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Ben Edwards column: Bahrain

Is F1 braced for another duel in the desert?
By Ben Edwards
C4F1 commentator

1. Is this a Mercedes track or a Ferrari track? 

The Mercedes car is slightly longer than the Ferrari which gives it greater stability in the high speed corners but the Ferrari's advantage is in having a quick change of direction. That asset will be valuable here in Bahrain where there are four hairpin style corners in the first half a lap. In contrast to China, the layout puts the emphasis on looking after the rear tyres as opposed to the front, and the track temperatures will also be higher which could favour the Italian team, but the wider 2017 tyres are still holding some secrets when it comes to getting the most out of them. In terms of the statistics, Ferrari have one more win, Mercedes have one more pole position, as well as the recent run of form having won every race here since 2013. 

2. A Vettel venue or a Hamilton homeland? 

Lewis Hamilton has won twice here and was on pole last year only for it to go wrong when he had contact with the Williams of Valtteri Bottas at the first turn allowing Nico Rosberg to disappear up the road. In 2014 the two Mercedes team mates had one of the best wheel-to-wheel dices we've seen with the current generation cars, and Hamilton came out on top. But he has been out-qualified here by Rosberg in the past and was out of luck with some slow pitstops in 2012 when driving for McLaren. 

Sebastian Vettel won that particular race from pole position for Red Bull and went on to win the following year under pressure from Kimi Raikkonen's Lotus. Seb was in position to win the 2010 race on a longer version of the track until a spark plug failure caused him to drop back. Fernando Alonso inherited the win, and that was the last time a Ferrari took victory here. 

3. Will the partners deliver? 

Raikkonen and Bottas have so far been upstaged by their team-mates this season, but the opportunity to fight back is definitely available. Raikkonen has never won here but has a tremendous record of podiums and has finished second in four of the last five races in Bahrain. Bottas goes into his fifth grand prix on the Sakhir circuit and has yet to be out-qualified by a teammate. Both could do with a strong weekend.

4. Can Red Bull spring another surprise? 

Third and fourth in China was a superb result for Red Bull, and they almost matched Ferrari's points haul from the event. It was a reminder that the team can never be discounted even when apparently on the back foot, as well as another example of Max Verstappen's formidable ability in the wet and Daniel Ricciardo's maturity in managing a full grand prix distance. There's still work to be done by the team on making the package more competitive, but give these guys a sniff of a chance and they will capitalise. 

5. Does the timetable of racing into the evening work? 

This will be the fourth time that the racing has started at sunset and taken us into darkness and it has proved a positive step to delay the action to the end of the day. The circuit looks good under lights, track temperatures are a little bit cooler, which helps improve tyre performance, and the crowd gets some great evening entertainment. The downside is that the third practice session on Saturday which normally builds into a fascinating insight to qualifying is in fact less relevant here because of the change in track temperatures. But races with more flexible start times could be more common in the future as Liberty Media aims to create a spectacle out of each event. 

6. How will Pascal Wehrlein fare? 

The promising rookie from last year with Manor is back at Sauber having vacated the seat in Australia and China. Hopefully recovered from injury and ready to go, this will be his opportunity to put all the gossip and chatter behind him and prove that he has what it takes to move up to a top team in the future. To do that, he needs to eclipse teammate Marcus Ericsson, but the Swede will be no pushover being firmly settled in the team and having had experience of two races under these revised technical regulations already. Expect some intense rivalry here. 

7. What about Alonso? 

I was going to talk about Fernando Alonso's work to promote his abilities in the first two GPs of the year, but the news of his going to race in the Indy 500 has upped the level of Alonso promotion to an entirely stratospheric level. I admire his guts; taking on such a challenge should not be underestimated, yet he is prepared to put his reputation on the line and jump in at the deep end. It is a huge story, and he will relish the fact that it keeps him in the headlines as teams begin to think about their driver line up for 2018 and beyond. Mind you, if McLaren can offer him IndyCar and potentially Le Mans in the future, perhaps he'll stay exactly where he is... 

8. Any others to keep an eye on? 

Keep an eye on Renault this weekend. This has been a pretty good track for the Enstone team when they have had a competitive car, and although there is still work to be done, this could see them score their first points of the year. Double podiums in 2012 and 2013 with Kimi and Romain Grosjean under the Lotus banner testify to a good relationship with the track, and Alonso was twice a winner with the team as Renault in the mid Noughties. 

9. Who's on a roll? 

The chances of rain here in Bahrain are somewhat lower than they were in China, but Carlos Sainz will still be buzzing after that decision to go for slick tyres at the start of the race proved to be a good one. As he told Lee McKenzie on our C4 coverage, when he saw that every other driver on the grid had decided on intermediates, there was a moment when he wondered if he'd made a big mistake. But despite a poor start as he struggled for traction, and a later spin when everyone was struggling with cold tyres, he can be proud of having taken a gamble that worked, and for proving it to a doubtful team. That ability to think clearly and successfully under pressure is what all the top teams want from their drivers. 

10. What's in store? 

The term ‘Duel in the Desert’ was coined for the first championship showdown between Hamilton and Rosberg at the end of 2014 in Abu Dhabi, and yet the best duel we ever saw between them on track was the one here in the same year. Looking at the parity in performance of the Mercedes and Ferrari in China when they were lapping at virtually identical times and yet separated by a frustrating eight seconds, perhaps we can look forward to a new duel, one between differently coloured cars and between the two drivers who share the championship lead. That's what I'm hoping for. 

The Bahrain Grand Prix is LIVE on Channel 4 from 2:50pm on Sunday 16th April. Qualifying at 2:55pm on Saturday

Read more from Ben on his blog.

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