Force India skip free practice – should we be in Bahrain?

F1
Practice One saw limited running due to the sandy conditions. As per usual, Lewis Hamilton came out fastest with Vettel close behind. Force India were busiest, and even put their cars on softs in the first session. Paul di Resta was third fastest, Hulkenberg sixth. As the session closed, it emerged that the Silverstone-based team planned to only run a part-session in FP2, or maybe even miss it, due to safety fears. What is most confusing is that qualifying is at the same time as FP2, and the race tomorrow will be later. So why miss FP2 but not the other sessions?

Force India did indeed miss Q2, while the Caterhams moved closer to the midfield – their drivers split Senna and Maldonado. Nico Rosberg was fastest, though he has concerns about the heat with the tyres. Button was not happy with the McLaren, but the Red Bulls were doing well. Webber was second, outpacing his teammate who was third. Then it was Hamilton, Schumacher, Button. Kobayashi got the Sauber into seventh ahead of Alonso, Grosjean and Perez.

Some Sauber team members were also involved in an incident last night, but escaped without harm.

Protests have been escalating in Bahrain for the last while, and there have been serious clashes with the police. We can only hope that nobody is seriously injured – Bahraini or F1. With more protests planned for the next two days, surely things will only get worse?

GP2
In practice Davide Valsecchi easily went fastest, 0.67 ahead of Max Chilton in second. Johnny Cecotto was third-fastest, 0.87 off Valsecchi.
Qualifying saw the Italian repeat his effort, going fastest on options on his third lap. Esteban Gutierrez will start second, with Felipe Nasr third to continue his spectacular rookie season. Racing Engineering’s Fabio Leimer took fourth, ahead of Johnny Cecotto – the Venezuelan having a good weekend so far. Ericsson took the sixth-fastest time but his 10-place grid penalty from Malaysia sent him down to sixteenth, promoting Stephane Richelmi. James Calado was seventh, Luiz Razia eighth. Chilton and Haryanto shared the fifth row for Carlin.
Brendon Hartley was given a five-place grid penalty for an incident with Giedo van der Garde, knocking him down to last behind Ricardo Teixeira. Slow Serenelli beat Teixeira by nearly two tenths of a second, but both were way off the pace.

NEC
Kevin Kleveros was Manor MP’s unannounced driver in car 31 for the opening round of the Formula Renault NEC. In Q1, Stoffel Vandoorne took pole with Pierre Gasly second and Jordan King third. The session had been held up for a few minutes because of hail!
Q2 was also red flagged due to rain and a huge number of crashes. In the end, Vandoorne took pole again. Reigning Intersteps champion Jake Dennis took second, while an impressive run from Shahaan Engineer saw him go third.

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Worrying times in Bahrain

Bahrain
A car carrying four members of the Force India team was involved in a car bombing incident in Bahrain yesterday. While none of them were injured, it is believed that tear gas and Molotov Cocktails were thrown near the car. The action was sparked by protestors with petrol bombs, and the tear gas was the natural retaliation of the police. One team member not involved has asked for and been given permission to go home, while I have also heard from Twitter that one of those in the car has also asked to go home.
This may have been an isolated incident, but unlike the media who are bravely taking on extra responsibilities to seek out the protestors and find out what is really going on, the Force India guys were just there to do their job. Protests are expected to increase over the weekend, with one scheduled for tomorrow after FP2, and others over the remainder of the weekend.
Force India will still race on Sunday, though Nico Hulkenberg has expressed reservations. The team have put in additional security measures to make sure everything goes well.
This race will be overshadowed by the political situation, but I am going to watch it. Not to support the government, but because if the F1 and GP2 guys are going out there despite fears for safety, how can I – in the safety of Britain – not support them? I hope that they all stay safe and that no more incidents happen. F1 people are not a target, but they could get caught up in things.

Meanwhile many members of the press who were expecting to report on the race have been forbidden from entering the country, being turned back at the airport, while it’s rumoured that tourists are being forced to buy F1 tickets in order to enter the country.

GP2
In a very last-minute change, Brendon Hartley will be replacing Jon Lancaster at Ocean this weekend. Even the Ocean website has quotes from Lancaster, as well as his teammate Nigel Melker, about Bahrain. The British driver did tweet last Friday: “All that media attention in Bahrain, hope nobody tries to prove the decision wrong to race in Bahrain. #risky” (@Lancaster4F1)
Hartley drove two rounds for Ocean in the 2011 championship, picking up four points for the team in the feature race in Belgium. Shockingly, these were the team’s only points of the season. The Kiwi also picked up several podiums to finish fifth in the FR 3.5 series, but had not been given a drive this year.
I hope that Lancaster is OK. I recall last year that he had been hoping to drive in the Spa-Francorchamps round of F2 but had been unable to compete, leaving him without a drive for the rest of 2012 after budget problems. He’s a good driver and definitely deserves a seat in GP2.

And the fastest team is… someone

Both free practice sessions in Melbourne today were marred by rain, and as if that wasn’t bad enough for HRT, their cars had massive reliability issues – when they could get them on track. Narain Karthikeyan’s car was available straight away in FP1, but broke down on its third lap of the circuit. Pedro de la Rosa had to wait until FP2 for his turn, though this is still a massive improvement on previous years for the Spanish outfit. Pedro’s car also only managed one lap in that session, though Narain Karthikeyan managed 16.
Wets, inters then finally slicks were the order of the day, with the fastest times coming at the close of the sessions. McLaren set a Button-Hamilton 1-2 in FP1, while Schumacher pipped Nico Hulkenberg to the top in FP2. Schumi was also third in FP1, and looks set to be a strong contender, but Hulkenberg was 12th. It seems we won’t know the likely order until FP3 or qualifying.

It will probably be dry on Sunday, so none of this wet running is very helpful for the teams. Who will be on pole? Nobody knows. Who will win? Nobody knows.

I’m off to the Scottish Highlands for the weekend, and while I will catch the F1, I won’t be able to write about it. See you all on Monday!

GP3 has live timing!

It’s been ‘one of those days’ for Jules Bianchi. Having announced his 2012 drive with Tech 1 in Formula Renault 3.5 (alongside Estonian Kevin Korjus), he set off in the Force India for morning testing in Jerez. This lasted all of three laps, where he caused the first crash of testing. Though the car was not severely damaged, the team lacked the necessary parts for repair. This meant that neither Jules not Nico Hulkenberg (taking over in the afternoon) were able to do any more testing. Nico should get a full day tomorrow.
Generally teams have expressed pleasure with their new cars, though Ferrari have been making unhappy noises. It is probable that these teams are hiding the true facts – do Ferrari want others to underestimate them? Do other teams want to be overestimated? We shall see…
HRT have had a setback in their 2012 car as it failed an FIA crash test. They will need to make changes to the car quickly, as there are only around two weeks before the next test in Barcelona.

Alex Lynn will now be contesting the Euro F3 Open winter series with Team West-Tec, a British outfit. The FRUK champion will be in Portugal at the Algarve circuit the weekend after this one, and at Paul Ricard on the weekend of March 3rd. The Brit will go on to compete with Fortec in the British F3 series this year.

The new GP3 website has launched, featuring for the first time what we all wanted to see – live timing! Now it is possible to follow along with the races without TV coverage.

Don’t forget that Rally Sweden has started this weekend, with Mini’s Dani Sordo quickest on the opening superspecial stage. The Spaniard, who chose to run 11th on the road after the drivers picked their starting positions for the first time, is likely to lose ground over the next few days. However it is a good start for the team.

Raikkonen goes fastest on first day back

In the world of motor racing, today has been quiet… well, as quiet as it gets on the first day of an F1 test! After Williams launched their FW34, featuring the all-familiar stepped nose, it was time to take to the track. First up, and continuing a tradition from last season, Caterham were first on the track with Heikki Kovalainen.
But the first flyer was Kimi Raikkonen, quickly getting up to speed in the E20. He went fastest overall, though not much more than Paul di Resta in the Force India. We cannot get the whole picture from testing, of course. As I am sure you have already heard, Williams were fastest at Jerez last year, but had their worst season of all time in 2011. Many teams will be sandbagging, and others will face unexpected problems – the Caterham, for example, was prevented from running by a broken starter shaft. Red Bull were also late in starting, after parts were held up by heavy fog.

First Impressions
Kovalainen’s shortened time in the CT01 today (he’ll be back tomorrow, with van der Garde in on Thursday followed by Trulli on Friday) was enough for him to get a reasonable impression of the new car. The Finn said “The steering feels slightly more precise. I have only done three laps so I can’t really tell more but, so far, positive feeling.” This will be good news for Trulli, so long as the rumours of his replacement do not come true.
Franz Tost, the Toro Rosso boss, believes Caterham have what it takes to be a midfield team in 2012, stating them as one of their main competitors in 2012. They also believe they will be up against Sauber and Force India. It is interesting to note that Williams were not mentioned here.
The smooth-nosed McLaren has pleased Button, who said that there weren’t so many downforce issues as expected after the removal of blown diffusers. The team hope to have a much better testing session than last year, where difficulties left them far behind where they had hoped to be by the start of the season.
Schumacher – who drove half a day in the 2011 Mercedes – expressed his pleasure with the new rear tyres from Pirelli, saying that they were more consistent than 2011’s.

The only team not present at the test was Marussia, who will probably be at Barcelona. HRT hope to pass the final crash tests soon, which means their car should also be ready for the next test. The most laps today were completed by Kamui Kobayashi and Paul di Resta, while Kovalainen and Maldonado completed the least. I am not sure why Williams did such little running. Unsurprisingly, Pedro de la Rosa was slowest in the 2011 HRT.

New driver announcements

It has been a busy day in the world of motor racing, with driver announcements across all levels of the sport, in single-seaters and tin-tops. Here’s a summary of the single-seater news:

Formula One
First up, HRT revealed their second driver to be none other than Narain Karthikeyan, who drove a part-season for them last year. He and Pedro de la Rosa will make up the oldest team on the grid, and will have a combined age of 76 years at the Melbourne GP. Despite this, they have less F1 experience than several other teams, having only 113 F1 starts between them.
Ferrari and Force India both launched their cars today – the F2012 and the VJM05. Ferrari’s rather ugly, square design and Force India’s smoother design both have the platypus nose that was first seen on the Caterham CT-01.

GP2
Josef Kral is the latest driver to be confirmed for the series. The Czech, who drove for Arden last season and picked up podiums in Monaco and Belgium, will be driving alongside Johnny Cecotto at Addax.

GP3
Marussia Manor Racing have confirmed their first driver as Dmitry Suranovich, who is currently competing in the Toyota Racing Series in New Zealand. Born in Belarus, Suranovich is a Russian citizen and drives under a Russian license. The 16-year-old last year competed in Formula Arbath Europe and Italy. He did not have brilliant results. However, his rookie season in TRSNZ is going well and he is 9th in the championship, having picked up a podium at Timaru.
Carlin have also been confirming drivers in various series, including one in GP3. This is Alex Brundle, son of Martin, who will also be competing in European rounds of the WEC. Brundle had mixed luck in F2 last year, taking one pole and three podiums and finishing 7th in the championship.

British F3
A number of drivers have now been confirmed for the 2012 BF3 season, very few of whom are British. Carlin have five drivers signed so far – Pietro Fantin (BRA), Jazeman Jaafar (MAL), Jack Harvey (GBR), Carlos Sainz, Jr (ESP) and Harry Tincknell (GBR). At Fortec, Pipo Derani (BRA) joins FR UK champion Alex Lynn and another graduate of the series Felix Serralles. Only one driver – Spike Goddard (AUS) has been confirmed for T-Sport so far.

IndyCar
Takuma Sato, who drove for KV Racing for the last two seasons, was today announced as Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing (wow, long name or what?) lead driver. The Japanese driver has taken two poles and a best finish of fourth in his career so far. This will be Rahak’s first full IndyCar season since 2008, and they also hope to run a second car at some point.

Jules Bianchi becomes Force India reserve

Today it was confirmed by Force India that Jules Bianchi will be coming to the team for 2012. Bianchi, who has been a Ferrari test driver and remains in their driver training program, will take part in some of the pre-season testing and a number of Friday practice sessions.
The Frenchman is the grandnephew of Lucien Bianchi, a Belgian racing driver who drove sporadically in F1 and came third in the 1968 Monaco Grand Prix. Bianchi regularly took part in Le Mans, and died in 1969 when his Alfa Romeo T33 hit a telegraph pole during testing.
As for Jules, he has finished third in GP2 for the last two seasons, both years with ART (now Lotus). In fact, these have been his only years in the series, and include a pole position on his debut! Though he has only won one GP2 race (the 2011 British feature race), he has been incredibly consistent throughout his whole time in the series. He also finished second in the 2011 GP2 Asia series, winning the Abu Dhabi feature race. Before GP2 he was still an ART driver, and won the F3 Euroseries in 2009 having come third the year before. It is a shame that this fantastic driver isn’t in F1 yet. However, Force India have two equally good drivers in their main lineup. They will be hard to replace.

Lotus have named their new car the E20, as it is the 20th car to be built at Enstone. Though the team has changed names twice, the E20 is a direct successor of the Benetton F1 cars that were first made there.

Finally, GP3 have made some announcements over the last couple of days. First, the series will finally be racing at Monaco alongside F1, GP2 and FR 3.5. This is great news for the series, and will be a real encouragement for young drivers. As if that wasn’t enough, Pirelli will be offering a prize to the champion of the series – 200,000 Euros, plus a GP2 test drive over the winter break – providing the driver moves to a GP2 team the next season. So far, only one of the two GP3 champions has moved to GP2 the following season, though Valtteri Bottas’s plans have not yet been announced. It is a very tempting reward. Hopefully, it will attract a fantastic calibre of drivers this season and in the years to come.

As I was writing this post, Formula Renault UK made a big announcement which I will post about in a short while.