What a difference a year makes.
F1 is back in Bahrain, but it’s a very different F1 to 12 months ago.
Yes, it’s still a night-time race with sparks flying from titanium skid blocks under the cars, but Bahrain gives us a great opportunity to compare just how different the sport is this year.
A cheeky ’Nando
Last year, the big driver news was that Fernando Alonso (pictured) was missing the race after cracking his ribs in a monster Melbourne shunt.
This year, the big driver news is that Fernando Alonso is missing a race – Monaco, not Bahrain – because he’s off to compete in the Indy 500.
There’s politics at play here, of course. Desperate though Alonso is to compete at the business end of the field again, his one-off drive with the Andretti team at Indianapolis has far more to do with the needs of his McLaren-Honda bosses, and even more to do with the ambitions of F1’s new bosses.
For McLaren and Honda, there’s the chance for a Honda-powered, McLaren-badged car to compete in a race that it could, conceivably, do well in. It’s been a long time, hasn’t it.
But there’s an even bigger picture than that.
F1’s new owners at Liberty Media are desperately keen to crack open the US market, and sticking an F1 double world champion, in F1 team colours, into the Indy 500 is a huge, unsubtle and possibly inspired advert for Formula 1.
And who to replace Alonso for the Monaco gathering? Ideally, it would be Alex Rossi. He’s an Andretti driver who might swap the glory of Indianapolis for the glamour of Monaco and, more importantly, he’s an American.
Alonso and McLaren bringing F1 pulling power to a US audience, while Rossi brings a bit of American F1 interest to Monaco – you can see how this might become an F1 pincer movement on US petrolheads.
In reality, there’s a chance for McLaren to blood a young driver (if they can get a super-licence sorted), if they don’t fancy blowing the dust off reserve driver Jenson Button.
F1 CEO Chase Carey is not only more accommodating of other motorsports than Bernie Ecclestone ever was, he appears to be seeking out more ways in which different racing series can support one another.
Come on, if Liberty pulled off something like, say, a weekend featuring F1 and Indy racers (plus a predictable music mega-concert or two), you’d be interested, no?
The F1 times they are a-changin’. Talking of which…
It’s actually about the racing
In 2011, the Bahrain race was cancelled as political protests rocked the country.
In 2012, the race went ahead but it was under the shadow of stories of Bahrainis being tortured and denied basic human rights.
In 2013, anti-government protests were still bigger news than the racing. In 2014, the politics hadn’t gone away but a memorable duel between the Mercedes of Lewis Hamilton and Nico Rosberg was good news for F1 bosses, looking for more sporting headlines and fewer human rights headlines.
In 2015, F1 announced that it was ‘committed to respecting human rights in Bahrain’ … and, of course, took the money and ignored the protests still ongoing in the country.
In 2016… oh, 2016. Remember last year’s qualifying shambles? The flip-flopping rule changes as F1’s paymasters made a mockery of the sport?
That was what dominated last year’s headlines; embarrassing doesn’t begin to describe it and, don’t forget, the controversy over F1’s presence in Bahrain was still ever-present.
Finally, we arrive in 2017. Whatever political challenges Bahrain faces have been somewhat overshadowed by events elsewhere and, whatever your moral standpoint, the F1 headlines are actually about racing again.
Ferrari v Mercedes, Vettel v Hamilton, Verstappen v Ricciardo. And that’s just at the glory end of the grid.
For what it’s worth, Bahrain should favour Mercedes, if they can stay at the head of the field – those cars don’t like struggling for grip in the turbulence of a Ferrari.
It’s a power circuit and Hamilton (pictured) should take pole. As for his team-mate Bottas, well…
Forgive and forget
Last year, Valtteri Bottas (pictured) started his race by bumping into Lewis Hamilton, wrecking the Brit’s race and earning himself a drive-through penalty and a couple of points on his super-licence too.
This year, it’s safe to say that bumping into Hamilton would land him in considerably more hot water.
At this circuit, Bottas needs to outqualify Vettel, if only for his own peace of mind. Then, a tidy race and a top-three finish would keep his Mercedes bosses off his back.
Over at Ferrari, they’ve been putting all that extra money F1 gives them (Ferrari get millions just for turning up) to good use and they’re keeping Mercedes honest at the moment.
But here’s a thought: the new F1 regime, and Motorsports Director Ross Brawn in particular, have Ferrari’s blessed status in their sights. At some point, the Maranello outfit are going to find themselves in a corner and they’re going to see their F1 income shrunk.
And that means less to spend on fast cars and fast drivers. The clock is ticking.
If Ferrari are going to triumph this year, circuits like Bahrain are where they’ll have to pull out all the stops, take chances with their power units and push Mercedes hard (getting their race strategy nailed would help too… just ask Kimi).
Careful what you wish for
A special Bahrain mention goes to one Stoffel Vandoorne (pictured).
Last year, he deputised in Bahrain for the injured Alonso, outqualified team-mate Jenson Button and then finished tenth, becoming the first reserve driver to finish in the points on his debut since Sebastian Vettel back in 2007.
And so he replaced Button for the 2017 season and… well, tenth this year in his McLaren would be a reasonable goal, though not one that would be celebrated at McLaren HQ quite as much as his tenth last year.
Vandoorne, like his Indy 500-bound colleague Alonso, finds himself with lots of talent and not so much car.
Even if he puts in a decent drive, the odds are against his car lasting the race distance.
With so much changing in Formula 1, it’s cruel that McLaren are stuck in a particularly miserable rut.
Well, unless you’re running Williams or Force India…
The Bull run
Last year, Max Verstappen (pictured right with Vettel) drove his Toro Rosso to an impressive sixth in Bahrain, scoring the team’s first ever points at the circuit in the process.
Three races later, he’d been promoted to Red Bull.
This year, no one is treating him like a rookie, least of all his team-mate Daniel Ricciardo.
After Verstappen’s barnstorming drive in the damp of China last week, this weekend it’s crucial for Ricciardo to finish ahead of his colleague, and to start building some momentum in his 2017 season, which has had a lacklustre start.
Behind his huge smile, Ricciardo is a steely operator and it’s going to be fascinating watching how he and Verstappen trade blows in the dust of Bahrain.