Formula One returns to the familiar ground of Sakhir for the Bahrain Grand Prix, but with softer tyres on offer than in previous years, the race will offer the opportunity for greater strategic play to teams and drivers.
Last year’s race was a nailed-on two-stop, but the predominance of wear from the abrasive asphalt over thermal degradation meant the hard C1 was largely eschewed for the more performative medium C2 and soft C3.
This year, however, Pirelli has gone a step softer by bringing the C4 as the soft. This to an extent has changed the complexion of the weekend.
Drivers have really struggled with degradation on the softs in practice so far, so much so that most effectively junked their supply of the red-marked tyre during the unrepresentative Saturday practice session, held in the heat of daytime.
Instead drivers are gravitating towards the same compounds as last year — this year the hard and medium tyres —to replicate their two-stop strategies of 2019.
But the softs do offer a random element here. A driver who can work them gently will be rewarded, particularly relative to a driver on the hard compound, which is as much as 1.2 seconds slower at peak performance.
Could that prove the decisive quandary in the battle for the podium? Lewis Hamilton leads a Mercedes front-row lockout ahead of an all-Red Bull Racing second row headed by Max Verstappen. With both championships done and second place on the two tables effectively sealed, the stage is set for some gambling.
|PROVISIONAL STARTING GRID|
Distance: 5.412 kilometres
Lap record: 1:31.337 (Pedro de la Rosa, McLaren, 2005)
Track record: 1:27.866 (Charles Leclerc, Ferrari, 2019)
Lateral load: medium
Tyre stress: high
Asphalt grip: very high
Asphalt abrasion: medium
Safety car probability: 40 per cent
Pit lane speed: 80 kilometres per hour
Pit lane length: 418 metres
Pit lane time loss: 18.8 seconds
Fuel consumption: 1.9 kilograms per lap
Tyres: C2 (hard), C3 (medium), C4 (soft)
Estimated tyre delta
Hard–medium: 0.6 seconds
Medium–soft: 0.6 seconds
Pirelli is adamant the soft tyre will have more to say in the race than practice suggested, so much so that it has it included in its two fastest forecast strategies, but I wouldn’t expect to see much of the red-marked tyre before the final third of the race at the earliest, and even then it’d be a surprise.
The top 10 will all start on the medium tyre, and the fact several drivers opted to stick with the yellow compound in Q2 despite being at risk of missing out on Q3 — with some ultimately failing to progress — says all you need to know about how unloved the soft compound is as a race tyre among the teams.
A straight switch to the hard compound — of which every driver has at least one new set — will be the default strategy, particularly if the medium is good enough to make it competitively to around lap 25.
Here those starting in the bottom 10 could have an advantage by starting on the hard compound. Observing how well the medium tyre lasts will gain them crucial insight into the correct stop window and, potentially, whether this race can be run on one stop or whether it’d better to commit early to and maximise two — or perhaps more.
Turning our attention specifically to the battle at the front, Mercedes enters this race without having conducted a long-run simulation on the medium tyre. Red Bull Racing, on the other hand, was fastest of all on the yellow-marked compound — as well as on the soft, with which it bettered Mercedes in practice too — which is likely to form the backbone of any strategy today.
That said, both Bottas and Hamilton will have better pace than practice suggested with their power units turned up to race mode, as is now standard.
But interesting is that Lewis Hamilton and Valtteri Bottas are taking different set-ups into the race, so there’s likely to be variation in how well each maximises their rubber in the opening stint.
The team would do well to build some flexibility with Red Bull Racing behind. In particular Max Verstappen, starting third, has two sets of the hard tyre in the bank where both Mercedes drivers and his teammate, Alex Albon, have only one. If degradation and wear prove to be worse than forecast, an extra set of the hard tyre, requiring less management, could be enough to swing the momentum towards him at the second stop.
And might the team deploy Alex Albon to pick off Bottas early in the race to turn the fight for victory into a straight Verstappen-Hamilton affair? The Thai driver, assuming he holds fourth off the line, could gamble with his tyre choice for the second stint to force Mercedes to diverge from its pre-race strategy.
The battle for fourth carries the extra weight of it being for third in the constructors standings and fourth in the drivers championship. Racing Point’s Sergio Perez is best of the rest on the grid — fitting considering team and driver lead the midfield in both title counts.
In a race of tyre management Perez ought to shine here, and if a one-stop is possible, expect the Mexican to try it. He set some impressive times on a long run with the soft tyre in practice — admittedly it was barely a handful of laps, and thermal degradation was severe for those who ran longer — suggesting he’s dialled in well to the traction-limited circuit.
But he’ll be up against both Renault drivers starting sixth and seventh alongside and immediately behind him. Renault has been typically strong in recent years at low-downforce circuits and will have a numerical advantage over Perez — Lance Stroll qualified 13th — which will make centimetre-perfect execution from Perez key to bringing this one home.