by Russell Atkins
It is one-all as the Formula 1 teams head into the desert this weekend for the fifth Bahrain Grand Prix – the third round on the Formula 1 World Championship calendar – with McLaren-Mercedes and Ferrari having landed a blow apiece in their battle for supremacy in 2008.
Though McLaren currently lead both the drivers' and constructors' world championship tables, however, it is their Italian rivals who look to have the upper hand at the moment, with nobody able to hold a candle to the two scarlet machines last time out in Malaysia, Heikki Kovalainen coming home a distant third and Lewis Hamilton trailing in fifth following a pit-stop delay.
Indeed, it looked set to be a Maranello demonstration until Felipe Massa threw his F2008 into the gravel pit halfway through the race in Sepang, leaving Kimi Raikkonen to canter on alone to an untroubled victory – one that has kick-started the Finn's world title defence with a vengeance.
Massa has been tipped to fight back in Bahrain – scene of his fourth overall triumph in the top flight last year – by no less than Ferrari president Luca di Montezemolo, and with rumours escalating about the safety of his seat at the Scuderia
, the man from São Paolo is well aware of the importance of securing a good result this weekend after his failures to score in the opening two grands prix.
McLaren, meanwhile, will simply be hoping they can rein back in the pace displayed by the Prancing Horse in Sepang, but the omens are not promising. Not only has the Woking-based outfit never won in Bahrain – whilst Ferrari has won twice – it is also heading into the desert challenge distinctly on the back foot following its Malaysian drubbing.
Hamilton defeated double world champion team-mate Fernando Alonso en route
to the runner-up spot in Sakhir last year, whilst Kovalainen narrowly missed out on a points finish in ninth. The two Silver Arrows stars will perhaps have to watch their backs rather more than look ahead of them this time around, however, with the threat of BMW seemingly getting stronger by the race.
Qualifying penalty or no, Robert Kubica had the legs of both McLaren drivers in Sepang, and thoroughly deserved his second place, matching that achieved by team-mate Nick Heidfeld in the season curtain-raiser Down Under a week beforehand. Both drivers have demonstrated they have the capability to win if the car is up to it, and whilst BMW are continuing to play down their expectations in the short-term, there is little doubt that rather than just two teams duking it out for glory, before long we could be seeing a three-way tussle at the top.
Behind the leading trio, Williams seemed to emerge as 'best-of-the-rest' in Melbourne, with a superb showing from Nico Rosberg earning the young German the maiden rostrum finish of his increasingly impressive F1 career. Though the Grove-based squad endured a nightmare weekend in Sepang, the common paddock consensus is that – contrary to most of the teams – Australia rather than Malaysia better demonstrated Williams' true potential, and Rosberg will no doubt be keen to add to his points-scoring account again in Bahrain.
Toyota have laid claim over the opening two grands prix to be arguably the most improved outfit over the winter months, with Jarno Trulli unlucky to be denied a strong finish in Australia through electrical failure but making amends for that disappointment with a stunning run to fourth place on merit next time out. Team-mate Timo Glock has yet to enjoy the same sort of fortunes – enduring an early bath in both his first two races since his return to the uppermost echelon this year – but both cars from the Cologne-based concern are again expected to be serious top ten qualifying contenders and points challengers this weekend.