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The Bahrain Grand Prix Preview (17-19 April 2015)

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Race Four of the 2015 Formula 1 World Championship sees the sport travel to the island country of Bahrain, where sun, sea and sand combine with skyscrapers in an unconventional yet intriguing blend of cultures. Defending World Champion and current leader in the 2015 campaign, Lewis Hamilton, will be hoping for a less dramatic race than last year, but with the same end result- a Mercedes one-two with him on top.

The headlines from China

A Mercedes one-two reaffirms their dominance over the rest of the field. Ferrari’s unexpected victory in Malaysia left everyone wondering whether Mercedes’ grasp over both the driver’s and constructor’s world championships might be slipping away. However, a pole-to-flag win from Hamilton, backed up by a solid second place drive from Nico Rosberg and a front grid lock-out in qulaifying means that no one can really question who’s the team to beat in 2015.

Lewis Hamilton stays on top of the world championship with a ‘full house’, taking pole position, the race win and the fastest lap in the process. The Briton has looked thoroughly dominant since he got back to winning ways in Monza last September and has now won eight of the last ten races. This was also Lewis Hamilton’s fourth victory at the Chinese Grand Prix and means that team mate Nico Rosberg has now only managed to beat him on track once in the last 10 races- that must give him absolute confidence in his title defence.

Both McLarens finish the race for the first time in 2015. This signifies a really solid performance from top to bottom for the British outfit, but also highlights how far they are away from winning a world championship. To celebrate a race finish instead of scoring points, or reaching the podium, let alone standing on top, typifies how much work has to be done. To compare, Shanghai was the first time that Manor Marussia got both its cars home as well…

Max Verstappen continues to impress despite failing to finish. Verstappen continued his impressive start to the season in Shanghai with 54 laps of exhilarating driving that should have culminate in an eighth place finish, until his car let him down and ground to halt. The 17 year old overtook Marcus Ericsson early on in the race with a delicious move down the inside at the hairpin on the long back straight and he followed that up with a similar move on Sergio Perez at Turn Six. His smoking car not only robbed him of four well deserved championship points, but also the crowd of any late drama as the safety car had to be deployed until the finish.

Mercedes dominate the headlines

With so many of the teams struggling for performance at the moment, Mercedes really is dominating most of the headlines. This week in the post-race fallout, Nico Rosberg criticised his team mate for “backing him up” during the race and Hamilton also received a slamming in the press for his exuberant celebrations on the podium. Mercedes’ Non-Executive Chairman, Niki Lauder also dug his oar in by suggesting that Rosberg may turn “nasty” at some point in his quest for a first world title.

Rosberg is assumed to be a calculated and becalmed individual with his public demeanour and driving style generally reflecting that, but more and more recently we have seen another side to the German racer. After his second place finish, Rosberg claimed that Hamilton was playing dirty, deliberately backing him up into the grasp of Ferrari’s Sebastian Vettel. Cue an all-too-familiar Mercedes debrief where the air is ‘cleared’ – this time resulting in Hamilton being exonerated of all wrongdoing.

It is not exactly clear why Lewis might want to jeopardise a Mercedes one-two or why he would want his closest current competitor in the title race to leapfrog his team mate. However, Rosberg seemed to think that was the case. Hamilton, as ever, simply smiled and basked in the glory of a dominant race weekend where no one came close to threatening his position as number one.

Unfortunately, some in the media thought that Hamilton celebrated a little too hard though, mainly based on this much circulated image of him spraying champagne in the face of local hostess, 22 year old Liu Siying. Ms. Liu said she was just doing her job, stating “It lasted for only one or two seconds, and I did not think too much about it at all.” The media backlash, especially on some social platforms like Weibo (China’s equivalent to Twitter) was, however, furious as plenty of people chipped in with their claims of sexism and disrespect.

Hamilton, who usually pays little attention to media fallout, felt compelled to respond though this week via his regular BBC column:

“The podium is a celebration. It is meant to be fun when you have just won a race. And I did not do anything different from what I – or many other drivers – have done before. I would never set out to disrespect or embarrass anybody, be it a man or a woman, and that wasn’t the case on Sunday, either. I certainly did not see it that way at the time – most people laugh if we spray them on the podium – and I was pleased to hear that the lady in question was not upset, either.”

The Bahrain Grand Prix

The island country of Bahrain was added to the Formula 1 calendar in 2004 and marked the first ever round of the Formula 1 World Championship to be held in the Middle East. The track itself is located in Sakhir, 30km south-west of the island’s capital, Manama. Bahrain has invested heavily in the banking and tourism sectors in a move away from a reliance on oil and has a large expat community that provides a sturdy fan base for F1.

In the 10 races hosted in Bahrain so far, only 6 drivers have won, including Michael Schumacher in the inaugural race, Fernando Alonso in 2005, 2006 and 2010, Felipe Massa in 2007 and 2008, Jenson Button in 2009, Sebastian Vettel in 2012, 2013 and Lewis Hamilton last year. There was no race held in 2011 due to civil unrest. Citizens had been demonstrating for greater political freedom, but the protests ended in a state of martial law that disrupted any possibility of hosting a race.

However, last year’s race was one of the most thrilling Grand Prix’s of any era, with breath-taking overtaking throughout the field defining the race. There was also a spectacular crash that saw Esteban Gutierrez flip his Sauber and the resulting safety car set up a nail-biting 10-lap dash to the line that left Hamilton and Rosberg in a monumental battle for first place.

Hamilton had track position at the time and had previously built a 10 second lead, but after that was nullified by the safety car, Rosberg was expected to pass him easily with his much fresher tyres. Despite several overtaking attempts from Rosberg at Turn One and through Turn Four, Hamilton eventually managed to prevail and take the win.

Back in third place, Sergio Perez managed to fend off the pacey Daniel Ricciardo by just 0.4 seconds, and only four seconds behind them was a train of cars running nose-to-tail all the way down to Raikkonen in 10th, led by Nico Hulkenberg. Despite pre-race criticism from Ferrari president Luca Di Montezemolo, saying the new efficiency-based F1 was like “taxi driving”, the 2014 Bahrain Grand Prix was one to remember with so many drivers showing incredible levels of skill, entertaining us from lights out to the chequered flag.

Predictions

Hamilton now leads the Championship by 13 points, ahead of Sebastian Vettel whose lead over Nico Rosberg was cut to four points in Shanghai. This means that Nico Rosberg is a huge 17 points behind the championship leader already and needs to rectify this in Bahrain. Rosberg will have fond memories of this track you’d expect as he was actually faster than Hamilton for much of last year’s weekend, despite finishing behind him in the end. If he can replicate that kind of form again, then we think he could be the man to beat this Sunday.

We could also see a resurgence of the Ferrari’s again in Bahrain as the island heat could play a huge factor in tyre degradation, just as it did in Malaysia. In that race, Vettel won relatively comfortably after Mercedes made a strategic error- don’t expect that to happen again, but we reckon that Ferrari could see both their drivers on the podium this weekend and we’re tipping Kimi Raikkonen to beat his team mate for the first time in 2015.

Red Bull appear to be wading through treacle at the moment and Renault have given them no guarantee that their early season engine struggles are behind them. Renault claim to have made improvements, but with back-to-back races, they may not be able to implement the necessary changes in time. Red Bull will be well off the pace again in Bahrain and the extent of their problems this season can be outlined by the fact that rookie Sauber driver Felipe Nasr has scored more points so far in the driver’s championship than they have amassed in the constructor’s.

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