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F1: Season returns in Bahrain

The teams are taking their places on the grid and the lights are about to go out to mark the start of the most intriguing Formula 1 season in decades.

Tension levels have only slightly tapered off from the controversial finale to the 2021 campaign, which saw Max Verstappen snatch his first world title from Lewis Hamilton's grasp on the final lap of the season-finale race in Abu Dhabi.

The rivalry between Hamilton and Verstappen and to a greater extent their teams, Red Bull and Mercedes, was the major talking point coming out of last year, but has been slightly sidelined by the sweeping changes brought in for 2022.

To abide by what's been described as the biggest shake-up to Formula 1 in 40 years, the teams have had to build brand new cars from the ground up and the differences in terms of design are striking.

To go with the fresh look, there's also been a couple of rules changes and the appointment of a new race director.

Right now, the F1 waters appear a little muddy, stirred up by all the changes, but they should soon become clearer when the action gets under way this weekend in Bahrain.

Mercedes on the back foot

A restructuring like this is meant to alter the established order of the top of the teams, opening the door for others to challenge the likes of Mercedes and Red Bull.

Since the start of the V6 hybrid era in 2014, the Silver Arrows had swept up the silverware every season before Verstappen's dramatic triumph.

However, despite all the alterations, pre-season testing indicates Mercedes and Red Bull will once again be at the front of the grid, with the Silver Arrows 5/6 to retain their Constructors' title, while Red Bull are a 5/2 chance.

Mercedes do look to have their work cut out in the early part of the season though, with Hamilton indicating after testing in Bahrain that he's not currently in a position to challenge for race wins.

That could leave the Brit - who is chasing a record-breaking eighth world title - playing catch-up once again.

Hamilton found himself well behind Verstappen at the midway point of the 2021 campaign and it was only a late surge that took the title fight to the wire.

Hamilton could have ground to make up

Hamilton is 11/8 to turn the tables on Verstappen and claim title number eight, but Red Bull have performed well in testing and it could be the Dutchman goes back-to-back at 15/8.

Although the 24-year-old's aggressive driving style got him into trouble at times last year, it also played a big part in him recording 10 race victories to Hamilton's eight.

He looks set to line up in the more race-ready car for the season-opening race in Bahrain, with his challenger having been quicker through the corners at the Sakhir circuit than Hamilton.

A handful of drivers commented on how hard Hamilton was having to work to keep his Mercedes under control, but the development of the cars is likely to be rapid in this new era and the Silver Arrows could quickly close any gap.

Ferrari in the championship fight?

Potentially squeezing between Red Bull and Mercedes in Bahrain could be Ferrari, who were arguably the most consistent team in testing.

The Scuderia clocked up the most miles on the track in Barcelona and were consistently towards the top of the timesheets in Bahrain.

It's dangerous to read too much into pre-season, but the signs are hopeful of an improvement from the Italian marque, who haven't won a race in two years.

They've been uncompetitive for far too long, but the early indications are that they could make this a three-way title fight.

Charles Leclerc and Carlos Sainz Jr are two of the most talented drivers on the grid and, with the right car underneath them, they are capable of challenging for wins.

Leclerc is 7/1 to win the Drivers' title and both Red Bull and Mercedes have talked up Ferrari's chances of success this season.

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Verstappen can hit the ground running

Ferrari have been quick to downplay those claims and while history has taught us to take the Italian's testing results with a pinch of salt, they look the most likely of the other teams to challenge Red Bull and Mercedes in Bahrain.

McLaren were quick in testing too, but have reliability issues they need to solve, while Alpine were consistent but perhaps lack the power to seriously press their podium claims.

Aston Martin would have hoped to have been in the top-10 mix too and while they still might be, they go into the race without Sebastian Vettel - the German has been taken ill and will be replaced by compatriot Nico Hulkenberg.

Ultimately, a re-run of last year's Bahrain Grand Prix, which turned into the first of many tussles between Hamilton and Verstappen, looks the most likely outcome.

On that occasion, it was Hamilton who came out on top in the Middle East in slightly controversial circumstances, and even though the Brit has been keen to play down his chances of a first win of the season, he can't be discounted at 5/2.

Russell a stronger back-up

Hamilton can call on a more able deputy to help him out this year too, with George Russell having replaced Valtteri Bottas for this season.

Russell drove superbly when filling in for Hamilton in Bahrain in 2020 and could prove a lively outsider for the podium at 2/1.

Russell certainly gives Mercedes the edge when comparing the driver line-ups for the Silver Arrows and Red Bull, with Sergio Perez having flattered to deceive at times.

Even with the Mexican not making the most of the car at his disposal, Verstappen was still able to clock up the wins on a regular basis last season and can manage something similar this term.

Red Bull look well placed to start the new era in Formula 1 in the same fashion they finished the last, with Verstappen 15/8 to take the chequered flag in Bahrain.

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