Bahrain Grand Prix – the fast approaching third race of the 2017 Formula One season, may very well be the true test for Scuderia Ferrari and the Italian team’s real title chances this year.
Given the fact that Sebastian Vettel and his main rival, Lewis Hamilton, are currently equal on points in the Formula 1 Driver Standings, while Mercedes and Scuderia Ferrari are separated by only one point ahead of the 2017 Bahrain Grand Prix, the race scheduled to take place at the Bahrain International Circuit could provide a clear image as to how strong the Maranello side can actually challenge for the 2017 F1 title.
The first two rounds of the championship have shown that the two biggest names in modern day Formula One are evenly matched in qualifying trim, as the battle for pole position was decided by some 2-3 tenths each time. A very different situation from recent years, when Mercedes had the luxury of turning down the engine before the last part of qualifying, having a comfortable advantage over anyone else on the track. While details are missing surrounding Mercedes’ power unit capabilities and how much is currently being used, after hitting reliability concerns during the two Formula One pre-season testing sessions which took place in Barcelona, the present situation proves that Scuderia Ferrari are capable to challenge the dominant team of the last three years.
Yet the first two races can be considered partially misleading. For example, Sebastian Vettel ran close to Lewis Hamilton during the early stages of the Grand Prix in Melbourne, before a bad strategy call from Mercedes put Hamilton behind Max Verstappen and gave Sebastian the opportunity to build a solid gap in front. It was a similar situation at the Shanghai International Circuit, but unfortunately this time Ferrari got the short end of the stick, as the wet track at the start of the race caused many problems in 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 Sebastian Vettel down the order, giving his rival the chance to easily win the race, although the German driver managed to recover up to second place.
And now the Bahrain Grand Prix in Sakhir seems to provide the ideal opportunity to find a direct comparison of the two teams’ true race pace. 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 not be complicated. The race on Sunday should also make the Maranello team’s engine performance for the 2017 Formula One season a lot more visible, thanks to the four high speed stretches that make this circuit a ‘power track’. The difference between performance in qualifying and race may also be another attractive point for the public, as the full power use and the tyre degradation level could play a major part in the outcome on Sunday.
Sebastian Vettel’s teammate, Kimi Raikkonen, spent much of the race in China complaining about a lack of front end feel, but this should not be such a huge issue at the next race, as the Bahrain track 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 very important in order to get the best lap time.
Scuderia Ferrari have already proven that that the SF70H car is much more competitive after a dismal 2016, but a clear indication on their relative pace to the current world champions should be more visible at the Bahrain Grand Prix.