F1: Round 1 – Sakhir, Bahrain – March 14

Has there ever been a season start more keenly awaited than this one? With so many changes, expectations were high: new teams, new drivers, new points system, new track layout, no refuelling, Schumacher back. It seemed almost literally anything could happen.

And what happened … felt very much like business as usual. Which felt very odd at the same time that it felt normal, and certainly seemed anticlimactic especially when compared with the astounding events that kicked off the 2009 season and set the sport on its head.

Of course, if you’re a Ferrari or a Fernando Alonso fan, you’ll view today’s events with the same dizzying sense of ecstasy that Brawn/Button fans experienced twelve months ago. Certainly the result – and the relative ease of Ferrari’s eventual triumph – very much endorses Maranello’s decision to call time on the 2009 season very early on and turn its attentions to 2010 development. It should send chills down the spines of its rivals, too, who have to wonder whether anyone will have a chance of stemming a red tide.

Red Bull (in the shape of Sebastian Vettel) were the only threat to Alonso and Felipe Massa today. He converted pole to an impressive lead and pulled away with seeming ease, at one stage putting a full second a lap on second placed Alonso. But Vettel’s performance was bookended by team mate Mark Webber’s experience, and he was having a more problematic day.

To start with, his engine belched smoke in the manner of James Bond’s Aston Martin smokescreen gadget as Webber went through the first turn. The smoke unsighted the cars behind which led to a clash between Robert Kubica’s Renault and the two Force India cars. Kubica and Adrian Sutil ended up spinning and falling back to the rear of the pack, while Webber was able to carry on with no further ill effects but the momentary loss of power at the critical corner cost him positions that he was never able to recover, and he would labour in traffic for the rest of the afternoon unable to show whether Vettel’s display upfront was a one-off down to the driver, or the true pace of the Red Bull.

That first corner also saw Alonso sneak past Massa for second place behind Vettel, and Alonso was clearly the stronger of the two Ferraris while Nico Rosberg got past Lewis Hamilton for 4th place, which was to hold up the McLaren for much of first stage of the race until the round of pit stops enabled Hamilton to get the position back when Rosberg had to be held in his pit box briefly because of incoming traffic (ironically, Hamilton’s team mate Jenson Button coming in) on his own pit stop next time around on lap 17.

After that, for a time things rather settled down into a routine that would not have been out of place in any season in the last two decades. None of the rule changes really seemed to have tackled the fundamental problem of the sport: that overtaking is absent. No one can get close enough to try, and so everyone ends up playing safe. Removing refuelling (which was meant to remove the “let’s wait till the pit stops” thinking) does nothing to tackle that problem; indeed, it removed one of the most interesting, intriguing and surprising aspects of years past and added nothing in return.

Although mandatory pit stops per se are not part of the rules, the need to run both prime and option tyres during the race imposes at least one stop. Unfortunately, the option tyres had such short life on the superheated tarmac of Sakhir that everyone got them over and done with as soon as possible, and then hunkered down for the remaining 30 or so laps nursing their rubber like a drunk with their beer.

As the race wore on (and the tyres wore down), things did perk up as everyone started to develop some technical problems or other. unsurprisingly the new teams were the worst hit, with Karun Chandhok crashing on the second lap (unsurprisingly given his total lack of practice time) and his Hispania team mate Bruno Senna, Virgin’s Timo Glock and Luca Di Grassi, and Sauber’s Kamui Kobayashi and Pedro de la Rosa all retiring from assorted hydraulic and gearbox problems before the end, along with Renault’s Vitaly Petrov who retired in the pits with suspension damage.

Sebastien Buemi also ground to a halt before the end, as did Jarno Trulli who had been suffering hydraulic problems for much of the latter part of the race, but both were close enough to the finish to be classified 16th and 17th respectively. With Jarno’s team mate Heikki Kovalainen making it to the finish (albeit a lap down) it means that Lotus alone of all the new teams managed to get both cars to the end, a significant achievement for such a hastily thrown-together outfit.

Nor were the long-standing big teams immune from problems. Both McLaren drivers were told to take care of overheating brakes, while Ferrari fretted about their engines overheating in dirty air and eating up precious fuel at an accelerated rate, a major concern especially as the team had already been forced into replacing both cars’ engines overnight – without penalty, but still a major worry to be on your second engine on the first race of the year when you only have eight in total to see out the 19-race season.

But up front, nothing seemed to be troubling Sebastian Vettel. Nothing, that is, until lap 34, when suddenly the engine developed a very sour note that was painfully obvious to everyone within earshot: a spark plug had failed him. That put the engine down on power, which was painfully obvious as both Ferraris rapidly chased him down and them breezed past him as if standing still. A few moments later and Lewis Hamilton showed up and repeated the feat, leaving Vettel to wonder who else would stream past him.

In fact, the early gap that the leaders had stretched out kept him safe until the last three laps, and when Nico Rosberg did finally arrive on his tail he was strangely unable to repeat the feats of his peers, and Vettel was able to keep him behind relatively easily until the chequered flag. Vettel might have been ruing the loss of a famous victory, but he may also have cause to celebrate the damage limitation that still secured him a valuable 12pts in the new F1 scoring system.

Once in the lead, Alonso nailed some impressive laps to put his seal on the race, leaving Massa far behind – although Massa wasn’t putting up a fight and just looking after his engine and tyres in what was by any reckoning an impressive and stirring return to form after being sidelined for eight months by the horrific accident in the middle of the 2009 season.

Behind Hamilton, Vettel and Rosberg, a strangely anonymous Michael Schumacher circulated with no perceptible impact as he tried to get used to all the new rules since his heyday, ahead of world champion Jenson Button who was busy fending off a frustrated Mark Webber. Vitantonio Liuzzi held up Force India’s honour by coming ninth after Sutil’s first lap spin put him out of contention. Even so, Sutil recovered to 12th place right behind the man with whom he’d clashed, Kubica: it’s a shame that both men received zero reward for such impressive fightbacks.

Rubens Barrichello ended in the last points-paying position in tenth, while his rookie team mate Nico Hulkenberg had a good day but was undone by his Williams getting a “tank slapper” on lap 3 in the fast downhill section of the track causing him to spin out and need to slink back to the pits for new tyres well out of sequence.

But at the end of the day, everyone was left wondering where all the changes had left them, and whether it was all for the better or worse. “It’s the start and then after it is just sort of go your pace and not do mistakes,” was veteran Michael Schumacher’s take. “Overtaking is basically impossible, other than if somebody makes a mistake,” he added. “”That’s the action we are going to have with unfortunately this kind of environment of race strategy.”

Even so, the seven times world champion declared his return to the sport to have been “great fun”. And while it didn’t have the emotional high of Australia 2009, Bahrain 2010 certainly did an accomplished job in kicking off the new season and we can but hope that the new rules – as well as all the struggling new teams – will bed in quickly to produce a vintage year of Formula 1.

Race result

Pos  Driver        Team                       Time
 1.  Alonso        Ferrari                    1h39:20.396
 2.  Massa         Ferrari                    +    16.099
 3.  Hamilton      McLaren-Mercedes           +    23.182
 4.  Vettel        Red Bull-Renault           +    38.713
 5.  Rosberg       Mercedes                   +    40.263
 6.  Schumacher    Mercedes                   +    44.180
 7.  Button        McLaren-Mercedes           +    45.260
 8.  Webber        Red Bull-Renault           +    46.308
 9.  Liuzzi        Force India-Mercedes       +    53.089
10.  Barrichello   Williams-Cosworth          +  1:02.400
11.  Kubica        Renault                    +  1:09.093
12.  Sutil         Force India-Mercedes       +  1:22.958
13.  Alguersuari   Toro Rosso-Ferrari         +  1:32.656
14.  Hulkenberg    Williams-Cosworth          +     1 lap
15.  Kovalainen    Lotus-Cosworth             +     1 lap
16.  Buemi         Toro Rosso-Ferrari         +    3 laps
17.  Trulli        Lotus-Cosworth             +    3 laps

Fastest lap: Alonso, 1:58.287

Not classified/retirements:

Driver        Team                         On lap
De la Rosa    Sauber-Ferrari               30
Senna         HRT-Cosworth                 18
Glock         Virgin-Cosworth              17
Petrov        Renault                      14
Kobayashi     Sauber-Ferrari               12
Di Grassi     Virgin-Cosworth              3
Chandhok      HRT-Cosworth                 2

Championship standings after round 1

Drivers:                    Constructors:             
 1.  Alonso        25        1.  Ferrari                    43
 2.  Massa         18        2.  McLaren-Mercedes           21
 3.  Hamilton      15        3.  Mercedes                   18
 4.  Vettel        12        4.  Red Bull-Renault           16
 5.  Rosberg       10        5.  Force India-Mercedes        2
 6.  Schumacher     8        6.  Williams-Cosworth           1
 7.  Button         6       
 8.  Webber         4       
 9.  Liuzzi         2       
10.  Barrichello    1       

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