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F1 Preview: 2016 Bahrain Grand Prix

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With the frivolities of the season-opener in Australia now out of the way, Formula 1 enters the night this weekend with the Bahrain Grand Prix.

The Bahrain International Circuit may not be renowned for being a classic track, but it has provided us with some entertaining racing over the years.

Never was this more true in 2014 when Mercedes drivers Lewis Hamilton and Nico Rosberg served up a titanic battle at the front of the pack, spending much of the race wheel-to-wheel.

Two years on, their rivalry remains as fierce as ever. Rosberg drew first blood in Australia with a controlled victory, and heads to Bahrain chasing a fifth consecutive grand prix victory, but Hamilton will be doing everything in his power to end this streak.

Under the lights, desert knights will ride this weekend.

2016 Bahrain Grand Prix – Talking Points

Rosberg looks to gain more early ground

It may only have been the first race of the season, but Rosberg’s display in Australia was encouraging for those hopeful of a more serious title fight this season. The German driver arrives in Bahrain chasing a fifth consecutive victory, which would surely give Hamilton cause for concern in the title race even at this early stage.

Rosberg lacked the edge Hamilton had in qualifying in Australia, but remained cool throughout the race. Hamilton, meanwhile, seemed on edge. Quite how that will play out this Sunday will be interesting to see.

Can Ferrari fight Mercedes this time around?

Mercedes dug itself out of a hole in Australia. With Ferrari enjoying the early rule of the race, it took a roll of the dice to get Rosberg and Hamilton back into P1 and P2 by going long on strategy. Ferrari’s decision to bring Sebastian Vettel in again deprived us of the straight on-track fight many were hoping to see.

As such, we arrive in Bahrain still uncertain of the gap between the two teams in terms of race pace. Mercedes still has the edge in qualifying, yet Ferrari will be pushing to prove that it is up for the championship fight this weekend – just as it did in the second round of the season in 2015.

The cooler conditions at night in Bahrain may suit Ferrari as they did last year when Vettel and Kimi Raikkonen both challenged the Mercedes drivers early on. A repeat would be most welcome for the neutral.

Elimination qualifying gets another chance

After the disaster that was Saturday in Australia, F1’s team bosses agreed less than 24 hours later to scrap elimination qualifying after just one run due to its failure to address any of the issues it was supposed to. If anything, it made things worse.

However, the failure of the F1 Commission to unanimously agree on going back to 2015-style qualifying meant that the broken system remains for this weekend. It means we’ll likely get the same disappointments and the same outcry of anger in the wake of its inevitable failure on Saturday.

Thankfully, qualifying is up for another review post-Bahrain. Perhaps then sanity will prevail.

Haas chases more points after breakthrough debut

Haas F1 Team’s stunning debut in Australia stole many of the headlines after the race, but the American team now arrives in Bahrain facing the challenge of building on this and keeping the momentum going.

Romain Grosjean’s charge to sixth was not without its luck, meaning that the true pace of the Haas car compared to the rest of the field isn’t totally clear. Sure, it can keep much of the pack behind, but can it truly race its way into the points?

Bahrain should be an interesting race for Haas. Reality may bite much as it did in the second week of testing. That said, if it does follow up with more points, the incredible Haas story will get another chapter.

The kids aren’t alright

Toro Rosso’s line-up may be the youngest in the history of F1, but rarely over the past year or so has that shone through. Both Max Verstappen and Carlos Sainz Jr. have not only been fast on track, but they have held themselves in a very dignified and professional manner.

Things bubbled over in Australia though. The two squabbled over position, with Verstappen asking time and time again to be let past. Sainz refused, and ultimately led his teammate home – albeit only after the two had made contact and Verstappen had spun.

Are the kids alright down at Toro Rosso? The car is quick, and will continue to be in the early part of the season. The team cannot let any tension get in the way of performance, though.

2016 Bahrain Grand Prix – Facts and Figures

Track: Bahrain International Circuit
Laps: 57
Corners: 15
Lap Record: Pedro de la Rosa 1:31.447 (2005)
Tire Compounds: Medium, Soft, Super-Soft
2015 Winner: Lewis Hamilton (Mercedes)
2015 Pole Position: Lewis Hamilton (Mercedes) 1:32.571
2015 Fastest Lap: Kimi Raikkonen (Ferrari) 1:36.311
DRS Zones: Main Straight (T15 to T1); T10 to T11

2016 Bahrain Grand Prix – TV Times

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

Max Verstappen shows speed in Austria; Lewis Hamilton lacking pace

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SPIELBERG, Austria — Red Bull driver Max Verstappen posted the fastest time Friday, and six-time Formula One champion Lewis Hamilton lacked pace in the second practice session for the Styrian Grand Prix.

Verstappen was 0.043 seconds quicker than Valtteri Bottas – Hamilton’s teammate at Mercedes – and 0.217 ahead of Racing Point driver Sergio Perez.

“The car already feels better than last week, the balance is a lot nicer and we have made a good step,” said Verstappen, who did not finish last Sunday’s season-opening Austrian GP after starting from second.

“It is too early to say how we are looking against Mercedes, but we are quite happy. We have tried a few different directions to understand the car a bit more and we are heading the right way.”

Hamilton was only sixth fastest, about 0.7 seconds slower than Verstappen. Hamilton spent a chunk of time in the garage while his team worked on his car.

“It was quite far off, so there’s a lot of work to do in the background to figure it out,” he said. “Others out there are quick and Valtteri’s obviously got good pace.”

Despite adding a new front wing to its car, struggling Ferrari had a dismal afternoon.

Charles Leclerc was only ninth quickest and 1 second slower than Verstappen, while teammate Sebastian Vettel lagged about 2 seconds behind Verstappen in 16th.

Daniel Ricciardo lost control of his Renault car early into the second session, swerving left off the track and thudding backward into a protective tire wall. He climbed out unharmed, other than a slight limp, but the left rear tire was mangled and the car was lifted off the track by a crane.

Alexander Albon spun twice, the Red Bull driver’s second spin taking him right off the track and into gravel.

Earlier, Perez was fastest in the first practice ahead of Verstappen and Bottas, with Hamilton fourth quickest and Vettel only 10th in sunny conditions.

That session was briefly interrupted when Nicholas Latifi’s Williams car pulled over to the side with a gearbox issue.

The incident brought out yellow flags, forcing drivers to slow down. But McLaren driver Lando Norris overtook Pierre Gasly’s AlphaTauri and got a three-place grid penalty for Sunday’s race.

Norris, 20, finished third at the Austrian GP last weekend, becoming the youngest British driver in F1 history to get on the podium and third youngest in F1.

The upcoming race is changing names from last week but is at the same track. It is surrounded by the Styrian mountains.

A third and final practice will be held on Saturday morning before qualifying in the afternoon, with heavy rain and storms in the forecast.

If third practice and qualifying are washed out, drivers take their grid positions from where they placed in second practice.

“It would definitely suck if we didn’t get to qualify,” said Hamilton, who started fifth and finished fourth last weekend. “It would make it challenging.”

However, qualifying also could be moved to Sunday morning.

“I don’t expect to be on pole position with this (practice) lap,” Verstappen said.