1) McLaren finally hit right note
McLaren’s decision to allow Fernando Alonso to race in the Indy 500 rather than at Monaco was greeted almost universally as a welcome move. Certainly it generated more positive press than the team have enjoyed in a long time. It was clever PR and they followed it by bringing back Jenson Button to replace Alonso in Monte Carlo.
The McLaren executive director, Zak Brown, IndyCar, Indianopolis and Liberty Media are all more than aware of the good publicity this generates but there was further expediency at work.
The need to keep Alonso on board both for his talent and as a valuable asset for attracting sponsors was a major consideration and there is no doubt the Spaniard would not have been released had McLaren been even close to competing at the sharp end.
Other teams would still not have let their driver skip a race. Claire Williams ruled it out as did Red Bull’s Christian Horner, who said: “No. It’s a bit like disappearing with another girlfriend halfway through the year and then coming back. It doesn’t seem the right thing to be doing.”
McLaren’s decision should not be taken as a simple given just because they are struggling and for that they should be applauded. Fans have long wanted to see drivers compete in different series and the challenge Alonso has set himself is an enthralling one.
2) Bonhomie goes for a burton
It was all smiles for McLaren before their cars hit the track and then it was depressingly familiar business as usual. They had three engine failures in Bahrain, the final one of which saw Alonso unable to take part in Q2. Stoffel Vandoorne’s car was unable to start the race owing to a further power unit problem. Alonso retired late in the race with what he described as a “problem” that has yet to be explained.
Any sense of bonhomie disappeared. Alonso had been vocal again with his frustration during the grand prix. “I have never raced with less power in my life,” he said over the radio after he was caught by cars 400 metres behind him on the straight. Asked about a change of strategy by the team, his reply was dismissive: “Do whatever you want mate.” The lack of speed had been “impressive,” he added and Honda’s inability to provide Vandoorne with an engine that would start was “amazing”.
It is a recurring theme. Alonso stays calm and on message until he races and then can barely contain himself. Brown will not be drawn on when McLaren expect an improvement but there will be no step up until Honda bring a new engine to Barcelona that it is hoped will solve the vibration problems plaguing the cars now.
“We have several goals and objectives set and we are working towards them,” Brown said. “We don’t have unrealistic expectations from where we are today to where we can get to.”
I have never raced with less power in my life
Alonso said racing at Indy will be “good to refresh the mind” and for the moment that will be enough. What McLaren need to consider is quite how he will take it if he returns to the day job and finds he is back in a car that has not moved on.
3) Ecclestone back in the spotlight
Bernie Ecclestone returned to the paddock in Bahrain and, despite having been removed from the decision-making process by the new owners, his every utterance was dutifully reported, which no doubt made it feel like old times.
That Ecclestone is largely irrelevant in his honorary but powerless role as chairman emeritus did not seem to matter yet some of what he said was at best mischievous and at worst almost insulting. He opened by confirming he has little to do with the new management. “I’ve never met Sean [Bratches, the Liberty Media commercial director],” he said. “Ross Brawn popped in to see me for 10-15 minutes a week or 10 days ago. I spoke to Chase Carey this morning, he was asking me some things which I could help him with, which I did. So if there’s any help they want, I’m there helping.”
Innocuous enough but not entirely newsworthy, so he followed it with the claim that one of the problems with F1 was charging race promoters too much to host races – an extraordinary statement given his deals on behalf of the former owners CVC which did not seem to show much concern for fans.
“The only thing that would be good for everyone would be if we could charge the promoters a lot less money,” he said. “I did some good deals commercially. They are paying a lot of money, and most of them, if not all of them, are not making any money. Quite the opposite. If we could reduce the fee they pay they could then charge less for tickets and sell more tickets. So if you want to look after the fans, that’s the way to do it.”
Ecclestone also said he would have blocked Alonso’s race at the Indy 500. He was always zealous in combating any competition to F1 and he said: “I would have said wait until your contract finishes and then you can do what you like but you are in the middle of Formula One and you are a Formula One driver.” Which, given the enthusiasm with which Alonso’s drive was greeted, is classic Ecclestone.
4) Ferrari have it when it counts
Three races into the season and already some patterns can be discerned. Ferrari, after some poor decisions last season, have hit the ground running with their pit-wall calls. They were astute in Australia to take the win, unlucky in China after a bold move to bring Sebastian Vettel in under the virtual safety car and aggressive at Sakhir.
They are outclassed by Mercedes in qualifying but much more importantly they look to have the pace on race day. Both in Australia and Bahrain the Ferrari looked quicker, especially early on when fat with fuel. Better still, it is superior in traffic as well. Vettel was able to follow in the wake of the Mercedes in Bahrain without problems.
All of which is augmented by their car being easier on the tyres. Lewis Hamilton’s Mercedes, with a front wing of fearsome complexity, has looked unhappy in close proximity to a leading car and has struggled with overworking its rubber. Vettel has praised how his car is handling and is clearly confident in its performance.
Even without the travails that Valtteri Bottas and Hamilton underwent during the race, once Vettel had the lead catching and passing him would have been a tall order. Even Kimi Raikkonen, who has had an indifferent start to the season, felt his Ferrari was working well in Bahrain, a circuit where Mercedes have won since the turbo-hybrid era began. After their win in China Toto Wolff described Mercedes as having the attitude of the underdog, which was pure gamesmanship. As things stand it might yet come true.
5) Secondary drivers need to step up
Wolff acknowledged after the race the threat from Ferrari. “We have a fight that is on,” the head of Mercedes said. What became clearer in Bahrain was that fight will require a team effort – and to secure the constructors’ championship Mercedes and Ferrari are going to need more from the drivers who are not exchanging blows at the front of the grid.
Vettel leads Hamilton by seven points in the drivers’ championship on 68, with Bottas third on 38 and Raikkonen fourth on 34. Ferrari lead the constructors’ from Mercedes by three points. With so little to chose between them it will be nip and tuck to the line.
If the fight at the front is between Hamilton and Vettel, both are drivers who will need no further encouragement. As Mario Andretti noted of Vettel’s enthusiasm, “Sebastian Vettel is my kind of guy. Just wins the race and says he can’t wait to get back in the car to test in 2 days. #markoftrueracer,” he tweeted.
But their teams need more from Bottas and Raikkonen. Wolff has already talked about bringing in team orders, which shows how serious the fight will be this season. For Bottas, who has two thirds and a sixth place, the task is simple: he needs a win and sooner rather than later if his bid to stay on with Mercedes beyond this year is to have a chance.
Similarly Raikkonen, unhappy with the front end of his car, has to improve from the two fourths and a fifth he has scored and get between the Mercedes pair. He had a poor start in Bahrain, which he acknowledged, while Bottas suffered from his tyres being at too high a pressure.
Come the grand prix in Russia on 30 April, the heat will be building. In a season that may be measured by a handful of points, their contributions will be key.