Fernando Alonso will start the Spanish Grand Prix from the back of the grid after incurring a penalty for using his fourth power unit of the season.

Alonso qualified 17th for his home grand prix, blaming a "misunderstanding" in Q1 for his disappointing performance.

The Alpine driver, whose 2022 season has been defined by misfortune, suffered more bad luck ahead of the race.

Alpine changed the engine in Alonso's car, meaning he is now on his fourth different power unit at just the sixth race of the campaign.

That is one more than is permitted by the regulations, with the penalty sending him to 20th on the grid.

Two-time world champion Alonso has taken only two points from the first five races, suffering retirements in Saudi Arabia and at the Emilia Romagna Grand Prix.

His team-mate Esteban Ocon, by contrast, has 24 points to his name.

Fernando Alonso claims seven-time F1 world champion Lewis Hamilton now knows how the other drivers feel, as Mercedes struggle to keep up with the pace-setters this season.

Hamilton, 37, won six of the seven titles leading into the 2021 season, but he appears incapable of getting back to the mountain top just now, with Mercedes so much slower than Ferrari and Red Bull.

Alonso, 40, won back-to-back championships in 2005 and 2006 with Renault, and after a strong run with Ferrari in the early 2010s, he struggled mightily after his move to McLaren, finishing 17th, 10th, 15th and 11th from 2015 to 2018.

After trying his hand at other racing disciplines in 2019 and 2020, Alonso returned to F1 with Alpine in 2021, where he is now partnered with Esteban Ocon as the two battle it out in the midfield with a car that cannot compete for wins.

Speaking to BBC Sport ahead of the Spanish Grand Prix, Alonso highlighted how often the success of a driver can be out of their hands, and expressed only limited sympathy for Hamilton's struggles this season.

"This is the nature of the sport," Alonso said. "Sometimes you have a better car, sometimes you have not such a good car and you still need to fight and make some progress.

"This year we see that the driver is very important in F1, but not crucial. Lewis is driving as good as he has been the last eight years. He was dominating the sport and breaking all the records and 100-and-something pole positions.

"Now he is doing a mega lap – as he said in Australia or somewhere like that – and he is one second behind. So, yeah – welcome."

Alonso compared his championship years to Hamilton's, saying often the true stars of the team are behind the scenes, while the drivers get to soak in all the glory.

"To have more than 100 pole positions in F1 is something unthinkable. You need to have the best car and package for many, many years," Alonso said.

"He deserves everything he's achieved in the past, but this year is a good reminder that in all those records and numbers, there is a big part on what you have in your hands as a package in the car."

In a show of respect for this generation's most successful driver, Alonso predicted Hamilton will rebound from a slow start and finish ahead of team-mate George Russell this season.

"George has been very fast in the last few years and I think everyone was expecting him to be a tough competitor for Lewis," Alonso said. "But I still believe Lewis will eventually finish the championship in front.

"This is just a five-race championship [so far], but eventually when things are more tricky or [there are] difficult situations, Lewis will still have more experience and maybe more talent."

Alpine team principal Otmar Szafnauer believes the team's Renault power unit is within 10 brake horsepower of the best on the grid.

A strong start to the 2022 Formula One season has seen Alpine score points in each of the first three races.

Esteban Ocon has finished in the points in every race, though Fernando Alonso has failed to do so in each of the last two events, suffering misfortune in Saudi Arabia and Australia.

After struggling with engine performance last season, the team at Renault's Viry-Chatillon powertrain division concentrated on delivering a major upgrade for 2022.

Szafnauer has been impressed with the work they have done, the strength of this year's engine carrying extra significance because of a development freeze in place until the end of 2025.

"We think we've made a step on the power unit," Szafnauer said. "And we're within probably 10bhp of the best, and somewhere in the middle.

"I think Viry have done a brilliant job. And it's up to us now to keep developing the car.

"So that [the development freeze] allows us to work closer with our power unit team to make some improvements that we might be able to make with architecture changes on the chassis.

"Some other things that are still free to us. But also to now focus with what we have to improve on the chassis for the future."

Alonso was forced to retire in Saudi Arabia after a water pump failure led his engine to overheat, with Alpine unable to save that unit.

He was on a lap that may have put him in contention for pole in Melbourne, only for an oil pressure drop to force his engine to shut down in Q3.

The two-time world champion was last among the 17 drivers to finish the race, having seen several strategy calls backfire.

"It was O-ring on an oil seal," said Szafnauer of Alonso's qualifying failure. "The O-ring fretted, the oil leaked out.

"We have a fail-safe mode to try to save the engine, so when you see a drop in oil pressure, the fail-safe mode kicked in. And that's what happened. So the fix was an O-ring change."

F1 returns to action in the Emilia Romagna Grand Prix this weekend at Imola, where Ocon and Alonso finished ninth and 10th respectively last year.

Following an eventful, dramatic and – dare we say it – the best Formula One season to date, the 2022 campaign has plenty to live up to.

Lewis Hamilton is going in search of a record eighth world title at the second time of asking after missing out to Max Verstappen on the final lap of the final race in 2021.

Reigning champion Verstappen is himself seeking some personal history this coming campaign, which begins with the Bahrain Grand Prix this weekend.

Ahead of what will hopefully be an equally as gripping season this time around, Stats Perform picks out some of the key numbers.

 

Hamilton narrowly missed out on surpassing Michael Schumacher as F1's most successful driver, though he has not missed out on top spot in successive years since joining Mercedes in 2013.

Should he match his achievement from last year, Red Bull's Verstappen (25 years, two months) would surpass Fernandes Alonso (25y, 2m, 23 days) as the second-youngest multiple world champion, behind only Sebastian Vettel (24y, 3m).

Mercedes may have suffered disappointment last time out, but they still finished top of the constructors' standings for a record-extending eighth time in a row. They are one short of equalling Williams as the second-most successful team, though Ferrari (16) are still well out in front.

In terms of other team milestones, Bahrain will be the 250th GP Mercedes have competed in, while they are six fastest laps away from setting 100. McLaren, meanwhile, are seven podiums from reaching 500 in F1.

Joining Hamilton at Mercedes this season is compatriot George Russell, who along with McLaren's Lando Norris is aiming to become the first Briton other than Hamilton to win a race since Jenson Button in 2012.

Bottas is now at Alfa Romeo and is joined by Guanyu Zhou, who will be China's first ever representative on the grid, making them the 39th country to appear in F1. Indeed, it is the first time three Asian countries will be represented, with Alex Albon (Thailand) and Yuki Tsunoda (Japan) also featuring.

 

Now 14 years on from their most recent constructors' title, Ferrari will equal their worst-such streak – 15 years between 1984 and 1998 – if they again miss out this term.

Carlos Sainz is Ferrari's big hope and he has either matched or bettered his performance from the previous season – both in terms of points and position – over the past six years when racing for just one team.

While his title chances are slim at best, Fernando Alonso has the opportunity to become the driver with the biggest margin between F1 titles of all time, 16 years on from his most recent success. 

Twenty-two events are currently locked in the F1 calendar for this year, with Miami set to become the 77th different circuit used when it hosts its maiden GP in May. It will be the 11th different track used in the United States, which is the most of any country.

Sebastian Vettel claims he has already decided not to participate in September's Russian Grand Prix after Russia launched an attack on neighbouring Ukraine.

Russian President Vladimir Putin's decision to attack Ukraine comes just days after Moscow elected to recognise the independence of two breakaway regions in the east of the country, and has led to Ukrainian counterpart Volodymyr Zelenskyy severing diplomatic ties with Russia and declaring martial law in the country.

The attack has drawn widespread international condemnation, and has already impacted the sporting world, with UEFA likely to strip St Petersburg of May's Champions League final and the Ukrainian Premier League being suspended.

Now Vettel claims he has already made up his mind on whether he would participate in the Russian Grand Prix, currently scheduled for late September in Sochi.

"I woke up after this morning's news, [and was] shocked," the four-time Drivers' champion said.

"For myself, my opinion is I should not go, I will not go.

"I think it's wrong to race in the country. 

"I'm sorry for the innocent people that are losing their lives, that are getting killed for stupid reasons and [because of] a very, very strange and mad [Russian] leadership.

"I'm sure it's something we will talk about, but as the GPDA [Grand Prix Driver's Association, the trade union representing Formula One drivers], we haven't come together yet."

Aston Martin driver Vettel, who won four consecutive world championships between 2010 and 2013, has been a director of the GPDA since 2010, and has previously spoken out on several other issues, being reprimanded for donning a pride flag at last year's Hungarian Grand Prix, before hosting an all-women's karting race prior to the Saudi Arabian Grand Prix later that year.

Two-time champion Fernando Alonso also called on Formula One to "do the best thing", while reigning world champion Max Verstappen echoed Vettel's sentiments. 

"When a country is at war it is not right to race there," Verstappen said on day two of pre-season testing in Barcelona.

Formula One had earlier refused to comment on the potential for the race to be relocated, issuing a statement which claimed it "was closely watching the very fluid developments, and at this time has no further comment on the race," and added that it will "continue to monitor the situation very closely."

Fernando Alonso is relishing the new regulations in Formula One for 2022, saying they give teams hope that "everything can change".

Alpine released their new car for the year in Paris on Monday and the 40-year-old is in an optimistic mood.

The team finished fifth in the constructors' championship last season, with Esteban Ocon winning a dramatic race in Hungary.

Alonso hopes the varying new rules will help to level the playing field and make that kind of result more common.

"Second year with Alpine and yeah, I'm more optimistic than last year, probably because the new rules give you that hope that everything can change," Alonso said.

"You can certainly be competitive from race one. So, I'm optimistic, confident. The team did a good job with the car and we're ready to go.

"I'm very excited about the new regulations. Obviously, from time to time, Formula One change [the regulations] and try to mix a little bit of performance from everybody.  

"And for Alpine or some of the midfield teams that we were last year, there is an opportunity for sure. 

"If we do a good job interpreting the rules and maximising every opportunity, this year is going to be important. So, everyone in the team feels that we can do it and we are ready to go.

"Probably the best thing or the hope is that we can follow each other closer on track, so maybe that provides more action, more overtaking opportunities, close fights and that's probably better for everybody, for the show, for the spectators, but also for us drivers.

"We have been asking for closer racing between cars, especially in the corners. We will have to wait and see if these regulations allow closer racing, but I will never be upset with the idea of more exciting racing. 

"The sport is moving in the right direction off track too, thanks to the introduction of things like a budget cap. We hope it can bring more fairer racing to stop others outspending the rest."

While Ocon got the race win last year, he still finished behind veteran Alonso, who came 10th in the drivers' standings.

The Spaniard says he has a close bond with his younger team-mate.

Alonso added: "The relationship with Esteban has been better and better from race one last year.

"Until now, race one this year, over 2021 I think we had good fun together, we work together, and we understood that it's the best thing for the team and for the performance of ourselves as well. 

"And yet during the winter it was a long period that we didn't see each other so we were texting sometimes, and we have a WhatsApp group, and we were having fun and obviously missing each other a little bit.

"So now it's time to race again together and help the team to move forward.

"The new car – I really like the livery, I like the colours, the combination. Obviously, the technical side of it, we have to keep it secret and we have to first hit the track and see how it behaves."

Fernando Alonso claims Max Verstappen has been the standout driver in Formula One this season, declaring the Red Bull star to be "one step ahead" as a winner-takes-all battle with Lewis Hamilton looms.

Two-time former drivers' championship winner Alonso claims Verstappen "deserves it" ahead of this weekend's Abu Dhabi Grand Prix; but, like everyone, he is waiting keenly to see what unfolds.

The experienced Spaniard, currently with middle-of-the-pack Alpine, is too wily to predict anything at this stage, as Verstappen and Hamilton head into the final race of the season locked together on 369.5 points.

It is a scriptwriter's dream as the season comes to a close, but if Alonso looks back across the year, his hunch is that Verstappen has been the outstanding driver.

Looking ahead to Sunday's showdown, Alonso offered his expert view, saying: "It will depend on the package a little bit; Mercedes lately have been more performing, and they've won a couple of races now, but Max is driving – in my opinion – one step ahead of all of us.

"We saw the [qualifying] lap in Jeddah, until he touched the wall at the last corner, that lap was coming from Max, not the Red Bull.

"In a way, that's my opinion: Mercedes deserve the constructors' championship because the car is superior and Max, maybe overall in the year, was driving one step ahead of everyone."

It will come down to nerve and driving excellence on Sunday, plus whatever the teams can do to help the championship-chasing pair.

Alpine star Alonso is a former team-mate of Hamilton, dating back to 2007 in their time together at McLaren. That was Hamilton's first year in a Formula One seat, and in the final race of the season both the McLarens and Ferrari star Kimi Raikkonen were in the title frame.

Hamilton led the championship going into that race in Brazil but could only finish seventh, while Alonso took third and Raikkonen won the race. It meant Raikkonen carried off the title, with Hamilton and Alonso just one point behind the Finn.

The battle between Hamilton and his Mercedes team and Verstappen with Red Bull has become increasingly tense as the season has edged towards this remarkable finale.

Hamilton is chasing a record-breaking eighth title, which would take him above Michael Schumacher, while the 24-year-old Verstappen has yet to be crowned champion.

"It's not that I support Max. It's that he deserves it in my opinion," Alonso said, quoted on formula1.com.

"Everyone has a different opinion, but he is driving that Red Bull to another level. I think it is very interesting to watch from the outside, that’s good.

"What is happening at the front, as a motorsport fan you are following and you are aware of the stress... and it’s nice to watch from the outside."

Fernando Alonso was delighted to return to a Formula One podium for the first time in seven years as he finished third at the Qatar Grand Prix.

Alonso was a two-time champion with Renault, now Alpine, and a regular title contender in his time at Ferrari before he quit the series at the end of 2018 having struggled with McLaren.

The Spaniard twice won the 24 Hours of Le Mans while away from F1 but is back with Alpine this year.

Heading into Sunday's race at the Losail International Circuit, where he started from third following penalties for Max Verstappen and Valtteri Bottas, Alonso had registered 13 points finishes this season without reaching the podium.

Indeed, his last top-three finish had been in Budapest in 2014, but that wait came to an end with a little help from a virtual safety car.

Alonso struggled to stick with race winner Lewis Hamilton and championship leader Verstappen beyond the first few laps but clung on to third when Sergio Perez, who pitted twice, was slowed in the closing stages.

The Alpine man had been ailing at that point, having benefited from one of several tyre punctures when Valtteri Bottas fell from third and later retired.

"Unbelievable. Seven years but finally we got it," Alonso said of his 98th F1 podium. "We were close [in] a couple of races but not [close] enough. Sochi was the last possibility.

"Here today, honestly, I thought I could be leading after lap one. I thought with the red tyre I could have a go at Lewis, but I couldn't.

"Then Checo was very close at the end, but I'm so happy for the team. Also with Esteban [Ocon] P5, it's a good Sunday."

Alonso maintained his spotless record of having collected points at all 34 circuits at which he has raced in F1 following this first Qatar GP.

He added: "I'm enjoying it. F***, I was waiting so long for this, so I'm happy."

Fernando Alonso has secured a second season with Alpine after the two-time Formula One champion impressed team bosses on his return to the cockpit.

After two years out of F1, Alonso has had eight top-10 finishes in 11 races of this season to date.

His and the team's best results came in the Hungarian Grand Prix last time out, where Alonso took fourth place and Esteban Ocon won the race.

Alpine, who previously competed as Renault, said in a statement on Thursday: "Alpine is pleased to announce that two-time Formula One world champion Fernando Alonso will continue in its colours for the 2022 season alongside Esteban Ocon.

"The extension of Fernando’s contract signals the continuation of an already strong collaboration, fresh off the back of its historic maiden victory at the Hungarian Grand Prix, in which Fernando played a pivotal role."

Alonso believes the 2022 season can be particularly fruitful for Alpine, when a host of technical regulations are introduced that may lead to closer competition between the teams.

 

The 40-year-old Spanish driver said: "I'm very happy to confirm the contract extension with Alpine into 2022. I felt at home the moment I returned to this team and have been welcomed back with open arms.

"It's been a tricky season for everyone, but we've shown progress as a team and the result in Hungary serves as a good example of this progression. We're targeting more positive memories for the rest of this season but also crucially from next year onwards with the new regulation changes coming into Formula One.

"I have been a big supporter of the need for a level playing field and change in the sport and the 2022 season will be a great opportunity for that. I am looking forward to the rest of this year and racing alongside Esteban in 2022 for Alpine."

Alonso has competed in 322 F1 races across his career, winning 32 times and finishing on the podium on 97 occasions.

His F1 titles came as a Renault driver in 2005 and 2006, and Alpine CEO Laurent Rossi said: "He is just as hungry as we are for success and is putting in every effort to translate it to performance.

"For now, however, we need to focus on delivering a strong second half of the year, extract the maximum at every race and ensure we finish as high up in the constructors' standings as possible. This will put us in a golden position for next year and the significant opportunity it brings."

Lewis Hamilton believes even a "step up" on Sunday would see him merely competing for second after ruling out victory at the Austrian Grand Prix.

Seven-time Formula One champion Hamilton qualified in fourth behind Sergio Perez, surprise 2021 star Lando Norris and championship leader Max Verstappen, who has pole.

Verstappen, who is 18 points clear, won at the Red Bull Ring last week and is the only F1 driver with three victories at his team's home circuit.

Fourth place (Verstappen in 2018) is the furthest back a race winner has triumphed from since Spielberg returned to the calendar in 2014, but Hamilton does not believe such a recovery is possible.

On the weekend he committed to Mercedes until 2023, the Briton believes he is set to tie his longest winless run over a single season (five races – also twice in 2016).

"I don't," Hamilton replied when asked if he thought he could steal a strategic win. "We definitely can't take it to the Red Bulls, obviously. They're just too fast.

"But maybe we can step up, I guess my race now is with the two guys ahead of me – trying to get past them."

He added: "On pure pace, [winning] is definitely out of the question.

"Those guys have got two cars to get through in front, and they've got three-tenths on us. I think they've improved their car again for this weekend.

"So, I would say that's an easy cruise win for Max. I think for us it's to try to see if we can get ahead of Perez and try to limit the damage this weekend."

 

Hamilton at least fared better than two of his former title rivals, with Sebastian Vettel handed a grid penalty for impeding Fernando Alonso in Q2.

Vettel will start from 11th, having qualified in eighth, while Alonso is back in 14th.

"I guess the weekend is over now for us, but nothing we can do," Alonso said.

Ahead of Vettel's expected punishment, which was later confirmed, the Spaniard added: "It will change something for them, but for us it will change everything on the weekend.

"I don't think that Seb could do much more because, inside the car, we are just relying on our engineers, so I guess it was more the team than Seb himself."

Lewis Hamilton claims it is "no secret" the new Formula One regulations have been introduced to slow Mercedes, but he was encouraged by their opening qualifying session of the season.

Changes to aerodynamic regulations for 2021 have had a great impact on the reigning champions' low-rake chassis, the Silver Arrows say.

Mercedes have won the past seven constructors' championships, yet Red Bull led the way in pre-season testing.

The fastest lap belonged to Max Verstappen and the same man took pole on Saturday at the season-opening Bahrain Grand Prix.

But Hamilton was only 0.388 seconds back in second and that performance spells good news for the Briton, with all 16 Bahrain winners coming from the first two rows of the grid but only seven of them qualifying on pole.

Meanwhile, Verstappen has retired three times at this event and four times at the Sakhir track.

Hamilton remains very much in contention, despite feeling the rules have been designed to hurt his team.

"It's no secret. The changes, of course they've been done to peg us back," he said. "We've had the changes last year to our engine to do the same thing.

"That's okay. We love a challenge, we don't look down on these things. We just work hard to do the best that we can, and that's what we'll do."

But Hamilton was not amused by a request for him to analyse where Red Bull are now better, as Verstappen - having ended last year with a win - targets back-to-back triumphs for the first time in his career.

"Really? I don't want to tell you what our problem is," Hamilton said. "They're just faster."

With Silver Arrows team-mate Valtteri Bottas qualifying third, the top three - Verstappen, Hamilton, Bottas - are on course to become the first trio to appear on 15 podiums together.

Although Verstappen is still in the lead, this Mercedes challenge seemed improbable for Hamilton just days ago.

"I think this is a really good step forward for us coming this weekend," he said.

"We thought it was double the gap that you see today. That's down to some really fantastic work from the men and women back at the factory.

"Of course we want to be first, but we knew that it was going to be a challenge, we knew from day one on track really that Red Bull was going to be faster than us.

"We knew we had a bit of an uphill slope to climb. I'm just proud of everyone's efforts."

Elsewhere, two former champions had vastly contrasting fortunes after offseason moves.

Three-time Bahrain winner Fernando Alonso is back in F1 with Alpine Team, formerly Renault, where he won two world titles.

And his second debut was a success as he reached Q3 for the first time since Monaco 2018 and claimed ninth on the grid.

"It was good," said Alonso, who won this event on the previous two occasions it opened a season. "I think we have to be pleased with the qualifying.

"I was not confident in any of the sessions so far in the weekend - I was struggling a little bit to feel the rear of the car in windy conditions - and now in the qualifying everything was calmer.

"The night situation I think helped us with the cooler temperatures, so I was able to attack and feel the car a little bit better and it was fun."

On the other hand, Sebastian Vettel was eliminated in Q1 as his second run was hampered by yellow flags prompted by Haas rookie Nikita Mazepin's spin.

No driver has more wins (four) or poles (three) in Bahrain than the former Ferrari man, but his Aston Martin bow did not go to plan.

Vettel will start from 18th and said: "If I panicked now, would it help? If I was really upset?

"For sure, I am upset and angry that it wasn't our fault in a way not to make it through, but we have to take it and do what we can, preparing tomorrow."

Matters could yet get worse for the German, who will appear before the stewards on Sunday for failing to respect the flags, potentially meaning a five-place penalty.

Lewis Hamilton returns to Bahrain four months on from winning an 11th race of a dominant 2020 season knowing Mercedes have plenty of questions to answer from an exciting-looking Red Bull.

It was another season to remember for Hamilton in a campaign disrupted heavily by the coronavirus pandemic, the Briton himself contracting the virus late in the season and missing the second leg of a Sakhir double-header a week later.

By winning a seventh Formula One world title, Hamilton levelled Michael Schumacher's all-time record and also surpassed the legendary German for overall race wins (now 95), and he is now going in search of history.

But the evidence in pre-season suggests Mercedes are set for a titanic tussle with Red Bull, whose exciting line-up of Max Verstappen – the 23-year-old many are tipping to finally go toe-to-toe-with Hamilton – and Sergio Perez will be out to lay down a marker at the Bahrain International Circuit in Sakhir.

Many have suggested that F1's technical 2021 changes have redressed the competitive balance and certainly there was evidence to suggest as such at pre-season testing where Mercedes posted the lowest lap count of any team and Red Bull set the pace on two out of the three days.

We have been here before with Mercedes, though, where some have questioned whether their period of dominance – the Silver Arrows winning the constructors' championship seven years running – is finally over, only for the German manufacturers to turn it on when it matters.

This weekend should give us a clearer indication as to the strength of both teams, but that is by no means the only talking point on the grid...

LAST TIME OUT

Red Bull can certainly take heart from a strong end to the 2020 campaign, which saw Verstappen coast to victory at the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix, a race in which Hamilton finished third after returning from his absence due to COVID-19.

In that race, Red Bull were not necessarily favourites but beat Mercedes in a straight-line fight for Verstappen's second triumph of the season – his first coming in round five at the 70th Anniversary Grand Prix.

Perez can also take plenty of confidence from the fact he triumphed at this circuit for the Sakhir Grand Prix a week after Hamilton's last win of 2020, with a power issue in Abu Dhabi meaning his final outing with Racing Point ended in a whimper.

Valtteri Bottas finished second ahead of Hamilton on that occasion and the Finn knows he has a lot to prove against a strong-looking Red Bull line-up, while McLaren cars finished in fifth and sixth and are fancied for another strong campaign after finished third in the constructors' championship.

WHAT TO LOOK OUT FOR IN SAKHIR

There are plenty of sub-plots in play this weekend after a close-season of change in F1.

Most notable is the return of a legend and the arrival of a rookie aiming to emulate his great father.

Two-time world champion Fernando Alonso is back, racing for the rebranded Alpine Team – formerly Renault where the brilliant Spaniard won his two titles.

Mick Schumacher, son of Michael, has sizeable shoes to fill and will start his career on the biggest stage with Haas alongside fellow F1 rookie Nikita Mazepin.

Sebastian Vettel has a new home after ending his association with Ferrari and will race for Aston Martin, who are back in F1 for the first time since 1960, while the Scuderia signed Carlos Sainz Jr from McLaren to line-up alongside Charles Leclerc for 2021.

McLaren consequently turned to amiable Australian Daniel Ricciardo to partner Lando Norris, with the team starting 2021 12 podiums shy of 500.

TOP FIVE OPTA STATS

- Vettel and Hamilton are the drivers to have won the most races at the Bahrain GP (four), and have taken the most pole positions (three).

- In 2014, Mercedes recorded the first out of their 70 one-twos in hybrid-era qualifying in Bahrain (Nico Rosberg first, Hamilton second). The Germans have achieved 78 one-twos; they are two wins away from reaching Ferrari as the team to have secured one-twos in qualifying most often (80).

- Mick Schumacher will race his maiden grand prix in Bahrain eight years, four months and three days after father Michael's final appearance in Brazil 2012. Both will have started in F1 aged 22 years old, but the younger Schumacher will have done so seven months and 16 days earlier than his dad.

- Sainz will be the third Spanish driver to race for Ferrari. In his maiden race for the Scudería, Alfonso de Portago failed to finish in France (1956), but Alonso won in Bahrain (2010).

- Verstappen has retired three times at the Bahrain Grand Prix (four in Sakhir), more than any other race in his F1 career. The Dutchman has the chance to win back-to-back grands prix in F1 for the first time after 120 races.

After an unpredictable 2020 Formula One campaign ended in wholly predictable fashion, the world's best drivers are back for more in 2021.

The coronavirus pandemic delayed the start to last season and prompted serious surgery to the planned race calendar.

At the end of it all, though, Lewis Hamilton and Mercedes again walked away on top of the pile.

As so often in recent years, the task for the rest of the grid this coming year is simply to stop the reigning champion and his Silver Arrow.

While that is easier said than done, of course, the signs in pre-season are promising.

Will testing preparations derail Mercedes in the opening weeks? We are about to find out, as the Bahrain opener is just days away...

 

MORE HAMILTON AND MERCEDES DOMINANCE?

Hamilton's title in 2020 was his seventh, tying Michael Schumacher's competition record. A new benchmark is on the horizon if the Briton can repeat his success.

That is not the only landmark in Hamilton's sights, either: with 95 wins and 98 pole positions – both F1 highs – he can surely look forward to a pair of century celebrations this year.

But even if this is to be another sublime season for the 36-year-old, he surely will not find it as straightforward as last year.

Hamilton shut out the noise surrounding his future to claim 11 victories in 2020, yet the new contract he belatedly signed at the end of the campaign keeps him with Mercedes only until the end of 2021.

That spells another 12 months of uncertainty for the sport's premier driver, who also does not yet appear entirely at home in the new W12 car.

The Silver Arrows recorded only 304 test laps in pre-season – the fewest of any team – and may require Hamilton and Valtteri Bottas to learn on the job if they are to extend their record-breaking streak of seven straight constructors' championships.

 

WHO CAN CHALLENGE THE DEFENDING CHAMP?

Mercedes team-mate Bottas has finished second to Hamilton in the past two seasons, but it would be a tough ask to expect him to outperform the 'GOAT' in the same car – even before considering potential issues with that machine.

No, if Hamilton is to be dethroned, Red Bull look the best bet.

Max Verstappen is undoubtedly the chief threat at the Austrian outfit, having qualified ahead of his team-mates on 36 of 38 occasions since Daniel Ricciardo departed (including a 17-0 record against Alex Albon in 2020).

Indeed, Verstappen – third last year – had the fastest lap time in testing, his effort of a minute and 28.960 seconds in Bahrain putting Red Bull on top in pre-season for the first time.

The Dutchman is pessimistic, though, saying: "[Testing] doesn't say anything about pure performance.

"I know people are excited and think we are just saying this, but Mercedes are still the favourites. How can they not be when they have won seven world championships in a row?"

Ferrari can never be counted out, but they are starting a season with two drivers yet to win a world championship (Charles Leclerc and Carlos Sainz) for the first time since 2007, when Felipe Massa and Kimi Raikkonen lined up for the Scuderia. Of course, that year ended with Raikkonen being crowned champion.

 

ELSEWHERE...

There is no shortage of intrigue away from the top teams, with two big names returning to F1 – albeit only one of the two drivers having previously raced at this level.

Former champion Fernando Alonso is back, joining the rebranded Alpine team, formerly Renault – where the Spaniard won two titles.

Alonso's most recent race win came in Ferrari colours at the 2013 Spanish Grand Prix, since when he has gone 110 events without victory.

If Alpine can be competitive and Alonso belatedly returns to the top step of the podium later in the season, he could break Raikkonen's record of 114 grands prix between triumphs (2013 to 2018).

The 39-year-old needs only three podiums to reach 100 in F1.

At the other end of the spectrum, Mick Schumacher is the familiar name but new face at Haas, forming an all-rookie line-up alongside Nikita Mazepin, his F2 title rival last year.

Schumacher, who won that championship, will debut at Bahrain eight years, four months and three days after father Michael's final race in Brazil in 2012.

Michael was also 22 when he made his F1 bow, although Mick will be seven months and 16 days younger.

Ricciardo has joined McLaren, who are 12 podiums shy of 500, and Aston Martin are back for the first time since 1960, replacing Racing Point and bringing in Sebastian Vettel.

Meanwhile, there will be increased attention paid to Williams' George Russell, who impressed when given a chance with Mercedes at Sakhir 2020, qualifying second and finishing ninth.

Lewis Hamilton endured more testing misery after beaching his Mercedes in trackside gravel at the Bahrain International Circuit on Saturday. 

The Formula One drivers' champion, who will be chasing a record eighth title this year, complained about sand in the desert on Friday. 

He said the sandstorms being whipped up were unlike anything he had ever experienced at the track, but it did not appear to be a factor in Saturday's loss of control. 

Hamilton was entering Turn 13, having completed 35 laps, when his rear end went and the car span off the track. 

The Briton attempted to drive away but his car would not move, the tyres spinning and sinking, sending up a cloud of dust. 

Hamilton got out and required a lift back to the Mercedes garage, with the session red-flagged while his car was pulled out of the gravel.

It was not the end of his session, however, with Hamilton soon back on the track. He completed 58 laps overall and was eighth quickest in the morning action, clocking a best time of one minute 33.399 seconds. 

Daniel Ricciardo's McLaren led the way in 1:32.215 while former world champion Fernando Alonso completed 60 laps in the Alpine, with 1:32.339 good enough for second on the morning timesheet.

Fernando Alonso had surgery on a jaw fracture after a road accident while cycling but is expected to be fit for the start of the 2021 Formula One season.

There were initially doubts the two-time F1 champion would be ready to make his return to the series after a two-year absence at the season-opening Bahrain Grand Prix on March 28 following the incident in Switzerland on Thursday.

Alonso underwent an operation on his jaw and is expected to remain in hospital until Sunday at the earliest.

However, Alpine have confirmed they do not expect the injury to have any impact on their preparation for the new campaign, with pre-season testing scheduled to take place at Sakhir from March 12-14.

"Following his cycling accident yesterday Fernando Alonso was kept under observation in hospital in Switzerland," read an Alpine statement issued on Friday.

"Medics discovered a fracture in his upper jaw and conducted a successful corrective operation. The attending medical team are satisfied with his progress.

"Fernando will remain under observation in hospital for a further 48 hours.

"Looking forward, after a few days of complete rest, he will be able to progressively resume training. We expect him be fully operational to undertake preparation for the season.

"Alpine F1 Team and Fernando thank you for your wishes and will issue further updates when appropriate."

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