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Desert Duel: Why Bahrain will be the real test of a championship challenge for Ferrari

Bahrain Grand Prix – The third round of the 2017 championship is set to be the real test for Ferrari and their title challenge.

With Lewis Hamilton and Sebastian Vettel on equal points in the drivers’ championship, and Mercedes and Ferrari separated by a single point in the constructors’, Bahrain is due to offer a proper representation as to how strong Ferrari can challenge for the 2017 title.

The first two races have proven that the two biggest names in modern day Formula One are closely matched in qualifying trim, with the battle for pole being decided by some 2-3 tenths. Gone are the days that Q2 would be the cue for Mercedes to turn their engine up to 11 and show their half-to-one-second advantage.

While details are missing surrounding Mercedes’ power unit capabilities and how much is currently being utilised, after hitting reliability concerns during pre-season testing in Barcelona, the current form shows Ferrari have raw speed to challenge the dominant team of the last three years.

However, the races have been misleading in some cases. Vettel ran close to Hamilton for the opening stint in Australia before an incorrect strategy call put Hamilton on the back foot and gave Ferrari victory, denying them a true head-to-head.

It was a similar scenario in China, as the weather at the start of the race caused dramas in the midfield that meant racing action only lasted a single lap before a rush to the pits to change to slick tyres which, on this occasion, dropped Vettel down the order, allowing Hamilton to cruise to victory while the German recovered.

The Bahrain Grand Prix in Sakhir would appear to be the best opportunity to find a direct comparison of the two teams’ race performance. Rain is highly unlikely around the desert circuit and, with one-stop races looking to be the norm until teams are allowed to select their own compounds in Spain, tyre strategy should be simplified, barring any Australia-like errors that Hamilton suffered.

It will also make Ferrari’s new engine performance visible; with four high speed stretches this track is considered a ‘power circuit’. Performance from qualifying to the race will also be one thing to look out for, especially if Mercedes are unable to use full power to defend amid reliability concerns.

Kimi Raikkonen spent much of the race in China complaining about a lack of front end feel, which will be less of an issue in Bahrain as it is more of a traditional rear-limited circuit, where braking performance and traction, the same elements that Ferrari are believed to be on par to Mercedes on, are key to a good lap time.

In a straight fight, therefore, the barometer for Ferrari will be set this weekend. The Scuderia have already demonstrated that they are a much improved team after a dismal 2016, but a clear indication on their relative pace to the current world champions is yet to be succinctly seen.

About Chris Stevens

Chris is one of the graduates of a new blogging era of journalism. Moving from that to fully blown websites, covering Formula One and Formula E, has seen him become an FIA accredited journalist. He also podcasts with various websites and recently was accepted onto the Autosport junior programme.

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  • Gaetano Colosi

    Really !? You have it the wrong way around. It is Merc wondering whether they can keep up with Ferrari this season.
    Merc still have (and use) the ‘turn up to 11’ Q3 mode. That is how Lewis has manged pole both times.
    In the races, at Melbourne Seb was clearly quicker and at Shanghai the ultimate race pace near the end was identical even though Seb had older tyres and used took a lot of life out of them following and passing others.

    • McSerb

      I think the author of the article knows what he is talking about. Mercedes are not running at close to full power in the races because of reliability concerns over a race distance. They can use full power safely only for a single lap right now and that would be qualifying and, possibly, the race start. Then they have to reduce the power by more than Ferrari does. They are working on the issue and it will probably be solved in a couple of months but until then Ferrari are a bit stronger in the long runs. Tyre management might even be the bigger advantage Ferrari have right now, at least with the softer compounds. Mercedes had to take off their suspension system before this season and the greatest impact seems to be on tyre preservation, not performance. Vettel caught Hamilton in Australia on the softer tyre in the first stint but later on the harder compound they were about even. All things considered, when Mercedes solve these two problems they will obviously be the quicker team, so Ferrari needs to win the development race. It is definitely Ferrari who need to wonder whether they can keep up with Mercedes (right now they are doing a great job), not the other way around.