SAKHIR, Bahrain, Dec 3 – Just days after Romain Grosjean’s fireball crash and miraculous escape at the Bahrain Grand Prix, the Formula One circus returns to the same venue besieged by breaking news, but set to deliver the fastest laps of the year.
This weekend’s Sakhir Grand Prix may be raced at the same Bahrain International Circuit, but it will run on a different track –- the high-speed outer loop -– on which lap times are forecast to be around 55 seconds in qualifying and below 60 in the race.
After a fast-moving few days that have seen Grosjean understandably ruled out of action by Haas as he heals and rests, following his 245 km/h crash, and newly-crowned seven-time champion Lewis Hamilton placed in isolation after testing positive for Covid-19, F1 offers an intriguing and unpredictable spectacle.
There will be much interest in how Haas reserve Pietro Fittipaldi fares on his debut in the Frenchman’s place and perhaps more in studying George Russell’s progress in Hamilton’s Mercedes after stepping up from stragglers Williams.
It is the first time Hamilton has missed a race since his debut at Melbourne in 2007.
Russell has two seasons’ experience, but has yet to score a point and his opportunity to run alongside Valtteri Bottas in the ‘black arrows’ is expected to end that sequence.
The Finn, who clocked the year’s briefest lap in taking pole in 1:02.939 on his way to victory at the season-opening Austrian Grand Prix in July, will be seeking his first win in six races -– and aiming for pole along the way.
Only one driver, Niki Lauda at the 1974 French Grand Prix, has previously recorded a sub-60 seconds pole position lap and his came on the outer track at Dijon, which had fewer corners than its alternative layout.
Bottas, resisting Red Bull driver Max Verstappen’s challenge for runners-up place behind Hamilton, will hope to emulate that feat on a circuit dubbed “an almost oval track” by F1’s motorsports chief Ross Brawn. Lauda clocked 58.79 seconds.
While the inner track at Bahrain has 15 corners, the outer loop has only 11 and is almost one kilometre shorter, making it a novel challenge. It has never been used previously for an international race weekend –- and, to add drama, both qualifying and the 87-lap race will take place at night under lights.
– Title-chasing Schumacher on standby –
Additional intrigue will be added by seeing Mick Schumacher, who was confirmed on Wednesday as joining Haas next season alongside Nikita Mazepin, bidding to seal the Formula Two title.
He is poised to make an early F1 appearance at the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix, a week later, in Friday practice – and, if Grosjean fails in his bid to recover for a personal F1 finale at the Yas Marina circuit, in the final race of the season.
“Obviously, it would be a challenge, but definitely, I think I would be able to get to know the car more to be even better prepared for next year,” said Schumacher, the 21-year-old son of seven-time champion Michael Schumacher.
Haas team boss Guenther Steiner hopes Grosjean is fit enough to drive. “At the moment, I want to see where Romain is on Monday. I think he can finish his time with Haas in a race, that’s what I would like — and not just watching it.”
Hamilton still hopes to return for Abu Dhabi, the final part of a season-ending triple-header in the Middle East, but that depends on him passing a coronavirus test after 10 days’ hotel room isolation.
His absence means he cannot claim a record-equalling 13 wins in a season, but it is a golden chance for fellow-Briton Russell, a Mercedes academy driver, to impress team chief Toto Wolff.
“Obviously, nobody can replace Lewis, but I’ll give my all for the team in his absence from the moment I step in the car,” said Russell.
Grosjean, meanwhile, will rest at his Abu Dhabi hotel, watching and waiting. “If my left hand doesn’t work next week and I’m not able to do everything I have to do with it, I won’t take a risk,” he said on Wednesday.
He added that he had told his family: “I’m going to Abu Dhabi. I’m sorry for you, but I need it for myself. I need to know if I’m able to get back into a car, what I will feel, how it will go – and whether I’m still able to do it.”