Luca di Montezemolo didn’t make the trip to Bahrain, but back home in Italia he will have been in a very fine mood on Sunday afternoon. A Ferrari 1-2 – and on the day Michael Schumacher began his comeback… it hardly gets better than this.
Three days earlier, as he toyed with his somewhat ascetic breakfast – porridge with honey, accompanied by a cup of hot water – Jackie Stewart talked animatedly about the race, the season, to come. He discussed the McLaren situation, the pairing of Britain’s two World Champions, Hamilton and Button, and said he expected Red Bull to be a mighty force this year: “First, it’s an Adrian Newey car – and second, it’s an evolutionary car, rather than a revolutionary one. Evolutionary cars tend to be more reliable, and if you put together a string of good scores in the first few races, you can get yourself into a situation where you can’t be caught in the World Championship. We saw that last year with Jenson, didn’t we?”
Then Stewart got on to the subject of Ferrari. “They’ve got a very strong pair of drivers. I mean, Massa’s back to full health, and quite a while ago he lost that ‘peak and valley’ tendency that used to be there, and became a lot more consistent. I hope he keeps it that way – I think the boy is hugely talented, and he deserved to be World Champion in 2008.” Jackie paused; “Having said all that, I think Fernando Alonso is absolutely a man on a mission – I watched him yesterday walking to the Ferrari garage, and it was like he was on a route march! He’s had two poor years with Renault, and boy, is he ready to come back strong. I have enormous respect for Fernando – a truly great racing driver, absolutely as good as they come…”
A ringing endorsement of the man considered by many to be the best, the most complete, driver in the world. In Bahrain he raced a Ferrari for the first time, and – like Mario Andretti – won. “A very special day,” he said. “To be back on the top of the podium is great – to do it in a Ferrari is fantastic…”
Unlike Kimi Raikkonen, the man he replaced in the team, Alonso is a Latin, a man who really ‘gets’ the whole Ferrari thing. Ever since his signing was announced, he has spoken almost mystically of what it means to him to be where he always dreamed of being: there will no further teams after this, he has said.
Alonso had his hopes of pole position, having set the fastest lap on Saturday morning, but nothing could live with the one-lap pace of Sebastian Vettel’s Red Bull, and right at the end of qualifying Massa, too, nipped ahead. “Not ideal,” said Fernando, “but not bad, either – and I’m on the clean side of the track…” At the start he could do nothing about Vettel, but following a poor start by Massa, he was able to squeeze into second place at turn two.
Much has changed in Formula 1 this year, and we are adapting to a break from the sprint-stop-sprint syndrome which was the hallmark of the refuelling era. Now that refuelling has been banned, the cars are necessarily bigger (with tanks big enough to handle a 200-mile race), and a major consideration, of course, is looking after your tyres during the first, fuel-heavy, portion of the race.
Both Bridgestone compounds on offer at each Grand Prix must be used in the course of the race, and the 10 drivers who make it through to Q3, the final segment of qualifying, are obligated to start the race on the tyres on which they set their fastest lap. Inevitably, the great majority of drivers will choose the softer tyre for shooting at pole position – but that does, of course, mean that they are stuck with it for the first – heavy – part of the race. Tricky. A single tyre stop (to switch to the harder compound) looks set to become the norm.
Alonso admitted that he could do nothing about Vettel in the early laps, but said that he was confident, once everyone was on to the harder tyres, of being able to challenge in the last 10 laps. As it was, though, Fernando had no need to charge, for after 30 of the 49 laps Vettel radioed his pit to report a loss of power. The Red Bull had a cracked exhaust, and in no time both Ferraris were past him; before the end Hamilton’s McLaren, too, got by.
“I had quite a good race,” said Lewis, “and actually third place is better than we expected – I think we lack a bit of downforce compared with Ferrari, and, particularly, Red Bull. I got passed by Rosberg at the start, and then got held up behind him until the pit stops…”
Rosberg was one of the big stories of the weekend – not surprisingly, given that he was the fastest Mercedes driver of the weekend, and the other one was Michael Schumacher. Having set the quickest time in both the Friday sessions, Nico then out-qualified Michael, and ran ahead of him throughout the race.
It’s early days, of course, and racing folk are not rushing to judge Schumacher’s return on the strength of one race, but it’s fair to say that it fell somewhat short of expectations – perhaps life is bound to be like that when you won seven championships and 91 races first time round. Michael qualified seventh, and finished sixth, so his weekend was hardly a total loss, but at the same time… for the moment let us say that the jury is out.
The new teams – Lotus, Virgin, HRT – duly appeared, and, to no one’s great surprise, were significantly off the pace, to the tune of six and seven seconds a lap, but although Lotus did well to get both cars through to the finish, drivers of the calibre of Trulli and Kovalainen will struggle to keep their motivation alive.
If Alonso was ecstatic after the race, so, in his own way, was Massa, and not surprisingly so, for this was his comeback race, following the life-threatening injury suffered in Hungary last year. Because of the very high temperature – over 100 degrees – fuel consumption was a little higher than expected, and it was necessary – particularly on Felipe’s car – to take a conservative approach.
“They kept telling me to save fuel wherever I could,” he said, “and I did, but even so I could keep a good pace, and it was no problem to be second. It wasn’t an easy race, but this is a fantastic result for the team. Actually, thanks to God, it’s fantastic for me just to be here…”