’t much delayed, which was as it should be because Sato drove an excellent race to boost BAR’s haul to 10 points. BAR are now joint third in the constructors’ championship.

As for Ferrari, they now have 51 points from three races, comfortably more than double the score of their nearest challenger, Renault. Michael Schumacher already has double the number of drivers’ championship points of his nearest non-Ferrari challenger, Button. As we observed last month, Ferrari can hardly be blamed for doing a better job than everyone else. There’s no doubt that the current domination by one team is a Bad Thing for Formula One: but, the way some people are talking, you’d think it had never happened before.

In fact, at different times down the years, grand prix racing has often been dominated by one team. As recently as 1996, Williams won the first five rounds on the trot, and went on to take 12 out of 16 races, six of them as 1-2s. Their final score in the constructors’ championship — under the old, less profligate scoring system — was 175pts, against 70 for the runner-up, Ferrari. The season was only kept alive by the fact that their two drivers, Damon Hill and Jacques Villeneuve, shared the wins between them, eight for Damon, four for Jacques, and the drivers’ title wasn’t resolved until the final round. In 1992, Nigel Mansell also won the first five races, and went on to win four more: there were six Williams 1-2s that year.

With McLaren now having its worst season for more than 20 years, it will be small consolation to Ron Dennis to remember that the greatest domination by one team in the past half-century has been McLaren’s performance back in their Honda-powered days of 1988. Between them, Ayrton Senna and Alain Prost won every race that year except one: Senna was comfortably in the lead at Monza when he was punted off by a backmarker. But the rivalry between the two drivers at least meant that the drivers’ championship remained open to the end. Prost actually scored 11 more points than Senna during the season, but in those days you could only count your scores from your best 11 races, so the title went to Senna by three points. That year McLaren posted 199 constructors’points, a record until it was beaten by Ferrari’s score of 221 in 2002.

At their present rate of progress, Ferrari could clock up over 300 points this year… It seems almost impossible to imagine now, but Ferrari — in the pre-Todt, pre-Brawn, pre-Schumacher era — went though five arid seasons with only two wins, one of them Alesi’s lucky race of attrition in Canada in 1995. But in the recent adulation accorded to Schumacher for his string of poles and victories, and the comparisons with Fangio and Senna, one name seems consistently to be forgotten. At the height of his career, Alberto Ascari dominated Formula One like no other driver has done before or since.

There were fewer world championship races then, of course, but over a period of 13 months between June 1952 and June ’53 Ascari won every single round, and almost invariably qualified on pole. He missed the first round of the 1952 season, the Swiss Grand Prix, because Enzo Ferrari sent him to qualify for the Indianapolis 500. But he won, and set fastest lap in, every other grand prix that year. For two entire seasons, Ferrari won every race — until the mighty Fangio, back on form after the accident that cost him much of the season, brought Maserati its first victory in 1953’s final round at Monza.

To have a great Formula One season, all you really need is two teams battling it out, or even just two drivers from rival teams. Like Stirling Moss (Vanwall) versus Mike Hawthorn (Ferrari) in 1958; Jim Clark (Lotus) versus Graham Hill (BRM) in 1962; James Hunt (McLaren) versus Niki Lauda (Ferrari) in 1976; Nelson Piquet (Brabham) versus Prost (Renault) in 1983; Schumacher (Benetton) versus Hill (Williams) in 1994. At least once each decade since the World Championship began, there has been a great fight all the way to the final round between two driver/car combinations that find themselves evenly matched. These are the vintage years. In 2004, if the Williams were rather better than it currently seems to be, we could have just such a battle between Schumacher and Juan Pablo Montoya. If the McLaren were very much better than it seems to be, it could be between Raikkonen and Schumacher. But as it stands at the moment, this is not going to be a year to remember. Instead, we should look behind the Ferraris and focus on what is turning into a fascinating battle to decide which drivers, and which teams, are going to come out best in the non-Ferrari race.

It’s interesting that, at the moment, the two teams coming through in that particular struggle seem to be Renault and BAR: meanwhile Williams and McLaren, the two teams that traditionally share the Top Three with Ferrari, seem to be sliding out of it.

Meanwhile, we are watching the key drivers of the new generation, men like Fernando Alonso and Button and Mark Webber, working their way towards maturity. And we’re seeing sparks of real talent in newer boys like Sato and Felipe Massa and even Giorgio Pantano. We shouldn’t weary of the privilege of watching the genius of Schumacher at work, and the slick efforts of the superb machine that is Ferrari. But if we do, we should remember that there’s lots of good stuff to watch behind them. Perhaps this season isn’t going to be so bad after all.