MANAMA, Bahrain -- Despite relatively high levels of tyre degradation, the fastest strategy at the Bahrain Grand Prix is expected to be a one-stopper. However, it requires starting on the medium compound tyre -- an option not available to the top nine drivers and Romain Grosjean (who will start 11th after a penalty), who are all required to start on the soft having used that compound in Q2. A one-stop is also possible starting on the softs and moving to the hards, but it is not as fast.
The main problem drivers face in Bahrain is overheating rear tyres. Abrasive tarmac and high temperatures combine to torture the rubber out of slow corners and drivers will have to manage their pace from the start if they are to stop the tyres losing performance rapidly.
There are ways to combat the overheating, however, and Mercedes' decision to run relatively high downforce could help the rear tyres by limiting the amount of sliding they do on the rough track surface. But nothing comes for free in F1, and the trade-off is lower straight-line speed, which was clear to see in qualifying and is likely to leave Mercedes' drivers at a slight disadvantage when attempting to pass cars on the straights.
Mercedes showed promise over longer runs in Friday practice and if Lewis Hamilton and Valtteri Bottas are able to push harder without seeing the same levels of degradation, they could take the fight to Ferrari in the race.
"Small things which can cost you a few hundredths in the qualifying can be a bit of a benefit with tire life in the race," Bottas, who starts fourth, explained. "Just the way this track is now with the new cars and the extra DRS zone we rated the race pace a bit higher than normally, so we'll see if it's good tomorrow."
However, if Ferrari has the same pace advantage in the race as it did in qualifying, the extra tyre performance Mercedes is able to preserve is unlikely to be enough to make a difference.
The relative ease of overtaking in Bahrain is a key strategy component compared to Australia two weeks ago. It was no surprise to see none of the front-running drivers attempt a two-stop in Melbourne, as coming out behind slower one-stopping cars would have been a disaster with no easy way of getting past. But in Bahrain there is the potential to pass at Turns 1, 4 and 11 and that could tempt some teams onto a two-stop strategy of soft, medium, medium.
Red Bull struggled in qualifying and appeared to be overheating the soft compound rubber during race simulations on Friday. That might tempt them to ditch the red-striped tyre as early as lap nine in the race and go aggressive on the medium, which Max Verstappen showed very promising pace on in FP2. That might help offset some of the clear performance deficit to Ferrari and Mercedes, but it still seems like a stretch to make the difference and allow Verstappen to challenge for the podium. Starting in 13th, Verstappen's teammate Pierre Gasly could avoid the soft tyre altogether -- thanks to a free choice of starting tyres for those outside the top ten -- and make progress on a one-stop.
It's also worth keeping an eye on Daniel Ricciardo on Sunday evening. He qualified 11th but will start 10th thanks to Grosjean's penalty and is the highest-placed driver with a free choice of tyres on the grid. What's more, the Renault looked strong over long runs on Friday evening and if Ricciardo can finally click with his new car, he could be in a position to challenge the McLarens and Haas drivers ahead of him.