Mercedes may have proved untouchable in qualifying with yet another front-row lockout, but there are signs that Formula 1’s reigning world champions may not have things all their own way in the Bahrain Grand Prix.

Newly-crowned seven-time world champion Lewis Hamilton stormed to a commanding 10th pole position of the season under the lights in Sakhir to top qualifying for the 98th time in his career. 

Red Bull’s Max Verstappen had threatened to spoil Mercedes’ party after running close throughout practice. Following the opening salvo in Q3, the Dutchman was sitting a provisional second and was on course to split the Mercedes pair until Bottas delivered a late improvement to seal an 11th front-row lockout of the season. 

In the end, the gap separating the pole-sitting Mercedes and lead Red Bull was a relatively comfortable 0.414s, but that deficit might not end up being a true representation of how the teams will fare in the race. 

Mercedes prioritised gaining as much knowledge as possible by spending more time running Pirelli’s 2021-spec tyres throughout Friday’s two practice sessions as all teams and drivers got a first proper test of the new construction which has been homologated for next year. 

The decision could ultimately help Mercedes find an extra edge for next season, but it also left the German manufacturer on the back foot regarding its race pace and car set-up work that would usually be the focus of Friday practice. 

While it appeared to have little effect on the pecking order in qualifying, Mercedes is wary of how that compromise might end up coming back to hurt it in Sunday’s grand prix. 

“I would say we compromised the performance for this weekend to try and learn the tyres that could be the tyres for next year,” Bottas explained after qualifying. 

“As a team we’ve won the constructors’ title, Lewis has won the drivers’, so it’s better to focus on the future. 

“For sure it was a bit compromised as we’re trying different tyres and for the driver it’s more difficult to find the rhythm. We lacked a bit on the long runs with the current tyres. 

“I believe we still have a strong car, but, as always, there are question marks and I think Red Bull is pretty good on the race pace.” 

One of the consequences of Mercedes’ unusual run programme on Friday was that Bottas and Hamilton have ended up with “quite different set-ups” to fight for victory in Bahrain.

Hamilton insisted he did not feel “too compromised” regarding his set-up heading into qualifying but believes Mercedes’ decision to focus on the 2021 rubber has left it somewhat in the dark with where it stands on race pace relative to Red Bull. 

"We haven't had any real long runs on the medium or the hard tyre, so it will be interesting to see how that goes tomorrow,” he said. 

Looking at the long run data from Friday, and taking it at face value, Mercedes appears to have a slight edge over Red Bull. On average, Red Bull was only around 0.1s per lap slower - pace which would certainly put it in contention for the win if that were indeed to translate into the race on Sunday. 

High levels of degradation are also set to be a factor come race day, with Pirelli indicating that a two-stop strategy would be the way to go for the majority of teams, adding another element of potential intrigue into the mix. 

“We will see what we can do tomorrow,” Verstappen said after qualifying. “It’s quite aggressive on tyres here so hopefully it will be quite an interesting race.” 

Racing Point also look in good shape heading into the race amid the intense ongoing battle raging over third place in the constructors’ championship. 

Going off Friday’s long run numbers, Racing Point was the third-fastest team and clear of its midfield rivals, sitting two tenths back from Red Bull. 

Sergio Perez claimed a brilliant fifth on the grid with a late effort, and the result came as a surprise to the Mexican who was anticipating a worse qualifying after taking a set-up approach on the RP20 which was more race-focused. 

Perez warned that qualifying in Bahrain did not provide a true picture of each teams’ competitiveness for the race given that high degradation is likely to be the dominating factor on Sunday. 

“Qualifying is unrepresentative here,” said Perez, who is renowned for being excellent at tyre management. 

“I think having a good consistent pace tomorrow will make your race so we will see what we are able to do. I am pretty confident. I think we have a good car underneath us for tomorrow so I am looking forward to it.”

Following on from Perez’s fine second place finish last time out in Turkey - which helped Racing Point regain third in the constructors’ championship - the Silverstone outfit sits 18 points clear of Renault and is well-placed to further increase its advantage in the opening Bahrain race, though both Renaults will form a two-pronged attack just behind Perez with Lance Stroll down in 13th. 

With overtaking possible, Verstappen in his usual punchy mood and bragging rights in F1’s midfield hotting up, we could be set up for another classic duel in the desert.

 

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