The Formula One circus arrives in Bahrain with the prospect of a two-horse race very much on the cards, albeit between two horses from the same corral. For the first time the Bahrain race will be run under the lights, in slightly cooler temperatures, and we will have a chance to see how far each team has come since the two tests held in Sakhir ahead of the season.
Mercedes is still very much the team to beat and it would take a very brave call to bet against either Lewis Hamilton or Nico Rosberg standing on the top step again on Sunday. But after being written off all winter, it is also clear Red Bull is well and truly back in the mix after Sebastian Vettel claimed third in Sepang. It could have been even better for the team had Daniel Ricciardo's pit stop on lap 42 not gone so horribly wrong, but it is clear Red Bull is the team leading the charge to Mercedes out in front. However, Bahrain is a power circuit and Renault is unlikely to provide an upgrade that allows Red Bull to match Mercedes this weekend. Special mention should also go to Caterham, who currently lead their constructors' race with Marussia after Kamui Kobayashi and Marcus Ericsson finished 13th and 14th in Sepang. Amazingly, Ericsson beat Marussia's Max Chilton across the line by just 0.1s - a tenth of a second which could be worth millions to the team come November.
Out of form
It may be harsh to call a team which finished fourth in Malaysia out of form, but if we judge them alongside Red Bull, Ferrari is certainly not in the form it wants to be. Kimi Raikkonen's times in Malaysia's practice sessions seemed to suggest Ferrari was at least on a par with Red Bull, if not slightly ahead, but that seemed to disappear in the race as Fernando Alonso came nowhere near to challenging the world champions. The team has admitted it is unlikely upgrades will be available in Sakhir so it may be watching Red Bull disappearing into the distance once again on Sunday. That said, despite Ferrari's current position, Alonso is still third in the standings. His famous consistency could be invaluable later in the season if the team suddenly finds itself in a position to compete at the very front. Another team with big issues is Sauber, which is currently experiencing its worst start to a season since 2010 after their second double retirement in a row in Sepang.
One to watch
One of the most impressive drives on Sunday was that of Nico Hulkenberg. While the unfortunate Sergio Perez never made it out of the garage, Hulkenberg looked set to equal his career-best finish of fourth until Fernando Alonso caught him in the dying laps on fresh rubber. While it is early days in their partnership, Hulkenberg has blown team-mate Perez away in both grand prix weekends so far and it not out of the question he can take the fight to Ferrari again in Bahrain. If there are incidents ahead of him, a maiden podium could be up for grabs. McLaren will also be one to keep an eye on, after its anticipated half-second improvement failed to materialise in Malaysia.
A man for all seasons?
So much was made over the winter of Nico Rosberg and Lewis Hamilton's rivalry being like Alain Prost and Ayrton Senna. The implication usually being that Rosberg's conservative, thinking approach would be far more suited to the demands of conserving both tyres and fuel in the new era of F1 than the untamed racing instincts of Hamilton. But that was not the case in Malaysia. Rosberg seemed at a loss to explain why Hamilton had been so far in front after the race, although fuel consumption was not an issue for any of the teams in Malaysia and will be much more marginal in Bahrain. In the only straight fight between the team-mates so far this season, Hamilton won categorically. Another fascinating contest beckons in Sakhir.
The dust settles at Williams
Most will understand Felipe Massa's refusal to adhere to team-orders in Sepang given his days alongside Michael Schumacher and Fernando Alonso, and even Kimi Raikkonen in the latter part of 2007. But Valtteri Bottas clearly would have had a chance of catching Jenson Button in the closing stages in Malaysia and it will be interesting to see how the team moves on from that incident, especially as frustrations are clearly already mounting that the team is yet to build on its huge winter promise.
Baby steps at Lotus
It must have been quite a feeling for Romain Grosjean crossing the line in Malaysia. Not only was it the first sign of a step forward from Lotus, he also managed to hold off former team-mate Raikkonen to finish 11th. Lotus knows it is still at the start of a long journey back to the front but with such a quick turnaround between Malaysia and Bahrain, the team's focus this weekend must surely be to complete another race distance, but this time for both Grosjean and Pastor Maldonado.
Facts and stats
- Drivers spray a non-alcoholic drink known as Waard on the podium instead of champagne.
- Turn One of the circuit was renamed in honour of Michael Schumacher earlier this year. Schumacher won the inaugural race in 2004.
- This race has never been won from further back than fourth on the grid, which is where Fernando Alonso won from in 2006.
- Ahead of this year's race the Bahrain International Circuit has had 495 lightning poles and 500km of cabling installed in order to power the system which will light the circuit for its inaugural night race.
BettingLewis Hamilton is evens to win his second race in a row, while there are no prizes for guessing who bookmakers have behind him, with Nico Rosberg (9/4) and then Sebastian Vettel (15/2) expected to be the nearest challengers. Ferrari duo Fernando Alonso and Kimi Raikkonen have a lot to do at 16/1 and 25/1 respectively. Though not fancied to challenge for victory, Felipe Massa has odds of 5/1 to finally realise some of Williams' potential and earn a podium finish.
Last year track temperatures were well above 40 degrees in Sakhir but this year's evening start, and the fact the race is being held in April, sets up a much cooler race than ever before. On Wednesday Manama experienced a rare rain shower, but it is very unlikely the wet weather will return over the weekend.
Red Bull is not quite in a position to challenge Mercedes over a race distance just yet, and will struggle even more on a circuit where Mercedes can utilise its straight-line speed advantage. Lewis Hamilton proved he is more than capable of winning under the new formula in Malaysia, so we expect him to do the business again in qualifying before coasting away during the race with Nico Rosberg behind. As they impressed in Sakhir so much over the winter Williams may finally put its potential to good use.