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Bahrain preview - is another electrifying desert duel looming?

16 Apr 2015

Last year Nico Rosberg and Lewis Hamilton held spectators spellbound as they duelled in what was the first night-time race in Bahrain. In the end, it was Rosberg who lost out - so what better place for him to avenge that defeat and also record his first victory of 2015?

There are new elements in play this year of course. The tension in the Mercedes camp is notably higher than it was heading into Bahrain last year. And Ferrari are markedly closer. We can expect the red cars to present another strong challenge to the Silver Arrows in the heat of Bahrain. What we don't know yet is how strong that challenge will be. 

Vettel, who like Rosberg and Hamilton has been on the podium in every race so far this season, was sixth in last year's desert epic. All the attention was focused at the front however. 

The safety car made a rare appearance courtesy of Lotus's Pastor Maldonado tipping Sauber's Esteban Gutierrez on to this head with 10 laps to run, which put Rosberg, running the soft tyre for his final stint, right onto the tail of the medium-shod Hamilton. The Briton had to mount several robust defences, but clung on to take the narrowest of victories.

"Of course, everyone remembers the race last year and it would be great for the fans if we can put on another great show for them this time," Rosberg says. "If we can do that but with the two top steps in a different order it would be fantastic!

"China was a frustrating weekend for me and I'm glad we have another race right away to get straight back to work. I know I just need to find a little bit more in myself to get back to the top step. I've never won in Bahrain but I've taken the last two pole positions here and also set the fastest lap at this circuit on my Formula One debut, so I know I have the pace. 

"It won't be so easy with the competition breathing down our necks. But that makes for even more exciting racing, so I'm looking forward to a great battle and I'm determined to come out on top."

Hamilton, however, is buzzing after his triumph in China.

"It's been a great start - but for me last season showed that you can never feel too comfortable and that's even more the case this time around with Ferrari right there with us. 

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"I don't actually have the best record in Bahrain compared to other circuits. Last year was my first win here and it was definitely one I'll remember after a great fight with Nico. That's what I love about racing and it's a special feeling to come out on top in a battle like that. I'm in a good place right now. The momentum is with me, so the target is to carry that on and hopefully repeat last year's performance."

Vettel, too, is in a much better place than he was this time last year.

"We have made a great start to the year and the win in Malaysia was wonderful," the Ferrari driver says. "We've taken a podium in each of the three races so far this year, so we are on the right track, and we just need to keep putting the pressure on Mercedes to see what happens next."

Kimi Raikkonen, meanwhile, had his best race of the season in China, and has an excellent record in Bahrain. The Finn has taken six podiums here, more than any other driver - with his 2006 fightback a particular highlight, when he finished third for McLaren after starting from 22nd due to suspension failure in qualifying. Yet to claim a podium in his second spell with Ferrari, this weekend could be the perfect ground to make the breakthrough.

The 5.412-kilometre Bahrain International Circuit is always very dusty and slippery early on but improves quite dramatically as it rubbers in. It requires plenty of downforce and good torque to accelerate the cars out of the tight corners. It's also heavy on the brakes and the rear tyres, and the most marginal on the calendar on fuel with 1.8 kg consumed per lap.

The need for medium to high downforce should favour Mercedes, as might the acceleration and fuel factors, but the higher temperatures may play to Ferrari's strengths even though it will once again be a night race. The SF15-T's excellent front end will doubtless be a strong asset too. 

It's thus difficult to call right now whether the two will go head-to-head the way they did in Malaysia, or whether Mercedes will retain the upper hand they enjoyed in China.

It's equally tricky to call who will lead the charge for the lower points-paying positions. While Williams seem to have a firm claim to be the third best team at present, it's incredibly close behind with Red Bull, Lotus, Toro Rosso and Sauber all in the mix.

Of that quartet is it Sauber who currently lead the way, their cause helped by another double points score in China - although Marcus Ericsson's 10th place owed much to the late heartbreak suffered by teenage sensation Max Verstappen. Lotus too could have scored with both men - while Romain Grosjean claimed the team's first points of the year with a strong seventh, team mate Pastor Maldonado scuppered his own hopes by running far too deep into the pit entry at mid-distance.

With so little to choose between the teams in terms of raw performance, tyre management could be decisive. Though 54 percent of the lap is run at full throttle, nearly 80 percent is spent cornering, which works the tyres extremely hard. And the track has the highest degree of asphalt roughness seen in all of the season's races, to the detriment of the tyres' thermal degradation.

To cope with such demands, Pirelli have brought their P Zero white-marked medium and yellow-marked soft tyres to this race. "We have the same tyre choice as we did in China, although there will obviously be a bit more temperature involved," motorsport director Paul Hembery explains. "However, with the race taking place in the evening, conditions won't be as aggressive as they were in Malaysia - or even Bahrain two years ago, when the race was still run during the day. 

"A defining characteristic of Bahrain now is that tyre performance changes over the course of the weekend as we slowly edge towards afternoon sessions. Last year's Bahrain Grand Prix had a thrilling finish because of the safety car with 10 laps to go, leading to a great battle between the two Mercedes team-mates. It's harder to know what to expect this year - apart from the fact that it's very unlikely to rain!" 

In terms of strategy, Pirelli are expecting a two-stop race, similar to last year's race. The same two DRS zones will also be in operation. The first has a detection point on the exit of Turn 9, with activation on the back straight between Turns 10 and 11. The second is activated on the main straight and the run down to Turn 1, with the detection point located just before Turn 14.

The weather is forecast to be around 33 degrees Celsius on Friday, but slightly cloudier and therefore cooler on Saturday and Sunday, at 29 and 28 degrees C respectively. By race time on Sunday, ambient temperatures are expected to fall to around 25.

The race will start at 1800 local time (1500 GMT) and will run over 57 laps.