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Weekend Preview - Bahrain Grand Prix

It's been nearly 100 days since we last saw Formula One cars race competitively and boy are we excited to begin the new season! Will Max Verstappen and Lewis Hamilton begin their next title fight with fireworks, or will a new challenger enter the frame? All will be revealed this Sunday in Bahrain!

Written by Aiden Hover, Edited by Harshi Vashee

The Bahrain Grand Prix takes place around the floodlit 5.4km Bahrain International Circuit. Having hosted a Grand Prix every year since 2004 (excluding 2011), the race transitioned into a nighttime affair from 2014 – a welcome change as the cooler conditions, along with the stunning visuals, ensure that every visit to Bahrain is one to remember. Fans still recall the chills felt during the 2014 ‘Duel in the desert’ between Mercedes teammates, Nico Rosberg and Lewis Hamilton, and who can forget Fernando Alonso’s Ferrari masterclass in 2010 or, in the opposite vein, Charles Leclerc’s Ferrari heartbreak in 2019 after securing his first career pole position. In 2020, there was yet more drama as Romain Grosjean collided with the wall on lap one leading to a terrifying fire inferno, which the Frenchman was fortunate enough to walk away from relatively unharmed.

Last year, Bahrain played host to the first round of fireworks in what would develop into one of the most enthralling championship battles in recent memory between Max Verstappen and Lewis Hamilton. Hamilton eventually won the race following an intensely fought wheel to wheel battle with the added spice of track limits controversy in a way that beautifully set the tone for the rest of the year.

This year's race will be sure to add to Bahrain’s impressive Formula One history as well as usher in a new generation of Formula One race cars. Gone are the days of peak aerodynamic performance and intricate carbon fibre bodywork as the FIA has worked tirelessly to introduce a more action-friendly, simpler formula.

On the back of testing, it looks as though Ferrari and RedBull have been the most successful at understanding the new ground effect cars whilst the likes of Haas also seem to have made amazing strides from their 2021 woes. However, all testing times need to be taken with a pinch of salt - especially with current world champions Mercedes claiming they aren't expecting to be fighting for race wins, despite their impressive ‘hidepod’ design.

Aside from the new cars, Bahrain will see the debut of George Russell alongside Lewis Hamilton as a full-time driver for Mercedes. Russell will be keen to begin this new chapter of his career on a high and assert himself alongside Hamilton. He will also be eager to bid his revenge for the heartbreak he suffered at the 2020 Sakhir Grand Prix at the same venue in which a debut win was cruelly snatched away due to a late-race strategy blunder and then again by an unfortunate puncture in his first and only race in the black overalls before this weekend.

The driver Russell replaced at Mercedes, Valtteri Bottas, will make his exciting debut this weekend for Alfa Romeo. Bottas never truly got his time in the spotlight at Mercedes despite the raw speed we all know he has. Hopefully, as team leader, alongside rookie Guanyu Zhou, Bottas can come into his own and forge a new chapter in his career. Speaking of Zhou, the Chinese driver impressed many throughout his tenure in Formula Two and will be eagerly wanting to prove his skill behind a Formula One car.

Alex Albon makes his Formula One return this weekend following his RedBull sacking in 2020. Joining the resurgent Williams team replacing Russell alongside Nicholas Latifi, Albon needs to impress quickly or else he risks blowing a second chance that not many get. Having rocketed from Toro-Rosso to Redbull in 2019, Albon never truly found his footing at the Milton Keynes based team, however, he already seems much happier and more confident at Williams and will be hoping to perform well in Bahrain.

The final team to shake up their driver lineup from last year has had to do so under unexpected circumstances. The Haas Formula One team have had everything thrown at them in the last few weeks. The ongoing situation in Ukraine has meant that the team has dropped UralKali as their title sponsor and with it has terminated Nikita Mazepin's contract. With the team suddenly becoming driverless between the two tests, an endless list of names were thrown into the ring to replace the Russian driver. Whilst the likes of Nico Hulkenberg and Antionio Giovinazzi were all promising candidates, the most likely option looked to be Brazilian Pietro Fittipaldi as he already was well integrated into the team with his role as reserve driver and was already booked to take over from Mazepin’s testing duties. Shockingly, Kevin Magnussen was announced on a multi-year contract. As surprised as the entire Formula One community was, the decision makes perfect sense. Having previous experience with both the team and Formula One will be integral to Haas’ progress as well as the development of Mick Schumacher. Most excitingly, however, the Dane seems reinvigorated to succeed in Formula One and has brought with him a new sense of hope to the American F1 team giving them a much-needed morale boost.

With all the changes out of the way, it's time to take a look at the expected main headlines. Following their titanic championship rivalry last year, Max Verstappen needs to begin his championship defence well against Lewis Hamilton. Leading Red Bull into the new generation as World Champion will be a lot of pressure, and whilst Verstappen has proven time and time again that he can handle the pressure, a competent defence will silence many of his naysayers.

This task will not be easy however as Lewis Hamilton will be raring to achieve his eighth world title and will have a new fire burning inside of him as he becomes the chaser, a role he seems to love and that we haven't seen since too much of, since his championship defeat to Nico Rosberg in 2016. A reinvigorated hungry Hamilton will be near impossible to subside, however, Verstappen is deservedly confident in his abilities to fend him off.

Nevertheless, the championship fight may not simply be between Hamilton and Verstappen as Ferrari seem in great form after testing. Charles Leclerc is burning to enjoy his first opportunity to fight for the championship as is Spaniard Carlos Sainz, although Ferrari may have an issue on their hands helped in no part by their current equal driver policy. If Ferrari can keep a handle on the infighting, the boys in red will almost certainly be an important factor in this year's championship.

Further down the grid, McLaren seems to be less confident in their performance heading into Bahrain. A tricky few days of testing were not helped by an absent Daniel Ricciardo and with only a few days to turn things around, McLaren look to be heading into a difficult season opener. Despite this, the pace is definitely there in the car, but the question of how it stacks against the other big three teams is still to be left unanswered. In a similar vein, Alpine look to be in trouble heading into Bahrain following a pre-season test littered with unreliability and unpredictable performance. Moreover, Alpha Tauri and Aston Martin both went relatively unnoticed in testing besides Pierre Gasly topping the timesheets briefly in Barcelona further adding to the endless questions created by these new generation Formula One cars.

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