Red sea swamps Button as Bahrain enjoys fresh start

Click to follow
The Independent Online

Oh dear. All through yesterday morning - even as late as the first, unofficial, qualifying session - things looked so promising in Bahrain. In this desert oasis, where £100m has been spent creating a racetrack and infrastructure that should be the envy of the world, it seemed that we might have a change of 2004 scenario to celebrate as well.

Oh dear. All through yesterday morning - even as late as the first, unofficial, qualifying session - things looked so promising in Bahrain. In this desert oasis, where £100m has been spent creating a racetrack and infrastructure that should be the envy of the world, it seemed that we might have a change of 2004 scenario to celebrate as well.

Jenson Button's performance all through the morning practice sessions should have delighted all true fans of Formula One. Not just because it showed that the 24 year-old Englishman from Frome has what it takes to run at the front and do the job under pressure, but because the sport needs new heroes at the sharp end: presentable, media-savvy young guys who have not yet learned to pout when questions are asked of them or to look bored when, somewhere within their gym-toned frames, a part of them must secretly be rejoicing.

Somehow, Button dominating those two sessions was a celebration for Bahrain, too. A breath of fresh air in this dusty place. The Bahrainis have embraced Formula One, and those gauntlets you see jellabah-clothed natives wearing as they balance predatory falcons on their wrists have firmly been thrown down to European tracks.

The Bahrain International Circuit at Sakhir, an easy 40-minute drive from the capital, Manama, only became fully operational days before the biggest sporting event in recent Middle Eastern history, but unless you took the trouble to walk the circuit you wouldn't have known. The paddock cuts a wide swathe through air-conditioned team rooms, which are more opulent than anywhere else. Palm trees and cream-painted walls add the necessary desert flav-our, and the garages are huge.

Any European organiser - and let's be clear on this, not just from Silverstone but from Imola, Magny-Cours, the Nürburgring or Barcelona - would be as green as the meagre grass strip located in the final corner. If this is the new shape of Formula One - and you had better believe that is precisely the way Bernie Ecclestone sees it - then the others had better start looking for major investment here and now.

Of course, there is a flipside. The taxi drivers and hoteliers appear to believe that Formula One translates into the word double, and that the people who are acting as unpaid publicists of their desire to enhance their tourism industry are there to be ripped off. In some of the less cultured hotels the ladies of the night have developed a new marketing strategy by becoming ladies of the early hours, calling to every room around one o'clock in the morning, soliciting business. Free enterprise is not all they want to embrace.

But, looking at the big picture, if the Bahrainis get a good race and a reasonable crowd later today, other Middle Eastern countries will soon want in on the act. Early in the week Dubai launched its own F1-standard circuit, designed not by the Sepang and Bahrain architect Hermann Tilke but by Dick Bennetts and his West Surrey Racing team, who guided the late Ayrton Senna to his Formula Three successes in 1983. Those who have walked that one say it is even more spectacular than Bahrain, and the idea of back-to-back Middle Eastern grands prix has an encouraging ring to it.

All of which is the reason it was so disappointing to see a red tide sweep across the Gulf come the pukka qualifying session, as things defaulted to normal 2004 mode. Both Ralf Schumacher and Juan Pablo Montoya had been fast in the first run - indeed, Ralf's 1min 29.968sec from that session was never bettered once everyone had fettled their cars after deciding on their fuel strategy (three stops are the most likely) for the 57-lap race. Rubens Barrichello sounded the alarm with a lap of 1:30.530 which comfortably eclipsed everyone else, and then Michael banged in his 1:30.139.

It would all now rest on how fast Montoya and Ralf could go, since whatever Kimi Raikkonen did had been rendered academic by the 10- grid-place penalty he had received after breaking his engine the previous day. And when it came to it, neither BMW Williams driver delivered. "We really did not expect this," a Ferrari insider said, sounding almost apologetic.

Nor had Button expected to be pipped by his undoubtedly talented but sometimes erratic partner Takuma Sato as lower track temperatures robbed the BAR Hondas of rear-end grip. Sato was delighted with fifth, but Button was disappointed with only sixth.

However, on a hot and dusty track that stresses engines, gearboxes and brakes, the inaugural Bahrain Grand Prix does not appear to have foregone conclusion written all over it.

Comments