What to expect from Bahrain's outer circuit

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Formula One races in Bahrain for the second time in as many weeks this weekend, but Sunday's Sakhir Grand Prix will take place on the outer track layout of the Bahrain International Circuit.

Misleadingly dubbed an "oval" by F1 boss Ross Brawn several months ago, the circuit is actually a shortened version of the existing layout, which replaces the infield with a small section of fast corners across the top of the track. The outer circuit leaves the normal layout at the exit of Turn 4, goes left, right, left and right again before rejoining midway through what would usually be Turn 13.

In total, the course is just 3.543km, roughly 1.9km shorter than the normal layout, and will be the shortest circuit on this year's revised calendar (only Monaco is shorter of the tracks regularly used by F1). It is made up of 11 corners and, in order to complete a full grand prix distance of 305km, the cars will have to lap the circuit 87 times.

The novelty factor of a new track at an existing venue has generated a fair amount of hype, but one big question remains: Will it make for an exciting race weekend?

How fast will a lap be?

That partly depends on how many DRS zones the FIA chooses to include on the layout. If there are two DRS zones, Formula One's simulation predicts a 54.3s qualifying lap, but if there are three DRS zones it will drop to a 53.9s. That puts the average speed at around 143mph. Race laps, with heavy fuel and a degree of tyre management at play, are expected to be around the one-minute mark.

Will it provide good racing?

The existing track layout in Bahrain is known for its exciting racing, so there is a concern that changing the track for the second race may actually lead to less of a spectacle. But Formula One has run race simulations on the outer track and is confident the altered layout will provide an entertaining race.

Back in 2010, F1 used Bahrain's Endurance Circuit for that year's season-opener, but the long and winding 6.299km layout led to the cars being spaced out in a dull race. The simulations suggest that will not be the case on the outer layout.

"If you remember, we did use an alternative circuit years back and that didn't actually give a very good race and Bahrain usually does give good races, but that particular circuit wasn't that good," F1's chief technical officer Pat Symonds said earlier this year. "So we evaluated all the circuits that were available to us and we have some pretty sophisticated tools, they are not just lap simulation tools, they are tools that allow us to look at probability of overtaking and things like this.

"We felt that the outer layout offered something really quite different. It's a very short lap, a very short lap time, a very high-speed circuit and a different sort of challenge. But we are pretty sure it is going to give an exciting race and we really want to provide the fans and spectators with something different and I think we have provided that."

What about traffic?

One problem about having a short lap is that there is less space for all of the 20 cars on track. That means more cars are lapped in the race and it is harder for drivers to find space on track ahead of their flying lap in qualifying.

Such issues often lead to drivers moaning on team radio, penalties being issued by the stewards and, in the extreme case of last year's Italian Grand Prix where drivers were queuing up to get a slipstream, cars crossing the start line for their final attempt after the session had time out.

But Symonds believes it's all part of the challenge of racing at different types of circuits.

"In terms of traffic, it's going to be crowded, in the same way that Brazil gets crowded because short circuits do," he added. "It's all part of the challenge and I think to be a complete driver, and it is the drivers' championship we mustn't forget, you have to handle things like this, and of course the teams have so many tools these days to look at these sorts of things.

"But it will be a challenge, it will be difficult, maybe someone will lose out from it and someone will gain from it, but overall I think we will have a good spectacle there."

FIA race director Michael Masi is also expecting a busy weekend in the stewards' office.

"In terms of monitoring 20 cars we also do that in Monaco [another short track]," he said. "It'll provide a different number of challenges for us being a short lap time, but from an FIA perspective on a personal and professional basis I'm looking forward to it. It'll provide a challenge for the teams."

Why not do two races on the normal layout?

We have already had two sets of back-to-back races at the same circuit in Austria and again at Silverstone. In those cases the two races provided different results each time and some of the better races of 2020

But F1 is wary of putting on the same show over consecutive weekends and, given the opportunity, wanted to try something different.

"Naturally, when we have two races back-to-back on the same track we are looking at ways not to have a carbon copy one weekend to the next," Symonds said. "At Silverstone, the idea was to bring the tyre compounds one step softer and in Austria we felt we needed to just have stability because it was the start of the season.

"As we moved on to Bahrain, we wanted to look for something else and Bahrain is quite unique in that it does have a number of different circuits. Of course, we had to look at tyre duty cycles, brake duty cycles, all this sort of thing, and in this case we had to look at lighting because it will be a night race and we had to ensure that we had adequate lighting on the outer loop."