Yuki Tsunoda and Nikita Mazepin both grabbed the spotlight on their debuts – for different reasons – but what about their fellow rookie? Mick Schumacher’s debut was solid if unspectacular, which was all Haas could have expected.
Even prior to the weekend Haas boss Guenther Steiner outlined that the team’s target for 2021 is to get its Formula 2 graduates as much experience as possible ahead of the 2022 rules reset. Going through a full weekend programme was about the limit of its aspirations for Bahrain.
Schumacher built up during practice and in qualifying kept his head down, using the first Q1 push run as a test – his plight accentuated by Mazepin’s spin – before clocking a truly representative effort on his second attempt. A time of 1:32.449s put him half a second behind Williams’ Nicholas Latifi – once the anomalous Esteban Ocon and Sebastian Vettel are removed from the equation – and 1.1s behind Latifi’s team-mate George Russell. That compares relatively favourably with Schumacher’s Haas predecessors, who were 0.9s behind Russell in qualifying last November. It left Schumacher 0.8s up on the wayward Mazepin and gave him an early advantage in the head-to-head comparisons.
“I was happy about how the car felt,” said Schumacher on Saturday. “Driving-wise there are always things you can improve and do better, the cars are very wind-affected, and it was 180 degrees from FP3, so the corners were quite different.
“On the first run we got a balance and understanding and could put it together on the second run. But I felt like we maximised it – but there’s still a lot of time to be found.”
Schumacher kept his feet on the ground afterwards, remaining wary of the steep learning curve he still faces with the VF-21.
“It’s about anticipating what the car might do, and that comes with knowledge and understanding and driving the car,” he stressed. “We only had one day of testing really, and three shortened practices, and therefore for the amount of running I’ve done before qualifying I felt quite calm and confident. In general I’m 95 per cent happy with my lap, obviously there’s still a lot of things I can improve and we’ll try and understand them. This first race is about gaining the experience of how a Formula 1 race weekend should work, and will work, and for me it is about getting that and hopefully throughout the year we can see a consistent pattern of improvement from one session to another.”
Heading into the race Schumacher outlined his target was “to get as much experience as I can – how to drive in a grand prix, the strategy, the pit stops, the start.” Even at the back of the grid there was a willingness to seek out marginal gains, explaining “what we have is what we have, and we can only try to improve it. That’s the same mentality the top teams have as well, they’re looking for little percentages, and we have to do that too. Myself as a driver, and us as a team.”
In race trim Schumacher suffered his only major blip of the weekend when he spun exiting Turn 4. Schumacher was on Mediums – harder than the compound of those around him – and it was a case of too much power with too little grip. With the race remaining green thereafter Schumacher was cut adrift from the pack and after an inconsistent and tough first stint he regrouped – albeit pure lap time analysis is difficult owing to the lack of a team-mate, Haas’ overall tardy pace, and the presence of blue flags from lap 30 onwards. Schumacher’s nearest on-pace opponent, Williams’ Nicholas Latifi, was beset by a boost issue.
Haas has already recognised Williams as its likely sole rival going forward. Schumacher was 10 seconds behind George Russell after six laps, following his spin, but was 59 seconds behind after 55 racing laps. That gap of 49 seconds in as many laps is fairly easy to work out as an average, albeit with yet more caveats; Russell has two years more experience and also ran a Soft/Medium/Medium strategy, compared to the Medium/Medium/Hard approach employed by Schumacher. By comparison Kevin Magnussen was 27 seconds behind Russell in Bahrain last year, prior to a late Safety Car, while at the following event in Abu Dhabi he capped his Haas tenure 59 seconds down on Russell. Put simply, Haas has been struggling for a long time, and Schumacher on debut was solid. Reaching the flag was all Schumacher could realistically expect.
“I’m very happy with how he did it,” said Steiner on Schumacher’s race. “He improved in each stint on tyres, very good, very calm, very good communication with his team. Except for one spin, nothing else went wrong. Advice I gave him, keep on doing this and we will get there pretty soon to be at a good level.”
Schumacher described himself as “let’s say 90 per cent happy, 10 per cent not, because of the mistake I did at the restart with the spin.
“But, lucky, the car was still driveable, and I could keep going and take the experience.”
Schumacher also showed a hint of his intelligence with his approach to the second half of the race.
“I was actually trying to understand why it happened and quite quickly understood it,” he said of his spin. “Then afterwards a bit of a shame I wasn’t in the pack to try at least be close to the guys for a few laps. But fortunately I got, with blue flags but also catching up to Nicholas, I was kind of able to get a feel for what it is to follow a car close and with DRS and everything. I learned a lot and hopefully can convert it for something positive in two weeks.”