Will Gray

Tech Talk: What went wrong in Bahrain?

Will Gray

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The eagerly anticipated season opener started with optimism and ended with calls for a rapid regulation change - but is there really a problem, and if so can anything be done to solve it?

Bernie Ecclestone says there's no need to panic, but team bosses from McLaren, Mercedes and Red Bull all say it is vital to react to what was, honestly, a disappointingly dull race in Bahrain.

What was most shocking was how firm the knee-jerk reaction was from almost all concerned.

Given the amount of rule changes F1 has gone through in recent years, most teams usually take a composed and cautious approach to the new tweaks each year, always insisting they need 'a few more races' to see if there really is a positive or negative pattern.

In contrast, there was a frantic feeling from the post-race interviews in Bahrain. "Today was not the best show and we have to work together to improve it," said Martin Whitmarsh with a concerned look on his face.

Last season had dull races too, and in some ways it is just the way things pan out, with the most exciting races always the ones when a massive unpredictability factor is involved - like rain, safety cars or significant tyre wear.

Equally, however, the more variables there are in a 'standard' race, the more chance there is of that race being interesting - and the ban on refuelling removes a significant weight difference variable that had previously created at least two different strategic options in most races.

This year's Bahrain Grand Prix actually had more overtaking than last year's (20 to 15) but analysis shows only four moves were for points-scoring positions (only one if you consider just the top eight points positions used last year) while more than half the moves involved one of the trouble-hit new team cars being passed.

Lacking strategy

This is just one race we're talking about, but the signs are there. The problem is, before the ban on refuelling the ideal strategy for most was generally two stops, but teams had many different options within that.

Now, with no need to stop for fuel, the tyres are the only things that affect a team's strategy. With the regulations forcing two different tyre types to be used during the race, the ideal strategy now seems to be a one-stopper, with the race just about managing how best to use those two sets.

Given that Bahrain is one of the hotter circuits, the fear is that the tyres were too easy to manage and that races will become a procession, with the car that was fastest in qualifying taking the lead and managing the race all the way to the finish.

Change in rubber

One solution, tabled by Whitmarsh, is to get Bridgestone to change their rubber compounds (which are normally fixed before the opening race to a selection of four for the full season).

"We need a super-soft tyre that is really going to hurt if you take it to 20 laps," suggested Whitmarsh. "You shouldn't be able to do that with a super-soft tyre and I think even the prime, if it's a struggle to get it to do half a race distance, then you force (the issue)."

Firstly, though, unless there are significant differences between the way the different cars work their tyres, it is likely that a logical fastest strategy would still be formed and be used by all the teams.

And secondly, why would Bridgestone want to do that?

In a way, perhaps it would put a focus on their products and help them get across the fundamental message about performance versus lifetime trade-off in a tyre. Unfortunately, though, general perception is different.

An outsider with little interest in understanding tyres would simply believe Bridgestone was making bad tyres - which, of course, it would not be doing, it would actually be making high performance tyres that, by the laws of science, could last only a limited number of laps.

On top of that, it would cost a significant sum of money to modify the compounds and unless there is understanding of the trade-off from the general F1 viewer, Bridgestone would be the loser - and clearly they would not want that.

Change in mandatory pit stops

The other option is to enforce mandatory pit stops but, again, a logical strategy would likely be formed. In any case, to bring that in would almost certainly require unanimous agreement - and it was interesting that we didn't hear any cries from Ferrari about the boredom of their one-two victory.

In fact, asked if there was a danger that the F1 show now consists solely of qualifying, the first corner of the first lap and then the rest of the race as a procession, Ferrari boss Stefano Domenicali urged caution about reacting too fast but ultimately admitted: "If this is the danger then I would like to subscribe straightaway!"

He's right. If anyone has an advantage that would be taken away by that move, they clearly wouldn't accept it.

Change in diffusers

The most concerning thing to hear for the prospects of 2010, however, came not from the team bosses but actually from the drivers.

"I caught up with Michael (Schumacher) and then sat behind him for the rest of the race," said Jenson Button of his experience in Bahrain. Most others had similar stories, and Lewis Hamilton added: "It's pretty much a train the whole way."

It's not the first time we've heard that, of course, but the concern is that it seems to be getting worse. Red Bull driver Mark Webber admitted being "shocked" by how difficult it was to overtake. A lot of that was down to the fact that everyone is now driving more or less the same weight of fuel, but much is also down to the double diffusers.

Before the start of the season, McLaren's Paddy Lowe said: "Lots of people are saying that racing will be processional but... it has the potential to be more interesting. The drivers are forced to overtake on the track - there's no other way of doing it - which adds its own element of interest. It's a different risk profile."

Unfortunately, there is no risk profile involved - because drivers can't get close enough to take those risks.

Last year's rule changes were supposed to reduce the car's dependency on downforce with less effective wings and a simplified diffuser, but they were steamrollered by the double diffuser loophole, which allowed enlarged diffusers and, consequently, larger air disturbance trailing the cars.

Now things have gone even further.

Teams are allowed a hole in the diffuser to make enough space of their external starter motor to slot in - but with diffuser slots essential for improved performance, the clever ones have made radically shaped starter motors that need large sculpted holes to fit into - with the hole actually performing a crucial function in the diffuser.

It's in the rules, but it's against the spirit and it is another example of how teams will do anything for performance - they clearly understand it will harm the show because the disrupted wake it causes will reduce the opportunity for following cars to overtake but they know that if they don't do it, someone else will...

There will be a move to deal with this issue in Australia, but there seems little the FIA will be able to do.

So, unfortunately, it seems the sport has the most enticing group of front-running drivers seen in many years but, if Bahrain is indeed an indicator of things to come, they will be restricted from creating the dramatic battles everyone has been hoping for.

No matter what happens to the tyre situation, the fact will remain that throughout the race all the cars are on similar fuel loads - and with the double diffusers making it so hard to close in on the car in front, it will still be unlikely to see much on-track overtaking.

So all this begs the question why were the rules changed in the first place?

The F1 season in 2009 was one of the most spectacular in recent memory, refuelling had been in place for years, with limited problems, and everyone had got used to the fact pole position was firmly fused with race strategy rather than a simple bid for out-and-out pace.

But Formula One always seems to be looking for change.

Webber perhaps said it best. "Wow! New rules," he wrote on his new Twitter feed. "Not sure huh? Why do they keep dicking with it...?"

Why indeed...

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