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Bahrain Grand Prix preview: Ferrari the favourites?

Focus on... Advantage Ferrari

A year ago, they big question ahead of each grand prix weekend was how big the gap would be between Mercedes and the rest of the field. There were races where the strengths of the Red Bull or Ferrari might mean there was a chance a battle would brew at the front of the field, but Mercedes entered every round as the undisputable favourite. No longer.

This weekend in Bahrain there are several reasons why Ferrari should be seen as the favourites. The 5.4km track rewards power but also requires good traction out of slow corners. With just a sample of two races it's hard to determine which car that will suit more, but the hotter temperatures (the mercury is expected to tip 40C during the day this week) are likely to favour Ferrari.

So far this year, Lewis Hamilton's skill has tended to be the defining factor in qualifying but on both occasions cooler temperatures also appeared to favour the Mercedes. What's more, it was in the hotter conditions of race day in Australia when Mercedes got a little lost with tyre management and Ferrari and Vettel excelled. But at this stage it's all still speculation ahead of Saturday's qualifying session, and that's what makes the championship so exciting this year.

In need of a win

Kimi Raikkonen is a man under pressure at Ferrari. His abject performances this year led to a rebuke from Ferrari CEO Sergio Marchionne after China, though the Finn was far from happy with how his strategy hand unfolded from the pitwall in Shanghai. Undoubtably, Raikkonen was hung out to dry a little bit in China but that should not mask the fact the Iceman has been a long way off Sebastian Vettel when it has mattered this year.

Ferrari cannot win a constructors' championship with Raikkonen in his current form, especially if Valtteri Bottas steps up his game in the other Mercedes. A win in Bahrain -- where he has finished second in four of the five races since his comeback in 2012 -- is absolutely essential if he wants to prove to Ferrari he can help lead a two-pronged challenge for the world championship.

In need of points

Renault is still scoreless at this stage of the season, despite a lot of promise in the two races so far. Nico Hulkenberg had looked to be in a great position in China after qualifying seventh but he faded in the race. With the midfield battle as tight as people predicted coming into the season, getting points on the board in Bahrain is absolutely essential.

And what about Fernando Alonso? The man who has made this weekend seem something like a sideshow after his stunning Indy 500 announcement deserved to finish in Australia and deserved a good haul of points after a brilliant drive in Australia. Points would be just desserts for a man seemingly revitalised by what's awaiting him at the end of May.

ESPN prediction

We're backing Sebastian Vettel to win this one. Ferrari has looked very close this season and an aggressive upgrade package for this race, plus the hotter temperatures, should shift the momentum in the red team's favour. Expect Lewis Hamilton to be very close in qualifying, but this one should go to Vettel... just. Is this where we see the first proper wheel-to-wheel fight out in front? Let's hope so.

Betting

Lewis Hamilton remains the bookies' favourite at 5/6. Kimi Raikkonen is 9/1 for what would be a popular return to the top step, while Fernando Alonso is 11/8 to land his McLaren in the points. Anyone fancying a flurry on returning Sauber driver Pascal Wehrlein can get 20/1 that he can drag the 2016-Ferrari-powered car into the points....or 10/1 that he is the first to retire.

Weather

Weather is not an unpredictable factor in the desert, but Ferrari and Mercedes are likely to be keeping a close eye on the temperature gauge all weekend. The day-night element of this race means the temperature in FP1 and FP3 -- both conducted in full daylight -- make both sessions quite unrepresentative. Ferrari will hope the temperature stays high in the evening -- the current forecast for the evening suggests it will still be a quite balmy 33 degrees as the sun sets and the floodlights come on.

Tyre facts

Available compounds: Super-soft, soft, medium.

The circuit from a tyre point of view, courtesy of Pirelli:

• Pirelli knows Sakhir well, as a favoured year-round test venue for different series.

• Tactics can be varied: there were nine different strategies in the top 10 last year.

• Surface is granite but not very abrasive: thermal degradation is a bigger factor.

• Falling track temperatures in each session mean that the surface tends to get faster.

• Rear-limited, due to traction demands. One of three night races scheduled for this year, along with Singapore and Abu Dhabi.

Mario Isola, head of racing, says: "The biggest gains at Sakhir are all to be found in traction: it is quite a stop-start circuit, so getting the power down properly and keeping the rear tyres in good condition is very important. Last year we found quite a high degree of wear and degradation, so it will be interesting to see how this has changed with the introduction of our 2017-specification tyres. The second free practice session will be particularly important, as it is the only one held in representative conditions of qualifying and the race."