Johannesburg - Under a setting sun in the hot desert air, Formula 1’s newest bromance could ignite as Sebastian Vettel and Lewis Hamilton battle for top honours at the Bahrain Grand Prix this afternoon (on Sunday).
One race apiece and a runner-up result each, Vettel and Hamilton are joint leaders in the standings, with Vettel’s P1 post- Australia making him the first non-Mercedes championship leader since the introduction of 1.6-litre V6 engines in 2014.
One of them, though, will probably emerge as the sole leader later on Sunday in the Arab monarchy.
A duel in the desert between two of Formula 1’s greatest drivers is what everyone wants – the four-time world champion Vettel taking on triple winner Hamilton.
Even Hamilton, who has pretty much had it his own way in recent years – barring Nico Rosberg’s challenge last year – is rejoicing in the tussle.
“Ferrari are at their best in years, maybe in a decade,” he said in the build-up to Bahrain.
“We are at our best as a team, and I feel like I am at my best. The ultimate fighter always wants to go into the best battle that he can have because then, when you come out on top, it is just so much more satisfying.”
However, fans have yet to see a real battle between the two protagonists this season. Vettel’s victory in Australia was down to strategy, while Hamilton was helped in China by Ferrari’s decision to pit under the Virtual Safety Car, only for said safety car to ruin that strategy laps later.
Both drivers have shown in the past that they can triumph in Bahrain, having scored two wins each. But 19-year-old Dutch driver Max Verstappen could make it a three-way fight. And let us not discount their team-mates.
Although Valtteri Bottas has failed to set the stage alight in his first two races for Mercedes – living up to the lack of hype around his signing – Ferrari’s Kimi Räikkönen and Red Bull’s Daniel Ricciardo both have something to prove.
While Räikkönen’s start this year has not been marked by a place on the podium, his efforts – or, according to Ferrari, lack thereof – in China saw him roundly criticised. And Ricciardo had the dubious honour of being one of Verstappen’s best overtakes on the Shanghai circuit.
Behind them – most likely, far behind them – will be the McLaren-Honda team.
Once again, with Bahrain’s long straights, they will experience a trying weekend because the circuit is known for brake wear and high fuel consumption.
With the MCL32 seeing to the latter all by itself, Fernando Alonso and Stoffel Vandoorne may celebrate just reaching the chequered flag – that is, if they do.
Like the one in Shanghai, this is another Hermann Tilke-designed track, featuring a mixture of corners that include tight hairpins, joined by long straights – the longest stretching for more than 1km.
This should encourage overtaking, something Formula 1’s new generation of wider, longer car is not so deft at.
It will, however, be a good indication as to the amount and style of overtaking Formula 1 can expect as the season progresses.
Meanwhile, Pascal Wehrlein returns to action this weekend, making his Sauber debut after having missed the first two races because of fitness concerns.
It will be a true test of his recovery from compression fractures, given the tough physical race that awaits the young German.
But it is Ferrari’s German driver and his number one fan who will dominate the headlines this weekend.