What do you know about Bahrain, the main thing you know, other than they have a grand prix? Probably that it’s held in a desert, right? And what you know about deserts? That they’re hot, and they’re bright.
I know that too. And yet, when I got dressed before breakfast on Thursday I realised to my dismay that I’d forgotten to bring my sunglasses. There’s a start you don’t want for the opening round of a new championship, when you’ll have more than a few things to get done outside.
None of the drivers forgot theirs, of course: in a shocking discovery, it turns out that all of the drivers on the grid are more sensible than me. And the few we needed for individual portraits all turned up on time too, making me feel that I was still in some sort of really boring but weirdly opposite dream. “It’s nice in here,” smiled Artem Markelov, not a man built for life in the desert as he enjoyed the air conditioning, “can we stay here all weekend?”
“I think your team might want you to spend a bit of time with them.”
“They can come up too! It’s much nicer than in the pits: it’s way too hot down there…”
And just to confirm that I was living in some alternate reality, every driver arrived in the pitlane early for the class photo, all in their race suits and sunglasses, before the chairs were even in place on the grid. “Why aren’t you wearing sunglasses?” Stefano Coletti asked, laughing, “is it for a bet?”
“It’s so bright here, I don’t know how I would survive without these.”
“You can go and sit out there now, thanks.”
Once Alexa had them all in order Zak the photographer took over as the F1 media and photographers lined up behind him. “Okay guys, I know it’s very bright out here, but we can’t have sunglasses in the photos. So take them off, close your eyes and look down, and I’ll call each time we take a shot so you can open them again briefly and we’ll get the shot. Closed, and open. Closed, and open. Closed…”
And I had to stand there, watching, to make sure things were running smoothly.
After lunch it was time for the first Facebook Live Q&A session, with Charles Leclerc arriving early and ready to go. More ready than us, it turned out, as we didn’t know how to set it up. Cue 3 of us looking on our various devices to find out before we could finally switch it on via a mobile phone and stick it in front of him, with Charles immediately answering the various questions thrown at him with aplomb. “That was easy,” he laughed afterwards before heading back out into the heat as we put on jumpers to deal with the ever increasing cold in our suite.
For once the drivers were delighted to be interviewed for the Insider and the other various things we put together over a race weekend. “Wow, I might stop here for the rest of the day,” Jordan King smiled ahead of doing the Lightning Round, “I’m happy to be interviewed for anything!” Gustav Malja and Louis Deletraz had a great teammate interview, possibly bringing more jokes than usual just to stay out of the heat, while Nyck De Vries was delighted to find out he was being interviewed for an upcoming feature.
But there was no way for them to avoid the heat on Friday, with the track temperature flagged at 46˚ as we arrived in the pitlane for free practice, although I was later told the thermometer is actually somewhere in the shade. There was no unnecessary movement as the oppressive heat bore down on us all, and the drivers were straight out on track as the lights went green, probably just to generate a bit of breeze for themselves.
Unusually for a first session there wasn’t much in the way of off track action, although the recent 3 day test probably ironed most of wrinkles out of the drivers’ approaches to the circuit. And most of them were afraid of having to walk back from wherever they ran off track, more than likely, even if it didn’t seem to faze Kimi Raikkonen. Although he’s Finnish: he’s probably quite used to saunas.
A couple of drivers stalled at the end of the pitlane as they waited to do a practice start, prompting sighs from the marshals and team members who had to push the cars back and get them restarted, but in a session otherwise so devoid of action that a remonstration by Leclerc on Malja was deemed worthy of a replay, Oliver Rowland grabbed the honour of topping the first F2 race session by less than a tenth from Markelov and Leclerc, with the top nine all within a second of the Briton.
With qualifying not happening until that evening there was plenty of time for all the meetings we needed to sort out the new practices: the press conferences are now held in the F1 paddock rather than back in ours, and we met with all the people now putting those together and promoting them for the F1 media, as well as the process of getting the drivers and our media there, finding out where we collect our radios and so on.
When darkness fell the temperatures dropped with it, making it almost pleasant to walk around to the pitlane, the huge circuit lighting rigs showing us the way. At only 29˚ on track it was a lot closer to a European round, and the drivers were all straight out to make their mark. Rowland was the first to set a competitive time, just 6 minutes into the session, but was almost immediately surpassed by Leclerc, whose teammate Antonio Fuoco grabbed P2 just before everyone returned for fresh rubber, the gap between the pair a mere 0.067s.
It was expected that the field would stop in the pits for a while, but no one told Leclerc, who was back out almost immediately for a second run. It was pretty unexpected, but the Monegasque driver clearly enjoyed having the circuit to himself as he improved his time, stretching his lead to almost seven tenths and showing the others what they could have done.
The rest of the field rushed out on track to replicate his efforts, but traffic meant that they were unable to improve in any meaningful way, and the damage was confirmed when Malja and Nabil Jeffri came together late in the circuit, prompting a VSC period that caught out a number of drivers and brought an early end to proceedings, with De Vries the only driver to move forward meaningfully, to P3.
Which turned into 2nd later that night, following a number of meetings with the stewards. The highest placed change was for Fuoco, dropping 3 spots for impeding Markelov, while Malja dropped 5 for causing the collision, and 3 others (Sean Gelael, Sergio Canamasas and Coletti) also being awarded 5 place penalties for failing to slow in time following the VSC. All three would start from the pitlane.
Saturday saw the first of a new regular feature, with a group tour for Paddock Club fans into a pit, this time over at PREMA. The tours are hosted by Sam Power, a young and enthusiastic Aussie who was racing Porsches back home before coming to Europe to follow his dreams. He’s already managed to pick up a new nickname when Didier misheard his name (“Same power? Like a dyno-test?”), and he made a lot of new friends over the weekend for his enthusiasm.
And then, at last, it was time to race.
After the race the guys on the right were unhappy about how dirty it was off the racing line, and with the wind picking up there would certainly have been a lot of sand blowing across the circuit. And it explains the start if you saw the overhead shot, because those on the left had a noticeable advantage, with Leclerc easily beating De Vries into turn 1, followed by Nato from P3, although the start of the race had to go to Markelov: starting in 7th, he slotted in behind the Frenchman after mugging De Vries at turn 2.
While the front 2 fought each other, the Russian bided his time in third, resting on his tremendous start and relying on tyre management to give him an advantage as the race came to him. Nato got into the lead, then Leclerc took it back, but both were eating up their tyres: the Frenchman was the first to stop, on lap 15, Leclerc stopped next time by to cover, and Markelov had clear track and life in his tyres, pushing hard for a few laps before finally stopping on lap 18, emerging in 3rd once again but with fresher rubber than his rivals.
Nato had mugged Leclerc the previous lap, and set a string of fastest laps to reinforce his advantage. But while the pair squabbled Markelov sat on his advantage, waiting for the closing laps to strike: circulating about 7 seconds off Leclerc for lap after lap, on lap 27 he finally struck, dropping a couple of seconds a lap off his times before scalping the Monegasque driver two laps later, dispatching Nato next time round, and stretching a lead over the final two laps to almost 8 seconds at the flag.
Hugs. High fives. Photos. Spray. Then on to the press conference. Or at least it would have been, if Alexa didn’t get them lost in the control tower.
I know, it’s easy to mock her for getting lost – that’s exactly why I’m doing it – but it is complicated to find your way round in there and, as I was collecting journalists and coming in from the other side it was hardly any easier, albeit that they’re more likely to wait for the drivers to arrive than some scribblers. Still, everyone made it, eventually, and we had a new feature with individual videos for the top three, which hopefully you’ve seen on social media. And Dyno had Markelov over for an interview at the Paddock Club, which was probably not what he was expecting when he set up the regular race winner’s interview.
The Russian was mobbed at the Game Zone later that night, when he doubled up by winning the race there too before signing loads of posters and other items, and being asked for endless selfies with the fans. It was one of the most enthusiastic fan meets we’ve had: they certainly love fast drivers in the Middle East, and it took ages to extract our guys and head back to the paddock.
The wind picked up substantially on Sunday morning, and earlier talk about a possible sand storm was taking an ominous turn. Arriving at the circuit we found that some of the barriers in the car park had already blown over, leading us to worry about the timings for the sprint race. But happily the race started to recede just before the race, and while it was still quite strong at least it didn’t seem to be quite so full of grit and sand.
And Luca Ghiotto, who had been one of those complaining about being on the dirty side the day before, made short work of starting from P2 to storm past Albon (whose path to the first corner from P3 was clarified when teammate and poleman Nobuharu Matsushita had to start from the pits after developing a problem on his outlap) and into the lead, with Leclerc and King behind them. A short safety car period for Nato’s puncture and off didn’t delay them much, with Leclerc almost immediately up to P2 to fight the Italian for the lead.
Sprint races are generally far simpler than feature races: you bolt on the tyres you have left, and you push as hard as you can to the flag without using them all up. But Bahrain made the teams re-think their approach: the heat, the abrasive surface, and some of them started thinking about the impossible, a pitstop in a sprint.
Markelov, un-noticed by most, started on options, and was soon slicing through the field as he made his way forward. The Russian made his way up to P3 by lap 9, when Leclerc struck and mugged Ghiotto for the lead, but had to pit for primes next time through. With Fuoco also pushing forward to P4, and Markelov soon setting the pace at the back, the race was already intriguing.
And then Leclerc pitted from the lead.
The pitlane erupted as the Monegasque driver came in on lap 15 for options. What was he doing, and how could he possibly get back what he’d lost? But the PREMA guys were serene, having worked all the angles, and felt he was on the winning strategy, having used up his primes before coming in on the right lap and heading back out to fight once more.
He came out in P14, ahead of Markelov. He was up to P9 within 2 laps, in the points next time round, on the podium 2 laps later, into the lead next lap, and won the race the next time round. Remarkable.
And every engineer in the pitlane will now be looking at the two teams to pit, PREMA and RUSSIAN TIME: the former had one driver start on primes, switch to options and win while the other stayed on primes, moved up to 4th before sliding back to P10 at the flag, while the other had one stick on primes for P2, and the other run option/prime for 8th place. The next hot sprint is going to be intriguing.
Ghiotto put a brave face on it in the press conference, but it was clear that he thought he’d done enough for the win: walking back with him to the paddock he was his usual outgoing self, offering me a drink of the sparkling rose water from the bottle I was carrying for him (which is lovely, regardless of what Alexa or his team boss Svetlana say) and giving self-effacing answers when most drivers would rather run away and hide, but there’s no doubt that he was gutted to see that red car appear in his mirrors, and then disappear.
And then it was time to write everything up, and then pack and go. Which is when I put on my travel jacket, which was hanging up since arriving at the hotel on Wednesday night, and found my sunglasses in the pocket.
I know. You can shut up too.