F1 set for off-track desert duel in Bahrain

The grand prix circuits of Australia and Bahrain could hardly be more different, but Ferrari and Sebastian Vettel will be hoping the sand-swept desert track brings them good fortune all the same.

The Italian team didn’t shy away from the fact that it lucked into victory at the opening round of the season, capitalising on Mercedes bungling Lewis Hamilton’s strategy to snatch the win from the reigning world champion in Melbourne.

More than putting the red team atop the drivers and constructors standings, the win will have been an important morale booster for the Scuderia, which has built a car not lacking finish compared to its German rival.

But while strategy and the difficulty of overtaking on the Australian circuit worked in Ferrari’s favour by allowing it to work around its weaknesses, the more season-typical Bahrain International Circuit will present a more rounded and fulsome challenge to this year’s cars.

The plethora of long straights will surely play into Mercedes’s hands with its class-leading power unit, but Ferrari has form around the desert track. Vettel is not only the reigning Bahrain winner, having beaten pole-sitter Hamilton to victory last year, but the German is the equal most successful driver with Fernando Alonso at Sakhir.

Ferrari is also the most successful constructor, winning five Bahrain grands prix to Mercedes’s three.

But while all eyes will be on the unfolding championship narrative on track, teams will have their attention diverted towards the paddock, where F1’s commercial rights holder will reportedly make a presentation laying out its vision for the sport for 2021 and beyond.

Now more than a year into its tenure, the Liberty Media triumvirate of CEO Chase Carey, marketing head Sean Bratches and motorsport boss Ross Brawn has well and truly exhausted the goodwill of its honeymoon period, with some of F1’s big-hitting teams growing impatient with the direction of the sport under a new American watch.

To a certain extent the new powers are hamstrung by old deals done in the dying days of Bernie Ecclestone’s reign, but with the clock ticking down to the expiry of the current commercial and regulatory framework in 2020, the impetus to outline a cohesive vision and direction for Formula One has grown increasingly dire.

The first major attempt at setting down a pathway came late last year, when the commercial rights holder unveiled with the governing body, the FIA, its blueprint for a new power unit from 2021. It was almost immediately shot down by Mercedes, Ferrari and Renault, the top three engine builders.

It was met with such distaste that Ferrari’s the sport’s longest-standing participant, threatened to walk away from Formula One, citing unagreeable alterations to the ‘DNA’ of the competition.

While some of the commercial and other regulatory aspects of the 2021 package can be deferred until closer to the deadline — though Liberty Media, a listed company, would surely prefer to get things done as sooner rather than later for stability’s sake — agreement on a new power unit is urgent, with the most expensive part of the modern F1 car requiring long and cost-intensive developmental lead time.

Further, some of the potential new engine builders — amongst them Aston Martin, Cosworth and possibly the Volkswagen Group — have already signalled that the deadline for their involvement is imminent.

With the attraction of new marques to the sport a stated aim of the expensive regulatory change, any delay would be a high-stakes gamble hedged against the growth of the sport in the medium-term.

The 2018 Formula One season might yet be young, but long-running grudges will be the name of the game in Bahrain.