The fight between Mercedes and Red Bull for victory at the Bahrain Grand Prix dominated the Formula 1 headlines, but there is another fascinating battle brewing just behind. 

The scrap for midfield supremacy was one of the most intriguing storylines to follow last year, and based on the first race in Bahrain, it looks as though we could be in for an even more intense battle this season.

While the opening round provided a glimpse of the competitive state for 2021, attempting to form a complete pecking order is a particularly difficult task with the field covered by hundredths of a second.

Here’s the team’s verdicts on where they stand in the midfield mix heading into the second round of the season at Imola this weekend…

McLaren head the queue 

McLaren brought home both cars in the points with Lando Norris starring on his way to a brilliant fourth, while new signing Daniel Ricciardo took seventh despite losing significant performance through damaged picked up to his floor early on.

The result - which suggests McLaren have cut the gap to the front-runners since last year - delighted team principal Andreas Seidl and acts as great encouragement for all at Woking as the British squad looks to maintain its position as the third-best team this year.

But Seidl also warned that more races are needed to draw a more definitive picture of the competitive order.

"I think we simply have to wait for more tracks now with different characteristics, different ambient conditions, different tyre choices, to see if there's a kind of a trend,” he explained.

"I think what is also clear are the cars around us, the cars we were battling with, they made also good steps forward compared to last year and the battle is again within a few tenths.

"This also means you can quickly swing by strengths or weaknesses of one or the other car, depending on some characteristics of the tracks or ambient conditions.

"It is very close, and we simply need to make sure we keep moving on, both analysing and understanding the package that we have to get more out of it.

"Then, we need to keep bringing updates to the car in next races to make sure we stay on top of this fight."

Ferrari improved but still ‘lacking in all areas’

Ferrari showed marked improvement in Bahrain as it looks to bounce back from its worst F1 season in over four decades, with Charles Leclerc turning heads with a stunning qualifying lap to take fourth on the grid.

While the Monegasque lacked the ultimate race pace of his rivals, he and teammate Carlos Sainz were left massively encouraged by how close Ferrari was to McLaren at the season-opener on their way to P6 and P8 respectively.

Bahrain provided an early hint that the famous rivalry between McLaren and Ferrari could be renewed this year, though Scuderia team boss Mattia Binotto downplayed the Italian outfit’s start. While admitting he was relieved to see Ferrari making clear gains compared to last year, Binotto stressed that the team is still lacking “in all areas” with its updated SF21.

“It’s important that the team can stay calm and positive,” he added. “Seeing the car has progressed, with the team in a serenity where we can work in a better manner, is important.

“It’s not only from the engine – [it’s also] chassis, drag, aero, correlation. How much from the power unit is difficult to say because it’s all relative to the competitors, it’s not an absolute value and I don’t know the progress of the others. Again, we just have to judge the entire package.”

AlphaTauri fast but seeking consistency 

AlphaTauri’s impressive performance across testing translated into the opening race in Bahrain and indicated that the Faenza-based team could end up being the surprise package of 2021.

Pierre Gasly secured a strong fifth place on the grid but his race was ruined by an early clash with Ricciardo’s McLaren, meaning AlphaTauri’s hopes of a points finish rested on rookie Yuki Tsunoda.

While the 20-year-old Japanese racer failed to join his teammate in Q3 on medium tyres and was left disappointed to only qualify 13th, he turned in an eye-catching performance in the race as he battled his way to ninth on his F1 debut with an entertaining and combative display.

AlphaTauri left Bahrain confident it has a strong car and is well within the midfield fight. Its target now is to consistently perform across the remaining 22 races after enduring some dramatic form swings in 2020.

“This year again, it appears we are back in that mix but we’ve gone into the mix with a rookie driver as well,” said AlphaTauri technical director Jody Egginton. “So it looks as though whatever we’re doing is allowing him to get into it quickly. 

“Then we need to see are we more consistent? I was happy with the pace of the car last year but there were some events we went home happy and others we went home a bit sour-faced. 

“So we want to try and minimise that. And you’ve got to minimise that in the midfield, because it’s so tight, you drop points and everyone is stealing points from everyone. 

“We scored a lot of points last year and finished seventh. I think that’s a testament to how tight that is. The key to that is understanding our car, the strengths and weaknesses and what makes it tick.”

Alpine lagging behind, wary of Alfa 

Alpine was arguably the biggest disappointment at the Bahrain GP as the team’s new A521 looked off the pace compared to its rivals, though returning two-time world champion Fernando Alonso did impress - particularly in qualifying - despite admitting he has not yet reached “100%”.

It was a point-less weekend for the rebranded French squad, with an errant sandwich bag the catalyst for a bizarre retirement for Alonso, while Esteban Ocon’s race was effectively ruined after he was clumsily rammed into by Sebastian Vettel.

In response, Alpine is set to bring a significant upgrade for its 2021 car at Imola.

"You have clearly Red Bull in front and Mercedes not very far [behind],” team principal Marcin Budkowski said of the pecking order.

“Behind, you have McLaren, who was strong, AlphaTauri was strong, Ferrari was strong - a bit stronger than we were expecting them. Then there’s us, there’s Aston Martin… so that’s the grid if you want. 

“I think that group with McLaren, with Ferrari, with AlphaTauri, with ourselves and Aston Martin, and even Alfa Romeo, they were not far either, that group is very, very tight. That’s almost like P5 and P6 to P16 - it’s going to be tight, circuit to circuit, conditions to conditions, it’s going to be variable. 

“Our objective is to be front of that group rather than at the rear and at the moment we are somewhere in the middle of it, and we are a short of a few tenths to be at the front. That midfield is going to be very, very competitive all season long.”

Aston Martin has ‘rude awakening’

Along with Mercedes, Aston Martin appears to have been hurt by the 2021 aerodynamic regulation changes the most due to to running a low-rake philosophy.

The Silverstone-based outfit ended 2020 with the third-fastest car and had high hopes of continuing that form into this season but in Bahrain the rebranded team struggled compared to its rivals.

Lance Stroll scored Aston Martin’s only points in P10, while four-time world champion Sebastian Vettel endured a nightmare debut, finishing 15th after picking up a 10-second time penalty for ramming Ocon.

Aston Martin team principal and CEO Otmar Szafnauer admitted his side had suffered a “rude awakening” in Bahrain.

"I think the rude awakening happened in qualifying when we realised after analysing the data that the low-rake cars were hampered significantly more by the regulation change, the aero reg changes, so we expected a tough race, but there’s some positives to take out of it,” said Szafnauer.

“On the soft and medium tyre we looked pretty competitive in the midfield, overtook some of our competitors, catching some of the others. We struggled a bit on the hard tyre at the end and we’ve got to understand that. 

“In race conditions we’re a bit more competitive than we were on one lap but compared to where we were just a few months ago here, before the regulation change, we’ve got a lot of work to do."