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New Challenge in Bahrain Desert

The Bahrain Grand Prix is the first of the two new events on the Formula One calendar for 2004 and its desert setting provides a novel location.

Williams test driver Marc Gené is the only man to have driven an F1 car round the track, completing a couple of dozen laps in the FW25 at the opening ceremony a few weeks ago. This caused a bit of muttering but Williams said it hardly constituted an advantage.

Located in Sakhir, and designed by Herman Tilke, the Bahrain circuit is 5.4 km, has 15 turns, one long straight -- the start/finish strip, an impressive one kilometre in length -- and two shorter ones. Although not raced on before, the teams will have some prior ideas of what to expect from the track. Performance and data from locations with similar climates will have been scrutinized for indications of the set up, downforce and tyre choice required.

Temperatures are expected to be possibly as hot as Malaysia, but with lower humidity. Questions have been raised as to the problem of sand being blown on to the track and the race organizers have tackled this by spraying the sides of the track with a powerful adhesive. While this conjures images of hapless cars stuck to the kerbs -- the F1 equivalent of fly-paper, perhaps -- hopefully it will prevent too much sand interfering.

"We are anticipating drifting sand, both on and off the track, in Bahrain," said BMW motorsport director Mario Theissen. "This will not only limit the level of grip on the track but, in terms of the engine, the air filter will play a more crucial role as it will have to prevent sand from getting into the engine through the air inlets and causing damage."

Contrary to the predictions of many, Ferrari's Bridgestone tyres coped well with the Malaysian heat, which is not great news for the Michelin teams. Rubens Barrichello's downfall was an error of judgement in opting for a harder compound, which left him struggling. However, Michael Schumacher only enjoyed a few seconds lead over Juan Pablo Montoya, which perhaps points to the Ferrari's performance being the advantage rather than the tyres.

Ferrari continues to look the strongest team but the competition was much closer in Malaysia. Williams and Renault showed well over the Sepang weekend and McLaren was improved from Australia. However, not a great deal came of it for any of them. Montoya's second was a solid drive but Ralf Schumacher's blown engine was a nasty surprise to Williams. The Renault drivers made errors in qualifying and couldn't hold the race pace after the early stages.

Kimi Räikkönen's engine failure was a disaster, robbing him of third place, and David Coulthard's lacklustre sixth proved unsurprising for McLaren. "Our clear target is to achieve absolute reliability in the races and practice sessions and to improve our lap times from race to race," said Mercedes motorsport director Norbert Haug. "The Bahrain Grand Prix is therefore a challenge in every respect."

Williams chief operations engineer Sam Michael is anticipating a strategy gamble in Bahrain. "Strategy may prove different to the trend of three short stint pit stops we've seen in recent races, because we have no information on the amount of time we'll lose in the pit lane, tyre degradation or what the fuel penalty will be," he explained.

Barrichello got straight to the point with his view of Ferrari's performance for the coming weekend: "The F2004 has proved to be competitive at the first two races," said the Brazilian. "So I don't see any reason why that should not be the same here."

Buoyed by Jenson Button's first podium in Malaysia, BAR is hoping for at least more points in the next race. "All our preparation work indicates that we should be able to replicate another strong performance at the Sakhir circuit, and there is good reason to feel confident that both drivers will again be able to benefit from the positive steps forward we have taken this season," said team boss David Richards.

Mark Webber put his Jaguar on the front row of the grid for the first time in Malaysia but his race was nothing short of a disaster. A poor start was followed by a puncture after a clash with Ralf Schumacher and Webber finally spun off. Despite not finishing the first two races, the Australian is optimistic that the car is improving.

"I am frustrated that I have yet to finish a race, but it is not through a lack of trying by myself or the team," he said. "The R5 was four seconds a lap faster round the Sepang track than it was last year so our hard work over the past year is certainly paying off."

Although computer simulations will give a basis for groundwork, the Bahrain GP is still relatively unknown territory, which makes predictions even more difficult than ever. Pit strategy, the sand factor, the heat -- or perhaps lack of it -- no familiar landmarks for braking points; all of these things could contribute to the unexpected.

Given Ferrari's performance so far it has to be a strong contender but the Michelin runners should be giving the scarlet duo a run for their money. There's too many 'ifs' to bother trying to judge who's going to do what this weekend -- all will be revealed in a few days time. Let's hope it's full of eastern promise and not camel spit.


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