F1: Round 4 – Sakhir, Bahrain – 26 April

It seems a strange thing to say, but what we really needed at this stage of the season was a straightforward, dry weather, safety car-free, non-fireworks race to get a real sense of the relative strengths of the F1 teams. Which is what we got. The winner of such a race has to be the favourite to be champion; and so this has to be the most significant and most satisfying win of Jenson Button’s career.

It didn’t look like a winning option for Brawn GP going into the weekend, with the cars not just looking all that fast and even Button himself conceding that they didn’t have the pace here. With the rest of the field (Toyota, Red Bull, even McLaren) really closing the gap on Brawn GP after their flying start in Australia, this looked like being down to earth with a bump for Button, Rubens Barrichello and Ross Brawn. Instead, it’s reignited their sky-high hopes for the title.

The critical moment was the first two laps. As Timo Glock took the lead from polesitter Jarno Trulli, Button’s mission was to get ahead of Sebastian Vettel, and he achieved this by sweeping around the outside of turn 1. Unfortunately for Jenson, Lewis Hamilton was pulling off something even more stellar on the inside, using his KERS to good measure to sneak past them both and then almost dispatching Trulli for second place. But Lewis ran wide, Trulli recovered the position and the Toyotas started to pull away on their superlight fuel loads.

Behind the Toyotas it was a question of whether Jenson Button could get past Lewis Hamilton for third. And he did, drafting past on the start finish straight going into turn 1 for the second time and simply out-braking the McLaren. Now Button could get off in pursuit of the Toyotas who were disappearing on up the road, and Hamilton had nothing to keep up with him. He was holding up the cars behind to an extent – including, critically, Sebastian Vettel in 5th.

The first few laps had been rough and ready and rather bruising affairs. After a clash of cars sent some minor bodywork up into the air in the first few turns of the race, we saw Felipe Massa, Robert Kubica and Kazuki Nakajima all come in for nose jobs in the first few laps putting them well down the running order. But after that, things settled down and it became an engrossing but quiet race with only occasional clashes (such as Giancarlo Fisichella turning in on Massa on lap 53 as the leaders were coming up to lap them.)

So it was all coming down to race strategy and tyre choice. The ‘prime’ tyre was proving rather less optimal than hoped, and anyone using it was losing out to those on the supersofts. Toyota built their early lead on the supersofts but had to pit early (laps 10 and 11) and opted to go on the prime tyres for a lengthy second stint – and it proved their undoing. Their lead evaporated, and after the pit stops both Toyotas found themselves behind Jenson Button. Glock was even shuffled down behind his team mate and behind both Vettel and Hamilton, a bad outcome indeed for him, while Vettel’s superb in-lap pace meant that he finally got in front of the McLaren that had been holding him up.

Following the pit stops, then, it was Button from Trulli, Vettel, Hamilton, Barrichello, Glock and Raikkonen. Not entirely happy with the car and the brakes this weekend, Barrichello was running a different strategy from his team mate, three-stopping and therefore needing to overtake cars on track while running light. It made for some great moves by the veteran Brazilian, but he was consistently held up in the process and while it ultimately ended up a zero-sum game in that he finished in 5th place, it was hard work for him.

Which is not to suggest that it was easy work for Button in front – it’s just that he made it look that way, rather like Michael Schumacher used to do. Brawn GP has been worried about the engine overheating and brake reliability, but Button’s smooth driving style seems to keep that sort of drama to a minimum. In fact, Ross Brawn said after the race that the car is almost too easy on its tyres and that’s why they struggled in Malaysia and China in the cold and wet conditions where the car simply couldn’t heat its boots up fast enough. No such problem with heating in the baking desert of Bahrain of course.

Thanks to the car being so easy on its tyres, when the time came for Button to switch to the unloved prime tyres for the final stint, it didn’t have a particularly detrimental effect. In any case, he’d pulled out such a comfortable lead by this point that all he had to do was manage the car to the chequered flag and not make any errors – and he didn’t. Button doesn’t do mistakes, at least not this year he doesn’t.

Further back, Sebastian Vettel managed to leap frog Trulli for second during the second round of pit stops. He had strong pace and if it hadn’t been for his poor start with heavier fuel, and as a result being bottled up behind Lewis Hamilton in the first stint, it’s arguable that he could have won or at least pushed Button hard for the victory today. Instead, he looked happy enough for second.

A bit further back Trulli’s team mate Glock was also suffering through spending the second too-long section of the race on the prime tyres that “just didn’t work” as he admitted post-race, and consequently he lost out to Kimi Raikkonen for 6th place – meaning that Ferrari finally break their duck on 2009 championship stakes.

Fernando Alonso packed a lot of racing into his afternoon but ultimately ended up with just a single point for 8th place, but there’s good news for Nelson Piquet at last who had a solid, competitive race to finish just two spots behind his vastly more experienced team mate.

Mark Webber made the most of a storming first stint to get up to 11th before getting bogged down for the remainder of the race, while Sebastien Bourdais in the junior Toro Rosso team finally had a good showing, working his way up from dead last on the grid to 13th spot.

While their team mates were enjoying relatively good days, McLaren’s Heikki Kovalainen had a nothing race after an early tangle with Robert Kubica, while Ferrari’s Felipe Massa had a nightmare of a day, starting with his early front wing change but compounded by problems with his communications and in particular with his KERS system.

But that’s nothing compared to the horrible day the BMWs were having. They’d been nowhere in practice and qualifying, but even so – to come dead last with both cars in the race itself must be a shock to the team and to their supporters. True, some of it was to do with accident damage, but even so this is little short of a catastrophic for the team that was right up there with Ferrari and McLaren for the 2008 constructors’ title. Of all the teams on the F1 grid at the moment, they are the ones looking most in deep trouble.

Overall, also worthy of note is the reliability of the cars. Despite the lack of testing and all the regulation changes, and all the worries about the heat causing system failures, in the end we saw only one retirement (Williams’ Kazuki Nakajima) and that not until deep into the race on lap 49 when he pulled into the pits with oil pressure failure.

You can argue that Jenson Button was a little lucky in Bahrain; and you’d be right. But that luck was born out of driver ability at critical moments, the inherent characteristics of driver and car, together with the right tyre strategy and the incomparable brain of Ross Brawn working the race strategy. When you have luck on such firm foundations as that, then you have ‘luck’ that can take you all the way to a championship.

Race result

Pos  Driver        Team                    Time
 1.  Button        Brawn GP-Mercedes       1h31:48.182
 2.  Vettel        Red Bull-Renault        +     7.187
 3.  Trulli        Toyota                  +     9.170
 4.  Hamilton      Ferrari                 +    22.096
 5.  Barrichello   Brawn GP-Mercedes       +    37.779
 6.  Raikkonen     McLaren-Mercedes        +    42.057
 7.  Glock         Toyota                  +    42.880
 8.  Alonso        Renault                 +    52.775
 9.  Rosberg       Williams-Toyota         +    58.198
10.  Piquet        Renault                 +  1:05.149
11.  Webber        Red Bull-Renault        +  1:07.641
12.  Kovalainen    McLaren-Mercedes        +  1:17.824
13.  Bourdais      Toro Rosso-Ferrari      +  1:18.805
14.  Massa         Ferrari                 +     1 lap
15.  Fisichella    Force India-Mercedes    +     1 lap
16.  Sutil         Force India-Mercedes    +     1 lap
17.  Buemi         Toro Rosso-Ferrari      +     1 lap
18.  Kubica        BMW Sauber              +     1 lap
19.  Heidfeld      BMW Sauber              +     1 lap

Fastest lap: Trulli, 1:34.556

Not classified/retirements:

Driver        Team                      On lap
Nakajima      Williams-Toyota           49

World Championship standings after round 4

Drivers:                    Constructors:
 1.  Button        31        1.  Brawn GP-Mercedes      50
 2.  Barrichello   19        2.  Red Bull-Renault       27.5
 3.  Vettel        18        3.  Toyota                 26.5
 4.  Trulli        14.5      4.  McLaren-Mercedes       13
 5.  Glock         12        5.  Renault                 5
 6.  Webber         9.5      6.  Toro Rosso-Ferrari      4
 7.  Hamilton       9        7.  BMW Sauber              4
 8.  Alonso         5        8.  Williams-Toyota         3.5
 9.  Heidfeld       4        9.  Ferrari                 3
10.  Kovalainen     4
11.  Rosberg        3.5
12.  Buemi          3
13.  Raikkonen      3
14.  Bourdais       1

  1. newdar

    In your blog you say “When you have luck on such firm foundations as that, then you have ‘luck’ that can take you all the way to a championship.”

    I totally agree. Do you reckon it will be a Brawn GP clean sweep of the two championships then?

  2. andrewlewin

    Good question! I’ve been a bit reluctant to say that – there’s a long way to go, lots could change, and the relative form of the teams is changing from race to race.

    But that’s why this race seemed really significant to me: the ability to win when they didn’t seem to have the pace, they didn’t have pole, and they really had to work for it. And it all came together, partly with ‘luck’ but mainly through the solid foundations that really win titles. So I’m much more of a believer about Button/Brawn winning both titles now than I was 24 hours ago. Certainly the constructors is looking VERY good already.

    But “anything can happen in Formula 1, and it usually does” as the great Murray Walker used to say.

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