With the focus on the political mire that Formula 1 currently finds itself in after yet another failed meeting to decide the future of qualifying, this weekend’s Bahrain Grand Prix looks set to be overshadowed once again by off-track shenanigans.
That is a great shame, for we are poised to enjoyed a fantastic race at the Bahrain International Circuit on Sunday as Mercedes and Ferrari go head-to-head once again.
Lewis Hamilton took his 51st career pole position on Saturday after hooking up a late lap, leaving Mercedes teammate Nico Rosberg to settle for second on the grid.
Ferrari drivers Sebastian Vettel and Kimi Raikkonen follow in third and fourth, but judging by their early pace in Australia, they are a serious threat for Mercedes to keep a close eye on.
The Bahrain Grand Prix is live on NBCSN and Live Extra from 10:30am ET on Sunday. Here’s what to watch for in today’s race.
The first Ferrari-Mercedes dogfight of the season
Australia gave us a small taste of the battle that may rage on between Mercedes and Ferrari in 2016, although the red flag meant that we were robbed of a true fight between Vettel, Raikkonen, Rosberg and Hamilton up front.
History suggests that Bahrain should be a more ‘normal’ race, with the last two years offering close fights at the front – 2014 going down as one of the greatest races in the history of F1. Anything similar on Sunday would go down a treat.
We should today finally find out just how close Ferrari is to Mercedes. In terms of the championship, it may only be the second race, but Bahrain is an important one.
Can Grosjean cause an upset from ninth?
The confusing nature of the elimination F1 qualifying format meant that Romain Grosjean was actually hoping he would be beaten at the end of Q2.
Nico Hulkenberg produced a quick lap time to leave Grosjean ninth on the grid for today’s race, but just as Haas did in Australia, it appears to have pulled a strategic blinder.
Starting P9, Grosjean gets a free choice of starting tire, and has more sets of fresh Pirellis than any other driver on the grid. Keep an eye on him today as he looks to follow Haas’ amazing debut result on Sunday.
Vandoorne makes his Formula 1 debut
Stoffel Vandoorne will make his long-awaited F1 debut on Sunday in Bahrain after causing an upset in qualifying by beating experienced McLaren teammate Jenson Button.
Vandoorne’s debut may not have come under ideal circumstances, deputizing for the injured Fernando Alonso, yet he will be eager to live up to the lofty expectations his outstanding junior career has warranted.
If he can carry McLaren to its first points of the season, it would surely only add to the growing call for him to get a seat with the British team in 2017.
More midfield mayhem
The battle in F1’s midfield is arguably closer this year than it has been for some time. Mercedes and Ferrari aside, there appears to be very little separating the rest of the pack, leaving us with a fascinating race on the cards in Bahrain.
Red Bull leads the way for now based on its Australia form, with Daniel Ricciardo making good on this in qualifying to finish fifth. However, with teammate Daniil Kvyat down in 15th, the team still faces a big challenge in the race.
Tire strategy will likely dictate how the midfield fights play out today, much as it did in Australia. Throw in a safety car, and you may well see a number of teams bolt on the medium tire in a bid to go to the end.
Watch out for Wehrlein
Pascal Wehrlein made a rocket start in Australia for Manor to run much of the early part of the race in 13th place, and produced another outstanding display in qualifying on Saturday in Bahrain to finish 16th.
The pace of the Manor is certainly better than it was last year, and if the team can get its strategy right, Wehrlein may be able to lead its charge against the lower midfield runners on Sunday.
2016 Bahrain Grand Prix – Starting Grid
1. Lewis Hamilton Mercedes
2. Nico Rosberg Mercedes
3. Sebastian Vettel Ferrari
4. Kimi Raikkonen Ferrari
5. Daniel Ricciardo Red Bull
6. Valtteri Bottas Williams
7. Felipe Massa Williams
8. Nico Hulkenberg Force India
9. Romain Grosjean Haas
10. Max Verstappen Toro Rosso
11. Carlos Sainz Jr. Toro Rosso
12. Stoffel Vandoorne McLaren
13. Esteban Gutierrez Haas
14. Jenson Button McLaren
15. Daniil Kvyat Red Bull
16. Pascal Wehrlein Manor
17. Marcus Ericsson Sauber
18. Sergio Perez Force India
19. Jolyon Palmer Renault
20. Rio Haryanto Manor
21. Felipe Nasr Sauber
PL. Kevin Magnussen Renault
The Bahrain Grand Prix is live on NBCSN and Live Extra from 10:30am ET on Sunday.