Lance Stroll, Aston Martin, Bahrain International Circuit, 2021

Paddock Diary: Bahrain Grand Prix part two

2021 Bahrain Grand Prix

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Formula 1 ticked off its first of 23 races last weekend. But will it complete its record-breaking 2021 calendar amid the continuing pandemic?

Dieter Rencken brings the behind-the scenes stories from the Bahrain Grand Prix weekend, including why race start times may change again, and why F1’s Sprint Qualifying plan hasn’t been approved yet.


The day of reckoning is finally here. After tens of thousands of development hours in wind tunnels and as many dedicated to CFD analysis, three days of testing at this circuit a fortnight ago by over 20 drivers, two action-packed Friday free practice session, and weeks of evasion about tricks and tweaks, qualifying will be the arbiter of who has got it together best, and who not. As it turns out, Red Bull shades Mercedes – not unexpected.

The mixed zone in Bahrain for written media to interview driver and team personnel works a treat. Situated between two paddock turnstiles, team personnel and race officials pass by in close proximity, and while a number ignore our calls, a surprising number are generous with their time and stop for a chat. It is obviously not the same as being in the paddock, but at least we have advantages over media members who chose not to travel for whatever reason.

I discover, for example, that the sticking point over F1’s long-debated Sprint Qualifying format is a matter of up to $750,000 per team for wear, tear and potential damage – which major teams want added to the budget cap as these costs were not originally provided for. That’s over $2m per team for the projected three races, so $20m total – which comes straight off Liberty Media’s bottom line. As always in F1, the devil lies in the details, and those details are usually financial.

It seems race start times will be pushed back further from the 2022 F1 season based on research which (allegedly) shows the later the start, the better the audiences in most territories. Let’s wait and see – the same research suggested starting grands prix at 10 minutes past the hour would boost ratings, yet F1 has reverted to top-of-the-hour lights-out this year, as it had the opposite effect.

It seems perverse to introduce a three-day weekend format – cancelling all Thursday activities including media sessions – to save costs then add a night at the end of race weekends: later starts mean most folk (including fans) won’t be able to fly out Sunday night. Let’s see if after a year or two of the mooted change start times are pulled forward to 2pm again.

F1 projects that it should deliver the calendar as its stands through to the summer break, with the prospect of one or two subsequent events – notably Mexico and Brazil – considered shaky. These, however, could readily be replaced by other venues, probably in Europe. Although there is some paddock pessimism about Canada’s round, my sources are adamant prime minister Justin Trudeau has given the event his full backing.

Honda is determined to exit on a high this year and is thus adamant the Japanese Grand Prix (at its own Suzuka circuit) should go ahead, possibly with local fans only, or even none at all. I put the odds at 100% for 21 races this year, 95% for 22 and 90% for 23 – although even 20 would be an exceptional achievement given the prevailing circumstances.

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Yuki Tsunoda, AlphaTauri, Bahrain International Circuit, 2021After the qualifying session I hit the mixed zone to interview those drivers who do not have Zoom calls scheduled. A highlight is chatting to AlphaTauri’s Yuki Tsunoda, the first F1 driver to be born this millennium. I’d only previously spoken to him during testing – after he’d posted the second-fastest time overall, behind Max Verstappen – and once again he’s an absolute delight to interview.

He is living his dream and is highly spoken of within the team, notably by Red Bull F1 honcho Helmut Marko, who tips him as not only Japan’s first grand prix winner, but first world champion. Marko is a hard taskmaster and not easy to impress, having been a contemporary (and close friend) of Jochen Rindt and Niki Lauda – champions both – and mentor to Sebastian Vettel and Verstappen, so high praise indeed.

Thereafter Nikolas Tombazis, FIA’s head of single seater technology, explains to a select group of four journalists the rationale of new rules allowing the stewards to randomly select a car from the top 10 finishers after each race to check compliance. Under the procedure FIA officials will pinpoint one of 25 ‘macro technical areas’ per check, with a strip-down undertaken by team technicians under FIA supervision.

He adds that they have already run a number of routine checks to prevent ‘photocopying’ of the type penalised last year after Racing Point (now Aston Martin) duplicated a number of Mercedes concepts. After the group chat I enjoy exclusive time with Nikolas about 2025-onwards F1 technologies. Based on our discussion some exciting times await assuming all outstanding points come to fruition – I’ll keep you posted.


The wind has picked up speed overnight and, while not on a level with that experienced during testing, its gusting at a fair rate when I arrive at the circuit shortly before midday. I head straight for a voluntary Covid test: I’d been tested upon arrival on Wednesday – which sees me through to Monday – but rather safe than sorry, particularly as I’m staying in Bahrain until Thursday to receive my second vaccination jab.

It’s a fair slog to race start at 6pm local time, so I busy myself with preparation between chats in the zone with various FIA and F1 officials, a number of team members, and commercial folk who receive passes from teams. It is noticeable that the paddock is gradually opening up beyond key workers yet independent media remains resolutely excluded. This begs the question: Who and what to pay for such access? I’m joking, of course…

I delve into the background to Sebastian Vettel’s seemingly harsh five-grid place penalty for ignoring yellows during qualifying, a penalty handed down around 18 hours after the offence. It turns out that by the time the incident had been reported the team had left the circuit, so the hearing was convened for Sunday after the curfew expired.

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However, more to the point: F1 race director Michael Masi stressed during a number of recent driver briefings that a zero-tolerance policy would be applied for ignoring yellows, and thus the stewards had no choice but to hand down the penalty. “Drivers were told that yellows mean ‘your lap is done’; no excuses,” explained my source.

Post-race I head for the zone, where I chat to eight in total. They include Tsunoda again, who describes the strange sensation of passing the two-times world champion he watched as a child, Sergio Perez, who almost abandoned his race when his car stopped on the formation lap, and a downbeat Sebastian Vettel following a poor first weekend at Aston Martin. Once again it drives home how crucial such exclusive face time is.

I hope you enjoyed the additional coverage from Bahrain. It’s a wait for my jab, then a flight back to Belgium for Easter and preparations for Imola. Take care until then and stay safe.

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27 comments on “Paddock Diary: Bahrain Grand Prix part two”

  1. I wonder what research and based on what would ‘later’ be better for ‘most’ territories? The later European races start the more unideal for parts of Asia (and Oceania, etc.) further away from Europe. Somewhat weird. I would be okay without any Friday practice running as a regular thing. In Bahrain, Abu Dhabi, and Jeddah, FP2 (rather than FP3) should be the sole session as it’s the only one taking place under artificial lighting.
    As for the remainder of this year’s campaign: At this point, I’m relatively hopeful of every event (including Canada and Mexico) happening as scheduled, although more skeptical about Brazil. Should Mexico lose out, a European track wouldn’t really be a fitting replacement on its weekend, though, because of COTA, so more likely it’d merely become a race-less weekend. Time will tell, but I’m not worried yet. This is about events planned for October and November, after all, so plenty of days until they’re due to occur.

    1. @jerejj I suspect the research involved looking at the audience figures, which have long since had higher numbers for rounds held in the evening European time, than morning or afternoon. This is because Europeans are often doing something else all day during the day (yes, even in lockdown at home). A movement of audiences from eastern Asia to the Americas in the last decade or so has only accelerated this tendency.

      However, that’s also evening or night for the majority of circuits. Most of which don’t have floodlights. I’m not convinced there’s much point chasing timeframes .

      I’m still not convinced that the USA is going to happen, given how poor the COVID figures I’m hearing in Texas are. However, Canada could be partnered with an East Asian race, or Mexico (in the increasingly-unlikely event it happens).

      I think there is 0% chance of Brazil being in a fit state to host a round this year, and a 5% chance of a vaccine-dodging mutation wreaking havoc to the post-summer-break part of the schedule. 20-21 races, on the other hand, seems eminently plausible, which is an achievement. I just wish the social distancing in the paddock didn’t make it look like F1 thinks COVID-19 is already over…

      1. @alianora-la-canta Valid points and I agree with you in principle. Canada paired with an East Asian round wouldn’t necessarily be doable, given the distance. Montreal is unfavorably cold for F1 in the US-Mexico time of year, but for now, I’m hopeful of the Canadian GP taking place as scheduled.

  2. I hadn’t heard that our Prime Minister Trudeau was backing the Canadian GP but I am not surprised one bit. There’s an election looming and he’s been pandering for every vote he can get after some controversial things have gone on here, and as well, as vaccinations continue to go at a snails pace, and variant COVID cases are on the rise, albeit with the ever present promise of (finally) an influx of supply coming even this week.

    Trudeau is himself a Québécois, and given some of his behaviours I would not at all be surprised to see Montreal specifically getting a big influx of supply with a big push for ‘everyone’ to get shots rather than them going by the age group method that still has the vast majority of Canadians under the age of 70 still ineligible.

    Fingers crossed and at least there’s a number of weeks to the race date. For now international travellers are forced to quarantine in hotels for three days upon arrival at airports, at great expense and inconvenience, and then must quarantine for a further two weeks at home.

    1. Thanks to adding some Canadian perspective to that information @robbie. Makes sense that he would be happy for a PR friendly F1 race comeback then, yeah.

    2. @Robbie Would it be possible for the teams to serve quarantine at the track? (And would the Canadians really be bothered about people doing the whole two weeks if the only reason they’re not is to go home again?)

      1. @alianora-la-canta Of course I don’t know all the ins and outs of what F1 has planned in terms of how to come to Canada, and how Montreal will receive F1, but here’s how I can see it happening. And of course we are talking about 9 weeks from now before they have to travel to Montreal, so things may easily change. I’m only skeptical about certain aspects given how slowly things have gone here so far, and it has been a lot of political talk with little action to back that talk up. Again though, things should start ramping up soon it would seem, on paper. As I say it has been a very small percentage of people in Canada who have had both shots, and Ontario where I am, and Quebec, constitute two thirds of the population of the country.

        So I can see the F1 circus, having all been given both their shots and ample time to build up immunity after said shots, coming to Montreal, tested beforehand and upon arrival, being put in bubbles in a hotel or two designated only for them. That should be easy to do as hotels are empty now anyway. I can see the teams going to and from the track safely, exempt from the quarantining aspect that ‘regular folk’ would have to do, and admittedly may (only time and case numbers will tell) not have to do by June anyway.

        What I can’t see at this point in time is any international travellers feasibly being able to come to the race, and so if there is an audience at all it will strictly be local people, and even then I am highly skeptical that large gatherings will be encouraged and allowed by June. If the bulk of fans average in their 20’s to 40’s let’s say, I would suggest they will be hard pressed to have had their shots by June, let alone the time to become immune, and even then the world is still to practice mask wearing and social distancing even after bing vaccinated. So I would think that at an extreme push the ‘crowd’ at Montreal will be limited to a tiny number of people if any, and to me more likely restricted to the F1 circus, and the local folk who help put on the race at the track.

        So I predict a race but empty grandstands, and if I’m wrong well that will mean either no race, or indeed things will have rapidly improved in Canada case wise and vaccine wise, which is not the current trend, but which would of course be wonderful. Still, at least a race with no fans should be doable imho.

        1. @robbie Locals-only with a % limitation was pretty much what I assumed would happen, perhaps with some sort of compensation being paid to bring the circuit back to breaking even.

        2. Josh (@canadianjosh)
          29th March 2021, 17:13

          Robbie, first off I had no idea you were Canadian lol, and secondly good points made my man. It’s the end of March and the new variants are starting to take hold of Ontario which was predicted to happen but at the same time the vaccine rollout is starting to gain steam albeit slower than we would have liked but nonetheless it’s picking up steam. In terms of having a GP this year( June I think) I can definitely see it happening now but having fans there is iffy but hopefully some fans can attend. The next few months will tell the tale about having a GP in 2021 and something I can tell everyone is Ontario which is located next to Quebec is likely headed for some sort of lockdown in the next few weeks so time will tell. As for Trudeau, that Liberal puppet should have two things on his mind, covid the first and second would be getting our two “spies” out of that —— hole China.

          1. @canadianjosh Good stuff. Yeah born in Northern Ontario and still have all my family at various points north of me since I’ve been living in various communities in Southern Ontario, north of Toronto, since the late 80’s.

          2. Josh (@canadianjosh)
            29th March 2021, 19:42

            Good stuff Robbie, I’m a Bruce Peninsula boy and you stay safe my man. Canadians are a strong group 👍

        3. Peter Bakalor
          29th March 2021, 19:46

          As a US based ticket holder for the Canadian GP, (not to mention prepaid hotel and airfare), I wish they would get off the can and make an announcement. I simply cannot see Canada being opened up to arrivals from the US in time, and even if somehow they do, getting travel arrangements made late in the day will not be fun. Anyway, they’ve had my money for heading for two years now, and I’d like to know what’s going to happen

    3. @robbie I am old enough to remember Pierre Trudeau’s enthusiasm for the Montreal race, and his excitement and pride to see a Canadian race winner in Gilles. I think it may be a tad cynical to attribute his son’s enthusiasm for the same event as merely political.

      1. I also agree with your analysis that there will be empty grandstands. In fact, given the current situation, I hope that is so, as we are still in the middle of a pandemic, no matter our desires to return to normalcy.

        1. @ferrox-glideh No that’s fair and I’m sure Justin has always been enthusiastic for it too for similar reasons as his Dad, not just from a political side, nor even from the monetary injection into the community. I’m only cynical now because I can see him pushing for it when perhaps it shouldn’t necessarily be pushed due to the pandemic, along with the timing of the looming election and his behaviour in other areas that hints at said potential behaviour of vote pandering. Were he to provide special help for Montreal more than other communities to speed up vaccinations for example, in order to help expedite the race, would not surprise me at all. And of course it would be under the guise of ‘jobs’ but imho would be more for the appearance of as much normalcy as he can muster ahead of an election and given the slow pace of vaccine supply and it’s administration so far. And given his other indiscretions of recent years that have raised concerns with the Ethics Committee on several occasions. I truly wish he hadn’t supplied the fuel for my cynicism.

          1. @robbie These certainly are cynical times in Canadian politics, surely even more so for you fellows in Ontario. I fear that as a country we lost a once in a lifetime opportunity to have a decent leader with the premature death of Jack Layton, who might have brought us unity (maybe even sanity?) above the level of squalid party politics. Good luck with everything.

  3. On Helmut Marko, I am anticipating but I guess he is still thinking of getting the youngest world champion ever for Red Bulk with Yuki Tsunoda, as he wanted to do with Max Verstappen.

    1. @jeff1s Max will be WDC with RBR before that happens.

  4. Contrary to what is reported, Yuki Tsunoda was not born on this millenium (11 May 2000 is still 20th century, or 1st Millenium).

    1. Oops, I mis-clicked the report button. Apologies.
      Now that I’m here, I’ll just say thanks for the PD DR (your presence was even appreciated by Sky) &
      “Tonight I’m going to party like it’s 2000” didn’t make the charts.

    2. @miguelbento Century isn’t the same thing. 1900-1999 and 2000-2099. Nevertheless, all of these things are trivialities. The most relevant way of putting it is the first 2000s decade-born driver. I only really care about decades anyway.

  5. I enjoyed reading Dieters Part 2 report

  6. ” to save costs then add a night at the end of race weekends: later starts mean most folk (including fans) won’t be able to fly out Sunday night”

    Yeah…somehow, I get the feeling that us fans wont be flying anywhere anytime soon. You may need to apply for a permit to fly to somewhere years in advance!

  7. It’s great to read how you had access to the racers, vs some sort of scripted zoom nonsense, and hopefully that extends to the team personnel as well (technical directors, engineers, tire technicians, etc…). Anxiously awaiting my “fully vaccinated” Covid passport (when such things exist). Norm

  8. isthatglock21
    30th March 2021, 14:01

    Good to see you have some access again Dieter, you’re generally a lot more positive & optimistic than other ‘certain’ members of the media circus for sure. A breath of fresh air. These Paddock diaries are some of the best things on this site. Keep them coming!

  9. An, enjoyable read! Also a nice little background cameo in Ted’s notebook on sky too.

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