Formula One is back at the Bahrain International Circuit for the Sakhir Grand Prix, but a different track configuration, short and ultra-fast, promises a different challenge.
The ‘outer loop’, running to just 3.543 kilometres, in essence comprises the first and last sectors of the familiar grand prix configuration but swaps out the twisty middle sector for a high-speed series of bends — barely recognised by an F1 car as corners at all — to form the shortest and quickest lap on the F1 calendar.
Valtteri Bottas snatched pole with a 53-second lap from stand-in teammate George Russell by just 0.026 seconds, but surprising was the proximity of Max Verstappen on this more power-sensitive layout. The Honda-powered driver was just 0.056 seconds off pole, his Red Bull Racing car happier running less wing to take the fight to Mercedes without the talismanic Lewis Hamilton to lead.
The Dutchman must think himself in with a chance too considering he was just on the cusp of being able to play a role in last weekend’s race despite being substantially further adrift on one-lap pace. Admittedly the shorter lap here worked to reduce the difference in pure time, but even on percentage terms Verstappen was closer, shrinking the gap to pole from 100.6 per cent to 100.1 per cent.
But Verstappen will again lack the crucial strategic back-up of Alex Albon, who qualified a lowly 12th. Though George Russell has been performing very strongly standing in for Lewis Hamilton so far this weekend, Red Bull Racing would’ve loved the chance to put him under a pressure test with its own second car, and opportunity now lost with Albon mired in the midfield.
That said, Verstappen is giving himself some strategic differentiation with his starting tyre, the team knowing more about the compounds this weekend and feeling more confident about taking a gamble.
So is the stage set for a one-man show or another display of Mercedes domination?
|PROVISIONAL STARTING GRID|
Distance: 3.543 kilometres
Lap record: N/A
Track record: 53.377 (Valtteri Bottas, Mercedes, 2020)
Lateral load: very low
Tyre stress: medium
Asphalt grip: high
Asphalt abrasion: very high
Safety car probability: N/A
Pit lane speed: 80 kilometres per hour
Pit lane length: 418 metres
Pit lane time loss: 18.8 seconds
Fuel consumption: 0.79 kilograms per lap
Tyres: C2 (hard), C3 (medium), C4 (soft)
Estimated tyre delta
Hard–medium: 0.3 seconds
Medium–soft: 0.4 seconds
The most obvious point of strategic tension is starting tyre choice. Mercedes is poised to rerun its successful strategy of last weekend, starting on the medium tyre and using a hard and another medium for its final two stints.
Red Bull Racing, however, will attempt to again prosecute a more aggressive strategy after its plans for a possible a three-stop race were undone by safety car interruptions last weekend. This week, however, with thermal degradation less problematic and tyre wear less severe owing to the fewer corners and traction zones, it will push with a two-stop strategy using the soft tyre.
But it’s not just the less severe conditions that have pushed the team in this direction. McLaren’s Carlos Sainz was the only driver to start with the softs last week, having qualified out of position, and used them to great effect. When few thought the compound would last more than a handful of laps, he took the red-marked rubber competitively to lap 21 — including the safety car interruption — using the extra pace to launch himself up the order on his way to fifth at the flag.
Verstappen showed better pace on the softs over his long-run simulation on Friday than Mercedes did, with the caveat that Bottas was running with damage and Russell was compromised by running in a slipstream train. Regardless, the team is clearly trying to lean on what advantages it might have against Mercedes’s few flaws.
With lesser demands on the rubber and a greater understanding of the compound, Verstappen could be perfectly placed to make the better start and run a faster first stint as the foundation of a victory run.
Working to Mercedes’s advantage, however, is that the pace difference between compounds is smaller with so few meaningful corners, so the longevity trade-off is likely to be less valuable that it was for Sainz last weekend.
An interesting quirk to this weekend’s race will be the impact of lapped traffic on the strategy of the leaders. The lap is so short and the advantage of the top two cars so great that lapped traffic will play a role in finding pit stop windows, and a pit stop will cost a driver around half a lap worth of time.
This will be particularly painful for cars already in the midfield given blue flags tend to compound themselves — moving aside for a faster car costs you time, which in turns pushes your further off the pace.
As for the midfield more generally, making the soft tyre last will be the name of the game for those starting in the top 10, whereas those from 11th down have the advantage of free tyre choice. Pirelli rates the medium compound as the better first tyre on a medium-hard-medium strategy — unsurprising given this was last week’s winning strategy. But as Sainz showed last week, there’s clearly performance to be found on a strategy starting on the softs for those who can work them sweetly.