2017 Bahrain Grand Prix Preview: Can Ferrari strike?

If we have learned anything from the opening two rounds of the 2017 Formula 1 season, it is that things will be very close between Mercedes and Ferrari. The only question is how close. 

Ferrari won in Australia as the result of a questionable Mercedes strategy call, and vice versa in China last time out. It is even between Lewis Hamilton and Sebastian Vettel at the top of the standings, with both on 43 points, with Mercedes leading in the constructors' by just a single point. 

Heading into the Bahrain Grand Prix, once again, no-one can say for certain who are the favourites, which should become clearer during the weekend. 

What to look out for

Up front, the climate in Bahrain, could be the biggest factor in deciding what way the pendulum swings. 

During race day in Melbourne, a high temperature saw Ferrari excel with tyre management and Vettel was not only able to keep on Hamilton's gearbox, but crucially go an extra few laps, which eventually saw him emerge from the pits in the lead. 

However, last Sunday in Shanghai was a cold, overcast, cool affair, with the Mercedes of Hamilton being the class of the field. 

Both qualifying sessions so far this season have been run in cooler conditions and favoured Mercedes. 

From what we have seen, it looks as if the Ferrari prefers hotter conditions while the Mercedes, cooler ones. 

Heading into the dessert then, you'd think that Ferrari are the favourites, but with Hamilton driving as well as he has ever done - according to team boss Toto Wolff, another fascinating battle is in store. 

Vettel and Hamilton are so far enjoying their duel for the title, but who will emerge victor this weekend? (Image Credit: Sutton Images)
Vettel and Hamilton are so far enjoying their duel for the title, but who will emerge victor this weekend? (Image Credit: Sutton Images)

Throw into the mix the fact that Kimi Raikkonen needs a strong result after his abject start to the season compared to Vettel, - although in China he was the victim of a strange strategy call - and this being a track he has scored eight podiums at, but never won, the Bwoahrain, sorry, Bahrain Grand Prix could have come at exactly the right time.

Elsewhere, Red Bull look secure in third, while the mid-field will be as close as ever, with most of the attention on Toro Rosso's Carlos Sainz after his call to start on slicks in Shanghai paid off. With no obvious possibility of promotion to Red Bull, Sainz is, in effect, advertising himself this season, and what with Raikkonen's performances getting worse, a seat at Maranello could be his prize.

Off-track, there is, of course one story that will dominate the weekend, and every weekend until probably the Azerbaijan Grand Prix in June. That of Fernando Alonso's decision to miss the Monaco Grand Prix and go race at the Indy 500.

On the face of it, it is a smart move by McLaren and Zak Brown. If the team want to keep Alonso beyond this season, it must keep him happy, while Honda tries to fix its latest mess. It could be very shrewd move.

,Pascal Wehrlein returns to the cockpit of the Sauber, having missed the opening two races, due to not being able to train and get fit enough after his accident at the Race of Champions in January. The German angrily dismissed criticism toward him on Thursday, saying: "I don't care too much what the other say because they didn't know my situation and were commenting on it. For me it was the right decision, with Monisha Kaltenborn and (Toto) Wolff."

The Track 

The 3.3 mile circuit, located close to the city of Sakhir, has become one of the most popular races on the calendar, but only after it switched to a night in 2014. Prior to that, racing was often dull and uninspiring, but the change has seen the circuit produce arguably one of the, if not the, best F1 race of them all in 2014 when there was close battles throughout the field, memorably between Hamilton and Nico Rosberg. 

Hamilton and Rosberg famously went wheel-to-wheel in 2014, with the Brit winning by just over 1 second. (Image Credit: Steve Etherington/Getty Images)
Hamilton and Rosberg famously went wheel-to-wheel in 2014, with the Brit winning by just over 1 second. (Image Credit: Steve Etherington/Getty Images)

Consisting of three long straights and a twisty middle sector, the track will give a good workout to the cars, with traction out of the slow corners, in particular the troublesome, tight left-hander of Turn 10 and then along the back-straight. 

There are 15 corners in total, and a lap-time should be in region of the high 1m:20s. 

DRS is in operation along the pit-straight and the back-straight, between Turns 10 and 11.

Where will I see some overtakes?

The prime overtaking spots are into Turns 1,4 and the tight hairpin of Turn 8. A move into the final heavy braking zone of Turn 14 isn't uncommon, but drivers tend to wait as the DRS detection point is before the braking zone, which would leave you vulnerable along the pit-straight. 

However, as we saw in Shanghai, drivers are becoming more imaginative with their overtaking and we saw more organic moves, including Romain Grosjean going around the outside of Felipe Massa at Turn 1, so anywhere there could be a move. 

Will it rain?

A freak of nature aside, No. The forecast is the for the temperature to hover in the high 20c region, even after the Sun goes down. 

It will be crucial to see how the teams cope with the tyres, with FP2 on Friday the most realistic session to the race, in terms of session start time. 

What tyres are Pirelli bringing?

Pirelli have once opted for the second softest range of tyres this weekend, with the super-soft being the softest brought, with the medium tyre being the hardest compound available. The soft tyre will also be available for teams to use. 

As ever, Pirelli have brought the intermediate and wet tyres to Bahrain, although these should only be used for pit-stop practice. 

Owing to the numerous traction zones in Sakhir, the rear tyres tend to take the brunt of the workload, as does the front-left through the fast-flowing sweeps of Turns 12/13.

For the first four races of the season, Pirelli have pre-selected the mixture of compounds that each team and driver will get.

From the Spanish Grand Prix, they will be free to mix their compounds as they did last season, but as Pirelli are not 100% sure on the loads the new tyres are expected to go through, they have decided to play it safe, until it can analyse the data from the new cars and make sure the tyres are safe.

This time out, teams will have seven sets of the super-soft to use, four of the soft and two sets of the medium tyres.

When is it on?

There is a three hour time difference between Bahrain and the UK, so First Practice gets underway at 15:00 local time on Friday, 12:00 UK time. Both qualifying and the race get underway at 19:00 local time, which means it is a 16:00 start on Saturday and Sunday afternoons.

As ever, Sky Sports F1 will show live coverage of the entire weekend, as will Channel 4 for the first time this season for freeview viewers. Moreover, Sky will also be showing coverage of the opening round of the newly rebranded FIA Formula 2 Championship, which was GP2. 

First Practice - Friday - 12:00 - 13:30

Second Practice - Friday - 16:00 - 17:30

Third Practice - Saturday - 13:00 - 14:00

Qualifying - Saturday 16:00 - 17:00

Race - the 56 laps of the 2017 Bahrain Grand Prix get underway at 16:00 on Sunday afternoon. 

All times in BST.