Beneath the relentless glare of the Bahraini sun the mercury rises ever higher. Here it is at last – the season that has stoked levels of heated expectation to heights rarely, if ever, witnessed, even in the fevered world of Formula One.
It offers a fitting way to mark a sport's 60th birthday and tomorrow's eagerly-anticipated opener will be proceeded by a parade of champions: Jackie Stewart, Emerson Fittipaldi, Mario Andretti, Nigel Mansell, Jack Brabham, John Surtees, Alan Jones, Niki Lauda, Jody Scheckter and Damon Hill will trace a nostalgia-inducing route around the Sakhir Circuit. As will Josh Hill, Damon's son, in the Lotus in which his grandfather Graham won the world title in 1968. Only Nelson Piquet and Kimi Raikkonen are on the absentee list.
But this is also a sport that does not look backwards for long. There will, of course, be four other champions missing, but the appearance of Jenson Button, Lewis Hamilton, Fernando Alonso and, above all, Michael Schumacher will not be long delayed. The plot lines are exhaustive, from the battle of Britons to the return of the sport's most decorated, and divisive, racer and everything else in between.
Above all it is the uncertainty of what awaits – in utter and compelling contrast to Schumacher's days of dominance – that will raise expectation to the very last moment, especially after yesterday's opening exchanges in practice left us none the wiser.
True to the sport's unpredictable nature, as many questions as answers remained when the evening shadows lengthened over the paddock's palm trees and the teams remained so close that it's still impossible to say with authority who is quickest.
Button and Lewis Hamilton set the pace in the morning, that sun glinting off the polished aluminium-like paint jobs that cost McLaren several thousand dollars per car. Here, at last, was the possibility of one question being answered, even if only temporarily: which would be quicker? That was resolved in Button's favour, 1min 57.068sec to 1min 57.163sec. Not a bad start by any means, but far too close to be conclusive. But the world champion maintained the relaxed demeanour he has exhibited from the moment he walked through the doors at McLaren's opulent Woking headquarters in January, even as every move he and Hamilton made was captured by the hordes of photographers.
Speed matters for grid position, like it always does, but with the ban on refuelling this year, tyre behaviour and longevity is even more crucial. So while some things have changed, such as the need to go through the race on one tankful of fuel, some things never change. A Friday is still a Friday, which means that besides going fast enough to get an idea where they are in the pecking order, teams also have to do race preparation work, and with the need to make tyres work much harder with up to double the fuel load in the early stages of a race, it is critical that they get a feel for how the rubber performs, how soon, in racing parlance, it "goes off".
Yesterday afternoon, such was the level of degradation that some were experiencing with the Bridgestone tyres, there was talk of the first tyre stops as early as the 10th lap, and the need for a second later on. "It's been very hot so tyre degradation of both compounds has been pretty high," Hamilton said. "But I think the degradation is something we can handle; you build it into your driving style and moderate the approach to each lap. Still, it's difficult to know what laptime to target when you're on a long run and we're still trying to understand that."
"Today's shown us that looking after the rear tyres is very difficult here," Button agreed, "especially on the softer compound. So you find yourself driving with a lot of oversteer through most of the stint. We're still working on our set-up. We know where the car is now and we know where we want it to be. We're not quite there yet."
At Ferrari and Mercedes it was the same story. If Fernando Alonso or Felipe Massa appeared, or Schumacher scratched that famed prognathic jaw, every lensman captured it for posterity. In F1 there is nowhere to hide. In the end it was young German Adrian Sutil who caused a stir by going fastest in the morning, chased by Alonso who fulfilled all his promise by driving his elegant Ferrari as if it were on rails to go second fastest. By the end of the session, Button and Hamilton were only fifth and sixth, but by then they weren't playing the speed game and were focused instead on running longer distances to assess tyre wear.
In the second session the German flavour continued, but the surprise was not the fact that Hamilton was now second, or Schumacher third ahead of Button. It was that Nico Rosberg again went faster than his illustrious team-mate who, insiders suggest, is already trying to withhold information from his partner. "I have told him he has to go out and beat that old guy," one of Rosberg's fellow countryman said, and he did not say it with warmth.
Rosberg set the day's fastest lap in 1m 55.409sec, acing Hamilton by 0.445sec and Schumacher by 0.494sec. Not a bad start at all, for a guy everyone had expected to be annihilated by the uber-driver. "We worked well this afternoon after having a few issues with the balance this morning," Schumacher reported. "The car felt much better in the second session although I am still a little rusty on one lap runs and need to get back into the routine. On the long runs, the car felt good and once you get into the rhythm, it feels very natural. I'm happy and feeling ready for the weekend."
Alonso? He was only ninth in the afternoon, but never did a low-fuel run on soft tyres, yet when he was running hard the Ferrari devoured the numerous bumps on the track without the slightest sign of mechanical indigestion.
Assuredly, the red cars will be a threat tomorrow. And by the time qualifying is over, with all the cars running minimal fuel for maximum speed, we really will know which cars are the fastest. Right now, though, it's still impossible to say. Could anything bode better for the season ahead?
New rules: The lowdown on how this season will be different
The main rule change this season is the ban on refuelling. This has meant that bigger, higher-capacity fuel tanks have had to be installed, while the cars' balance will be adjusted throughout the race to adapt to the change in weight distribution. Pit stops will now only be for tyre changes, and should be completed in less than four seconds.
The cars' minimum weight has been increased to compensate for the bigger drivers and heavy KERS power-boosting system, even though they are unlikely to be used.
The width of the front tyres has been decreased for this season to retain a better grip balance. The amount of dry-tyre sets per driver has also been decreased each weekend from 14 to 11. Bridgestone's compounds are also slightly harder to cope with the heavier fuel load.
Qualifying has had to be tweaked this season with 12 teams now on the grid. Seven drivers (instead of five last season) will be eliminated in Q1 and Q2, leaving the other 10 to fight for pole in Q3. The ban on refuelling will see minimum fuel loads in qualifying.
Race winners will now receive 25 points for a victory, more than double the 10 of last season. Second place will get 18 points, with every resultant placing also earning more points than last year. Ninth and 10th place finishers will earn points this season, the first time that has happened.
This year: 1st 25pts; 2nd 18; 3rd 15; 4th 12; 5th 10; 6th 8; 7th 6; 8th 4; 9th 2; 10th 1
Last year: 1st 10pts; 2nd 8; 3rd 6; 4th 5; 5th 4; 6th 3; 7th 2; 8th 1
Practice times from Sakhir Circuit
*Leading first practice times:
1 A Sutil (Germany) Force India 1 min 56.583sec; 2 F Alonso (Sp) Ferrari 1:56.766; 3 R Kubica (Pol) Renault 1:57.041; 4 F Massa (Br) Ferrari 1:57.055; 5 J Button (GB) McLaren 1:57.068; 6 L Hamilton (GB) McLaren 1:57.163; 7 V Liuzzi (Ita) Force India 1:57.194; 8 N Rosberg (Ger) Mercedes 1:57.199; 9 M Webber (Aus) RedBull 1:57.255; 10 M Schumacher (Ger) Mercedes 1:57.662.
*Leading second practice times:
1 Rosberg 1:55.409; 2 Hamilton 1:55.854; 3 Schumacher 1:55.903; 4 Button 1:56.076; 5 S Vettel (Ger) RedBull 1:56.459; 6 N Hulkenberg (Ger) Williams 1:56.501; 7 Massa 1:56.555; 8 VPetrov (Rus) Renault 1:56.750; 9 Alonso 1:57.140; 10 P De la Rosa (Sp) BMW Sauber 1:57.255; 11 K Kobayashi (Japan) BMW Sauber 1:57.352; 12 Sutil 1:57.361.