JEDDAH: Max Verstappen may start as favourite, but Fernando Alonso will have widespread popular support this weekend when this year's Formula One season resumes at the Saudi Arabian Grand Prix.
After his dashing and surprising podium finish behind the two Red Bulls at the season-opening Bahrain Grand Prix two weeks ago, the 41-year-old Spaniard has played down high expectations of a repeat in his sleek new Aston Martin.
But he knows that the high-speed Jeddah Street Circuit, a thin hair-clip of asphalt squeezed above a lagoon on the corniche, 12 kilometres north of the city, offers a very different challenge to man and machine.
"I think that we found, in Bahrain, that we were strong in things that maybe we won't have in Jeddah, or in Melbourne," he explained.
"So, if we are strong again, in these two races, I think we are going to have a very good year.
"I am curious about these races -- very different circuits, with high-speed corners and very low degradation. It's going to be very different."
After his commanding victory in Bahrain, ahead of Red Bull team-mate Sergio Perez, defending world champion Verstappen will be the man to beat with Aston Martin, Ferrari and Mercedes in hot pursuit.
Perez, who finished fourth last year after starting from pole position, will seek to prove he is more than the supporting cast to the Dutchman's starring role on the kind of track that usually suits his style.
"I was unlucky last year, with the timing of a safety car," he said. "It will be interesting this time."
Ferrari, under new management and enthused by fresh hope, will also want to make a statement at a circuit where they finished second and third last season, but will start on the back foot with Charles Leclerc taking a 10-place grid penalty for taking a new electronic control unit.
After a disappointing, if not desultory, display at the season-opener, Mercedes, similarly, require a much-improved showing to lift morale.
Seven-time world champion Lewis Hamilton and George Russell struggled for pace in Bahrain and are likely to suffer a similar fate on Sunday.
"We have a few small developments for the car," said team boss Toto Wolff. "Not game-changers, but they might move us in the right direction."
If Mercedes slump again -- they won eight successive constructors' titles before Red Bull took their crown last year -- it could lead to a radical re-think and the end for their much-criticised W14 car.
That once-unthinkable prospect will be brought forward notably if the factory team is out-raced again by their Silverstone-based customer outfit Aston Martin.
"I think the car we have now is just a very basic one, a completely new concept launched for this season," said Alonso.
"So, I believe we have a lot more to come in terms of development -- and I am optimistic."
Verstappen has recognised the strong threat from rival teams to his title defence, but believes his Red Bull package has the blend of high-speed handling characteristics and pure power to triumph again.
"We have a strong car for this track, but I don't expect it to be easy," said the 25-year-old Dutchman, who praised several modifications made to the circuit after complaints about the danger of poor visibility at certain corners last year.
"The changes have improved things, hopefully," he added. "It was definitely dangerous in some areas for the drivers." - AFP