Sunday 3 April 2016


A thrilling late charge by Lewis Hamilton rather disguised another underwhelming outing for Formula One’s new qualifying system for Sunday’s Bahrain Grand Prix.

Hamilton pieced together the fastest lap ever run here to win his 51st pole after a mistake on the final lap of his first run had left him in fourth place; behind him on the grid will be Mercedes team-mate Nico Rosberg and then the red cars of Sebastian Vettel and Kimi Raikkonen.

The dazzling lights that illuminated the Sakhir Circuit were needed to keep everyone awake for much of the time. Formula One has not so much shot itself in the foot as blasted both its legs off with this latest piece of rule changing, which was unanimously condemned when it made its debut in Australia last month but lives on to fight another Sunday and could still be around when the circus moves to China later in the month.

Jean Todt, the president of the FIA, was hopeful that a solution could be found at a meeting to be held before the race. But Bernie Ecclestone, the other little big man at the head of the sport, was not so sure.

It was another strange day, even by the surreal standards of Formula One. If anything Q1 and Q2, which were passable in Melbourne, were more insipid this time. Q3 was slightly better, first because both Mercedes and Ferrari managed to put in two runs apiece – Ferrari did just one in Australia – and second because Hamilton put in one of his trademark blitzes when he was up against it.

Hamilton, who has won the past two races here, said: “I was really pleased with that lap. It’s not been a smooth sailing weekend in terms of pace. I was generally struggling to put laps together and luckily the lap I did put together was the last one. The car felt great. It’s incredible to think we are quicker than the V10 days. It shows how far the technology has come.”

Rosberg led the field after the first run and the Ferraris separated him from Hamilton until the British driver’s exhilarating thrust gave him the prize. The German driver looked a tad bewildered when he said: “My lap felt good and I was sure I was on pole. Lewis put in an incredible lap to beat me. This track is where pole counts least I think. There are still a lot of opportunities.”

The challenge from Ferrari faded in the chill of the desert night but Vettel still looked ruefully content. “I was very happy with the first attempt,” he said “The second attempt was more or less copy and paste, but that’s not enough if they improve by five-tenths. Step by step we’re getting there. It’s a long race and let’s see what happens tomorrow.”

For the rest of us, Toto Wolff, the Mercedes head of motorsport, rather summed up the experience when he said: “It was terrible.”

The day started with a briefing from Todt which lasted for more than hour. He was not a dictator, he told us, and happy not to be one. But the impression he conveyed was one of powerlessness at a time when the sport needs leadership..

Later in the day Ecclestone asked journalists if they had any ideas. But he could not help having another go at the drivers who questioned the sport’s governance in a letter following the race in Melbourne. He said: “What interest do drivers have apart from taking money out of the sport? I’ve never seen one put one dollar in. You go for dinner with them and they don’t even pay the bill. They shouldn’t even be allowed to talk. They should get in the car and drive it.”

He didn’t seem too impressed by the teams either. He said: “We shouldn’t ask their opinion. We should have the FIA write the regulations and then we ask them if they want to enter. And tell them if they don’t want to, don’t.”

He still found time to have another dig at the sport in general. “I got slaughtered because I said I wouldn’t buy a ticket for a Formula One race. Which is true. Because I know full well before I go to the race who is going to be first, who is going to be second. What am I going to sit in the bloody grandstand for? With the wife and two kids. Or somebody else’s wife. To see what? Mercedes are so good they qualify first and second and finish the race first and second.” There were few dissenters.

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