If you haven’t bought into the hype surrounding the 2021 Formula One season already, now might be the time.
On the eve of the first qualifying session of the year in Bahrain, Red Bull has emerged as a genuine threat to Mercedes and Max Verstappen appears to be the favourite for victory.
That’s not to say it’s a done deal. If anything Mercedes has closed the gap that appeared to divide the two teams in preseason testing, but on the basis of Friday’s opening practice sessions, seven-time world champion Lewis Hamilton is on the back foot.
What’s more, an equally close battle is brewing behind the top two teams, with McLaren and Ferrari leading an ultra-competitive midfield pack that is closer to the front of the grid than it has been for years.
Looking closer at the lap times there are a few key factors that will determine the outcome of the Bahrain Grand Prix, and for the first time in a long time, it is too close to call.
Single lap pace
Four teams were split by just 0.28s in Friday evening’s practice session, with Ferrari’s Carlos Sainz and McLaren’s Lando Norris setting times that rivalled Hamilton in the Mercedes and Verstappen in the Red Bull.
Verstappen was fastest of all, 0.095s clear of Norris, with Hamilton in third and 0.235s off the pace of the lead Red Bull.
The gaps are small enough that they could be accounted for, or even reversed, by differing fuel loads and engine settings, and it’s safe to assume Norris will drop out of the battle for pole position in qualifying on Saturday evening.
Norris admitted his team showed more of its pace than its rivals during the practice sessions, and speed traces from the fastest laps tend to back that up by confirming he was gaining an advantage at the end of each straight. That indicates McLaren was running a higher engine mode for its fast laps, while Mercedes and Red Bull were holding something in reserve.
Removing Norris from the equation, the difference between Hamilton and Verstappen was also clear in the data. On the entry to Turn 13, Hamilton lost roughly a tenth of a second to Verstappen, which was extended through the corner and onto the following straight.
Whether the loss of speed was down to a mistake on Hamilton’s part or a deficit in car performance was harder to tell, but it will be a key focus for Mercedes ahead of qualifying.
To underline just how close the two drivers could be on Saturday night, if you add up Hamilton’s three fastest sectors across the session (rather than the three he tied together on his fastest lap) his time would have been just 0.033s off Verstappen.
But that fact also tells its own story.
While Mercedes has made progress with its car since testing, it’s clearly still difficult to drive.
Both drivers struggled for rear grip and onboard footage showed Hamilton making more corrections behind the wheel than Verstappen.
When it comes to nailing a qualifying lap, Hamilton’s task in the Mercedes appears to be a lot more challenging than Verstappen’s in the Red Bull, and he will have to dig deeper in his reserves of natural talent to achieve the perfect lap.
Underlining just how narrow the margin for error is, the two teammates of Hamilton and Verstappen, Valtteri Bottas at Mercedes and Sergio Perez at Red Bull, finished the session fifth and tenth respectively. Both drivers had a better lap in them, but performing when it mattered was the difference.
The struggle of Perez and Bottas also highlighted how much the midfield pack has closed in on Mercedes and Red Bull over the winter.
Norris’ lap came loaded with the caveats mentioned above, but was still in the right ballpark, while Sainz was just 0.045s off Hamilton’s best effort.
Both Sainz and Norris held a healthy margin over their respective teammates, but it would be a real surprise to see them stick with Red Bull and Mercedes when the fuel comes out in qualifying.
Instead, Ferrari and McLaren look set to head up a close midfield battle that promises to include AlphaTauri, Aston Martin, Alpine and even Alfa Romeo, with all six teams within a second of each other.
Once again, confidence in the car will likely be a key factor in where each driver lines up on the grid and that could all change over the weekend when windier conditions are expected.
In the final 30 minutes of Friday practice, all ten teams switched their attention to preparation for the race.
That meant fuel tanks were topped up, used tyres (for the most part the medium compound) were fitted to the car and the drivers attempted to get a feel for how the car behaved in race conditions.
Averaging out the lap times from those heavy-fuel runs offers a glimpse at the potential race performance of each car and, once again, saw Red Bull and Mercedes emerge at the top, with Hamilton, on average, 0.04s per lap slower than Verstappen.
Such small margins are impossible to read into without knowing fuel loads and engine settings, but Hamilton’s efforts underline the progress Mercedes has made since testing.
However, it’s important to note that Verstappen’s heavy-fuel run was 12 laps long while Hamilton’s was just eight laps.
Digging deeper into the times, tyre degradation clearly knocked the edge off Verstappen’s pace in the final few laps of his run and upped his average. If you were to cap his data at eight laps to match Hamilton, he had a significantly larger average lap time advantage of 0.32s.
Therefore, as was the case on one-lap pace, Red Bull appears to hold the edge, although so much will depend on what the drivers can get out of the tyres on race day.
That will be a concern for Bottas, who reported that his Mercedes was undriveable during his long run and returned to the pits with an average lap time nearly a second off teammate Hamilton. Once again, it can be attributed to the loose rear of the Mercedes, which is likely to be more exposed in Bahrain that other circuits because the track is particularly tough on rear tyre wear.
What’s more, a number of drivers reported that Pirelli’s latest tyre construction can be quite unforgiving if they are mistreated on a race run.
Bottas’ tyre troubles put him in similar territory to the two McLarens and Sainz’s Ferrari, who all managed to record long runs with an average lap time roughly a second off Verstappen and Hamilton.
Sainz’s effort was particularly impressive for its metronomic consistency as he managed to keep all his laps in the 1:38s rather than fluctuating from 1:37s to 1:39s over the course of a ten lap run like most others.
Nevertheless, the gap in performance to Red Bull and Mercedes acts as further proof that that the impressive single-lap pace Norris and Sainz showed earlier in the session was a bit of a red herring.
AlphaTauri also appears to have the pace to latch onto the McLaren/Ferrari battle in race trim, although that assessment could also apply to Aston Martin and Alpine, which both showed flashes of pace and may be holding something back.
The closely matched field promises to produce a fascinating Bahrain Grand Prix, with the onus on the drivers to make the difference.