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What to watch for: Bahrain Grand Prix (CNBC, NBC Sports app from 10:30am ET)

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If you were thinking that the fight for the Formula 1 drivers’ championship in 2017 was a two-horse race, Valtteri Bottas made you think again on Saturday in Bahrain.

In just his third race for Mercedes, Bottas surged to his maiden pole position in F1 with a stunning lap at the Bahrain International Circuit, edging out teammate Lewis Hamilton at the end of Q3.

Bottas will now enter Sunday’s race targeting his first race win in F1, but with Hamilton and Ferrari’s Sebastian Vettel for company at the front, it’s not going to be easy.

You can watch the Bahrain Grand Prix live on CNBC and the NBC Sports app from 10:30am ET on Sunday. CLICK HERE to watch via live stream.

Here’s what to watch for in today’s race.

2017 Bahrain Grand Prix – What to watch for

Bottas targets first race win since British F3

Valtteri Bottas proved in qualifying that he is going to be no pushover in the fight with Lewis Hamilton at Mercedes. Pole came not by virtue of his rivals’ mistakes, instead purely through his own excellence through the final Q3 lap.

Bottas now faces the tougher task of managing a race from the front as he looks to break a win drought that dates back to his brief stint in British F3 in 2011, combined with his title-winning GP3 campaign. The Finn has been present on the podium 10 times during his four-and-a-bit seasons in F1 so far, but to ascend to the top step will be a big, big ask.

However, Bottas has what it takes. His long run on the super-soft tire on Friday evening was particularly impressive, going deep into the stint with a competitive pace. A win in Mercedes colors is surely inevitable for Bottas, yet if he can tick that box so early on in 2017, it would be a big, big statement to those linking Fernando Alonso with his seat for next year.

Can Ferrari bite back in the race?

After running Mercedes close for pole in both Australia and China, Ferrari seemed further adrift on Saturday in Bahrain as Sebastian Vettel finished almost half a second back from pole-man Bottas, while Kimi Raikkonen’s struggles continued in a run to P5.

Ferrari’s race pace has been particularly strong – perhaps even better than Mercedes’ – so far this season, putting Vettel in contention today. However, as conditions cool off into the night as the race wears on, it’s likely the race will move towards Mercedes, which has operated better in cooler conditions so far this year.

Ferrari remains a threat, though, and Mercedes will need to be careful that Bottas and Hamilton do not trip over each other and open up an opportunity for Vettel to snare a victory.

Has Red Bull cut the gap?

One of the biggest surprises in qualifying was how close the Red Bull pair of Daniel Ricciardo and Max Verstappen was able to get to Mercedes and Ferrari. Despite appearing to be over a second adrift in the opening rounds, the team bounced back in qualifying, with Ricciardo even outqualifying Raikkonen.

While a race win looks unlikely for Red Bull in Bahrain, Ricciardo and Verstappen will be hoping to get in amongst the front-runners as they did last time out in China. If they can get to the finish with any of the top three runners in sight, it would go down as a good result.

Red Bull’s buffer to the top end of the midfield – the likes of Williams and Renault – should allow the team to get creative and try something different in a bid to upset the top runners.

Wehrlein gears up for full-race comeback

Pascal Wehrlein will take part in his first full race since the 2016 season finale in Abu Dhabi today, having missed the opening two rounds of the season through injury stemming from his crash at the Race of Champions in January.

Wehrlein’s fitness has been a key point of debate in the F1 paddock in recent weeks, with opinion split over whether or not he should have battled through the pain and raced on. Wehrlein hit back at his critics earlier this week, saying it was not for them to judge if they were not racing with the issue.

The big plus point is that Wehrlein is back in Bahrain and seems to be doing fine in the car. He led Sauber to its best qualifying result since the 2015 Brazilian Grand Prix on Saturday, and will line up 13th today.

A double-finish remains the target for McLaren

It isn’t glamorous, but if McLaren can simply get both of its cars to the finish in Sunday’s Bahrain Grand Prix, it would be a good achievement for the team. Blighted by numerous issue with its Honda power unit, McLaren is yet to score a point so far this season, and has just one classified finish under its belt.

However, even that might prove out of reach for McLaren today. Fernando Alonso was forced out of Q2 on Saturday when his power unit failed, meaning he will take a fresh unit for the start and need to dial it in early on – so he’s already on the back-foot.

A year since Stoffel Vandoorne’s impressive and impromptu F1 debut that saw him charge to a point, such a result can only be dreamed of today, it seems…

2017 Bahrain Grand Prix – Starting Grid

1. Valtteri Bottas Mercedes
2. Lewis Hamilton Mercedes
3. Sebastian Vettel Ferrari
4. Daniel Ricciardo Red Bull
5. Kimi Raikkonen Ferrari
6. Max Verstappen Red Bull
7. Nico Hulkenberg Renault
8. Felipe Massa Williams
9. Romain Grosjean Renault
10. Jolyon Palmer Renault
11. Daniil Kvyat Toro Rosso
12. Lance Stroll Williams
13. Pascal Wehrlein Sauber
14. Esteban Ocon Force India
15. Fernando Alonso McLaren
16. Carlos Sainz Jr. Toro Rosso
17. Stoffel Vandoorne McLaren
18. Sergio Perez Force India
19. Marcus Ericsson Sauber
20. Kevin Magnussen Haas

You can watch the Bahrain Grand Prix live on CNBC and the NBC Sports app from 10:30am ET on Sunday. CLICK HERE to watch via live stream.

Hamilton tops second Abu Dhabi F1 practice with new track record

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Lewis Hamilton swept to the top of the timesheets in second Formula 1 practice for the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix on Friday evening, beating Ferrari rival Sebastian Vettel by one-tenth of a second.

Hamilton trailed Vettel through the daytime-run opening practice session, but managed to strike back by recording a new track record at the Yas Marina Circuit for Mercedes.

Hamilton recorded a fastest lap time of 1:37.877 to finish one-tenth of a second clear of Vettel at the checkered flag, appearing to have an edge across a single lap on the ultra-soft tire.

Red Bull threw its hat into the ring as a possible rival for pole through Daniel Ricciardo, who finished the session third-fastest, three-tenths of a second back from Hamilton at the head of the field.

Kimi Raikkonen ended FP2 in fourth place in the sister Ferrari, finishing within half a second of Hamilton, and managed to edge out fellow Finn Valtteri Bottas, who was a further two-tenths back in P5.

Max Verstappen failed to get in a quick flying lap during FP2, ending the session one second down in P6 for Red Bull.

Sergio Perez and Esteban Ocon’s tight intra-team fight at Force India continued through FP2 as the pair were separated by just 0.01 seconds, taking seventh and eighth respectively to finish as the leading midfield drivers.

Nico Hulkenberg and Fernando Alonso completed the top 10 for Renault and McLaren, with Felipe Massa following in 11th for Williams on his final Friday appearance in F1.

Massa was fortunate to avoid an accident with Ricciardo during the final 15 minutes of the session after a mix up at the hairpin when the Brazilian tried to get a wider line for the back straight.

Running in Abu Dhabi continues with final practice at Yas Marina on Saturday morning from 5am ET on the NBC Sports app, followed by qualifying at 8am ET on NBCSN.