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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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Alex Wurz – The Forgotten One

There has been a lot of talk of who will be the quickest rookie this year, with Hamilton and Kovalainen emerging as the most likely candidates (a fair bet, since they’re in the quickest cars) and Adrian Sutil getting the occasional mention. Kubica gets honorary rookie status in view of his late addition to the ranks last year, as does Anthony Davidson since he had so few races and those so long ago.

But poor old Alexander Wurz never gets a look-in. Of course, with 53 GPs under his belt, he’s no rookie, but his race as stand-in for Montoya at Imola in 2005 was his only GP in seven years. That’s almost long enough to include him with the other newbies.

Alex

Alex Wurz

Alex’s curse has been that he’s the best test driver out there – hence his years of testing with McLaren and Williams. His racing reputation was severely mauled by his last year with Benetton when his teammate, Fisichella, proved quicker. So Alex is regarded as a known quantity, quick occasionally but inconsistent.

But I wonder. Part of his problem has been his height – on occasion he has had difficulty fitting into the car and this must surely make driving a bit more awkward. Look how Mark Webber has been griping about the Red Bull RB3 pinching his rear end.

Even so, Alex managed a third place in that lone race in 2005 – not bad for a guy making his comeback after a long break. There is just a chance that he might show up his young sidekick, Nico Rosberg, in the other Williams. And, if the Williams proves as quick in the races as it has been in testing, we could see Wurz appearing much closer to the front than anyone expects.

It is not that I am expecting any miracles from Alex this season; more that I hope he can get in there and mix things up even more than they are at present. F1 really needs a championship fought out between several drivers and the more wild cards added to the deck, the more likely it is that that will happen.

So I wish Alex the best of luck – may he puncture more than a few over-inflated egos this year. And let us see that great, beaming, goofy smile again as he tots up the points.

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A Thought or Two on Speed

With the off season nearly at an end, it is time to step back and make our predictions based on the testing we have all been following so avidly. Or so it seems, judging by the number of experts pronouncing the obvious.

Of course Ferrari look the team to beat and McLaren and Renault are their nearest competitors – anyone could work that out after a quick look at the timesheets from the various testing venues used. And it is hardly controversial to suggest that Massa will be faster than his teammate in 2007 – again, that is pretty clear from testing.

Speed

Speed – ambiguity intended

It is so easy to forget that this is just testing and that the truth will only emerge once the season gets underway. Many a team has been embarrassed by their race performance after having a brilliant winter and others come good after a race or two. That’s what makes for a great season, after all – the unpredictability of racing.

That is what I keep telling myself, anyway. F1 could really use a closely-fought championship with several drivers and cars battling for honors – so I hope that all the indicators are wrong and Ferrari will not have the enormous advantage in the races that is so obvious in testing.

But allow me to point at one last interesting fact from the final day of testing in Bahrain: Scott Speed’s 8th fastest time in the Toro Rosso. Not only was he quicker than the Red Bull duo (which must be incredibly frustrating for them) but he has also given an answer to Gerhard Berger’s doubts about his commitment. I stand by what I have said about Speed in the past – our resident American is much better than anyone gives him credit for.

But it also vindicates the psychological skills of that man, Berger…

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Red Bull and Honda

Well, there ya go – what did I tell ya? No sooner do I mention that the teams seem to be taking it in turns to go fastest in testing than Red Bull hit the front. Okay, it may have been a stunt for the visiting Dietrich Mateschitz, owner of the team, but at least it proves that the RB3 can go quickly when it’s light on fuel and has new tires. And it must have been pleasant for David Coulthard to grab the best time – it’s been a while since he did that.

Joking aside, Red Bull have got to be a little worried about the pace of the RB3. They know what had to be done to give DC the chance for top spot and that it has no relevance for the actual races at all. Much more telling is the car’s consistency in being a low midfield runner in testing, just as the BMW has been consistently near the front. If there is a pointer to race performance in testing, it is consistency, not single lap times.

RA107

Honda RA107

What worries me, however, is Honda’s apparent lack of pace. So far their testing times have been nowhere near the front and my prediction of Button for champion begins to look very optimistic indeed. I console myself with the thought that in previous seasons they have looked good in testing, only to disappoint once the races started. Maybe this time they are getting things the right way around.

It is also true that the early races can give a false impression of what is to follow. Time and again we have seen a team do well at first and then fade away once the circus gets to Europe. My hope has to be that Honda are concentrating on quiet development and will come good once the season gets into its stride.

That might be the case for Red Bull as well, of course. But I have my doubts on that score. The team is hungry for success and has two drivers who are starved of good publicity – if they could put in a few good times, I feel sure that they would. Honda, however, have been there, done that, and know that it counts for nothing in the long run. If anyone is sandbagging, they are.

At least, that’s what I keep telling myself…

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