Two races down, and it’s a tie game in the race for the Formula 1 drivers’ championship in 2017 between Lewis Hamilton and Sebastian Vettel.
It may still be very early days in the race to Abu Dhabi, yet we have already seen just how close the battle between two of F1’s greatest recent champions will be.
Vettel drew first blood in Australia, only for Hamilton to hit back in style last weekend in China by claiming a ‘grand slam’ with pole, fastest lap, and the win, leading every single lap in the process.
The F1 paddock made a quick getaway from Shanghai at the end of last weekend to make the trip to Bahrain, which plays host to its fourth night race on Sunday, the event having been reinvigorated by the later running.
So who will prevail under the lights in the desert? Or will another pretender come to the fore? Here are the key talking points heading into the Bahrain Grand Prix weekend.
2017 Bahrain Grand Prix – Talking Points
Hamilton, Mercedes still playing catch-up?
Hamilton’s victory in China may have been convincing, yet it was not without its good fortune. Hamilton said himself that had it not been for Vettel’s decision to pit under the Virtual Safety Car, he thinks they would have been within a couple of seconds of each other for the entire race. We’re yet to get any concrete proof that Mercedes is ahead of Ferrari in the pecking order.
The conditions in Bahrain may also play into Ferrari’s hands, given the warmer conditions of the desert, even in the twilight hours, with tire management being its key advantage in Australia three weeks ago. The absence of the ultra-soft may help Mercedes, though, as – inevitably – will track position, given the W08 seems to be the quicker car over a single lap, particularly in Hamilton’s hands.
Already though, things are very different for Mercedes than in previous years. With the fire underneath it now hotter than ever, the challenge – and therefore also the reward – is greater. This is going to be a title battle for the ages.
Raikkonen seeks redemption after two anonymous showings
Kimi Raikkonen has a curious record in Bahrain, claiming eight podium finishes through the years at the Bahrain International Circuit, including runs to P2 in the last two runnings of the race. Given his record and Ferrari’s pace, you would ordinarily think he could be in a position to finally win in Sakhir.
But Raikkonen arrives in Bahrain coming off the back of two anonymous showings that saw him sit firmly in the shade of Vettel. After finishing 20 seconds shy in Australia, he was over 40 seconds back in China despite sitting in front of the German quite early in the race.
Ferrari president Sergio Marchionne said he wants team boss Maurizio Arrivabene to talk with Raikkonen about his form, and it’s no surprise. Ferrari has a real shot at winning the drivers’ and constructors’ championships this year, yet if Raikkonen can’t get up the order and challenge the Mercedes drivers or play rear-gunner for Vettel, he could end up costing the Italian marque both crowns. A response is required this weekend in Bahrain from Raikkonen.
The midfield remains difficult to judge
While the ‘big three’ in F1 is undoubtedly set as Ferrari, Mercedes and Red Bull, the midfield pecking order is much, much harder to define. So far this season, there’s been a good case for any of Williams, Force India, Toro Rosso and Haas being the fourth-fastest team in F1 right now, leaving us in need of answers as we head to Bahrain.
After seeing Williams lead the way in Australia, Toro Rosso had the upper hand in China by virtue of Carlos Sainz Jr’s early tire gamble and brilliant driving in the damp conditions. The Red Bull B-team will want to continue its early-season form that has seen it rise to fourth place in the constructors’ championship.
At the site of its finest hour so far in F1, Haas will want to also build on its points breakthrough in China, with memories of Romain Grosjean’s fifth-place finish under the lights last year set to be all the motivation the American team needs. Kevin Magnussen’s pace in China en route to P8 was strong, proving too much for Force India to handle as Sergio Perez and Esteban were left to settle for P9 and P10 respectively.
The battle in the midfield is closer than ever, but Bahrain should offer us some clues as to where the advantage lies in ‘normal’ conditions.
McLaren’s weaknesses set to be laid bare
When Fernando Alonso met with the media following his retirement in China last weekend, one of the most regular questions was: “Are things really that bad?” Given he’d spent most of the race well into the points before his retirement due to a driveshaft failure, perhaps the issues with the Honda power unit were being exaggerrated?
This is not the case. Alonso’s knack of outstripping a car’s ability by some margin has saved Honda’s blushes so far this season, with the unique nature of Albert Park in Australia and the early rain in China playing into the Spaniard’s hands.
Bahrain looks set to be a very different story though. With no rain due and four long-ish straights, the weakness of the Honda power unit should be laid bare. If Alonso can repeat his feats from Australia and China, it would be remarkable – but this will be his toughest challenge yet.
Will DRS continue to do its job?
DRS has been a much-maligned gimmick for much of its time in F1, yet in the Chinese Grand Prix, it did its job perfectly. Drivers were not afforded a free pass by the aid, with the extra drag offered by the 2017-spec cars meaning they were only able to close. The majority of notable passes took place outside of DRS zones, which was really refreshing.
Bahrain will be a good test. The two DRS zones (one on the mid-lap straight, the second on the main straight) are quite long, particularly the latter. Should drivers get a good exit out of the final corner, then a pass using DRS into Turn 1 may be viable.
If DRS can once again do its job of letting drivers close but not sweep past with ease, then it could actually enhance the racing – something it hasn’t really done since being introduced in 2011.
2017 Bahrain Grand Prix – Facts and Figures
Track: Bahrain International Circuit
Lap Record: Pedro de la Rosa 1:31.447 (2005)
Tire Compounds: Super-Soft/Soft/Medium
2016 Winner: Nico Rosberg (Mercedes)
2016 Pole Position: Lewis Hamilton (Mercedes) 1:29.493
2016 Fastest Lap: Nico Rosberg (Mercedes) 1:34.482
DRS Zones: Main Straight (T15 to T1); T10 to T11
2017 Bahrain Grand Prix – TV Times
Free Practice 1: NBC Sports App 7am ET 4/14
Free Practice 2: NBCSN 11am ET 4/14
Free Practice 3: NBC Sports App 8am ET 4/15
Qualifying: NBCSN 12:30pm ET 4/15
Race: CNBC 10:30am ET 4/16