Monday 10 April 2017

Sakhir Preview: Ferrari the favourite?

Typical Tilke. It is a phrase that for better and worse has entered the modern F1 vocabulary, reflecting that over recent decades the architect Hermann of that ilk has been responsible almost exclusively for the sport's new and new-fangled circuits. And the Bahrain track that we visit this weekend embodies the phrase more than most.

Bahrain's Sakhir circuit is one of F1's
archetypal modern venues
By Dave Jefferys -
26252296810/in/album-72157664943710804/, CC BY-SA
Sakhir is indeed typical Tilke. Built from nothing on an open vast expanse (in this case, desert). All clean lines and gleaming architecture. And comes with a sense that every one of Bernie's numerous and haughty demands have been met.

Yet it has some of the typical Tilke flipside too. As with so many of these new circuits it represented a large geographical stride into a new world. Some agonise over the extent that F1's been turning its back on its core support, as well as over the motivations of its newer hosts. The Crown Prince of Bahrain has been known to justify the event more in terms of 'national branding' than sport. While as we know this particular round has had controversy attached for more weighty reasons still.

It is typical Tilke in its layout too. Long straights book-ended by tight corners designed to promote overtaking, with a dash of quicker stuff elsewhere. This track is a little bigger on the former at the expense of the latter compared with some of Tilke's other efforts however; its triangular layout somewhat like a flattened-out Red Bull Ring. However also like the Red Bull Ring it also often produces entertaining races with no shortage of wheel-to-wheel action.

And we have a few more reasons even than usual to anticipate this particular visit. Not least in that, in something that still carries much novelty, Mercedes has a real fight on its hands. Its new foe Ferrari could even be said to be entering this weekend as favourite to prevail.

Is Sebastian Vettel and Ferrari the favourite to win?
By Dave Jefferys -
25896651043/in/album-72157664943710804/, CC BY-SA
The Chinese Grand Prix weekend was madcap but it confirmed that the Italian revival is the real thing; its Melbourne success no one-off related to Albert Park's many peculiarities. Before the Shanghai visit was out Merc boss Toto Wolff admitted that his team is not yet running at its potential. Ferrari in Sebastian Vettel's hands - at a track supposed to be one of Merc's and Lewis Hamilton's strongest - was at least as quick as the silver car in race trim. Maybe quicker.

It gets better for the Scuderia this time too. The point and squirt Sakhir track will suit cars nailed at the rear which this year's Ferrari very much is. It has been claimed that the Ferrari power unit doesn't give much away to the Mercedes these days; maybe even is better, so the lengthy straights at Sakhir shouldn't concern the squad. Adding icing to the cake, it's thought that the temperature getting up aids the Ferrari relative to the Merc, particularly when it comes to tyre handling. And we'll be in the clammy desert this weekend; clammy even with its now evening start time.

The track surface here is particularly abrasive which also should aid Ferrari and its tyre life, and we can recall indeed how the Lotus cars of James Allison - thought responsible for the genesis of the current red machine - used to always show up well here.

Yet it is worth reflecting that in both of the last two Bahrain visits Ferrari arrived then too with a lot of attendant hope of trouncing Merc for once, but in either Merc took the pole and win, and with reasonable comfort. It has been a place where Merc likes to reassert its potency.

Mercedes has bounced back in the last two Bahrain visits
By Dave Jefferys -
6499216636/in/album-72157664943710804/, CC BY-SA
While another thing we can take from the opening two rounds is that Mercedes stands a good chance of getting pole at least, and Valtteri Bottas is getting closer to locking out the whole front row for Merc, which would do a lot to increase its race options. Bottas could do with making himself useful to the Merc team, given murmurs have started already of vultures circling him. Tough game.

Similar goes though for the other Ferrari piloted by Kimi Raikkonen. At least he has a good record here and finished second in four of his last five Bahrain races.

Further back, Williams will be worth watching, It looks on raw pace at least clear of the crowded midfield bunch (if not quite with Red Bull), it should fly down Bahrain's straights plus Felipe Massa has in the past gone well at this track. Force India is another with a good record here (for loosely the same reasons as Williams) and Sergio Perez bagged a podium in Bahrain in 2014; Paul di Resta nearly got one the year before.

Williams though will need to make good on its pace, something it didn't do relative to Force India in China and the team also tended to falter in this side of things last season.

Haas also went well in Bahrain last year - Romain Grosjean started ninth and finished fifth.

Race strategy has an air of mystery. In Australia of course the tyres ran all day but in China although rain confused matters the race indicated the Pirellis weren't hanging on inevitably as they did in Melbourne. That Bahrain is tough on the tyres as outlined may make two stops the order of the day. This helps Ferrari too, as it'll give two strategy opportunities in the race to usurp Merc. China's race showed that overtaking isn't nearly as far off the agenda as we had thought. The Sakhir circuit as intimated is good for overtaking too.

As outlined, there are plenty of reasons this weekend to think the ball will land on red.

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