Bahrain is the site of Haas F1 Team’s best finish – your fifth-place result in last year’s race, which was only the second race for Haas F1 Team. Can you talk about the impact of that race and perhaps how it was even more important than the sixth-place finish you earned in the season-opening Australian Grand Prix, as it seemed to validate the team and show that Australia wasn’t a fluke?
Bahrain last year was pretty special. Of course, coming from Australia where we’d had a bit of luck with the red flag, we had no more expectation going into Bahrain. From the first free practice lap I thought the car’s not too bad. In qualifying we just managed to be P9, which was what we wanted not going into the Q3, which at that time was the top-eight. We knew we had a set of tires for the race. We had a very aggressive strategy. We had our first ever pit stop in the race – it was then a three-stop race. The car felt good. I was overtaking guys. Before I knew it, I had crossed the line P5. It was not down to luck or anything. It was the pure pace of the car. It was a pretty special race. I still remember having a lot of fun driving the car.
In five career Formula One races at Bahrain, you’ve had four point-paying finishes, including two podiums (back-to-back third-place finishes in 2012 and 2013). And in scoring those podiums, you came from seventh and 11th on the grid. In fact, in every race you’ve picked up positions from where you qualified – 23 positions in all. Is there something about Bahrain that plays to your strengths?
I love the track in Bahrain. On paper, it doesn’t look like the most exciting one, but driving it is pretty good fun. Big braking – I brake late. I love braking hard and late. It probably explains why my qualifying sessions in 2012 and 2013, I could have done better. The car was pretty good on tires in the race. It’s hard on tires as well, but I was good with that, probably another thing that helped. I love racing in Bahrain.
You’ve proven that you can overtake at Bahrain. Where do you overtake and how do you do it?
There’s plenty of places where you can overtake. Basically, turn one is DRS, and going up to turn four is another good place. Down to turn eight, on the first few laps of the race, is a quick one. Before turn 11 is a bit more tricky. Even though you’ve got the DRS, it’s a tricky place to overtake. There’s only one corner where you could overtake, but you don’t really want to do it – it’s the last corner, because the guy behind you has the DRS and he’ll just take you back.
With all the newness this year, how helpful is it to have the same tire compounds – White medium, Yellow soft and Red supersoft – on these back-to-back race weekends between China and Bahrain?
It doesn’t mean a lot that we’ve got the same tires. Conditions are going to be very different. Bahrain is a very aggressive track with a high temperature. China is a very smooth track with low temperature. Shanghai is front limited, Bahrain is rear limited. They’re two very different circuits. If you look at the first four races of the calendar, if we do well out of those four and manage to get a good consistency, we can then be very hopeful for the rest of the year.
Drivers are saying that with the wider tires this year the loss of grip is very sudden. The amount a car can naturally slide through a corner is very limited, and when grip goes away, it’s gone. Obviously, it’s a delicate balance. How do you find it?
Finding the balance is never easy. It’s about finding the setup that fits you and finding what is the limit of the car. It’s true that now we have more downforce, whenever the car goes sideways we lose all downforce, and the percentage of loss is bigger than it was before. That’s probably why we see cars not possible to recover. Driving to the limit is what we’re here for and what we love.
The amount of run-off area at Bahrain is high. Does that allow you to push the limits of your car and its tires more than at some other venues?
It’s certainly easier to find braking points in Bahrain than it is in Monaco or Singapore. You know if you miss it, or overshoot your braking point, you’re just going to go straight and have another go on the next lap. Some street circuits it’s straight into the wall. It’s a bit easier to get used to it and find the limit.
Are you able to learn more at a venue like Bahrain because you are able to push harder and discover a car’s limits?
Not necessarily. I think every venue, you have an interesting understanding of the car. That’s why I’m saying I don’t want to judge anything before the first four races.
With the race beginning in the late afternoon and ending at night, how much does the track change as the air and track temperatures cool?
The track changes quite a bit during the race, especially in the last stint. Normally, where you fit the harder tires, it’ll probably be the softs this year. It’s just a bit harder to work the tires, but it’s not as bad as Abu Dhabi, for example, where you start really in the day and finish in the dark.
What can you do to combat those changing track conditions during the race?
You can adapt your aero balance every time you go to the pit stop, and then just use the tools you have in the car.
What is your favorite part of the Bahrain International Circuit and why?
I like turns 11, 12 and 13, just because there’s a cool flow. If you’ve got a good car, they are the corners where you can enjoy balancing the car.
Is there a specific portion of the Bahrain International Circuit that is more challenging than other aspects of the track? If so, why?
Turns nine and 10 are pretty tricky. That’s the braking going downhill and there’s a lot of g-forces and front locking, with tricky traction on the exit. That’s the place where you really need to focus.
Explain a lap around the Bahrain International Circuit.
Bahrain is not a circuit that looks very technical from a paper point of view, but I love driving it every year. It’s a big straight into turn one. Big braking and a tricky exit to turn two, and then you head up the hill approaching turn four. It’s got tricky braking with long lateral g’s and acceleration going into the high-speed section of (turns) five, six and seven. The wind can have a big influence at those corners. Then you have the hairpin down the hill, going up against (turns) nine and 10 where you can easily have some front-locking because there’s a lot of g’s there under braking. Then the back straight takes you to turn 11, an uphill corner, then turn 12 where it can be flat out if you’ve got a really good car. Tricky braking into turn 13 because you’re coming from a high-speed corner. You really want to go early on the power to go down to turn 14, which is the last corner, again big braking before accelerating to cross the start-finish line.