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GP Week : Issue 150
right front Pirelli teases the centre-right marbles. He is feathering the throttle in fifth for a millisecond...and now he is braking hard into the hairpin, car sitting absolutely dead flat. Lewis rotates the McLaren at minimum speed in one deft movement. Then, almost instantly, he is straight and accelerating hard as he flattens the rear wing flap. There are no jinks, there is no sparring with the rumble strip. Romain Grosjean glisters into view, all black, gold and red helmet. He is Mark Webber, almost to a T – a supple, reflexy gathering of the energies as he tames the Lotus E20 under hard braking. He has been flat-flat-flat through the kink, on the perfect racing line, but from here on in on it has been all about getting the thing stopped and turned, never mind the lock- up, or the quick smooch with the exit kerb. Michael Schumacher – red out of silver – is Lewis Hamilton with a few more bumps: he, too, runs wide of the kink’s apex, teases the marbles on the outside – in fifth gear, under load – grazes the brakes for a millisecond – then stamps on them, hard, with the Mercedes now also sitting straight and true. It takes a while to appreciate from where those bumps have arrived – and then, after repetitions, it is clear: Michael’s steering inputs, and outputs, are slightly more aggressive than those of Lewis. With Michael you can see the subtle inputs; with Lewis, they are so imperceptibly small as to be visible only as a part of the whole. Jenson is Jenson – Mr Textbook Perfect. At the kink, he grazes a perfect, geometrical apex. At the hairpin he displays a perfect increase of steering load against decreasing brake pedal pressure. At the exit, accelerating, he perfectly increases his right pedal movement in harmony with the decreasing load on the right rear. As the tyres fall away, though, so Jenson’s margin for error increases exponentially. There is no other way of remaining perfect within the rapidly diminishing envelope. Fernando is different again. He jinks the Ferrari F2012 to the left as he crests the brow, unsettling the rear slightly, and hits a later apex than Jenson. He is on top of the car, though; he is driving over the issues. In that unmatchable way of his – a genius for which the words “great car control” are wholly inadequate – he somehow uses the momentum of the rear to find a zone in which to stop the car. It is stunning – amazing – to watch but it is almost impossible to replicate, even for Fernando. The tyres give way. He loses the rear a little more. He compensates. He locks an inside front. Felipe Massa, in the other Ferrari, lies somewhere between Mark Webber and Kamui Kobayashi: conventional apex, lots of reflex, lots of locked-up inside fronts. Nico, now: the man of the moment – all silver, yellow and turquoise. As befits an intelligent, fast learner, he is right there with Michael – perhaps even as a smoother, slightly better-managed version of Michael. He locks the inside front occasionally, but it seems not to slow him or to affect the momentum, so precise is he with his pedal release. If there is any difference with Lewis it is that Lewis plays with the marbles for just a millisecond more; Nico isn’t a risk-taker; equally, he knows precisely what he is able to do. And then arrives Kimi – and it is as if there is no other way. He flashes over the brow, keeps the car almost straight – apex? What apex? – actually touches the edge of the mid-track marbles and lives with it in fifth gear; and then he brakes and prepares for hairpin as if he’s got a couple of hours in which to make the booking. If you were watching on TV you would have sworn that Kimi was on an in-lap – or, as Frank Williams presumed, when he was out the back at Zandvoort in 1981, watching Alain Prost’s pole lap – that he was still warming-up the tyres. Unhurried. Unfussed. And in so many ways unbelievable. And so the standards, this torrid year in Bahrain, had been defined. Or had they? At last comes the World Champion in his Red Bull-Renault – a Seb Vettel who this year has had to race. He bursts into view in that superlight way of his – John Watson would call it “freeing-up the car” – and mirrors Kimi! To the millimetre! There are still the signature flares at the threshold of turn-in; there is still the occasional bobble as he flirts with an exit kerb. In his desire to forget the kink, though, and to rely on his deftness of touch and feel for living within the marbles, and thus to create a good, clean preparation zone for the hairpin, Seb Vettel is right there with Kimi Raikkonen. It is the first time – you confess – that you have been able to see a material difference between the driving of Seb Vettel and that of, say, Jenson Button. Don’t mis-understand. This section of road in Bahrain – Turns 9 and 10, to give it the banal character by which it is perfunctorily known by engineers 22 GPWEEK.com // PARTNERS: F1 >>> BAHRAIN