If you haven’t yet bought into the hype surrounding the 2021 Formula One season, now might be the time.

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On the eve of the first qualifying session of the year in Bahrain, Red Bull have become a real threat to Mercedes and Max Verstappen looks the favourite for victory.

That doesn’t mean it’s a done deal. Mercedes have closed the gap that seemed to separate the two teams during pre-season testing, but seven-time world champion Lewis Hamilton is on the hot seat after Friday’s first practice session.

Beyond that, the battle is just as fierce for the top two teams. McLaren and Ferrari lead a highly competitive midfield that is closer to the top than it has been in years.

Taking a closer look at the lap times, there are several key factors that will determine the outcome of the Bahrain Grand Prix, and for the first time in a long time, it is too exciting to decide.

One stroke pace

Max Verstappen seems to be the driver who can win the Bahrain Grand Prix. Lars Baron/Getty Images

The four teams were separated by just 0.28 seconds in Friday night’s practice, with Ferrari’s Carlos Sainz and McLaren’s Lando Norris setting faster times than Mercedes’ Hamilton and Red Bull’s Verstappen.

Verstappen was fastest of all, 0.095 ahead of Norris, with Hamilton third and 0.235 ahead of the leading Red Bull.

The differences are so small that they can be offset or even reversed by differences in fuel quantity and engine settings. Norris is expected to be eliminated in Saturday night’s qualifying session for the pole position race.

Norris admitted that his team showed more pace than their rivals during testing, and the fastest laps on track seemed to confirm this. This suggests that McLaren has worked harder for its fast laps, while Mercedes and Red Bull have kept something in reserve.

Take Norris out of the equation and the difference between Hamilton and Verstappen also shows up in the data. Entering Turn 13, Hamilton lost about a tenth of a second on Verstappen, who was pulled through the turn and onto the next straight.

It was harder to say whether the loss of speed was due to a mistake by Hamilton or a flawed performance by the car, but it will be an important point for Mercedes ahead of qualifying.

To illustrate how close the two drivers can be on Saturday night: If you add up Hamilton’s three fastest sectors during the session (not the three he drove on his fastest lap), his time would be just 0.033 seconds behind Verstappen.

But this fact also tells its own story.

Although Mercedes has made progress since testing the car, it is clear that it is still difficult to drive.

Both drivers struggled with rear traction, and on track footage showed Hamilton making more corrections behind the wheel than Verstappen.

When it comes to setting a qualifying lap, Hamilton’s task at Mercedes will be much harder than Verstappen’s at Red Bull, and he will have to dig deeper into his natural talent reserves to set the perfect lap.

Hamilton and Verstappen’s teammates, Mercedes’ Valtteri Bottas and Red Bull’s Sergio Perez, finished the session fifth and tenth respectively, underlining how little room there was for error. Both drivers put in their best laps, but the difference is that they performed when it mattered.

The battle between Perez and Bottas also showed how close the Mercedes and Red Bull midfielders have become over the winter.

Norris’ lap was weakened by the aforementioned cautions, but remains in the good range, while Sainz is just 0.045 seconds behind Hamilton.

Sainz and Norris both have a sizeable lead over their teammates, but it would be very surprising if they can keep Red Bull and Mercedes behind them in qualifying when they run out of fuel.

Instead, Ferrari and McLaren will lead a tight midfield duel that will also involve AlphaTauri, Aston Martin, Alpine and even Alfa Romeo, with all six teams within a second of each other.

Again, confidence in the car will likely be a major factor in each driver’s choice, which could change as the weekend progresses if windier conditions are expected.

Long tempo

In the final 30 minutes of Friday practice, all ten teams turned their attention to preparing for the race.

This meant filling the fuel tanks, fitting used tyres (mainly medium) to the car and the drivers trying to figure out how the car would perform in race conditions.

The average lap times at these fuel-intensive tracks give an indication of the potential race performance of each car and again show Red Bull and Mercedes leading, with Hamilton on average 0.04 seconds per lap slower than Verstappen.

Such small differences are impossible to read without knowing the fuel levels and engine settings, but Hamilton’s performance underlines the progress Mercedes has made since testing.

However, it is important to note that Verstappen’s run in Heavy Fuel lasted 12 laps, while Hamilton’s run only lasted 8 laps.

Further back, tyre failure significantly reduced Verstapen’s pace in the final laps of his run, increasing his average lap time. If his data was capped at eight laps for comparison with Hamilton, he would have a much higher average lap time of 0.32 seconds.

So in terms of one-lap tyres, Red Bull appear to have the advantage, although much depends on what the drivers can get out of the tyres on race day.

That will worry Bottas, who reported that his Mercedes was out of control for a long time and returned to the pits with an average lap time of almost a second behind teammate Hamilton. This too can be attributed to the rear of the Mercedes, which is likely to be under more pressure in Bahrain than at other circuits, as the circuit is particularly difficult for rear tyre wear.

In addition, some drivers have reported that the latest Pirelli tire design can be quite unforgiving if mistreated during a race.

Bottas’ tyre problems put him in the same position as the two McLarens and the Ferrari of Sainz, who all put in long runs with average lap times around a second behind Verstappen and Hamilton.

Sainz’s performance was particularly impressive for his metronomic consistency, as he managed to keep all his laps in the 1:38 range, rather than fluctuating from 1:37 to 1:39 over ten laps like most others.

The difference in performance between Red Bull and Mercedes proves that the impressive pace of Norris and Sainz at the start of the session was just a distraction.

AlphaTauri also seems to have the pace to win the battle between McLaren and Ferrari in the set-up race, although this assessment could also apply to Aston Martin and Alpine, who have both shown signs of pace and could have something up their sleeves.

The carefully selected field promises an exciting Bahrain Grand Prix, and it is up to the drivers to deliver.

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