|© Foto Studio Colombo/Ferrari
Having ended a 12-race drought with a dominant victory in China, Ferrari's Fernando Alonso is quickly emerging as the favourite to end the dominance of Red Bull's Sebastian Vettel.
The two-time champion has the chance to overtake Vettel in the drivers' championship with a win on Sunday at the Bahrain Grand Prix, a race that has drawn the ire of rights groups who complain it is being held amid a crackdown on anti-government protesters in the divided nation.
Clashes between riot police firing tear gas and bird shot and protesters went on throughout the day resulting in three injuries, rights groups said. But the circuit's chairman, Zyed Alzayani, said he knew of no threats against the race and was confident it would go off safely.
On the track, much of the talk has been about the pace of the Ferraris which came into this year much more confident in their car. There were signs of their potential in Australia and Malaysia but it was Alonso's dominance in China that has many believing Ferrari will end its four-year wait for a title.
Alonso insisted it was too early to crown him champion.
"We still don't have the advantage," Alonso said.
"People like to say that after one victory. In China, Sebastian was the quickest, but they chose a very strange strategy on Saturday and compromised their race. We need to keep improving and be a little bit faster. We have some new things for this race and some new components for Barcelona and Monaco. So in the next few months, we hope to be one of the best cars."
Alonso also said it was too early to be predicting a champion in a 19-race season where the first three have produced different winners -- with Lotus driver Kimi Raikkonen claiming victory in the season-opening Australian GP and Vettel in Malaysia.
"We saw also last year many surprises and the first three races are more or less to see the potential of everyone," he said. "The Red Bull cars we know are probably the strongest, and Kimi is doing fantastic. He is driving maybe better than anyone."
Vettel admitted the team's strategy in China didn't work after he completed the final lap of qualifying on the harder of two tyre compounds -- knowing it would send them down the grid but would allow him to stay out longer than his challengers.
But he said his late charge to nearly catch Mercedes' Lewis Hamilton for third place was a good sign.
"It's not a disaster to be honest," Vettel said. "We had a pretty strong race. It was very close not to finish on the podium. All in all, we had reason to believe in our strategy. Probably, it didn't work out that well."
Vettel said they could still do more work with the tyres, "trying to get more range and pace out of them" in a bid to close the gap with Ferrari, which he believed had much better pace than Red Bull in China.
"I think there is no reason why we shouldn't be competitive," said Vettel, who won in Bahrain last year. "We have a quick car and we proved that in Melbourne and Malaysia."
This weekend will also show whether Ferrari's Felipe Massa and Red Bull's Mark Webber can bounce back from forgettable races in China.
Massa, who was showing signs of returning to form and outpaced Alonso for much of the season in qualifying, struggled in China and finished sixth. He later said his tyre strategy also backfired.
For Webber, mishaps throughout the weekend led him to retire early.
He didn't complete qualifying for a lack of fuel, then collided in the race with Toro Rosso's Jean-Eric Vergne and was forced out .
The Australian was later penalised three grid places for this weekend's Bahrain GP for that collision.
"Three places is frustrating but that is the way it is these days," Webber said.
He predicted that tyres will take centre stage again, even as Pirelli announced it would drop the soft tyres for Bahrain.
Tyres have been a hot topic this year because they degrade much faster than in 2012, forcing teams to pit more often and employ a strategy that emphasises preserving tyres and fuel rather than clocking a fast lap in the latter stages of a race.
Some fans have welcomed the uncertainty of the races where ten different drivers have at one time led a race this season and helped the smaller teams close the gap on the likes of Ferrari and Red Bull. But others, including Webber, have complained it’s turned the series into something closer to all-star wrestling where much of the action often takes place beyond the track.
"We're never going to be happy with everything in this sport or in any sport but I think the racing has been good fun," McLaren's Jenson Button said.
"In the past we had tyres that would last the whole race and there wasn't any overtaking. It's very difficult to get the correct balance. But we're having two or three stops which I think is what the idea was for racing in 2013 so that's good and there are a lot of teams fighting at the front. I think Formula 1's great at the moment. I'm really enjoying racing."