By Max Prince/The Drive
This article originally appeared in The Drive on April 1, 2016
We’ll all remember the crash. Violent and scary and more than enough to maim, but, somehow, McLaren’s Fernando Alonso walked away. Then there was the surprise, the new Haas team, America’s team, showing up strong. So what if Nico Rosberg, second-generation race royalty driving for the Mercedes-AMG juggernaut, took the win? Two weeks ago, the season-opening F1 Australian Grand Prix delivered. Big time.
Next up: The Bahrain Grand Prix. This one’s a night race, the grid slated to line up just minutes before sunset. The backdrop? Fifteen turns drawn in 3.3 miles of tarmac, the work of controversial German racetrack design guru Hermann Tilke. His fingerprints are everywhere. Which is to say: Triangulated by long straightaways, each dumping into hairpins. It’s a place made for television, for high speeds and dramatic passes. But don’t let the large runoff areas, another Tilke trademark, mislead you: This track punishes driver error.
In the U.S., the Bahrain Grand Prix will air Sunday, April 3, on NBC Sports at 10:30 a.m. EST. You should watch it. Here are the storylines we’ll be following in the run up to, and during, the race.
Kimi Räikkönen. Because he's Kimi Räikkönen.
Scandinavian treasure. Prolific weirdo. Recidivist napper. Kimi is a lot of things but, mostly, he’s a breath of fresh air from bleach bomb of modern racing personalities. A man who does not suffer fools lightly. (To an overzealous crew chief, via radio: “Leave me alone. I know what I’m doing.”) A man who speaks his mind. (To a pit reporter, after missing pre-race ceremonies: “Yeah. I was having a shit.”) When the 2009 Malaysian Grand Prix was canceled mid-race due to rain, drivers returned to the pits for debrief. Kimi went into the garage to eat an ice cream bar. Eccentricities aside: Dude can drive his pants off. He won in Bahrain last year, and his Ferrari teammate, Sebastian Vettel, nabbed a podium in Australia. The car’s competitive; Kimi’s a stud. If there’s a viable sleeper pick for this weekend, it’s Räikkönen.
F1 teams aren’t supposed to be competitive during their first season. Apparently, nobody told NASCAR impresario and machinery mogul Gene Haas, a man who hates losing almost as much as paying his taxes. After buying some Ferrari engines and enlisting mega-talented French driver Romain Grosjean, Haas has launched the first American F1 squad since Reagan was in office. The Haas boys shocked everyone in Australia with a sixth-place finish. Had Grosjean’s teammate, Esteban Gutiérrez, not been the recipient of a 190-mph mounting from Fernando Alonso, the team might’ve snatched two top-ten spots in its debut. A fluke? Or is America’s F1 crew for real? Mario Andretti says it’s the latter. We’ll find out in Bahrain.
Oh, and speaking of Fernando Alonso…
He’ll be sitting this play out. During Thursday’s prerace press conference, the two-time World Champion announced that he’s been barred from racing Sunday. It’s a medical scratch, on account of fractured ribs and pneumothorax (read: partially collapsed lung) from the crash in Australia. Stoffel Vandoorne, who sounds like a peripheral Bloodsport character but is actually a reserve driver, will make his F1 debut filling Alonso’s seat at McLaren.
F*@%ing qualifying! How does it work?
F1 has a new qualifying format this season. It’s an elimination-style tournament and, like before, there are three sessions. The slowest driver is eliminated roughly halfway through each, and at 1m 30s intervals thereafter. Except, now, eliminated drivers leave the track immediately. In theory, the field slowly siphons off, leading up to one final head-to-head run, instead of a multicar free-for-all. In actuality, the whole thing’s a huge mess. (Just hours before the last race weekend, NBC producers still didn’t have on-screen graphics prepared, because nobody from F1 could actually explain the rules coherently.) Qualifying in Australia devolved into chaos and minor hysteria almost immediately. An “emergency meeting” by teams and officials last week yielded exactly no progress, so Bahrain will keep the new format. Once more unto the breach, race fans. Bring beer.