Reigning Formula 1 World Champion Lewis Hamilton kicks off his bid for a record eighth Formula 1 title in Bahrain on Sunday but Red Bull rival Max Verstappen can strike an early blow under the floodlights of the Sakhir circuit.
Last year the Dutchman trounced Mercedes, also under lights, at the 2020 season finale in Abu Dhabi. This year they emerged from testing as the on-form big team, thus setting the stage for a battle between The King versus The Heir apparent.
That ended six years of Mercedes serial-success at Yas Marina and much of the same will be on the agenda for the Blues and their ace driver.
“Now I have to deliver and the team have to deliver so we can try and mount a title fight,” said the 23-year-old. “I like the Bahrain track and it will be exciting to see our performance. It’s time to see who has got what.”
Verstappen was quickest on two of three days of testing at Bahrain’s Sakhir circuit while Mercedes looked strangely off-form.
“I don’t think we are the favourites,” insisted the 23-year-old, pointing to the fact that Mercedes have won the last seven drivers’ and constructors’ titles with 36-year-old Hamilton going for a record eighth F1 crown.
“I think it’s still the same as before we came to the test. In terms of speed, we want to wait until Q3 of the first Grand Prix. There you will see the real speed of all the cars,” added the Red Bull driver.
While he and his team bosses are adamant that Mercedes remain the favourites, Mercedes say their rivals are now ahead on performance.
Mercedes team boss Toto Wolff said: “The W12 wasn’t as stable, predictable or planted as some of our rivals. Red Bull looked strong on both the long and the short runs.
But as always with testing, it’s difficult to be certain of true performance, “The only thing we know for sure is that we must prove our ability to react.”
Bahrain will give some early indications of any change in the pecking order, with Mercedes winning five of the last seven races there on the regular grand prix circuit and Hamilton the last two.
Verstappen’s new Mexican team Sergio Perez won the most recent race at Sakhir, however, on the outer layout used for the first time in December – meaning Red Bull’s latest lineup have won the last two races.
The last time Mercedes lost three races in a row was in 2019, when Ferrari were their closest rivals.
Hamilton’s teammate Valtteri Bottas has won the last two season-openers, in Australia and Austria, and will be eager for a hat-trick. This year’s Australia race has been postponed to November because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Mercedes are one of only three teams with an unchanged line-up — the others are Williams and Alfa Romeo — and Sunday will see a string of firsts.
The Schumacher name, and the screen abbreviation MSC, will be back for the first time since Ferrari great Michael’s farewell in 2012 as his 22-year-old son Mick debuts for Haas.
Russian rookie Nikita Mazepin also lines up for Haas while Japan’s Yuki Tsunoda makes his first race appearance for Red Bull-owned AlphaTauri.
Four-times world champion Sebastian Vettel will be racing for Aston Martin, making a return as a constructor for the first time since 1960 as the rebranded Racing Point, after leaving Ferrari.
Australian Daniel Ricciardo has switched from Renault to McLaren in place of Spaniard Carlos Sainz who has joined Ferrari as Charles Leclerc’s teammate.
“This season looks like it´s going to be a competitive one, but I´m looking to hit the ground running, leave nothing on the table,” said Ricciardo.
Renault have morphed into Alpine, with double world champion Fernando Alonso returning after a two-year absence from the starting grid to make his 312th start.
Bahrain will be the first step of a marathon, record 23-race season — pandemic permitting — after 17 rounds last year confined to Europe and the Middle East. (Reporting by Alan Baldwin)