Fernando Alonso grabs first spoils in Bahrain
The pre-season hype surrounding Formula One is almost as over-the-top as the sport itself. It’s ego-fuelled, money-driven, cloak-and-dagger drama minus the cheerleaders and chequered flag.
By the time the first race in Bahrain came round this weekend, many of the potential stories had been written, or at least imagined. Michael Schumacher returning as a 41-year-old veteran to turn back the clock and stand on the top step of the podium once more; Felipe Massa turning near-tragedy into romantic victory on his first outing in a Grand Prix race since his crash in Belgium - the narrative possibilities were appetising.
Throw in the fact that this is the 60th year of Formula One, that legends of the sport had gathered in the desert to watch the young, and one old, guns battle it out for first blood, and the new rules and points system placing more emphasis on winning races, and you’ve got the highly-engineered environment for thrills that the sport prides itself on being.
But as is so often the case in these situations, the reality didn’t quite live up to the ideal. It was probably never going to. Last year the Brawn team and Jenson Button were a footnote in the pre-season manuscript. What happened in the first race in Melbourne and the rest of the 2009 Formula One championship is well-documented.
The race did not quite ignite, as Alonso claimed victory not through spectacular driving or thrilling overtaking, but because Sebastian Vettel’s Red Bull quite literally ran out of steam. Having secured pole with a superb lab in qualifying, the German looked to be cruising to the win. But a mechanical failure in the 34th lap led to a loss of power for the RB6 and Vettel was helpless as Alonso, Felipe Massa and Lewis Hamilton all overtook him with routine ease.
Despite a lack of theatrics, there was a poignancy to the result. Ferrari are the only team to have competed in every single season of Formula One since its inception and their one-two seemed fitting. Massa’s second place, less than a year after he came close to suffering a fatal accident added to the sweetness of the Italian team’s victory.
“Well, first of all it is just fantastic to be here, so thanks God that everything is great, being here, competitive, with a good car,” the Brazilian said after the race.
“I am very happy and thanks to everybody who was supporting me in a difficult time at home, every country, I received incredible letters and nice messages which gave me even more motivation. The race was really good and fantastic for us,” he added.
Alonso’s achievement in his debut for Ferrari was also significant.
“A very special day for me as coming back to the top of the podium is always special, but I think it is even more special with Ferrari with all the history behind the team and all the expectations a driver has when he drives for Ferrari,” he said.
Sub-plots came in the form of the Hamilton-Button and Schumacher-Rosberg rivalries - British drivers in a British team and Germans in a German team. It was Hamilton and Rosberg who took the spoils in Bahrain, with the Brit claiming a podium place and the German narrowly failing to pip the ever-slowing Vettel on the last lap for fifth place. Schumacher and Button finished in sixth and seventh respectively.
The new no-refuelling rule seemed to contribute to the slightly lacklustre feel to the race. There is always some uncertainty in the first Grand Prix and subsequent tinkering with the chassis but the new strategy of starting with a heavy car which gradually gets lighter and faster changed the dynamics of the race.
“It is a different challenge,” said Hamilton. “It definitely didn’t make racing more exciting in terms of being able to overtake.”
“Bit by bit everybody is learning how to use the tyres. I think that is probably the most interesting part, trying to understand the tyres, trying to conserve your fuel load and know when to attack and not to attack, I think this is a real challenge.”
While the story may have started slowly, this was just the opening chapter.