SAKHIR, Bahrain — Having ended a 12-race drought with a dominant victory in China, Ferrari's Fernando Alonso is quickly emerging as the most likely candidate to end Sebastian Vettel's dominance.
The two-time Formula One champion has the chance to overtake Vettel in the drivers' championship with a victory Sunday in 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.
Sporadic protests were reported outside the track Thursday but circuit's chairman Zyed Alzayani said he knew of no threats against the race and was confident it would go off safely.
Four days after his win in the Chinese GP, Alonso spent much of Thursday tamping down expectations that he was the favorite to win the F1 title.
"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 three winners – with Lotus driver Kimi Raikkonen claiming victory in the season-opening Australian GP and Red Bull's 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," Alonso said. "The Red Bull cars we know are probably the strongest, so they will be there as well, and Kimi is doing fantastic. He is driving maybe better than anyone."
Vettel, the three-time defending series champion, admitted the team's strategy in China didn't work after he completed the final lap of qualifying on the harder of two tire 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 there were "a couple of things we can do better working with tires, 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, the winner last year in Bahrain. "We have a quick car and we proved that in Melbourne and Malaysia."