F1’s pre-season testing in Bahrain posed more questions than it answered. Are Mercedes really in trouble? Are Red Bull capable of a sustained title challenge? Are Aston Martin, McLaren or even Alpha Tauri going to be podium challengers this season?
The pecking order after testing, when only teams know what fuel loads and engine settings they were running, can often be hard to assess, but there will be no hiding place when the cars pull out of the garages for qualifying and the race in Sakhir this weekend.
There has been enough evidence from Red Bull to make Max Verstappen favourite to win the season-opener on Sunday, with Lewis Hamilton just behind him.
Hamilton Has Won Last Two Runnings
Like Spielberg and Silverstone, Sakhir hosted two rounds of the 2020 world championship, although unlike those other tracks, two different layouts were used for the Bahrain double bill.
The Bahrain Grand Prix, in which Romain Grosjean had his terrifying fiery crash, took place on the same course that will be used this week, while the second race, the Sakhir Grand Prix, was held around the perimeter track.
The first event, therefore, offers a better form guide, and Hamilton won that from pole, with Verstappen second. McLaren were fourth and fifth while Sergio Perez had been on course for a podium finish for Racing Point before a late breakdown. Hamilton also won this event in 2019.
Perez and Ricciardo Have Each-Way Hopes
With three each-way places on offer, two drivers who could be worthy of support are Sergio Perez and Daniel Ricciardo.
Even if Mercedes have put their technical troubles behind them, Perez looks capable of holding off Valtteri Bottas in the second Merc to score a podium finish on his debut for Red Bull.
The Mexican has fond memories of the circuit after winning the Sakhir Grand Prix there last season, and he also scored the second podium finish of his career at the track for Force India in 2014.
He’s a talented driver and will be out to show that in his first outing in what looks to be a potential race-winning car.
Ricciardo is also keen to impress after switching to McLaren this year and the British team showed plenty of speed in the test, when the Australian set the fastest time of the morning session on the first two days.
The team have been boosted by the arrival of Mercedes engines this season and their innovative diffuser design could be giving them a helping hand too.
New Faces on the Grid
Four new drivers will line up for the first race of the season, from opposite ends of the experience spectrum. Two-time world champion Fernando Alonso returns with the Alpine team after last racing in F1 for McLaren in 2018.
The Spaniard has 311 races under his belt but three rookies are making their bows, with Yuki Tsunoda at Alpha Tauri, while Haas are fielding an all-rookie line-up in Mick Schumacher and Nikita Mazepin.
Tsunoda may have the best chance of a points finish of any of them after Alpha Tauri’s impressive testing times.