The three lap Charles Leclerc and Max Verstappen battle a third of the way into the Bahrain Grand Prix was a clear indicator that Formula 1’s long-anticipated technical regulations overhaul has achieved exactly what it set out to. Two opposing cars following more closely without the onset of dirty air forcing the competitors apart again.
The preceding Formula 1 regulations’ overriding dirty air issue meant the car behind would often fail to get closer than a few tenths, or would utilise DRS to pull themselves right up to the gearbox of the car ahead only for the hugely powerful wake off the back of that car to take away a huge percentage of the former’s overall downforce.
Now it looks as though maintaining a smaller gap through medium speed corners particularly is a lot easier than before, which sets up an overtake on the following straight or heavy braking zone a lot more often. The presence of slower corners appear to generate more piteous-looking mistakes which intuitively should lead greater scope for overtakes capitalising on mistakes.
It’s a little early to come to a definite conclusion as to the virtuosity of these new rules, but it certainly added to an inevitably enjoyable Bahrain race.
Leclerc and Verstappen’s three-lap long battle, with the Ferrari driver fending off countless attacks from Verstappen, was seemingly as a result of Leclerc’s ability to pull off the same tactic “three times in a row”, with the charging Dutchman failing to grow wise of his defensive manoeuvres. The Monegasque says it was somewhat “tricky” to keep the “on the limit” Verstappen at bay at times owing to the new-for-2022 cars.
“It was on the limit, hard racing, but we always gave each other space, which was nice, and following him into Turn 2 was actually a bit more predictable than what I expected or what I had last year. So this was good. But it was always very close,” admitted Leclerc.
“I would always try and brake very early into Turn 1 to get the DRS for Turn 4 and it worked out three times in a row. So then I could keep my lead. And it was always also very tricky because I was struggling quite a lot with my energy and had to manage that too. But then after the third lap, I think I was in a better window with it and could push again and manage to have a bit of margin to manage my race.”
What did come so obstinately to the fore though, something Lewis Hamilton was vocal on in pre-season testing, was the proficiency of Pirelli’s all-new lower profile 18-inch tyres. Having arguably gone quite far the other way in race strategy terms, the new tyres now lend themselves to a two or three stop race rather than a one stop.
Although excellent for strategy variation, it meant therefore that the tyres are degrading at a faster rate, and following behind or battling another car subsequently accentuates the degradation to a larger degree.
These new rules need to work as a harmonious package, taking into account everything including the aerodynamic surfaces, overall mechanical grip, tyre life and usability and the ‘raceability’ of the power units.
The stiffer suspension and all-round heavier car just adds to the degradation as the huge loads now periodically going through them will lead to more lock-ups and, even if a good stint length is achieved with no flat spots, wearing a lot faster.
Mercedes’ Bahrain weekend was a good case study as to any aerodynamic inefficiencies’ impacts on the tyres themselves. With their inherent porpoising issue taking its toll on the tyres, forcing an early pit stops and hard tyre gamble.
Degradation was key up front, highlighted by Verstappen’s frustration at being told to not push his new soft tyres on an out-lap, which he felt cost him a chance at gaining track position over Leclerc. Red Bull wanted to prolong the tyre life through the middle stages of the stint.
The new cars require a new driving style. Not a totally alien one at that, but one that experienced Formula 1 drivers won’t have driven to for some time. To avoid front lock-ups the heavy braking zone etiquette seems to necessitate getting your braking done in a straight line before rolling off the brakes entirely and then turning in. Unlike the previous generation of F1 cars, you can not lean into the turn in the final phase of the braking zone.
It is worth considering though that Bahrain has historically been a problematic circuit for tyres, with Pirelli normally bringing the hardest compounds of the range to the Grand Prix. The sheer number of medium-to-heavy braking zones makes it a tough place on brakes as well – look at the struggles McLaren endured in the high desert temperatures which didn’t really improve when night fell.
It was a weekend of compromise for the Woking-based outfit who’s number one priority was controlling their debilitating brake cooling issue. Expect an upturn in fortune for them soon enough.
In fact from as early on as the first few laps, Red Bull were advising Max Verstappen to cede pace and control the brake temperatures also. This was what meant Verstappen only realistically had one chance on Leclerc during their fight – into Turn 1 on the inside which the Ferrari driver shrewdly handled to gain back the DRS into Turn 4 and sail back past.
Supplemented by the help of a calm and collected strategy, Leclerc held on for a joyous victory, going some way to put right the heartbreak of three years ago and firmly placing Ferrari back where it deserves to be.
Formula 1 in 2022 is all set to be a breathtaking prospect.
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