Formula 1 may be entering its second Grand Prix of the season this weekend in Bahrain, but talk around the sport continues to be dominated by one particular off-season rule change. The new elimination qualifying format, criticized heavily by most within F1 before it even came into action, was condemned almost universally as a failure at the Australian Grand Prix two weeks ago.
Designed to bring more excitement with drivers eliminated at set intervals through the three sessions, the final minutes of each session were instead run down to an empty track as drivers conserved their tires after putting in opening laps.
Change, and at least a temporary return to last season’s format, seemed inevitable. But that was without consideration for the peculiar workings of Formula 1 and a governance structure that the drivers recently criticized in an open letter. It means that to the dismay of many, including world champion Lewis Hamilton, the new format will remain in place in Bahrain.
“It's strange we've kept it the same, particularly because the most important thing is the fans were unhappy,” Hamilton said. “My engineers say it's going to be exactly the same this weekend. So the fans are going to be unhappy again, and I just hope that they do something afterwards.”
Hamilton has other priorities this weekend, though, after his Mercedes teammate Nico Rosberg beat him to the checkered flag at the Australian Grand Prix. It means Rosberg has now beaten Hamilton into second place in the last four races, after the German finished last season with a flourish in the wake of Hamilton’s early title celebrations.
There was further momentum for Rosberg in Friday practice in Bahrain, having finished quickest in both practice sessions.
“I couldn't wait to get back in the car after a great weekend in Melbourne and I felt really good out there,” Rosberg said afterward. “It's been an encouraging first day for the team. We were very quick on one lap and also on the longer runs, so I'm really looking forward to qualifying and the race.”
Hamilton was second fastest, with Mercedes well over a second quicker than the rest of the field. To some surprise, it was the McLaren of Jenson Button that produced the third fastest time. It was an encouraging sign for a team that suffered the ignominy of battling at the back of the grid last season, and Button joked on his team radio that he had “found the go-faster button.”
The mood of Button’s teammate Fernando Alonso will be not be nearly so positive, however. After a disastrous debut season with McLaren a year ago, Fernando Alonso’s 2016 campaign got off to a frightening start in Australia when his car flew off the track and upside down at 180 mph. While he miraculously walked away from the incident, he suffered rib fractures and a partially collapsed lung, which will keep him out of the Bahrain Grand Prix. Reserve driver Stoffel Vandoorne will take the place of the two-time world champion this weekend.
There was little to smile about at Alonso’s former team, Ferrari, on Friday, either. Kimi Raikkonen and Sebastian Vettel were fifth and sixth in practice, a long way off the pace of the Mercedes. And Vettel, who led the Australian Grand Prix before finishing third, pulled off the track before the end of the second session having realized he had a loose rear-left wheel.
Bahrain Grand Prix TV schedule (all times EDT)
Qualifying: Saturday, 11 a.m. (CNBC)
Race: Sunday, 11 a.m. (NBCSN)
Live stream: NBC Sports Live Extra