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F1 starts with lots of subplot, little actual plot

It had been billed as the start of Formula 1’s ‘most exciting season ever’, with four world champions – Jenson Button, Lewis HamiltonFernando Alonso and Michael Schumacher – present on the grid.

Instead, yesterday’s Bahrain Grand Prix at the Sakhir circuit was more like a desert without an oasis, with precious little for millions of viewers around the world to take as sustenance.

In-race refuelling has been consigned to history, with the intended effect of encouraging more overtaking on the track. Bahrain gave us some customary first corner argy-bargy, but that was then followed by 49 laps of largely processional ‘racing’ during which the only major position changes of note were the McLarens of Button and Hamilton gaining a place each during their pit-stops.

A new points system intended to provide a greater reward for higher placings and therefore a greater incentive for attempted overtaking moves also had little discernible effect, as the ever-present issue of turbulence compromising a car’s aerodynamic performance as it closes in on the car in front discouraged Alonso – one of the sport’s bravest overtakers – from risking a move on Red Bull’s Sebastian Vettel for fear of destroying his tyres.

As it was, he didn’t even need to try. Vettel picked up a problem with a spark plug, enabling Alonso, Felipe Massa and Hamilton to sweep past him as Ferrari put a troubled 2009 season behind then with a one-two finish.

And that was pretty much all she wrote as far as the action was concerned. The resurrected Lotus team managed to get Heikki Kovalainen’s car to the finish, while teammate Jarno Trulli broke down late on. Neither Virgin car made it beyond one-third distance. And while Hispania’s Bruno Senna completed 17 laps, teammate Karun Chandhok managed just one circuit before being thrown into a wall after hitting a bump.

Before the naysayers prematurely trash the 2010 season, there are mitigating circumstances. The first race of the season often throws up some oddities, with teams scrambling to finish new parts and make last-minute improvements to their cars. The teams are also still trying to work out how best to deal with the new refuelling-free regulations, and everyone was clearly erring well on the side of conservative with their race strategies. And finally Sakhir is a slow, dusty circuit which has always offered few overtaking opportunities.

While the early signs are far from positive, we will not really be in a position to judge the overall impact of the rule changes until after the season’s third and fourth races in Malaysia and China.

At least one thing remains consistent in F1. There may not have been much happening on the track in Bahrain, but the season’s major subplots all developed nicely.

Let’s start with Ferrari. On his return from his career-threatening accident in Hungary last year, Massa threw down a huge marker on Saturday by outqualifying teammate Alonso. But in the race the Spaniard, on the cleaner line, went round the outside of Massa at the first corner and later, having passed the ailing Vettel, banged in a series of blistering laps – his fastest race lap was fully 1.1 seconds quicker than anyone else’s (and nearly 1.5 seconds faster than Massa’s) – to emphasise his dominance. Spain 1 Brazil 0.

In the all-British McLaren team, Hamilton (third) not only finished well ahead of Button (seventh), but was consistently quicker than his new teammate all weekend. That was hardly unexpected, though, as it is too easy to underestimate the difficulty Button faces settling in to what is categorically Hamilton’s team. I fully expect it will take until at least mid-season until Button is able to feel fully at home at McLaren. Overall, I still expect Hamilton to be the faster man, but it won’t be as clear-cut as it appeared this weekend, and on fast, abrasive, car-breaking circuits such as Canada in mid-June, Button’s smoother driving style may pay big dividends.

At Mercedes, Schumacher looked uncomfortable throughout and was outpaced by teammate Nico Rosberg in every session. Again, it is asking too much of even a seven-time world champion to be straight back on the pace after more than three years out of the sport. Like Button, we cannot fully gauge the success of his comeback until mid-season. And while sixth place represented a solid showing, he will certainly have plenty to think about when contemplating his performance. Schumacher has always dominated; to be markedly inferior over an entire race weekend against a teammate 17 years his junior is unprecedented in his experience.

Perhaps the most convincing and decisive performance came at Red Bull, where Vettel took pole and led for two-thirds of the race before his mechanical problems, while Mark Webber qualified sixth – more than a second behind his teammate – and finished a distant eighth. The German’s race weekend had everything: a dramatic, blistering pole-setting lap followed by a mistake-free performance in the race itself. Make no mistake, Vettel is a big, big contender for this year’s title, but Red Bull need to rectify the lack of reliability which scuppered their challenge last year.

The racing in Bahrain may have been dull, but will hopefully improve. The politics of F1, however, remain second to none.

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About Tim
Father of three. Bit of a geek. That's all, folks.

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