Sons of the Desert

After a week in Albert Park, the Bahrain International Circuit is… quieter. Formula One is made up of all sorts of people: some like the razzmatazz of a race in the heart of an alpha city; others will be happier this weekend where the racing comes with fewer distractions.

If that makes the Bahrain Grand Prix sound dull, it really shouldn’t. Since switching to a night race, it’s been a lively and well-attended event – but one on a much more human scale that the juggernaut of Australia. The circuit puts on a non-stop stream of bands and circus acts in the main concourse, where fans are encouraged to hang out between the sessions, often reclined on cushions. It is slightly disconcerting to swipe in alongside jugglers, stilt walkers and a band of Scottish pipers in tartan – but hey, F1… 

The circuit is generally referred to by its location: Sakhir, located towards the centre of the country. It’s set out in the middle of the desert, surrounded by hardpan, sculpted into a rocky escarpment. Under other circumstances it might be called wilderness – but nothing is far away from anywhere on the island of Bahrain, and the highway that runs past the circuit whisks people away to the capital Manama in about 25 minutes. Teams, however, have snapped all the secluded beach resorts in the immediate vicinity, which leads to a pretty relaxed paddock this weekend. 

And it’s definitely one of the nicer paddocks in F1. It’s thoughtfully designed, with plenty of trees, under which those that have time to loiter (ie not teams) can sit on a bench and watch the world go by. The garage facilities are top-notch, which has led to the circuit hosting winter testing in the past. One of the bonuses of testing at Sakhir is the existence of a fantastic kart track, which has had teams queuing up after finishing work. No-one really has time on a race weekend, though plenty will be casting a wistful glance in its direction when they head for the minibuses in the early hours.

The other reason F1 has tested in Bahrain is that the circuit provides a pretty stiff examination. It’s a stop-start layout, which the drivers don’t particularly like but the tyres and brakes like even less. It’s a very hard race to have early in the season (where it has always been) because everyone is still learning about their cars, and Bahrain pushes them to the limit. Since moving to a night race, it is, at least, cooler now, so you don’t see teams drilling holes into expensive bodywork anymore to keep their temperatures down – but that provides challenges of its own. FP1 and FP3, conducted in the heat of the afternoon are virtually worthless as a planning exercise, because the car behaves very differently once the sun sets. It makes FP2 on Friday evening a very busy 90 minutes indeed. 

It hasn’t been a particularly kind circuit to us, with last year’s double DNF the latest in a string of indignities suffered in the Kingdom. There have been highlights though: mostly down to Sebastian Vettel, who took pole in 2010 and 2012, and victories in 2012 and 2013. He also had our only other podium in Sakhir, finishing second in 2009. It’s also been a eye-catching race for our future stars. Pierre Gasly made everyone sit up and take notice qualifying fifth for Toro Rosso last season – before going on to finish a brilliant fourth.