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Bahrain - What to Watch for...

06 Apr 2014

From Mercedes’ apparent dominance to the tiny margins separating the chasing pack, and from differing strategies to tyre and fuel concerns, we preview the key themes to watch out for in the 2014 Formula 1 Gulf Air Bahrain Grand Prix at Sakhir…

Mercedes will look to run and hide…

All things being equal, Mercedes shouldn’t be threatened in Bahrain. The team’s dominance over a single lap has been emphasised in every session, but long runs in FP2 also suggest they have pace in hand over race distances too.

Provided they avoid drama at the start, expect Nico Rosberg and Lewis Hamilton to be in a league of their own on Sunday. While a Mercedes victory therefore appears inevitable, it will be fascinating to see which man leads the charge. Hamilton, fresh from his emphatic victory in Malaysia, started the weekend brighter, only for Rosberg to turn the tables in qualifying and capture pole. Can the German maintain that form? Will Hamilton prove more adept over the long runs, as he was in Sepang? And if both men are well clear of the chasing pack, could team orders become a factor in the closing stages?

…but it will be an extremely fierce battle for the final podium spot

Behind Mercedes, the situation is so close it’s almost impossible to call. Just half a second covered third through eighth in qualifying, encompassing five different teams - Red Bull, Williams, Force India, Ferrari and McLaren. Long run simulations on Friday suggested there was similarly precious little to choose between the squads. Force India’s Sergio Perez, for example, impressed over a longer stint, but was matched almost identically by Red Bull’s Daniel Ricciardo.

To add even more uncertainty into the mix, Williams have kept their powder dry for much of the weekend, opting to run only in the latter part of the three practice sessions, and repeating the tactic in Q1. With Valtteri Bottas lining up third, and Felipe Massa seventh, will the team that set the pace in pre-season at Sakhir emerge as Mercedes closest challengers?

Teams could gamble on a two-stop strategy

While a three-stop strategy is theoretically ideal, low degradation levels throw up the possibility of some teams opting to gamble on a two-stop strategy. That could throw a few jokers into what is an already an extremely tight pack battling for the points.

The medium tyre will be minimised

Pirelli’s soft compound will be the tyre of choice in the race - not only did teams find massive improvements on the yellow-marked rubber in practice and qualifying, but degradation levels are also comparable to the medium tyre. Expect short stints on the medium then, with it likely being saved for the penultimate or final runs while on low fuel.

Red Bull in damage limitation mode

One week on from a podium in Malaysia, Red Bull are on the back foot. Admittedly Sakhir was never likely to suit the team given the number of low-speed corners and heavy acceleration zones, but Sebastian Vettel’s failure to make Q3 - coupled with a rare error that sent him spinning out of FP3 - have been compounded by the 10-place grid penalty the team incurred for Daniel Ricciardo following an unsafe release in Kuala Lumpur.

The good news for Red Bull is that their long run pace appears to be on a par with the likes of Force India and Ferrari. The bad news is that Vettel and Ricciardo will still have to cut through the pack in order to score a decent haul of points, something that hasn’t looked altogether likely so far this weekend.

Respecting track limits will be imperative

Expect the issue of track limits to raise its head during the Grand Prix, particularly at Turn 4 where the kerb was revised following Pastor Maldonado’s aerial dramatics on Friday. Race director Charlie Whiting warned teams that the FIA will monitor lines through the corner “as past experience has shown advantages can be gained by leaving the track,” and promised that the regulations will be “rigidly enforced”.

Cooler temperatures may ease reliability woes

Overheating has been a major concern for teams over the pre-season and through the first two Grands Prix of the year, but the cooler temperatures of the Bahrain evening should ease the issue and help prevent a repeat of drivers needing to dial back their pace in order to protect their engines.

Fuel management could be decisive

The Sakhir circuit is on the higher end for fuel economy, so the need to manage fuel will be more prescient than in Australia or Malaysia. That could tilt the balance in favour of teams like Williams, who were able to run more efficiently than their rivals in Malaysia last weekend.