Paddock Diary: Sakhir Grand Prix

2020 Sakhir Grand Prix

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I planned a quiet period for the ‘off days’ between the Bahrain and Sakhir Grands Prix, having pencilled in only my weekly RaceFans column, some news snippets and completing my regular commercial and political analysis of the season for the Autocourse annual.

I’d been invited by Stephane Cohen, CEO of Bell Racing Helmets to visit their factory based on one the circuit’s perimeter roads. With Al Areen Wildlife Reserve – home to a variety of desert species including oryx and cheetah – situated close by I figured I’d combine business and pleasure while also having a mandatory Covid swab taken at the circuit’s test station between the two visits.

However, the schedule markedly changed after Romain Grosjean’s Haas speared into the barriers on Sunday and Lewis Hamilton was diagnosed with Covid-19 on Tuesday.

These unforeseen events sparked off a whirlwind of unexpected driver changes, the likes of which F1 seldom sees in such quick succession: George Russell to Mercedes, Jack Aitken replacing him at Williams and Pietro Fittipaldi subbing for Grosjean.

Add in (unrelated) 2021 confirmations of Nikita Mazepin and Mick Schumacher at Haas, and suddenly all plans for a relaxing period flew out of my 17th floor hotel room quicker than Grosjean’s Haas turned into a fireball.

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The obvious casualty was Al Areen, and more’s the pity. At least I won’t have to wait long to return: We’ll be back to Bahrain in three months’ time for round two on the 2021 F1 calendar.

The visit to Bell was nothing short of fascinating, and not only on account of observing the production processes at close quarters. Stephane invited me up to his office, lined wall-to-wall a magnificent array of ‘used’ helmets – from an original fifties open-face through Jacky Ickx’s dark blue full face to a complete collection of Ayrton Senna designs.

A helmet essentially consists of inner and outer shells, with the former designed to absorb impact and the latter to prevent penetration by foreign objects. The inner shell comprises two (patented) foams to facilitate progressive absorption in critical areas, while the outer needs to provides protection while being flame resistant and as light as possible to reduce G-force loadings.

Add in different sizes and styles – open and full face – and the varying specifications for different series plus a spread of affordability levels, and it is little wonder that Bell’s systems track over 7,000 different part numbers – in order to produce 30,000 helmets per year. Affordability does not, though, means sacrificing safety: all Bell helmets comply with prevailing safety regulations, all of which are under constant review.

A large part of Bell’s revenues is derived from the sale of mini-helmets, being the largest producer of these collector items, and not only on behalf of the 11 current F1 drivers who race with Bell, but also under contract for other brands. During my visit the assembly line was churning out mini versions of Pierre Gasly’s Monza-winning design despite the Frenchman being contracted to Arai.

My most profound take-away from the visit? The comment that, “The actual working cycle of a helmet is a split-second, and during that time we discover whether it has worked as intended.” Then Stephane explained how Romain’s helmet had done just that last Sunday – and perfectly so…


After this flurry of activities Thursday’s media sessions were relatively mild, albeit filled with intrigue. Would Russell thrash Valtteri Bottas, we wondered, and if so, how would the market values of both contracted Mercedes drivers be affected; how would Aitken and Fittipaldi shape up against their more experienced team mates?


The late time schedule for what is a full-blown night race means ‘late to rise; late to bed’ schedules not unlike those followed for Singapore, albeit not as extreme. Still, the event could as easily start at 6pm rather than 8pm given Bahrain’s winter darkness falls early – recall last week’s race. Such timing would make timing more amenable for Australasia, but Liberty seems obsessed with US ratings.

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Arrived at the circuit at around 2pm, timing my travel according to F2 sessions. With the title battle going down to the final day, the support series did not disappoint, with two cracking races.

Time between F1 track sessions was spent in conversation with the team personnel who were kind enough to make the walk to the sterile ‘mix zone’ outside the media centre. I’m told, though, that we could have (controlled) paddock access in Abu Dhabi, and about time, too.


George Russell, Mercedes, Bahrain International Circuit, 2020 Same timings as previous two days, with the major snippet, though, being that F1 has agreed its pre-season test dates after much wrangling over choice of venue – Barcelona or Bahrain. Both have positives – the former primarily due to proximity to team bases; the latter offers dependably warmer weather. Liberty is said to have offered a stopover in Bahrain en route to Melbourne for the season opener to reduce costs, but that failed to swing it.

Instead, teams will spend up to $50,000 each in trucking costs by travelling to and from Spain, with unsuitable weather being a potential risk – crucial as only a single three-day test is scheduled for cost-saving reasons. The dates are March 2nd-4th.

Post-race, the talk was all about Russell’s lost shot at victory and how Mercedes blasted itself in both feet by taking unnecessary stops and losing victory for a driver who had previously failed to score a single point to date. At least the stewards played it leniently, and he was able to keep his first career points.

The last time Mercedes dropped the ball like this, at Monza, we had a new winner, and so it was here, with Sergio Perez grabbing his first victory in what will be his penultimate race unless someone puts his name to a contract for the 2021 F1 season.

Back in the hotel I start preparing for the trip to Abu Dhabi, via a massive airlift of all F1 personnel. I’ll report back on all that and more after the season finale next week.

2020 Sakhir Grand Prix

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    Dieter Rencken
    Dieter Rencken has held full FIA Formula 1 media accreditation since 2000, during which period he has reported from over 300 grands prix, plus...

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    18 comments on “Paddock Diary: Sakhir Grand Prix”

    1. This is only my theory or thought, but I think the race (and QLF) timings being three hours later compared to the first Bahrain weekend were to cover Singapore’s absence. Anyway, I would’ve liked them to be the same as weekend 1, but oh well, racing two times a year in the same place is only a one-off thing for this year as is, of course, F1 going to Bahrain at this time of year (and using the Outer Loop section, etc.), so not the end of the world.
      Re pre-season testing: Should it take place in Europe, why not Circuit Paul Ricard instead? The same monthly temps, a representative enough track featuring a handful of alternatives for the track configuration combined with a more ideal location for travelling in Europe. Circuit de Catalunya is overused, which is partly why I generally don’t enjoy that track an awful lot, so using another European track within the Mediterranean climate zone for a change wouldn’t be for the bad.

      1. Isn’t Paul Ricard quite a bit closer to the mountains and higher up so it would probably still have snow in March if we get any this winter though @jerejj. And it is remote, so both material and personell will have to travel longer distances.

        1. @bascb Remote how? It’s closer to Italy (Ferrari and Alpha Tauri), and Switzerland (Alfa Romeo), and of course, also closer in distance to England than Montmelo.
          As for the weather comparison between Le Castellet and Montmelo: Here are their respective temps for this year’s March:

          Hardly any difference, basically the same throughout the month, so equally ideal or unideal in this regard, and snowless, LOL. Spain, of course, also has Valencia, Aragon, and Jerez. Portimao and Mugello mightn’t be as representative track configuration-wise, but the same climate-wise.

          1. It is closer to a major international airport @jerejj.

            1. @bascb Yes, but teams use trucks for transporting stuff when in Europe. For all individuals who use air transportation for travelling, yes, easier to get to the Montmelo track compared to Paul Ricard.

            2. Yes, and while a couple of trucks takes time to travel, getting the people who operate the stuff are what makes it costly and complicated if you have to then drive hours by bus, car or whatever.

            3. @bascb Fair enough.

      2. @jerejj even if it just testing, the track I find more boring than Catalunya is Paul Ricard. I would suggest tarmacing it over but they already have.

        1. @bernasaurus I prefer Paul Ricard over Montmelo. Each to their own, but I just don’t enjoy driving it much. More or less, the only corners I like are T3 and Campsa (T9).

      3. As far as I can tell it is highly likely the Brexit negotiations will fail, so all the trucks from the British based teams will need to go through French customs. I would like to think F1 could make some prior arrangement so their trucks can be waved through customs, but I suspect that’s just not going to happen.

    2. Is it not the only race that started that late all season giving North and South America a prime time race like Turkey was the earliest race of the year possibly aiming at the Asian market that didn’t get a regular time slot all year?

      1. @Darran No, the Turkish GP race timing was solely due to sunset time as F1’s standard approach is to start races four hours (or at least close to it) before sunset. Nothing to do with certain continents, the same with Nurburgring, Portimao, and Imola, and Sochi Autodrom from also normal seasons.

    3. Dieter, Will Buxton is saying there is ‘heavyweight chatter’ going on about Checo’s future. Would you know something? Is the move to Red Bull happening then?

      1. I treat such predictions with a dose of cynicism. Anything is possible…

    4. Given that at this stage, and for the foreseeable future, people, including sports personalities, are required to quarantine for 14 days on entry to Australia, I still see a high probability that the Melbourne GP won’t go ahead in 2021.

      I’d expect that is probably one of the major reasons that testing has not been arranged in Bahrain. The costs involved if they are not going directly to Melbourne, or if they have to complete testing well before the required quarantine period and then pay for all personnel to be quarantined for 14 days would be far greater than the costs at Barcelona.

      Given the time of year for the only 3 day test though, surely they can find somewhere that would have more reliable weather.

      1. Yet race 2 is at Bahrain, so everyone would already be there…

    5. Why Damon Hill’s missing on that champion’s picture?

    6. This has been updated to correct the dates for pre-season testing.

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