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APRIL 12, 2016

Always look on the bright side of life


Bahrain GP 2016
© Active Pictures

Formula One's ability to shoot itself in the foot has probably made you forget we've actually had two brilliant Grand Prix to start the 2016 season, with plenty of drama, overtaking and strategic moves that kept the teams and the drivers quite busy in Melbourne and Sakhir. Yes, Nico Rosberg won both races, Mercedes dominated both qualifying sessions and only Ferrari offered some resistance to the Silver Arrows steamroller, but behind the two top teams there were plenty of battles to keep the fans entertained.

Nevertheless, the qualifying "debacle" seemed to be the only subject Team Principals, drivers and commentators wanted to talk about for the last three weeks, with the real track action being almost ignored. Now that the FIA and Bernie Ecclestone have accepted the team's demand to go back to the old qualifying format, I wonder to what subject the negative vibes that emanate from the paddock will be directed towards...

I'm sure there will be plenty of discussions about the proposed rules for 2017, that should be published by the end of the month, giving everyone another three weeks to moan about what they should really be like and after Mercedes predictably wins in Shanghai next weekend - the low temperatures expected for the area don't bode well for Ferrari's hopes, as the Italian team needs higher track temperatures to put more pressure on the Germans - there will be more doom and gloom about the lack of competition at the front of the field.

What most people seem to have overlooked is that we've had a rule change this year that has actually improved the quality of racing. With the teams now allowed to select their drivers' tyres for a Grand Prix weekend from three different compounds, we've seen completely different routes being taken, right from the start of FP1, that have made racing very exciting. The variety was so wide that Romain Grosjean used three sets of new super soft tyres and one set of soft tyres in Bahrain to finish the race in fifth place, while Felipe Massa ran with one set of used super softs at the start and then got two new sets of medium compound tyres on his way to a disappointing 8th place at the end of the race. No prizes for guessing who made the best choice, but it was surprising to see the new kids on the block get it spot on, while more experienced teams failed to react to the unexpectedly low temperatures we had in Bahrain.

Of course it was easier to overtake in Sakhir than it was in Melbourne, as is always the case, but one has also to take into consideration that after the race was stopped in Australia, almost everyone decided to cover the last 39 laps of the Grand Prix with one set of medium compound tyres and those who insisted on softer compounds, including a pit stop midway through the run, were few and didn't really have the straight line speed to pass the Mercedes-powered cars they caught and followed in the final laps. In Bahrain there were completely different strategies at play and I'm hoping for more of the same next Sunday in Shanghai.

What we've also learned from the first two races, but particularly from Bahrain, is that drivers are better off saving tyres in qualifying and missing out on Q3, to have more sets of the softest compound tyres for the race. After the last race there were internal discussions in teams that are "on the bubble" at the end of Q2 - mainly Williams and Force India - about the merits of dropping to between 9th and 11th on the grid rather than using up all your tyres to qualify in 7th or 8th place. Of course with the return of the previous qualifying format the best grid position you can start from while keeping the freedom to chose your first set of race tyres, is P11, rather than P9. But if you cannot make it into the top five and you know you have the speed to overtake in the race, you're probably better off doing one run with soft tyres in Q1, one run with super softs in Q2 and then sit out the rest of qualifying to have only new sets of softs and super softs for the race. Then you can go for an aggressive strategy that will put you in a position to get past your rivals in the final stint of the Grand Prix.

Don't be surprised, either, if Ferrari elects to sit out the last five minutes of Q3 in Shanghai if it's clear Vettel and Raikkonen won't be able to get a place on the front row of the grid, thus saving one set of new super soft tyres for the race, as they did in Melbourne. What remains to be seen is if Mercedes will force its drivers to stay in the pits too, to be able to use the same strategy as the Italians in the race, of if they'll let Hamilton and Rosberg battle it out for pole position, as they've done in the first two races of the season. But with the points being given on Sunday rather than on Saturday, I wouldn't be really surprised if even with the return of the old qualifying format, there will be no cars on the track in the final minutes of Shanghai's Q3 session. Which will lead to more "F1 is doomed" headlines that will completely overlook how good the race is likely to be...