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What to Watch for - Bahrain

19 Apr 2015

From the prospect of another gripping duel for victory to the likelihood of McLaren’s Jenson Button making a charge from the back, and from the possibility of Force India scooping a decent points haul to the very real threat posed to the brakes, we analyse the key themes to watch out for in Sunday’s floodlit race in Sakhir…

Ferrari to push Mercedes all the way

The last time Ferrari split the Mercedes in qualifying, they also beat them to victory. What’s more, the first hints of the upset came on Friday, when the Scuderia proved extremely competitive over long runs. The pattern of Malaysia has been repeated in Bahrain this weekend, and the message is clear: Ferrari are genuine contenders.

For while the Silver Arrows - or Hamilton at least - clearly had the edge on Saturday, the reverse appeared to be true under the floodlights in FP2. On comparative eight-lap runs on the soft tyre, Vettel had a clear advantage over Rosberg.

“They were quicker than us,” the latter said in summary of the situation. “I’ve been told they might be stronger,” Hamilton confirmed.

Mercedes worked long into the night on Friday to come up with solutions, but they have sizeable ground to make up. Rosberg’s average over that eight-lap run was a 1m 40.212s, meaning he surrendered on average almost eight-tenths of a second to Vettel. And while a number of additional factors are in play - Rosberg went deeper into his run than Vettel did, suggesting that he was nursing his tyre more and carrying more fuel - Ferrari are clearly extremely competitive. Its game-on in the race for victory.

Don’t discount Raikkonen

No man has stood on the Bahrain podium more times than Kimi Raikkonen, but the Finn has never actually triumphed in the desert. This weekend, a decade on from his first podium and amidst speculation about his future at Ferrari, would be the perfect opportunity to correct that record.

So is Raikkonen a viable candidate for victory? Perhaps, although starting fourth he will have to pick off Rosberg, Vettel and Hamilton - or benefit from good fortune - in order to prevail. Therefore a strong start could be decisive.

But even if he doesn’t make instant progress, history clearly confirms he has a liking for this circuit, and his long-run pace on Friday was just as encouraging as Vettel’s. Marry that to China, where he was hunting down his team mate in the closing stages of the race, and there is plenty of evidence to support his case. After all, it appears there will be very little to choose between the top four on Sunday. Don’t count the Iceman out.

Tyre strategy similar to China

Tyre management is rarely a straightforward matter in Bahrain - the asphalt is the roughest seen all season and the combination of heavy stops and brutal acceleration zones ensures that the rear tyres get a thorough workout. However, as fuel loads and temperatures come down over the course of the race, so thermal degradation decreases, and that opens the possibility for increased stint lengths and a variety of strategies.

According to Pirelli, the situation in Bahrain strategy-wise is slightly similar to China (where the medium and soft tyres were also nominated) in that three stops is theoretically the fastest way to go, but because of the possibility of running into traffic, two stops are actually more likely.

Given the large performance gap between the two compounds all weekend, the soft is the tyre that the teams will want to spend the most time on. Therefore the ideal strategy is to start on the softs, take on another set of softs on or around lap 19, then switch to mediums on lap 38. In contrast the best three-stopper would be to start on softs, take on more softs around lap 15 and then again around lap 35, and finally bolt on the mediums around lap 46.

Brake wear could be an issue

“Tyre performance looks to be reasonably predictable,” said Lotus’s Alan Permane after qualifying, “however it’s the brakes where we’ll be paying a lot of attention and monitoring during the course of the race as they generate a lot of heat thanks to the circuit layout here.”

As mentioned, Bahrain is a circuit littered with heavy braking zones - eight of them to be exact, with the biggest stops coming at Turns 1 and 14. But what makes matters even worse, according to Brembo, is their close proximity as it ensures that the brakes are almost continuously stressed.

The fact that the race is now held in the relative cool of the evening rather than the blazing heat of the day time helps matters to an extent, but it seems reasonable to expect that the brakes will be marginal on many cars during Sunday’s Grand Prix.

Unlucky Button to come out fighting

Poor Jenson Button - sometimes you have to think if it wasn’t for bad luck he’d have no luck at all. The 2009 world champion managed just two laps in FP1 before electrical problems brought his McLaren to a halt, and the issues have barely let up since, culminating with a gremlin in qualifying that prevented him from completing a single flying lap.

But for all his problems there are still signs of hope for Button. Free from issues team mate Fernando Alonso dragged his MP4-30 into Q2 for the first time, eventually ending up a solid 14th. The fact that the Spaniard finished ahead of the likes of Max Verstappen’s Toro Rosso, Pastor Maldonado’s Lotus and Daniil Kvyat’s Red Bull indicates that McLaren are continuing to make strides and that given a similar trouble-free run Button could swiftly find himself moving up the order.

As McLaren’s racing director Eric Boullier put it: “He’ll be intending to push hard right from the start, and, reliability permitting, you can bet your bottom dollar that he’ll be aiming to force his way up the running order with composure and aplomb.”

Force India well placed for first points since Australia

At last year’s race in Sakhir Sergio Perez scored Force India’s second ever podium finish with an unlikely but extremely well deserved run to third place. The odds of the Mexican or team mate Nico Hulkenberg repeating the trick on Sunday are exceedingly slim, but even so the duo remain well placed to pick up their first points since the season-opener in Australia.

Indeed, the Silverstone-based team achieved their best grid slots of the year on Saturday, with Hulkenberg claiming eighth after making it through to the top-ten shootout for the first time since Hungary last year, and Perez unlucky to miss the Q3 cut in 11th.  Better still, their Friday long-run pace looked very encouraging compared to their main rivals.

“We must not get carried away as we know that our car is particularly suited to this track, but we are confident for tomorrow,” said deputy team principal Bob Fernley after qualifying. “Starting in P8 and P11 gives us a good shot at scoring points, so it will be important to do a good job tonight and be prepared for tomorrow's race.

“Our pace looked solid in practice and we will need to ensure our strategy gives us the opportunity to make the best of it: the midfield is very competitive so it won't be an easy job, but we're ready for it.”