With a win each, Mercedes and Ferrari will take their fight to the desert setting of Bahrain in the next round of the Formula 1 season.

The opening races have seen a pleasant return of genuinely competitive racing between – and not just within – teams. In a fluctuating contest, Ferrari drew the early honours with Vettel’s win in Australia but Hamilton bounced back to claim victory in China.

2017 Bahrain Grand Prix, Thursday - Steve Etherington

It’s now the little things that give the edge to either team – something not lost on Mercedes team boss Toto Wolff who said after Hamilton’s victory: “Two races into the season and now it is 1:1 between Mercedes and Ferrari. And after racing on a very different circuit, in very different conditions, it’s clear that we are very closely matched – and that small margins will make the difference.”

Exciting Backdrop For Crucial Race

A win for Mercedes or Ferrari in Bahrain could give either crucial momentum heading into a series of European races.

The 5.412km purpose-built Sakhir circuit is set in Bahrain’s desert to the south of Manama. Its unique location combined with its twilight start time provides some serious challenges for the drivers.

Race Track

Bahrain International Circuit

The first and third sectors comprise 3 straights and two DRS sections, while the second sector offers some more technical corners. It also has the highest degree of asphalt roughness in all of the season’s races meaning that the tyres are expected to degrade quicker than normal even with Pirelli’s more durable 2017 compounds.

But it is the circuit’s exposure to the elements that makes things especially tricky.

The strong winds play havoc for engineers trying to find the right balance and all the while sand is pushed over the track surface making it dusty and slippery – especially during the early practice sessions. As the weekend progresses and rubber is laid down the circuit tends to evolve and get a little quicker.

Ferrari Vettle 900x600

Juggling the necessary downforce to navigate the 15 corners with torque to accelerate down the four long straights while withstanding the cross winds, poor grip and high surface roughness creates a headache for the team engineers.

Pirelli’s Mario Isola points to traction as the most important consideration at Bahrain.

“The biggest gains at Sakhir are all to be found in traction: it is quite a stop-start circuit, so getting the power down properly and keeping the rear tyres in good condition is very important.”

“Last year we found quite a high degree of wear and degradation, so it will be interesting to see how this has changed with the introduction of our 2017-specification tyres.”

“The second free practice session will be particularly important, as it is the only one held in representative conditions of qualifying and the race.”

All of this makes for an enticing contest. Mercedes have previously benefited from their superior power unit along the straights but Ferrari has shown that they can at least match the silver arrows on pace this year. The usual hot weather in Bahrain will favour Ferrari and this could well give them the edge.

…And The Less lucky

McLaren have had a dreadful start to the season completing just one finish out of a possible four.

At the last outing in China, Alonso showed his experience to have his car running in eighth before being forced to retire with a driveshaft problem on Lap 31. Vandoorne also ended early after running most of the race in 15th place.

But the power-hungry Bahrain circuit with four straights will not be encouraging for the McLaren team.

“I think our pace was actually quite promising [in China], just lacking the straight-line speed – it’s impossible to overtake,” Vandoorne explained.

Formula One World Championship

“I felt very competitive in the corners, compared to the cars I was racing against, but on the straights we, unfortunately, cannot do anything against the others, so it’s tough for us out there to overtake anyone.”

The nature of the Bahrain circuit could also play into the hands of Williams, Force India and Haas – all running on Ferrari or Mercedes engines – providing them with a solid opportunity to challenge Red Bull.

The race will start at 18:00 local time and will run over 57 laps.