For the first time in the turbo-hybrid era a non-Mercedes driver will line up from pole position for a season-opening grand prix, but can Max Verstappen beat Lewis Hamilton to the first victory of the campaign?
Qualifying at the Bahrain Grand Prix proved conclusively the signs from preseason testing that Red Bull Racing had consolidated its end-2020 performance. The RB16B has looked the class of the field all weekend, tackling the Bahrain International Circuit with no fuss and never looking threatened.
But Mercedes’s preseason testing results were also borne out in the first competitive session of the year. Though Mercedes isn’t as far back as it seemed here during the trails of a couple of weeks ago, it is still decisively off the pace, at least in qualifying trim.
Whether the same holds in the race is the key question. Preseason testing showed the W12 to be closer to the front on full tanks, and Friday practice suggested likewise, though by nothing of the magnitude that would swing momentum completely back in Mercedes’s favour.
After all, Bahrain has always been a weak circuit for Mercedes. Normally its power unit has been strong enough to mask the car and its long wheelbase’s recalcitrance to turn in, delaying the moment the driver can get onto the power at the traction-limited circuit, but with balance an apparently fundamental problem for the team at this stage of the season — and the potential loss of its engine advantage — there’s now nowhere to hide.
By that same token we’re likely to find the battle to be closer than qualifying suggested across the season’s broader range of circuits, teasing a tightly contest championship campaign.
And if that’s the case, can Verstappen land the first blow in this 23-round fight?
|PROVISIONAL STARTING GRID|
Distance: 5.412 kilometres
Lap record: 1:31.337 (Pedro de la Rosa, McLaren, 2005)
Track record: 1:27.264 (Lewis Hamilton, Mercedes, 2020)
Lateral load: medium
Tyre stress: medium
Asphalt grip: high
Asphalt abrasion: very high
Safety car probability: 60 per cent
Pit lane speed: 80 kilometres per hour
Pit lane length: 421 metres
Pit lane time loss: 20.7 seconds
Fuel consumption: 1.9 kilograms per lap
Tyres: C2 (hard), C3 (medium), C4 (soft)
Estimated tyre delta
Hard–medium: 0.4 seconds
Medium–soft: 0.9 seconds
The Bahrain Grand Prix and its abrasive asphalt and warm climes make this a nailed-on two-stop race, but the level of physical wear combined with thermal degradation can make judging the right strategic trigger points difficult.
If Red Bull Racing is beatable, timing will be everything in defending pole, but here lies its only obvious disadvantage: Hamilton and Valtteri Bottas line up around him in second and third respectively, but new teammate Sergio Perez was knocked out of Q2 in 11th, marking him out of this fight.
The top three all start on the medium tyre, which will give them only so much wriggle room on what is likely to be a medium–hard–medium strategy, but the weather may yet upend predictions. Overcast conditions and a substantially cooler ambient temperature could invite Mercedes to split strategies by putting one of its drivers on a longer first stint for a more aggressive close to the race.
Verstappen would lack the backup to cover two different strategies and have to rely on pure pace to recover any lost time — not an impossible task around a circuti that makes overtaking possible now that thre RB16B appears to have a small power advantage.
Cooler conditions could work in the favour of the rest of the top 10 also given all but Pierre Gasly in fifth will start on the soft compound.
The soft has a limtied life expectancy, but if the thermal management burden were eased, it would be easier for the soft-starters to attempt the favoured strategy of extending the first stint to whenever the medium-starters make their first stop — around lap 18 — and bring themselves back on equal terms for the rest of the race.
Finally, those starting outside the top 10 are likely to follow the favoured medium–hard–medium strategy but perhaps for two drivers starting out of position: Esteban Ocon (16) and Sebastian Vettel (18), who were knocked out of Q1 after stumbling across yellow flags at the death.
Though they have superior pace at their disposal, the tightness of the midfield this season means cutting through the pack won’t be so easy, so an alternative strategy will be tempting.
Starting on the hard tyre would likely offer the most benefit, allowing them to build a gap to the slower cars after they make their presumably earlier first pit stops before switching tyres themselves. It would also allow them to capitalise on any safety car interruption late in their stint by winning them track position over any drivers who stop earlier.
But the soft tyre is also an option, particularly given the cooler temperatures and its larger than expected performance advantage relative to the medium (0.9 seconds) and hard (1.3 seconds). Yuki Tsunoda, for example, said he struggled to find balance in his otherwise rapid AlphaTauri on the medium tyre in Q2, and starting from 13th he may be better off with the soft compound if he thinks he can keep the compound alive long enough.
The same would be open to Ocon and Vettel, which might allow them to capitalise on an early safety car if they make strong progress early.