After a 105-day absence, the Formula One circus returns to Bahrain for the third time in the last four races as Sakhir plays host to the opening round of the season for the first time since 2010.

Red Bull’s Max Verstappen stood atop of the podium in the last race in Abu Dhabi and also topped the timesheets during pre-season testing to give fans some hope of at least a two-horse race for the title this season.

We preview all the action ahead of what looks to be a fascinating opening weekend to the 2021 season.

The Front

Although it took them most of last season to do so, it finally looked like Red Bull had reeled in Mercedes at the front of the grid, with Max Verstappen winning the season-ending Abu Dhabi Grand Prix by more than 15 seconds. The Red Bulls also impressed during pre-season testing in Bahrain, topping the time sheets on two of the three days. Add in the fact that the experienced Sergio Perez will be taking the second seat this season, replacing Alex Albon, and it looks Red Bull have a far greater chance of taking the fight to Mercedes this season.

Red Bull have won here on two previous occasions, but the event has been largely dominated by Mercedes and Ferrari since Sebastian Vettel’s second consecutive win in Bahrain in 2013.  Verstappen is currently 13/8 joint-favourite to win the season opener on Sunday, with new team-mate Perez 13/2 to celebrate his arrival with a second consecutive victory in Bahrain.

Mercedes have already stopped working on this year’s car ahead of the significant rule changes to be implemented in 2022 but will still be confident of showing improvement on their pre-season testing performance, where they completed fewer laps than any other team.  Despite their dominance in recent seasons, changes to the regulations on the car’s floors this year, combined with the Silver Arrows’ long wheelbase design, seemed to make the car quite tricky to handle in the windy Bahrain testing conditions, with seven-time world champion Lewis Hamilton having a couple of spins during his runs.

One thing the Mercedes team are is relentless, and it’s a near certainty that they’ll have their car in competitive shape by Sunday, but a slow start against a Red Bull team that have consistently improved as seasons have progressed could be fatal in their race for an eighth consecutive double crown. We could then be set for the closest title race in years, with Hamilton currently 4/9 to win a record-breaking eighth world championship, followed by Verstappen at 11/4. The Mercs are 4/11 to win the constructors’ title, with Red Bull now 2/1.

Despite the early season difficulties, Hamilton remains 13/8 joint-favourite to win the race on Sunday, with teammate Valtteri Bottas currently 6/1.

The Middle

A thrilling midfield battle came down to the wire last season, with McLaren clinching third place in the constructors’ championship from Racing Point thanks to a fifth and sixth place finish in the final race in Abu Dhabi. Racing Point have now rebranded as Aston Martin, bringing the famous British Racing Green back to the F1 grid, and will be a competitive outfit once again with the addition of four-time world champion Sebastian Vettel.

His former team Ferrari will look to improve on last season, where they were the seventh fastest car on the grid at times, and welcome former McLaren man Carlos Sainz to drive alongside Charles Leclerc this year. The other driver changes in the midfield sees former world champion Fernando Alonso make his F1 return with Alpine (formerly Renault) and nine-time race winner Daniel Ricciardo join McLaren. Rookie Yuki Tsunoda will drive for Alpha Tauri, who of course scored a famous win at Monza last year courtesy of Pierre Gasly.

This year’s midfield battle is expected to be even closer, with McLaren’s installation of a Mercedes power-unit, as with Aston Martin, set to bring them even closer to the front of the grid. Alpha Tauri also looked like they could have serious qualifying pace in their car this year, which could leave Gasly as a strong outside 9/1 shot for a podium this weekend if he can qualify well.

Ferrari admit they have only made minor changes to this year’s car, as they instead focus their efforts on 2022, but they will hope Sainz will help push Leclerc enough to see them finish higher up in the standings this year.

McLaren are currently 8/11 to lead the constructors’ standings without Mercedes and Red Bull, with Ferrari 2/1, Aston Martin 8/1 and Alpha Tauri 20/1. As for Sunday’s race, McLaren looked like they had good pace at Sakhir during testing thanks to the seamless integration of their new power unit, with new driver Ricciardo well priced at 4/1 for a podium finish.

The Back

There was nothing Williams could do to prevent a second consecutive season at the back of the pack last year, with Alpha Romeo standing above them and Haas by the end of the season. Williams will hope a more settled pre-season, as well as the support of new ownership, can help them bridge the gap to the rest of the field.

Whilst Haas welcome to new rookie drivers in Mick Schumacher (yes, son of the Schumacher) and Nikita Mazepin, they will be another team that likely sacrifice 2021 success for more gains in 2022 and could well find themselves as the new back markers if Williams show any considerable gains in pace.

Alpha Romeo will again be confident of seeing off the challenge from the other two, with the experienced Kimi Raikkonen set to once again partner Antonio Giovinazzi for the Italian team. They’ll hope for better performance from their Ferrari power unit, but with a bit of luck could push the Scuderia themselves during this campaign.

Of these three teams, Raikkonen and Williams’ George Russell are the most likely to land points in the weekend’s opening race at 10/3 and 7/2 respectively.

Check out all the latest F1 betting odds at William Hill