Bahrain Grand Prix weekend preview

After three months of winter break, F1 will soon finally be back in its full glory. This weekend, the 10 world-class Formula One teams will get their first opportunity to show what they can really do in race conditions. No more ‘Pre-Season Politics’ or ‘Sandbagging,’ all 20 cars will be primed and ready to attack this track, and we can not wait.

Written by Aiden Hover & Justin Tan & Tanishka Vashee, Edited by Sam Stewart

The Bahrain Grand Prix takes place around the Bahrain International Circuit, a 5.4-kilometer stunner of a track. One of Hermann Tilke’s more popular track designs, this year’s race will feature 57 hair-raising laps as the 2021 grid fight to make their mark on the season first. Last year’s pole-sitter and eventual race winner, Sir Lewis Hamilton, set a lap time of 1:27.264 and will aim to repeat this feat in 2021. Having hosted a Grand Prix every year since 2004 (excluding 2011) the race transitioned into a nighttime affair from 2014 – a welcome change as the cooler conditions, along with the stunning visuals, ensure that every visit to Bahrain is one to remember. We still remember the chills felt during the 2014 ‘Duel in the desert’ between Mercedes teammates, Nico Rosberg and Sir Lewis Hamilton, and who can forget Fernando Alonso’s Ferrari masterclass in 2010 or, in the opposite vein, Charles Leclerc’s Ferrari heartbreak in 2019 after securing his first career pole position. Even last year, when Bahrain hosted two Grand Prix, we witnessed miracles in both events. In round one, Romain Grosjean became the ‘Man on Fire’ as he rose from a fiery crash like a phoenix, against all odds. Fast forwards only a week and at the Sakhir Grand Prix, using the Bahrain outer circuit, Sergio Perez won an incredible race in his Racing Point despite being last after a lap one crash. We can surely expect great things from this circuit, and the fact that it’s the season opener for this year only makes the spectacle more exciting.

Looking forwards to this year’s race, the main story is of Mercedes’ true pace. Throughout Pre-Season testing, the team appeared to struggle with both Sir Lewis Hamilton and Valtteri Bottas finding the car hard to drive, with Hamilton even spinning and beaching his W12 in the gravel trap on day two. The Mercedes team also struggled with mechanical issues as Bottas missed crucial running on day one due to gearbox issues. Sebastian Vettel experienced a similar issue in his Aston Martin, which also runs Mercedes engines, so Mercedes issues could be bigger than they at first thought. However, we have seen Mercedes struggle at testing countless times throughout the last seven years of Mercedes domination, so if any team can come back from a difficult test, it’s Mercedes. As always, rumours spread of the team deliberately hiding their true performance or ‘sandbagging’ in order to disrupt their rivals despite being purely dominant yet again.

The one driver who has consistently been a thorn in the side of Hamilton and the all-conquering Mercedes is Max Verstappen. The Dutchman has frequently outperformed his difficult RedBull car as well as his teammates to threaten the Mercs during a race weekend. Towards the end of 2020, Verstappen and RedBull proved that it is possible to dethrone the champions by beating them in Abu Dhabi, a traditionally strong race for Mercedes. If RedBull is able to bring this pace into 2021, Verstappen may be able to challenge Hamilton throughout an entire season and treat fans to a truly titanic title fight – an aspect the sport has been missing since 2018. This year, RedBull has signed Sergio Perez to partner Verstappen. They hope that Perez will be closer to Verstappen’s pace than Alex Albon was last year, and will allow RedBull to use two cars to gain a strategic advantage over their German counterparts, a tool they have not been able to use in recent years. RedBull’s car looked strong in testing and they must surely be confident heading into the season opener this weekend.

The start of the new season also marks the rebirth of Racing Point, who will now race as Aston Martin. Their season contender, the AMR21, looked capable in Pre-Season testing as they were consistently close to McLaren for the third-fastest but the car has also become a fan favourite thanks to its distinct British Racing Green livery. The driver lineup of Lance Stroll and Sebastian Vettel is heavily anticipated to be strong as Vettel looks to demonstrate that his poor performance in recent years was not an accurate representation of the consecutive 4-time world champion he used to be, whilst Lance looks to learn from his experienced teammate.

Fernando Alonso and Sebastian Vettel are both to take on big new challenges this year

Alpine, previously known as Renault, is also looking strong before Bahrain, off the back of a productive Pre-Season test. The team’s returning signing of two-time world champion Fernando Alonso will be keen to prove that he has lost none of his talent this weekend, after a two-year absence from the sport and so will be firing on all cylinders. On the other side of the garage, Frenchman Esteban Ocon will be looking to stake his mark as team leader and put up a strong fight against the Spaniard.

In addition to the exciting Aston Martin and Alpine rebrands, the 2021 season will also play host to 3 new rookie drivers: Mick Schumacher, Nikita Mazepin, and Yuki Tsunoda. Here is what we can expect from these 3 budding young talents:

Photo credits Dan Istitene – Formula 1/Formula 1 via Getty Images

Once the driver’s hit the track in Bahrain for free practice, the world will be watching the reigning Formula 2 champion, who just happens to share the same surname as one of the sport’s greatest ever drivers. Mick Schumacher has had to face the limelight that comes with being Michael Schumacher’s son throughout his entire life, the pressure only building with his growing reputation in the feeder series while racing under the Schumacher name. There will always be sceptics and doubters who will compare Mick with his father, but Schumacher has proven himself to be an incredibly smart and calculating driver, one who works immensely hard both on and off the track, internally and with the team around him as well. With the F2 and F3 championships to his name, he will make the step up to the pinnacle of motorsport with the Haas F1 Team for the 2021 season.  

It says volumes that Schumacher has not been the most spoken about of the 3 new rookies since his promotion was confirmed, this had been due to the on and off-track conduct of the Russian driver Nikita Mazepin. Before stepping into his on-track antics, his off-track actions must be addressed. The Russian’s despicable behaviour to not only grope a female passenger in a car and film this incident, but also upload this to his social media accounts has led to outrage from many. However, there is no denying that he brings huge backing that is central to the survival of Haas as an F1 team. While money was the key driving factor in his rise to F1, he should not be underestimated. He delivered 2 wins – the same as the champion – on his way to finishing 5th in the F2 standings with a new entry Hitech team. He and Mick will be closely matched over one lap – Mazepin having the potential to edge out that category, however, whether his aggressive driving style will be sanctioned by the FIA remains to be seen. 

Perhaps, the one to watch closest is not getting as much coverage as the Haas drivers during the offseason, and that is AlphaTauri’s Yuki Tsunoda. Tsunoda will follow George Russell and Lando Norris in stepping up to the pinnacle of motorsport after just one season in F2, a testament to his rapid development as a driver and character. Alongside race winner Pierre Gasly, he will also have the toughest benchmark of the 3 rookies; but will be in the most competitive car of the 3, so the potential to impress is greater – but so is the potential to struggle. Tsunoda will have the best platform to perform on, but the spotlight on the Haas pair will be intense – for different reasons. Whether he will step up to the plate remains to be seen, but he is no doubt ready for an all or nothing war.

The 2021 teams, and what we can expect from them in Bahrain:

Alfa Romeo

Despite missing team principal Frederic Vasseur at pre-season testing due to coronavirus, Alfa Romeo had a productive weekend – clocking up the joint most laps, joint with AlphaTauri. Kimi Räikkönen, very much the eldest statesman of the F1 grid at 41 years old, managed 166 laps on the final day – the largest one-day total than anyone else across the weekend. Will Alfa be top of the bottom 3 or completing firmly in the midfield? We shall see very shortly.

AlphaTauri

Photo Credits: Federico Basile / DPPI

AlphaTauri undoubtedly came out as one of the victors of pre-season testing, and they are looking extremely strong coming into the first race in Bahrain. Once again the team will be represented by now race winner Pierre Gasly, who had a barnstorming season in 2020. He will be partnered by up and coming talent Yuki Tsunoda, who, on paper, was the second best driver in pre-season testing. That could just be a testament to the unreliability of pre-season testing as an accurate metric for season performance, but he and this team are certainly one to keep an eye out for.

Alpine 

Renault F1’s rebrand as Alpine for the 2021 season has been much more than just a new striking blue and red livery. The team has brought in 2 time world champion Fernando Alonso, who has looked at home in the Alpine car during testing despite his cycling incident. Estaban Ocon also seems comfortable and will want to prove himself against his championship winning teammate after a strong end to the 2020 season. Alpine will also want to justify the odd design of its car, with the bulbous airbox a key talking point within the paddock during testing. The best way they can do this is with a strong midfield finish.

Aston Martin

Another new name makes it onto the grid, with Aston Martin’s return to Formula One after more than 60 years being one of the headline stories of the 2021 pre-season. With 4 time world champion Sebastian Vettel on its roster, partnering rapidly improving teammate Lance stroll, the team has much to feel optimistic about. However, their testing has been shaky to say the least, with Vettel confined to the pitlane for large swathes of time due to a number of mechanical issues. By the end of the weekend, the German had only completed 117 testing laps – comfortably the least of any driver, whether he and the team can adapt and strive towards a strong midfield finish remains to be seen.  

Ferrari 

After bleak performances in 2020, Ferrari has made it clear that it does not expect to be winning races until 2022. However, there is still much to be excited about for their 2021 campaign. The introduction of Carlos Sainz means that both seats are occupied by young, hungry and talented drivers with growing experience at the top. Testing was a mixed bag for the scarlet team, with Sainz seeming to struggle getting to grips with the SF21 car, but Leclerc put in some confident laps and team principal Mattia Binotto said that he feels the team has “improved in many areas compared to last season”. 

Haas

Photo credit: Motorsport Images

The forecast had not been bright for Haas in 2021. It is now represented by two new drivers with little experience, and the team has developed its car the least of any team over the winter break. Haas have also confirmed that it won’t be developing the car through the season, instead focusing resources for the 2022 regulations. However, this year’s VF21 looked consistent over the 402 testing laps, but there is no doubt it will be making up the rear of the pack.

McLaren 

Photo credit – @MclarenF1 

After a promising season in which it grabbed 3rd place in the constructor’s championship. McLaren have made considerable changes to its 2021 car, most notably replacing its Renault power unit with the one from Mercedes. Their optimism will be bolstered by the introduction of 7 time race winner Daniel Ricciardo, who looked successful in getting to grips with the new car during testing. His partner in crime Lando Norris is one of the new generation of superstars, who will be hoping to follow up on some excellent albeit inconsistent performances in 2020 and will be keen to prove himself against his more experienced and decorated teammate. 

Mercedes

Having swept the last 7 constructor’s championships and convinced the freshly-knighted Sir Lewis Hamilton to put pen to paper on a bumper new contract, there was a collective sigh within the fan community with the belief that Mercedes would be nothing but dominant in 2021. However, Bahrain proved anything but perfect for the team, with multiple spins for both drivers, with Valtteri Bottas admitting that the new W12 car was “snappy and unforgiving”. Mercedes have been accused of sandbagging in the past, whether this season will be more of the same will be evident at the first race of the season.

Red Bull

This could be the year that Max Verstappen wins his first driver championship. The Dutch starlet stated that pre-season has been “definitely the best ” of his career, and Red Bull looks to be well stocked and ready to attack the 2021 season on the front foot. However, team principal Christian Horner said that he still feels Mercedes are out and out favourites, whether Red bull will be able to challenge the Mercedes dynasty will remain to be seen. This could be a season with real competition for the top spot – a rare sight in recent years.

Williams

After finishing the 2020 season bottom of the standings with 0 points, Williams have a number of reasons to feel optimistic for 2021. Russell is ever-growing and improving day by day, while Nicholas Latifi has proved to be a solid second option. Furthermore, Williams plans to develop its car throughout the season. Haas, in comparison, will not. Many are expecting Williams to make steps in the right direction for 2021, but points finishes will be the ultimate proof of their progress.  

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