No Mercedes team orders plus mix of strategies raises prospects of lively race

2020 Sakhir Grand Prix pre-race analysis

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Mercedes may have told George Russell to set realistic expectations ahead of qualifying, but he nearly proved capable of matching Valtteri Bottas at the first time of asking. Thanks to that, Mercedes achieved a front-row lockout for the 12th time this season.

While the absent Lewis Hamilton has already clinched the championship, Bottas is still trying to beat Max Verstappen to the runner-up spot. But that won’t prompt Mercedes into imposing team orders on their drivers.

“[They’re] free to race,” said Mercedes team principal Toto Wolff yesterday. “That’s what we owe to everybody. Off the leash.”

The Mercedes pair were the only cars to make it through to Q3 on the medium compound tyres, putting them on a different strategy to the soft-shod cars on the four rows behind them.

Others tried to do the same without success. Ferrari’s sporting director Laurent Mekies believes the potential pay-off in the race was worth the risk. “We tried everything we could to go through with the medium,” he said. “We really felt that it will be a serious advantage.”

Charles Leclerc, Ferrari, Bahrain International Circuit, 2020
Leclerc qualified an excellent fourth for Ferrari
Ferrari were only able to get one car through to Q3, Charles Leclerc who will start the race tomorrow in fourth, directly behind first-time front row starter Russell. With soft tyres he and third-placed Max Verstappen with have an immediate grip advantage, but it won’t last long as Bahrain’s abrasive surface chews the rubber.

Bahrain is a desert country and a lot of sand makes its way across the dusty Sakhir circuit, creating a distinct ‘dirty’ and ‘clean’ side of the grid. In theory, pole-winner Bottas and third-placed Verstappen have got the good end of the deal, starting on the cleaner part of the track while Russell and Leclerc are on the sandier area. This made a noticeable difference in last week’s races at the same venue.

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During the F2 feature race, however, Yuki Tsunoda lost his advantage from pole to Nikita Mazepin and Robert Shwartzman, who lined up on the dirty side. It’s possible the clean-side advantage is not quite what it’s been assumed to be, on the second consecutive weekend of running at the track.

Of course the exact track layout is different, and likely to create an unusual race. The Bahrain Outer track is atypical among F1 circuits and 87 laps of the 3.543km course could throw up some real surprises. Q1 looked extremely busy with all 20 cars out on track and the first laps of the race could be messily crowded.

The front-running drivers can expect to hit traffic a lot earlier than usual, which will make strategies a challenge. Strategy is often bound up in how to get a driver out in clear air, but there may be very little of that on Sunday. Alexander Albon predicted DRS trains will be the order of the day.

This is partly why teams’ strategy options are up in the air. A one-stop strategy might be possible, which could save 27 seconds in the pits versus a two-stopper. So short is this track that making a pit stop will pit drivers over half a lap behind.

Max Verstappen, Red Bull, Bahrain International Circuit, 2020
Verstappen is well placed to chase the Mercedes
But Pirelli say that, based on practice data, they expect to see a two-stop race because of high degradation on the rears. Teams often avoid multi-top strategies because of the potential time loss while passing cars, but with traffic a problem everywhere, getting onto fresher rubber to make a pass could be more beneficial.

After qualifying, Nicholas Latifi said tyre degradation was so hard to read that the race might see one, two or even three-stop strategies, and that teams will have to think on their feet.

Mekies said much the same: “I think tomorrow, at least from what we see, it’s not a clear-cut. We are back in the situation where you have to read the situation during the race, the degradation during the race, the life estimation during the race and I think that’s what makes it exciting. So I think you will have people doing different strategies tomorrow.”

Quotes: Dieter Rencken

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Qualifying times in full

DriverCarQ1

Q2 (vs Q1)

Q3 (vs Q2)
1Valtteri BottasMercedes0’53.9040’53.803 (-0.101)0’53.377 (-0.426)
2George RussellMercedes0’54.1600’53.819 (-0.341)0’53.403 (-0.416)
3Max VerstappenRed Bull0’54.0370’53.647 (-0.390)0’53.433 (-0.214)
4Charles LeclercFerrari0’54.2490’53.825 (-0.424)0’53.613 (-0.212)
5Sergio PerezRacing Point0’54.2360’53.787 (-0.449)0’53.790 (+0.003)
6Daniil KvyatToro Rosso0’54.3460’53.856 (-0.490)0’53.906 (+0.050)
7Daniel RicciardoRenault0’54.3880’53.871 (-0.517)0’53.957 (+0.086)
8Carlos Sainz JnrMcLaren0’54.4500’53.818 (-0.632)0’54.010 (+0.192)
9Pierre GaslyToro Rosso0’54.2070’53.941 (-0.266)0’54.154 (+0.213)
10Lance StrollRacing Point0’54.5950’53.840 (-0.755)0’54.200 (+0.360)
11Esteban OconRenault0’54.3090’53.995 (-0.314)
12Alexander AlbonRed Bull0’54.6200’54.026 (-0.594)
13Sebastian VettelFerrari0’54.3010’54.175 (-0.126)
14Antonio GiovinazziAlfa Romeo0’54.5230’54.377 (-0.146)
15Lando NorrisMcLaren0’54.1940’54.693 (+0.499)
16Kevin MagnussenHaas0’54.705
17Nicholas LatifiWilliams0’54.796
18Jack AitkenWilliams0’54.892
19Kimi RaikkonenAlfa Romeo0’54.963
20Pietro FittipaldiHaas0’55.426

Sector times

DriverSector 1Sector 2Sector 3
Valtteri Bottas18.597 (1)18.474 (2)16.239 (3)
George Russell18.685 (7)18.495 (3)16.222 (2)
Max Verstappen18.656 (4)18.541 (4)16.212 (1)
Charles Leclerc18.621 (2)18.653 (5)16.339 (8)
Sergio Perez18.656 (4)18.733 (7)16.279 (5)
Daniil Kvyat18.642 (3)18.821 (11)16.340 (9)
Daniel Ricciardo18.702 (8)18.773 (8)16.272 (4)
Carlos Sainz Jnr18.737 (11)16.411 (1)
Pierre Gasly18.659 (6)18.779 (9)16.467 (13)
Lance Stroll18.731 (10)18.802 (10)16.307 (6)
Esteban Ocon18.726 (9)18.875 (13)16.333 (7)
Alexander Albon18.827 (15)18.726 (6)16.421 (11)
Sebastian Vettel18.745 (12)18.940 (14)16.438 (12)
Antonio Giovinazzi18.838 (17)19.103 (15)16.399 (10)
Lando Norris18.764 (13)18.855 (12)16.575 (15)
Kevin Magnussen18.830 (16)19.125 (16)16.750 (18)
Nicholas Latifi18.809 (14)19.272 (19)16.615 (16)
Jack Aitken19.037 (19)19.258 (18)16.573 (14)
Kimi Raikkonen18.989 (18)19.210 (17)16.762 (19)
Pietro Fittipaldi19.256 (20)19.437 (20)16.733 (17)

Speed trap

PosDriverCarEngineSpeed (kph/mph)Gap
1Sergio PerezRacing PointMercedes342.0 (212.5)
2Jack AitkenWilliamsMercedes338.0 (210.0)-4.0
3Kimi RaikkonenAlfa RomeoFerrari334.7 (208.0)-7.3
4Nicholas LatifiWilliamsMercedes333.7 (207.4)-8.3
5Daniel RicciardoRenaultRenault331.7 (206.1)-10.3
6Valtteri BottasMercedesMercedes330.9 (205.6)-11.1
7Antonio GiovinazziAlfa RomeoFerrari330.6 (205.4)-11.4
8Carlos Sainz JnrMcLarenRenault330.6 (205.4)-11.4
9Daniil KvyatToro RossoHonda330.5 (205.4)-11.5
10Kevin MagnussenHaasFerrari330.2 (205.2)-11.8
11Esteban OconRenaultRenault329.9 (205.0)-12.1
12Lando NorrisMcLarenRenault329.5 (204.7)-12.5
13Lance StrollRacing PointMercedes329.4 (204.7)-12.6
14George RussellMercedesMercedes329.3 (204.6)-12.7
15Pierre GaslyToro RossoHonda328.4 (204.1)-13.6
16Pietro FittipaldiHaasFerrari326.7 (203.0)-15.3
17Sebastian VettelFerrariFerrari326.1 (202.6)-15.9
18Charles LeclercFerrariFerrari325.6 (202.3)-16.4
19Max VerstappenRed BullHonda325.6 (202.3)-16.4
20Alexander AlbonRed BullHonda323.2 (200.8)-18.8

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Over to you

Could Russell achieve the incredible and find a way to win his first race as a Mercedes Formula 1 driver? Can Verstappen overcome his straight-line speed disadvantage to bag his second win of the year?

Share your views on the Sakhir Grand Prix in the comments.

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Author information

Hazel Southwell
Hazel is a freelance journalist who roams the paddocks of Formula E, covering the technical and emotional elements of electric racing. Usually found at...

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12 comments on “No Mercedes team orders plus mix of strategies raises prospects of lively race”

  1. I expect Verstappen to overtake at least Russell on the start due to the difference in tyre compounds. From there, it’s an unknown. Yesterday, the level of giving space for drivers on flying laps was on another level, and with 20 cars racing, this could be even worse later during the race.

  2. Could Russell achieve the incredible and find a way to win his first race as a Mercedes Formula 1 driver? – Maybe, if Bottas bottles up something such as the start phase or something else.
    Can Verstappen overcome his straight-line speed disadvantage to bag his second win of the year? – Not on merit.
    While the number of laps is the highest this year, it’s chosen because of the same standard minimum distance requirement of 305.000 km, so no difference in the overall distance.

    1. This is Russell’s first race start in a Mercedes so there is a bigger chance of a fluff, Max is a fast starter and is on the clean side of the track with soft tyres. If Verstappen wins it will be on merit, but good luck to George for a fairy tale first to take chequered flag.

  3. If Mercedes stay ahead at the beginning of race then they’ll have massive advantage.. Others will pit sooner, leaving them a big gap to pit and then rejoin in the lead after first round of stops.

    1. That’s assuming they can get enough of a gap over verstappen (probably only him) to offset the undercut. I think much also depends on how easy it is to pass. If it’s not too hard then 2 or even 3 stop strategies start to make a lot more sense.

  4. Impressive time by Sainz in sector 2. If he can repeat that today he will win the race.

    1. I´d love to watch it but it seems way too optimistic

  5. They way it’s said you’d think there were team orders in place before

    1. Exactly what I was going to say.

  6. “Valtteri, its George”

  7. Fun Fact: Finland is celebrating its Independence Day (December 6th) today. So in that sense, Bottas’ victory would be historical – at least to Finns :)

    1. So now I don’t need to care if who wins today!

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