By Alan Baldwin
MANAMA (Reuters) - Lewis Hamilton is keeping his fingers crossed that he and Ferrari rival Sebastian Vettel can have a proper battle in Bahrain on Sunday after last year's race did neither of them any favours.
Vettel, now joint leader of the Formula One championship with Mercedes's Hamilton after two races, was unable to start the 2016 grand prix at Sakhir due to an engine failure on the formation lap.
The German, who had qualified third behind the then-dominant Mercedes drivers, has been alongside Hamilton on the front row so far this year.
"It (the title battle) is going to go right down to the end of the season, and I hope there's nothing mechanical that will come in between our sheer battle through ability," said Hamilton after winning in China last weekend.
"I really, really hope it's just an out and out fight through stubbornness, through mental stability, through fitness, composure...," he added.
Vettel, a four times world champion with Red Bull, and triple champion Hamilton have 43 points apiece after one victory and second place each.
Unless both draw a blank, the deadlock must be broken on Sunday at a desert circuit where both are two times winners and returning in rather better mood than they left last year.
There is a real sense of anticipation about the emerging scrap between two great rivals with a huge determination to win and no less mutual respect of each other's talents and achievements.
"He is at his best and he is phenomenally quick," Hamilton said of Australian Grand Prix winner Vettel. "Ferrari are at their best in years. We're at our best as a team, and I feel like I'm at my best.
"The ultimate fighter always wants to go up against the best battle he can have because then when you come out on top, it's so much more satisfying. I love this fight."
Last year's race in Bahrain does not hold great memories for either of the current Mercedes drivers, either.
Hamilton made a slow start from pole and collided on the first lap with the Williams of Valtteri Bottas, his new team mate this season, who was punished by stewards for his move.
Bottas, who has replaced last year's winner and retired world champion Nico Rosberg, will not want reminding of that as he seeks to move on from a spin behind the safety car that cost him points in China.
Mercedes should be favourites, after winning the last three races at Sakhir, but Ferrari are sharp on strategy and have shown they flourish in hotter conditions.
"I think they will be very, very quick in the next race but there's a lot of straights there as well and we've obviously got, I think, still the strongest power unit on the grid," commented Hamilton.
"So I think that will come into play, for sure."
The race will also see the return of Sauber's Pascal Wehrlein, who has missed two races due to fitness issues, and of former commercial supremo Bernie Ecclestone, attending a race for the first time since his ouster by Liberty Media.
The 86-year-old Briton told Reuters that a Vettel v Hamilton battle was win-win for the sport.
"They are both good friends of mine so I don't care who wins. It would be nice to see Ferrari win... I'd like to see Sebastian win, But it would also be nice to see Lewis put another notch on his gun," he said.
(Editing by John O'Brien)