2015 Bahrain Grand Prix Preview

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The first flyaway leg of the 2015 Formula 1 season comes to a close this weekend with the Bahrain Grand Prix, as the teams begin to prepare their first major upgrade packages for introduction at the start of the European season in three weeks’ time.

Last year’s race at the Bahrain International Circuit went down in folklore as Mercedes teammates and championship rivals Lewis Hamilton and Nico Rosberg enjoyed a spectacular fight for the race win in the final 10 laps.

That day, it was Hamilton who took the spoils, but it set the tone for an intra-team scrap that would eventually boil over in Hungary and Belgium – the repercussions of which are still being felt today.

Following his ninth defeat in the last ten races to Hamilton in China, Rosberg accused his teammate of deliberately compromising both his race and that of the team in pursuit of his own victory. The frosty atmosphere of the post-race press conference shows that the tension between the two sides of the Mercedes garage only lingers in 2015.

We now head to Bahrain with a fascinating battle on the cards. The last time Rosberg was so riled up after a race, he reacted by making contact with Hamilton at Spa-Francorchamps, thus becoming the villain. All eyes will be on the two Mercedes drivers in case of a repeat in Bahrain.

However, with Ferrari proving in China that its Malaysia pace was not a one-off, Sebastian Vettel and Kimi Raikkonen could also be candidates for the race win.

2015 Bahrain Grand Prix – Talking Points

Desert Duel v3?

The championship showdown between Hamilton and Rosberg in Abu Dhabi last year was billed as the “desert duel” – in truth, it was the second one following their clash in Bahrain. So does that make this year’s Bahrain Grand Prix the third instalment? If it has even half of the action that last year’s race in Sakhir did, then we are in for a treat.

Rosberg must bounce back this weekend – nine defeats in the last ten races to Hamilton, plus a 0-3 record in 2015 – or he’ll be facing an even bigger task to get back into this title fight. Most importantly though, he must do his talking on track. Beating Lewis this weekend would be an enormous psychological victory – another defeat could be equally as emphatic, though.

Ferrari’s next big opportunity

Sebastian Vettel’s shock victory in Malaysia proved that Ferrari can cut it with Mercedes at the front, particularly at races where temperatures are high. Bahrain is set to be another sizzler on Sunday, even when being run at night, which could bring Ferrari back into contention. It will be interesting to see just how closely Vettel and Kimi Raikkonen can fight with the Silver Arrows, particularly given the internal issues the German marque is facing.

The chasing pack continues to shape up

Lotus finally came good on its pre-season pace in China (well, Romain Grosjean did) whilst Red Bull continued to struggle and McLaren made some good progress to get both of its cars to the line. So who exactly leads the way in the midfield battle? Williams was in a rather lonely class of its own in China, easing to P5 and P6, and should expect to do the same this weekend. Just behind, the margins between Lotus, Red Bull, Toro Rosso and Sauber are small, whilst a power upgrade for McLaren could yet bring it into contention again. If the battle at the front is a let down, the one in the midfield certainly won’t be.

McLaren’s rapid rise

It may be just one of two teams without a single point to its name in 2015, but McLaren has made some rapid progress over the first three races of the season. Honda has promised an engine boost for this weekend’s race in Bahrain before a bigger one at the start of the European season at the Spanish grand Prix, suggesting that everything is moving in the right direction. Jenson Button and Fernando Alonso are both former winners here, and could be outside bets for points should a race of attrition set in.

The rhythm of the night

Night races in Formula 1 are always special. The Singapore Grand Prix was the first, with Abu Dhabi holding a ‘twilight’ race that started at dusk. Bahrain followed suit with its first night race in 2014, which was an unmitigated success both on and off track. For drivers, it gives the event some extra spice and panache, whilst the spectacle is undoubtedly improved by running in the dark under floodlights.

Bahrain Grand Prix – Facts and Figures

Track: Bahrain International Circuit
Laps: 57
Corners: 15
Lap Record: Michael Schumacher 1:30.252 (2004)
Tire Compounds: Soft (Option); Medium (Prime)
2014 Winner: Lewis Hamilton (Mercedes)
2014 Pole Position: Nico Rosberg (Mercedes) 1:33.185
2014 Fastest Lap: Nico Rosberg (Mercedes) 1:37.020
DRS Zones: Main Straight (T15 to T1); T10 to T11

Bahrain Grand Prix – TV Times

Free Practice 1: NBC Sports Live Extra 7a ET 4/17
Free Practice 2: NBCSN 11a ET 4/17
Free Practice 3: NBC Sports Live Extra 8a ET 4/18
Qualifying: CNBC 11a ET 4/18
Race: NBCSN 10:30a ET 4/19

Also, be sure to watch the premiere of Off The Grid: Melbourne following F1 Extra on NBCSN on Sunday as Will Buxton and Jason Swales show you all of the behind the scenes at the Australian Grand Prix. For a sneak preview of the show, click here.

Whether dinner or driving, Montoya and Cameron fast friends at Penske

Courtesy of IMSA
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DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – Dane Cameron’s reaction to being told he’d be paired with Juan Pablo Montoya on Team Penske’s DPI Acura didn’t signal the beginning of a beautiful friendship.

“I sign my contract with (Team Penske president) Tim Cindric, and he says, ‘We’re going to put you with Montoya,’ ” Cameron told NBCSports.com, pausing to laugh. “I’m thinking ‘Did I do something wrong? Is he mad at me? Why is he giving me that guy? This is going to be a lot of work.’

“At first I wasn’t really sure what I was in for because (Montoya) definitely has a bit of a reputation. I was like, ‘Oh man, how is this going to go?’ ”

Actually, it’s gone really well.

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Entering this weekend’s season-opening Rolex 24 Hours at Daytona, Cameron and Montoya are the reigning champions of IMSA’s premier division. In their second year together, the No. 6 duo scored victories last season at Mid-Ohio, Detroit and Laguna Seca while finishing on the podium in seven consecutive events.

But it’s easy to understand why Cameron initially might have had reservations about a working relationship with Montoya.

Over a Hall of Fame career spanning more than two decades, the outspoken Colombian famous for his cutthroat indifference and swashbuckling sizzle has been embroiled in controversial rivalries with many of the world’s greatest drivers while blazing a winning trail in IndyCar, NASCAR and Formula One.

Cameron, meanwhile, is a low-key native of Sonoma, California, who is the first three-time champion of the WeatherTech Series (since the IMSA merger of 2014) but whose professional driving experience is limited nearly exclusively to sports cars.

Yet since their first conversation – Montoya called Cameron while he was driving home from signing that first contract with Penske – their rapport has been strong, and as simpatico as they are behind the wheel, they also get along famously off the track.

“We have such a good relationship,” Montoya told NBCSports.com. “It’s amazing how well we bonded. We really created a friendship. We have massive amounts of trust in each other. Whether he makes a mistake or I make a mistake, there’s no judgment. We always seem to be there for each other, and we complement each other really well.

“I like going to dinner with this guy, put it that way. That doesn’t happen often.”

Cameron said his teammate’s loose and playful style immediately was a welcome relief. During one of his first media appearances with Team Penske’s IMSA driver lineup, Cameron was nervous about maintaining the team’s well-coiffed image of professionalism.

But as Montoya and teammate Helio Castroneves traded barbs about turning gray or graining weight, Cameron suddenly felt at ease.

“Juan’s a good guy to break the ice when it’s getting a little stuffy in the room to have a little joke or make fun of Helio coloring his hair just to lighten the mood,” Cameron said of Montoya. “If things are tense, he’s good. It’s silly and childish but fun. That helped me get more comfortable for sure

“He’s probably a little more brash than I am and likes to pick on people and have some fun, but I like to enjoy myself, too. If everything’s really serious, and you’re miserable, it’s tougher to perform in the car. If you’re enjoying yourself and surrounding yourself with the right people in a good environment, then things come together a lot easier.”

Cameron and Montoya never met before joining Team Penske’s relaunched sports car program two years ago. The team used the same formula for filling each of its Acuras: Pairing an IMSA champion with an IndyCar star.

Ricky Taylor and Castroneves were aligned in the No. 7, and Montoya was teamed with Cameron, who had won the 2016 DP title with Action Express Racing.

The No. 6 Acura in testing for the Rolex 24. Juan Pablo Montoya, Dane Cameron and Simon Pagenaud will share the car this weekend at Daytona (courtesy of IMSA).

“With (Cameron) winning the championship, we knew Montoya would have respect for him,” Cindric said. “We saw pretty quickly that (Montoya) could learn from (Cameron) in this form of racing. It’s been healthy. We’ve never had any problems with them.

“It’s good to see them have success and Montoya get another championship. He was so close to the IndyCar (title) with us, it was good to get one with him.”

Montoya, a two-time Indianapolis 500 winner, and Cameron will be paired with another Indy 500 champion at Daytona as Simon Pagenaud joins their Rolex 24 entry for the second consecutive season. Montoya and Cameron still are seeking their first endurance victory, and Pagenaud bring the resume of a former American Le Mans Series champion.

The trio will split the driving over 24 hours while also compromising on myriad details, such as the positioning of the seat and pedals. Hitting a setup that can suit each driver’s style with optimized speed is among the biggest challenges in sports car racing.

“You have to find the right balance between standing up for what you really want and what you really need so you can perform and then maybe give up here and there on certain things that aren’t bothering you,” Cameron said. “When you find the right partnership and the right guy to be with, it really can push the program to the next level.”

Said Montoya: “It’s crazy that we always want the same things out of the car. We keep helping each other. And it’s funny because when I’m really happy with the car, he struggles a bit. And when he’s really happy with the car, I struggle a bit. And we kind of found that middle ground where we know it’s good. I can make it work here, and he can make it work there.”

Each has their own track-specific strengths, too. Montoya is a three-time Rolex 24 winner who excels on the Daytona road course, where Cameron still is seeking his first win. It’s the opposite at Sebring International Raceway, where Montoya says, “I know I suck, and Dane’s freaking unbelievable.”

Such brutal honesty is part of what makes Montoya a good teammate.

“He just wants to have fun and drive race cars and really isn’t into drama,” Cameron said. “Sometimes he can’t bite his tongue, but that makes everyone love him at the same time. We just found a really great way to have fun at the racetrack and become closer friends away from the track.

“He’s just the right guy.”

Juan Pablo Montoya (left) and Dane Cameron celebrated after winning at Laguna Seca last year (courtesy of IMSA).