Sport

Beginning of an era

April 2 - 8, 2008
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04-04-04, according to the Bahrain International Circuit chief executive officer Martin Whitaker, will always be a date to be treasured in Bahrain. That was the day the kingdom witnessed its first Formula One race at the brand new $150-million circuit.

"It not only marked the beginning of a new sporting era, but also boosted the burgeoning economic and business sectors," Whitaker told me last week in an interview for a special supplement for our sister publication Gulf Daily News.

"That day saw the circuit also win the coveted 'Best Organised Grand Prix' Award for 2004 - a very special achievement in the circuit's first year of operation," Whitaker added with justifiable zest and understandable pride.

As the BIC gears up to host its fifth race on Sunday, rich memories of spills and thrills, ecstasy and agony and of course victory and defeat swarm the mind.

Here are a few vignettes of the last four Formula One races held in Bahrain.

2004

The Ferraris conquered a new frontier as Michael Schumacher and Rubens Barrichello completed a second one-two finish of the season. The Red Barons were virtually untouchable and untroubled racing from pole to podium in spectacular style.

For Renault's Fernando Alonso, who was to win the next two races here, it was a good learning experience. He proved his growing reputation finishing sixth after having started from 16th on the grid.

Kimi Raikkonen's retirement on lap eight when his engine blew in spectacular fashion and a minor collision between Bar-Honda's Takuma Sato and Williams' Ralf Schumacher added to the drama.

But for the two Ferrari cars it was just another normal day in the office. Bahrain may have offered a change in scenario but not a twist to a tale that was fast turning into a tedious Ferrari affair.

2005

Bahrain got a corner seat as Formula One witnessed a change of guard. Alonso, who later that year became the youngest champion, made it a pole-to-podium victory.

Alonso was in a class of his own as Ferrari's hopes of making a winning debut with their new car evaporated in the stifling desert heat.

Alonso further piled on the world champions' misery lapping Barrichello towards the end of the race while Schumacher went off the track on turn 10 of lap 12.

I can never forget the moment Schumacher veered off the track. The Italian corner at the BIC media centre immediately went into mourning while there were cheers at other pockets packed with all those who love to hate Ferrari.

The media centre almost emptied and reporters rushed towards the Ferrari garage. "I think I picked up debris on the circuit which may have damaged the radiator," said the German outside the Ferrari paddock.

It was an afternoon of high drama. At one end, it seemed like a one-man super show by Alonso while behind the Spaniard the race was full of multiple sub-plots for minor placings each dishing out its own dramatic moments.

But the day clearly belonged to the superlative Spaniard who was in imperious form.

2006

The best race so far. Sadly, it marked the beginning of the end of the Schumacher era.

But it was classic Formula One stuff as Alonso won the race with an air of a chess Grand Master.

The 24-year-old Renault star, who started fourth on the grid, outwitted the seven-time champion Schumacher in a magnificent move coming out of the pit lane and held on for a memorable victory.

That deft move was the defining moment of a daring race embellished by six classic overtaking manoeuvres, two spin-offs and a car blaze.

It was as good as a Fide title clash with Schumacher taking the initiative in a thrilling opening and raising hopes of an 85th Grand Prix victory in the tentative middle game.

But Alonso reserved the best for last, and in a breath-taking end game, with Schumacher breathing down his neck and just a little over a second separating the two, the Spaniard checkmated the German.

It all happened at the most unexpected time in the spectacular opening race of the season. But that was the only opportunity Alonso was to get and he grabbed it in style.

Schumacher, who started from pole, made his second pit stop (8.7 seconds) on lap 36 and Alonso went in two laps later. But the Renault champion took a full second less (7.7 seconds) because he had less fuel to fill and charged out of the pit lane with Schumacher's Ferrari a blur in the background.

The two cars almost touched at the mouth of the pit lane exit and hurtled towards the first turn for that all-important advantage. Where Alonso was daring, Schumacher was deft in a deadly situation, but the champion held on and inched forward.

Alonso could have well stopped at that very moment, got out of his car and uttered the famous but fatal words: check and checkmate my friend and walked back to collect his trophy and 10 points.

2007

Felipe Massa held off a persevering Lewis Hamilton in an incident-free race.

But that was only part of the story as nobody could stop the 22-year-old from making history as the first driver to win three podium spots in his first three races.

Massa got off to a nice start from pole and denied a charging Hamilton, starting his first race from the front row, any room for heroics.

The Brazilian stayed ahead for the rest of the race, but was never able to take complete command at any time.

It was a classic duel as Hamilton did a brilliant job of a dual task: stayed agonisingly close to probe and pester Massa and at the same time keeping Kimi Raikkonen firmly behind him after the second set of pit stops. That Hamilton succeeded in both augured well for his fairytale start and a bright future.

The only other bright spot of a largely expected race was Heidfeld's brilliant overtaking manoeuvre on defending champion Alonso, who struggled right through despite having moved ahead of Raikkonen to third early in the race.

"To have another second place in only my third race, I couldn't ask for more," said Hamilton. "There's only one more step from here." He took that step later in the year.







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