Five things to look out for at the Bahrain Grand Prix

The Formula 1 circus is about to make its second stop of the 2016 season this coming weekend when the drivers do battle around the Sakhir International Circuit in Bahrain.

The season-opener in Australia provided a clearer picture of what is to come over the course of the season. However, the Sakhir Circuit’s long straights and slow corners, along with anticipated high tyre wear and falling temperatures as night falls mean that the Bahrain Grand Prix offers its own unique blend of challenges for the teams and drivers to adapt to. In light of this, there are a few important things to look out for as the grand prix weekend unfolds…

Can Nico Rosberg truly lay down his marker?

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Nico Rosberg got his 2016 title bid off to the perfect start by triumphing in Australia and certainly deserved the victory based on his performance on race day.

Despite being passed by both Sebastian Vettel and Kimi Räikkönen at the start, the German made a better start than teammate Lewis Hamilton, who is likely to be his biggest threat on the road to the title. From there, Rosberg managed to stay in touch with Vettel as the Ferrari man tried to pull away on supersoft tyres, eventually inheriting the lead as his compatriot pitted for fresh rubber.

While Rosberg will undoubtedly be pleased with the manner in which he cruised to the line ten seconds ahead of second-placed Hamilton, it is slightly concerning that he was generally a fair bit slower than the Briton, who finished in first place in all three practice sessions and then qualified on pole. Of course, championship points are only handed out after the race on Sunday, but Rosberg could probably do with a dominant Bahrain Grand Prix where he controls the entire race weekend from Friday to Sunday. Given that Hamilton has tasted victory at both of the last two races in Bahrain, that may take some doing.

A big weekend for Ferrari

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All things considered, Ferrari enjoyed an encouraging start to the season in Australia, despite Mercedes ultimately securing yet another 1-2 finish. Albert Park has traditionally been an unhappy hunting ground for the Italian squad, with their last win in Australia coming in 2007, when Kimi Räikkönen was first to cross the line. However, both of the Scuderia’s drivers made strong starts and it seemed that Sebastian Vettel was destined for glory until the intervention of the red flag, while Räikkönen seemed on course for a podium finish.

The warm temperatures of Bahrain will be more to Ferrari’s liking, and given that it was one of their strongest tracks in 2015, the Scuderia will be eager to secure a good result at a circuit where the performance gap between themselves and Mercedes is likely to be smaller than usual. Ferrari will have to take all their chances if they are to remain a threat to Mercedes over the course of 2016; there is little margin for error.

Can Red Bull maintain the pressure on Ferrari and Mercedes?

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Red Bull have been the first to admit that they are unlikely to challenge for the title in 2016. However, the Austrian team produced a strong weekend in Australia, with local hero Daniel Ricciardo on course for a podium finish during the middle stages of the race, before being pipped to third place by Sebastian Vettel.

Bahrain, however, will reveal more about Red Bull’s true performance. Their RB12 challenger is undoubtedly a strong car from an aerodynamic viewpoint, but questions remain about the ultimate performance of its Tag-Heuer-branded Renault engine. The Sakhir Circuit, with its long straights, is likely to be the true test of how much progress Renault have made on their power unit over the course of the winter.

Of course, the first substantial engine update from the French manufacturer is only expected to arrive at the Canadian Grand Prix, but a strong weekend for Red Bull would not go amiss at what is likely to be one of their weaker circuits. If Red Bull manage to perform well in Bahrain, they will have reason for optimism in the second half of the season.

Haas to discover their true place in the pecking order

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Romain Grosjean’s sterling drive to sixth place in Australia provided a dream debut for Haas, Formula 1’s newest entrant. The Frenchman and his VF-16 challenger impressed by managing to get ahead of the likes of Force India and Toro Rosso, and more critically, to stay there.

Amidst all the celebration, however, there must always be a healthy dose of reality. Grosjean was certainly helped by the intervention of the red flag on lap 18 of the race in Australia, which effectively allowed him to score a fresh set of tyres for free. While this is the fickle nature of Formula 1, it remains to be seen where Haas will finish in a “routine” race that runs its course without too much outside interference.

Given how difficult it is for new teams to achieve immediate success in F1, bringing both cars home in the top 15 in Bahrain would probably be a strong result for the American team. Of course, if Haas were to repeat their point-scoring heroics of Australia, it would do both themselves and the sport as a whole a world of good.

Last chance saloon for the new qualifying format

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Formula 1’s new, elimination-style qualifying format fell quite flat in Australia and was subsequently panned from all corners, with words such as “farcical” and “rubbish” used to describe it. While it became clear in Australia that there are some inherent flaws in the format, the fact that Mercedes enjoyed a significant one-lap pace advantage over the rest of the field did not help matters. Furthermore, Lewis Hamilton’s domination of Nico Rosberg over one lap meant that the anticipated “grand shoot-out” for pole position never materialised.

In Bahrain, a smaller performance gap between Ferrari and Mercedes might allow the new format to attract some positive comments from the F1 community. At best, Formula 1 will enjoy a grand battle for pole involving both Mercedes drivers, both Ferrari drivers, and perhaps even a Red Bull or a Williams for good measure. At worst, one driver will deliver the perfect lap early in the final segment of qualifying and F1 will (once again) be left with no cars out on circuit with several minutes of the session left to run.

While Formula 1 ultimately ignored calls to scrap the new format with immediate effect, such calls will become more urgent if the format fails to deliver yet again in Bahrain.

Adriaan Slabbert

Related: Alex Yoong’s Bahrain Grand Prix preview

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