22 Apr 2012 – McLaren Miserable in Bahrain
McLaren had a nightmare of a race in Bahrain. Lewis Hamilton finished in eighth place, almost a full minute behind race winner Sebastian Vettel after a strangely muted race in terms of ultimate race pace and two separate badly-executed pit stops that conspired to drop him down the order. Teammate Jenson Button ran with more pace, but as he did last week, he also lost places with yet another slow stop in the pits. Ultimately, the bad pit work paled in comparison to Button’s car problems (his McLaren had a puncture very late in the race, then his Mercedes-Benz V8 sounded horribly sick as he coasted into the pits on the penultimate lap of the race), McLaren’s first for 2012.
Things certainly didn’t start so badly for the McLaren boys. After all, Hamilton was starting from second, and Button from fourth. Only the Red Bulls were faster in qualifying, with Vettel scoring his first pole position of 2012 and Mark Webber taking P3. After the red lights went off, though, McLaren’s hopes of fighting with the resurgent Red Bulls were nothing more than a desert mirage.
Hamilton started sensibly, keeping his second place right at the outset, but almost immediately Vettel had created a DRS-proof gap ahead of him even before the third lap, when race control enables the Drag Reduction System for the first time in the race. Hamilton held second place until his first pit stop, which dropped him from contention. The 2008 World Champion had some notable battles with old nemesis Fernando Alonso as well as last week’s Chinese Grand Prix winner, Nico Rosberg. His attempt to overtake Rosberg on lap 11 right after his disastrous first pit stop was particularly scary: Rosberg swerved to his right and squeezed Hamilton completely off the track in between Turns 3 and 4. Hamilton’s McLaren had all four wheels in the desert sand off the track surface, and in my opinion Rosberg’s “defensive” maneuver was stupid and dangerous. That Hamilton did not lose control of his McLaren owes some to pure luck, and some to his skill as a racing driver.
(That Rosberg duplicated the trick and conspired to do the same to Fernando Alonso and completely escape ANY censure for either maneuver is stupefying to me; it indicates there are a few things fundamentally broken in F1 if moves like these are deemed legal.)
Meanwhile, Button slid down from his fourth place starting spot, running just within the top ten, seemingly content to run at his own pace until some fuel burned off. He pitted on lap 10, dropping to 16th place, then immediately went on the attack, taking P8 from Fernando Alonso before running most of the first half of his race in P5. Because of his poor start, however, he never got close enough to threaten Webber’s 4th place.
If Hamilton’s first pit stop was a disaster, it was frankly amazing to see his pit crew suffer a repeat performance. For a team with a well-deserved reputation for having some of the best pit crew work in all of motor racing, it was shocking to see, to say the least. That this was the THIRD such botch in two races surely must have the team’s boffins (never mind the drivers themselves) scratching their heads raw.
But as nightmares tend to go, there were a couple more shockers left in store. Jenson Button also suffered with an extended visit to the pits, but this problem didn’t set him back as much as his teammate’s pit lane misadventures did. However, the same could definitely NOT be said about first his puncture right at the end of lap 52, which forced him back into the pits for tire change. The late-race tire change dropped him all the way down to unlucky P13. However, a damaged exhaust caused not just an off-song Mercedes-Benz V8 engine note, but also, more critically, problems with his McLaren’s differential. The problem with the differential put paid to Button’s race and heavily underlined McLaren’s terrible Grand Prix of Bahrain.
It used to be that problems with routine pit stops and mechanical unreliability were regular features of a Formula 1 season. It was just simply impossible to expect every single pit stop to be executed perfectly, and for every team to expect both of its cars to finish every single race. Engine failures, accidents, suspension and tire problems were all part and parcel of racing.
These days, though, such problems are aberrations.
And these aberrations, the type which cause you to drop out of points-paying positions, tend to decide the outcome of both the Drivers’ and the Constructors’ World Championships.
Although the Grand Prix of Bahrain was just the fourth race out of twenty, McLaren and its drivers lost a lot of points, especially relative to who are likely their strongest opposition this year, Red Bull and Sebastian Vettel.
Hamilton’s two points (and Button’s zero) just do not compare to Vettel’s twenty-five and Webber’s twelve.
McLaren’s two points are almost inconsequential compared to Red Bull Racing’s thirty-seven.
If neither McLaren driver lifts the World Champion’s cup at the end of the year, and if McLaren fall short in the race for the Constructors’ World Championship, they can all rightly point to their nightmares in Bahrain as one of the 2012 season’s critical moments.
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