From a potential new winner in Formula 1 to defending champions looking threatening, and McLaren well-placed at one of their home races to numerous teams on edge, we highlight five key things to look out for at Sakhir…
Can Leclerc deal with the pressure and take his first victory?
There have been 107 different Grand Prix winners in F1 history, but in the past five years there have only been seven. Charles Leclerc could join that list on Sunday after taking his maiden pole position in Bahrain.
The 21-year-old Monegasque clearly has the pace to deliver, as he showed in his rookie season for Sauber as well as at this weekend so far, but being able to do so when a first win is on the line is a different proposition altogether.
Add in the fact that Ferrari have already said they will give priority to Sebastian Vettel early in the season if required, and Leclerc knows he is unlikely to be handed anything for free in the race. But it was Vettel who struggled more in qualifying, so the dynamic between the two team mates in the race will be fascinating.
Silver Arrows sharking
How close will Mercedes be to Ferrari?
If Ferrari didn’t have enough to worry about with their own two drivers, the threat from Mercedes could provide them with a serious headache. While Ferrari dominated every session this weekend, when it mattered in Q3, Mercedes were much closer, with Lewis Hamilton only 0.03s away from splitting Leclerc and Vettel.
Ferrari’s race pace has looked strong, but there’s a long run to Turn 1 and the start could be the best opportunity for Mercedes to disrupt things. If either Hamilton or Valtteri Bottas – well-placed on the second row – can get ahead of a Ferrari, they should have the pace to make life very difficult indeed.
Last year Vettel and Bottas were separated by just 0.7s in the fight for the win. It could be just as close once again in 2019.
Red Bull in the crossfire
Will Max Verstappen be looking forwards or backwards?
The gap from Verstappen in fifth to Bottas in fourth was half a second in qualifying, not what Red Bull will have wanted but also a margin the team has dealt with in recent years. The problem in Bahrain is that the advantage over the sixth-placed Haas of Kevin Magnussen was just 0.005s.
Red Bull don’t have the qualifying pace to threaten the top two teams in Bahrain, but both Ferrari and Mercedes referenced them as a dark horse for the race. Verstappen’s instincts will have him looking at the podium – especially after his result in Australia – but should he be looking behind too?
The Dutchman finds himself in the intriguing situation where he could be fighting for the top three or even victory in the race, but could also be stuck behind a Haas or McLaren if he loses out at the start, such is the improved pace of the midfield.
McLaren in the mix
Can McLaren take the fight to Red Bull?
Haas were the bigger threat to Red Bull after qualifying until Romain Grosjean got a penalty, with Carlos Sainz and Lando Norris now starting from seventh and ninth. McLaren have Bahraini part-ownership and so far have produced an encouraging display in one of their home races.
As mentioned, Magnussen was only 0.005s off Verstappen, but Sainz was just 0.056s further back, so the raw speed is in the McLaren for them to be a threat. With Pierre Gasly starting down in 13th – a further example of how close the midfield is – the leading Red Bull could be open to attack from McLaren from a strategic point of view.
And it’s not like there isn’t a bit of spice in that battle, with Red Bull now running the Honda power unit that McLaren struggled so much with for three years, while McLaren use the Renault units that Red Bull jettisoned at the end of 2018. If a battle develops, it might just mean that little bit more to both.
Mastering the midfield
Who will win the closer-than-close midfield battle?
Even if Red Bull do show the race pace to pull away from the pack behind, the midfield remains a thrillingly close scrap. Gaps between teams are being measured in hundredths of a second rather than tenths in qualifying, and drivers need to get absolutely everything out of their machinery to progress through the segments.
That was evidenced by Nico Hulkenberg dropping out in Q1 and Gasly in Q2, but as Australia showed, a bad qualifying doesn’t necessarily mean points are out of the question.
On that occasion, a one-stop strategy was the only option, but tomorrow a two-stop could be a viable choice given the high levels of degradation on the soft tyre – as well as the potential advantage of a third DRS zone – meaning that all the teams except Williams will be holding at least an outside hope of finishing inside the top 10.