Questions for the 2014 Bahrain GP
Is a Mercedes hat-trick anything but an inevitability? Will recovering Red Bull be overpowered at Sakhir? And plenty more...
By Sky Sports Online. Last Updated: 03/04/14 1:08pm
Can anyone stop Mercedes?
With Mercedes odds-on favourites at 1/4 to produce Sunday's race winner, it's fair to say the bookmakers will welcome bets on any other team to win, with Red Bull deemed the Silver Arrows' nearest rivals at 6/1, followed by Ferrari at 8/1. Malaysia victor Lewis Hamilton leads the way at 4/6 to maintain his perfect pole record for 2014, while he's evens (1/1) to win the race. In comparison, last year's polesitter Nico Rosberg is 9/4 second favourite to front the grid again and the same price to take the chequered flag.
If there's value to be had, it probably lies with Williams, who are 14/1 to win after a disappointing weekend in Kuala Lumpur. With Felipe Massa having impressed in testing in Bahrain, not to mention his two victories here with Ferrari, his odds of 25/1 to win seem generous, though 5/1 on the Brazilian making the podium looks like being one of the bets of the weekend.
Alternatively, Massa to set the fastest lap of the race offers appeal at 16/1, while he's 8/1 to spoil Mercedes' hopes of a front-row lock-out by getting himself in the top two in qualifying. Meanwhile, Massa's Williams team-mate Valtteri Bottas is 1/3 to earn another points finish, and 8/11 to get back into the top six, as he managed in Australia.
Will Bahrain hurt Red Bull's revival?
F1 is making a rapid return to Sakhir, just one month after testing came to an end there. As such, the race will indicate just how far teams have come in the intervening weeks - yet surely there's little doubt already who has progressed farthest of all. March started with Sebastian Vettel pushing Red Bull's flaky RB10 back to its garage at the Bahrain International Circuit after it had spluttered to a halt in the pitlane; it ended with him 'best of the rest' behind omnipotent Mercedes in Malaysia. From barely being able to string several laps together without some misfortune or other rearing up, they could race the requisite 56 at Sepang as though their pre-season tribulations were a fast-fading memory, if not a bad dream. Extrapolate forward and won't Vettel, winner in Bahrain in both 2012 and last year, have the hat-trick in his sights?
That's an extrapolation too far, it seems. Although Red Bull are clearly delighted with progress, they anticipate that Mercedes' clear power advantage over Renault will mean a more difficult weekend at a track which plays even more to the Silver Arrows' strengths than last weekend's did. The RB10 might have matched the W05 in Sepang's long, high-speed corners midway round the lap, but it was left for dead on the two long straights at the beginning and end - each preceded by a slow corner that places a premium on braking/energy recovery/traction. And although the straights at the Bahrain International Circuit aren't as long there are more of them, with more traction events and less of the high-speed stuff to compensate.
"I think their advantage in Bahrain possibly will be bigger than it was here because obviously that's quite a power-dominated circuit," team boss Christian Horner admitted after the Malaysia GP. "Our middle sector you could see and we got pretty close to them in the last sector. But the first sector was where they've killed us all weekend." Horner reckoned Merc's advantage was "about half a second to sometimes more than that" and with the short gap between races, he doubted that Red Bull and Renault could do much to address it. Furthermore, with Vettel's performance (and that of Daniel Ricciardo in Australia, pre-disqualification) built on a strong performance in wet qualifying, he also pointed out the obvious.
"I don't think we're going to have a solution overnight and it doesn't tend to rain much in Bahrain either. We're going to try and make as much progress as we can in the week; the dynos are busy running in Paris and hopefully we can nudge a bit closer to them again, if at all possible, next weekend." Not sounding too hopeful, then, but it's all relative. Considering where we were at with the engine, what we're doing is beyond expectation," Horner added.
"Renault know there's a lot more to come once they sort out driveability issues and so on. Hopefully our curve in terms of catching up in straight line speed, whilst it's steep, we should be able to make steps."
Can Sergio Perez kick-start his season?
Even discounting the fact that Sergio Perez failed to take the start in Malaysia, he has been largely anonymous in the opening two weekends of his Force India career. At the season opening race in Australia, Perez finished bottom of Q2 - even behind the Caterham of Kamui Kobayashi - whilst his team-mate Nico Hulkenberg went nearly four seconds quicker in that same session, making it into Q3 and eventually lining up seventh.
Come race day in Melbourne, Perez was the last of the drivers on the lead lap, coming in 35 seconds behind Hulkenberg and only picking up a point courtesy of Daniel Ricciardo's disqualification. Based on that lacklustre performance, it appeared McLaren had made the right choice of axing him after just one season, particularly given his replacement Kevin Magnussen's starring role on his F1 debut.
With another two weeks to settle into his new team, Perez returned to the venue where he was propelled into the spotlight in 2012 with a fine drive to second for Sauber. However, in qualifying he once again failed to match his German team-mate, exiting in Q2 with his time 1.5 seconds slower than Hulkenberg's, who was again fighting it out in the top-ten shootout. Technical problems meant Perez was forced to watch the race from the sidelines - "the car kept going into neutral when I was downshifting on the way to the grid," the Mexican said - as Hulkenberg was engaged in a battle with Fernando Alonso, eventually finishing fifth.
These two drivers were regarded as the hottest talents in F1 when McLaren were looking to replace Lewis Hamilton in September 2012 and now with a direct comparison available, it is clear that Perez needs to up his game as Hulkenberg continues to fulfil his potential.
Will Sakhir come alive at night?
Even before the Bahrain GP became F1's political hot potato, the sport's first grand prix in the Middle East wasn't exactly a fans' favourite. Yes, for those in the paddock attending the event, the first-rate facilities at Sakhir and the hospitality of the organisers were reasons to cut the event some slack amid the criticism from elsewhere, but for the millions watching the race many thousands of miles away on TV the uninspiring 5km track layout and lack of general atmosphere provided little reason for the event to be classed as anything other than just 'another race'. And the less said about the 2010 race held on the 'endurance' circuit the better...
For all of that though, the Bahrain GP celebrates its tenth anniversary this weekend and to mark the milestone the race has been converted into a night-time event for the first time. While Singapore remains the sport's benchmark floodlit event (Abu Dhabi is technically classed as a 'twilight' GP as it starts in daylight hours), a first look at an illuminated Sakhir during the pair of pre-season tests provided both an impressive spectacle from both up close in the paddock and further afield. The floodlighting system erected around the circuit consists of 495 lighting poles, ranging in height from 10m to 45m, and over 500km of cabling and organisers are hopeful that the lights will provide a fitting way to mark the race's first decade. F1 personnel and media certainly will welcome the chance operate in the cooler early-evening conditions of the desert.
Of course, lights or no lights, the stop-start circuit itself hasn't changed and that in the eyes of F1's fanbase is where the success or otherwise of the 2014 Bahrain GP will be determined. It's arguable that only the Alonso/Schumacher duel of 2006 has come close to producing a truly memorable fight for victory in Sakhir's first decade and so, after a pair of runaway Mercedes winners in the first two rounds of 2014, a gripping race is what Bahrain really needs if it's to make its birthday celebrations truly special.