Gearing up for my second trip to the Bahrain International Circuit, sitting on the train to the airport, I was only too aware of the juxtaposition of travelling into the Middle East to enjoy Formula 1 amid the grim reality of the unfolding war in Ukraine, tearing apart the lives of millions of innocent people.Nikita Mazepin.
Having left on Tuesday, I arrived at my hotel at 5am on Wednesday morning, dragging a battered suitcase which had been reduced to three wheels instead of four when I collected it at Bahrain airport. Nonetheless, I was ready to get to the track on Thursday.
Bahrain’s quirky circuit is surrounded by dusty plains, with the odd residential plots dotted around and plenty of unfinished buildings occupying much of the area. Driving into the circuit you are met with reams of police cars, as the stewards point you towards the media car park.
The walk to the paddock, which includes a tunnel that has walls covered in murals, takes you directly to the turnstiles. Walking in through the gates never gets old, and in Bahrain, it’s really a sight to behold, with palm trees adorned with fairy lights up and down the paddock with cars on track from 10am.
We’d heard earlier that Kevin Magnussen was back in the paddock and Haas duly confirmed on Wednesday their ex-driver had returned as Mazepin’s replacement. On Thursday afternoon he spoke to the media for the first time since his return.
We were greeted by a relaxed Magnussen who had only found out a week ago he was to become an F1 driver again. He related to me how he had been caught by surprise by the news and hadn’t been sure the deal would come off until it was inked.
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The days are long during testing, arriving at 8am to the circuit with track action starting at 10am and finishing at 7pm with media sessions to follow, meaning we often don’t leave the circuit until gone 9pm. After eventually getting back to the hotel and accidentally finding myself in the middle of a pub quiz, I made my way to bed in preparation for day two.
On a noticeably hotter day, the morning started with a trip to Williams to see Alex Albon. In good spirits, Albon opened up about his relationship with Mercedes’ George Russell and the advice he had been given ahead of signing for the team.
But shortly after we parted the team’s test took a turn for the worse: his team mate Nicholas Latifi’s car caught fire after his rear brakes overheated, ending their second day early.
As temperatures reached 38C, the cars continued to pound around the circuit. The heat meant most drivers were buried away in the garages.
During the midday press conference Christian Horner was grilled about comments attributed to him, reported elsewhere, in which he questioned the legality of Mercedes new sidepod design. Red Bull were quick to deny he’d spoken on the matter and Horner pre-empted questions from press conference moderator Tom Clarkson to make it clear he did not think Mercedes were bending the rules.
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Later that evening, the media were offered the chance to go to watch Kings of Leon at the Al Dana Amphitheatre, during which McLaren messaged us to confirm Daniel Ricciardo had tested positive for Covid-19 and would not be taking part in the rest of testing. A whole row of phones lit up as we were momentarily distracted away from the show to cover the story.
A cooler day. I started by making my way down the long paddock to Williams to attend a round table interview with team principal Jost Capito. Talk quickly turned to Latifi’s fire, Capito laughing as he explained that he was “95% clear” what happened and that the cause was “too stupid to talk about.” A procedural mis-step had led to the fire.
The press conference was offered our first and only opportunity of the test to speak to Lewis Hamilton, who often hides himself away. Mercedes are often accused of playing down their competitiveness, but this time Hamilton looked genuine in his concern about the W13’s handling. He hit the headlines as soon as the words left his mouth as he declared Mercedes, in the current form, would not be challenging for wins.
As the evening drew in I set out, sporting a rather fetching tabard, to watch the cars tackle the final two corners. This spot was perfect for comparing the cars as each driver took the apex of the corner in a completely different fashion.
With Russell behind the wheel of the Mercedes, the car looked as if it was handling better than it had over the previous few days, but still seemed hesitant to turn in. Russell tried to pitch it deep into the final right-hander, but washed out and bumped across the kerbs.
In comparison, Max Verstappen was gliding across the apex effortlessly and smoothly in his Red Bull as he set the fastest time of the session. I only saw the world champion make a couple of twitches and steering corrections on his way through turn 15.
The AlphaTauri however seemed less stable, at least in Yuki Tsunoda hands. He locked up heavily at one point, puffs of smoke billowing from the rears.
Despite clearly not being a true representation of the entire three days of running, it was fascinating to be able to compare the cars up close and compare their handling traits.
Sebastian Vettel was the last driver I spoke to, cracking jokes with a wide smile on his face. It has been encouraging to see this Vettel back, as he was in his Red Bull days, clearly enjoying his time at Aston Martin, and with high hopes for his second season at the team.
With that the six days of pre-season running were done. In just one week the speculation over who is quick will be over, and we’ll know the identity of our first race-winner of 2022.
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