Lewis Hamilton is keeping his fingers crossed that he and Ferrari rival Sebastian Vettel can have a proper battle in Bahrain on Sunday after last year’s race did neither of them any favours.
Vettel, now joint leader of the Formula One championship with Mercedes’s Hamilton after two races, was unable to start the 2016 grand prix at Sakhir due to an engine failure on the formation lap.
The German, who had qualified third behind the then-dominant Mercedes drivers, has been alongside Hamilton on the front row so far this year.
“It [the title battle] is going to go right down to the end of the season, and I hope there’s nothing mechanical that will come in between our sheer battle through ability,” said Hamilton after winning in China last weekend.
“I really, really hope it’s just an out and out fight through stubbornness, through mental stability, through fitness, composure…,” he added.
Vettel, a four times world champion with Red Bull, and triple champion Hamilton have 43 points apiece after one victory and second place each.
Unless both draw a blank, the deadlock must be broken on Sunday at a desert circuit where both are two times winners and returning in rather better mood than they left last year.
There is a real sense of anticipation about the emerging scrap between two great rivals with a huge determination to win and no less mutual respect of each other’s talents and achievements.
“He is at his best and he is phenomenally quick,” Hamilton said of Australian Grand Prix winner Vettel. “Ferrari are at their best in years. We’re at our best as a team, and I feel like I’m at my best.
“The ultimate fighter always wants to go up against the best battle he can have because then when you come out on top, it’s so much more satisfying. I love this fight.”
Last year’s race in Bahrain does not hold great memories for either of the current Mercedes drivers, either.
Hamilton made a slow start from pole and collided on the first lap with the Williams of Valtteri Bottas, his new team mate this season, who was punished by stewards for his move.
Bottas, who has replaced last year’s winner and retired world champion Nico Rosberg, will not want reminding of that as he seeks to move on from a spin behind the safety car that cost him points in China.
Mercedes should be favourites, after winning the last three races at Sakhir, but Ferrari are sharp on strategy and have shown they flourish in hotter conditions.
“I think they will be very, very quick in the next race but there’s a lot of straights there as well and we’ve obviously got, I think, still the strongest power unit on the grid,” commented Hamilton. “So I think that will come into play, for sure.”
The race will also see the return of Sauber’s Pascal Wehrlein, who has missed two races due to fitness issues, and of former commercial supremo Bernie Ecclestone, attending a race for the first time since his ouster by Liberty Media.
The 86-year-old Briton told Reuters that a Vettel v Hamilton battle was win-win for the sport, “They are both good friends of mine so I don’t care who wins. It would be nice to see Ferrari win… I’d like to see Sebastian win, But it would also be nice to see Lewis put another notch on his gun.”
Bahrain Grand Prix Facts & Statistics:
Lap distance: 5.412km. Total distance: 308.484km (57 laps)
Race lap record: One minute 31.447 seconds, Pedro de la Rosa (Spain), McLaren, 2005.
2016 pole: Lewis Hamilton (Britain) Mercedes 1:29.493
2016 winner: Nico Rosberg (Germany) Mercedes
Start time: 1500GMT (1800 local)
Sebastian Vettel’s victory for Ferrari in the Australian season-opener was the Italian team’s first since 2015. Hamilton’s win in China was his fifth at that circuit.
Champions Mercedes have won 52 of 61 races since the introduction of the 1.6 litre V6 turbo hybrid power units in 2014.
Red Bull, with Australian Daniel Ricciardo and Dutch teenager Max Verstappen, were the only non-Mercedes winners last season.
Triple world champion Hamilton has 54 career victories, putting him second in the all-time list behind Michael Schumacher (91). Vettel has 43, McLaren’s Fernando Alonso is on 32 and Ferrari’s Kimi Raikkonen 20.
Ferrari have won 225 races, McLaren 182, Williams 114, Mercedes 65 and Red Bull 52. McLaren and Williams have not won a race since 2012.
Hamilton now has 63 career poles after taking the top slot in China. He is two short of the late Ayrton Senna’s career total and five behind Schumacher’s record 68.
Mercedes have been on pole in 58 of the last 61 races.
Hamilton has been on pole for the last six races. Only four drivers, including Hamilton, have previously racked up seven successive poles. Senna holds the record of eight (1988/89).
Hamilton’s victory in Shanghai was his 106th podium finish, equalling Alain Prost in second place on the all-time lists. Schumacher has a record 155.
China was the first time Hamilton, Vettel and Verstappen have shared a podium.
Force India’s Mexican Sergio Perez has finished the last 12 races in the points, the longest current run among those on the grid.
Renault, Sauber and McLaren have yet to score in 2017.
Hamilton, Vettel and Williams’ Brazilian veteran Felipe Massa have all won twice in Bahrain. Alonso has won three times (2005, 2006, 2010).
This year’s race is the 13th edition. The grand prix was first held in 2004 and not run in 2011 due to civil unrest. It switched to a floodlit event in 2014.
The driver on pole in Bahrain has been the winner in five of the 12 races to date. It has never been won by anyone starting below the front two rows.
Eleven out of 12 winners have been from the team that ended up winning the constructors’ title that season. The exception was Alonso for Ferrari in 2010.
Mercedes made their 150th start as a constructor in China, after chalking up their 75th pole position.
China was Red Bull’s 100th race with at least one podium finish.