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Friday Practice in Bahrain

There were few surprises in practice at Sakhir, Kimi Raikkonen quickest in both sessions, although his advantage decreased in the second. Times were much affected by varying fortunes amongst the drivers but we are beginning to see a pattern emerge this season. Essentially, it looks like being a season of three halves, as the soccer commentators might say.

Kimi

Kimi Raikkonen

At the front we have a fairly closely-packed bunch comprising Ferrari, McLaren, BMW and Williams – in that order, but the slightest mistake by any of them can mix everything up and confound predictions. That has to be good news and augurs well for the battle royal we all hoped for this year.

Just behind is a midfield group, less predictable in order but generally competitive with each other: Toyota, Renault, Honda and Red Bull. Renault and Red Bull seem to be having great difficulty in adapting to the Bridgestone tires but the Japanese teams’ problems look a little more fundamental than that. If any of them manage to overcome their problems, they could easily join the leading bunch – which would make the racing even more interesting.

Then there are the tail enders, Super Aguri, Toro Rosso and Spyker. Liuzzi surprised everyone with his eighth fastest time in the first session but fell back to TR’s more accustomed hunting ground in the second. There is potential there, however, and I will not be surprised to see the TRs improving to the point where they can fight with the Red Bulls in later races. Super Aguri, however, have not looked convincing to me, their early form indicative of running a car that was well-sorted last year, and they will most likely have a season of squabbling with Spyker to avoid being last.

Qualifying looms tomorrow and we can bet that there will be some disappointments as the dustiness of the track takes out a few of the hopefuls. My money is on Raikkonen for pole with Massa and the McLarens fighting over the next three positions. Kimi hated having to take it easy in Malaysia and he is showing extra determination now – he will be a hard man to beat on Sunday.

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A Few Malaysian Points

Apart from the first lap, there was not a great deal of overtaking in this Grand Prix. And yet it was very interesting. Perhaps most importantly, it illustrated that McLaren have closed the gap to Ferrari. Even had the McLarens not got the jump on Massa and Raikkonen at the start, they clearly were as quick and would not have been left behind if the Ferraris had grabbed the lead. When the Italian cars had nothing in front of them, they went no faster than they had been going behind Alonso and Hamilton.

Alonso

Alonso’s race

Naturally, Jean Todt denied that this had anything to do with the tightening of the test for flexible floors, that it was merely that McLaren had found more improvements since Melbourne than Ferrari had, but I think there is more to it than that. The BMWs were able to run at Ferrari pace, as shown by Heidfeld keeping Massa at bay, and there was a string of cars just behind this pair; did everyone improve more than Ferrari?

Some of the loss of Ferrari’s advantage can be explained by Kimi’s reliability worries. He was obviously content to hold station rather than risk the engine and would have been better advised to take the penalty and show us the true pace of the Ferrari with a fresh engine, I think. In spite of his determination to pamper the engine for points rather than a win, he was able to stay with the McLarens; with a new engine, he could have bullied his way through to fight for the lead.

The Finn’s face in the post race press conference spoke volumes – he is with Ferrari to win the championship and, if that means sometimes he has to go a little slower and let Massa have the glory, he is prepared to do it. And the glow around Felipe is beginning to fade; this was a race that he expected to win but threw away in frustration when he lost his lead at the first corner. It is Raikkonen, not Massa, that Alonso will have to fight for his third championship in a row.

A little further back, Williams entertained us with a great drive from Rosberg that deserved better than retirement and a charge through the field from Wurz. Hopefully, the car will get even better and we can enjoy the sight of a Williams battling for the lead again.

The performance of the Renaults and Hondas was interesting, both racing much better than they qualified. This would indicate that their main problem is in adjusting to the Bridgestones, rather than fundamental flaws in the design of the cars. If they can get on top of the tire problem, they will leapfrog into the top ten, I think.

And give Fisichella his due: he is doing a far better job than his much-hyped Finnish teammate, driving the car as fast as it will go without drama and taking the points on offer.

Toyota performed their usual disappearing act, Trulli circulating anonymously in the final points positions while Ralf managed to find his way back to keep the tailenders company. If anyone drives like Fisichella’s reputation, it is the Toyota team!

Note that Super Aguri were not so impressive in Malaysia – they have slipped a little and now run with their natural competitors, the Toro Rossos. This is a trend that is likely to continue, since their car becomes ever more out of date as others develop their later designs and get them to work with the tires. Expect Toro Rosso to get better and better, however, as Red Bull get the RB3 sorted out and drop a few hints to their second team.

Finally, I have to say it: Scott Speed finished well ahead of Liuzzi. Yes, tell me that Vitantonio had a little argument with Sato that spoiled his race – the point is, Scott didn’t. He ran consistently with a gaggle of allegedly better cars throughout the race and brought it home in the end. Staying out of trouble is part of racecraft too, Gerhard…

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Raikkonen’s Big Worry

Speculation over who will become Ferrari’s number one driver continues, with the Raikkonen ranks swelling after his win in Australia but the Massa devotees still expecting there to be a fight when their boy gets a car that doesn’t break in qualifying.

Kimi

Raikkonen in Australia

But I think Massa will be the least of Kimi’s worries at the moment – more to the point is that his engine temperatures shot up in the last few laps of the Australian GP. No damage was caused but it does put a question mark over the engine’s ability to survive another GP.

He could play safe by taking an engine change and the ten-position penalty that goes with it, of course. Which might be the wiser option, given the inevitability of Kimi qualifying on pole in Malaysia. No driver likes to have to fight his way to the front from tenth position but that shouldn’t be too big a problem for the Finn – he’s used to doing the same in an uncompetitive McLaren, after all.

The downside of the tactic is that it increases the risk of someone defending his position too vigorously and pushing Raikkonen off the track. But that is part of racing and can happen even if you’re leading and lapping an inattentive back marker. And how much more risky is it to start a race with an engine that was beginning to give trouble at the end of the last one? So I would say that Kimi should take the engine change and give us an entertaining drive through the field.

What, you think that Massa might be the fly in the ointment of that strategy? Get real – Felipe has improved out of all recognition in the last year, it’s true, but he is still not in the same class as Raikkonen. The Finn will come past him like a train and he won’t need team orders to do it.

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Thoughts on the Australian GP

As expected, Raikkonen won with ease, the Ferrari clearly the quickest car on this track and the driver one of the three fastest men in F1. Although the entire world is now expecting a Ferrari walkover this year, I am not convinced. The McLarens were good too and will get better.

Kimi

Kimi Raikkonen getting it done

Of course, the red team will improve their car as well but it is hard to better something that already seems just about perfect; go the wrong way and you could ruin it. And there are those lingering doubts about Kimi’s ability in testing – can he give the kind of input to the engineers that they had from Michael Schumacher? Massa will help with that but again I am unsure of his technical prowess.

I am also not all that impressed with Felipe’s drive through the field. When you have a car as superior to the rest as the F2007, it does not look all that good to be held up for lap after lap by a car as evil-handling as Button’s Honda. I’m sure Michael would have made short work of it.

Enough has been said already about Lewis Hamilton’s excellent race without me adding the same accolades; the lad is a star and will ensure that McLaren win the constructor’s title this year. Alonso is brilliant and will assist in the development of the car until it can beat the Ferraris so Ron Dennis has plenty to smile about at the moment, in spite of not winning this first race of the season.

The BMWs were not quite on the pace of the front runners and Renault were well off it. Both will improve with time, however, and may be able to challenge for the lead in later races.

The Hondas were awful, with Barrichello having the better time of it and expressing himself reasonably happy. Button thinks that the problem lies in the front aerodynamics but, judging from what Flavio Briatore had to say about the Bridgestones being the root cause of Renault’s difficulties, I would suspect that tires also have a lot to do with the Honda malaise. Hopefully, they will find a solution and be more competitive in future races.

Otherwise things went more or less to plan. The Toyotas were a bit better than we’d guessed, the Williams a bit worse. But which would you rather be sitting in for the next GP?

Finally, another word about Scott Speed: until his front tires deflated, he was well ahead of Liuzzi. Gerhard Berger was content with the Italian’s performance in this race – perhaps he will admit that the American seemed pretty “committed” too…

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