To think that just over two weeks ago after Melbourne’s season-opening qualifying session we were bracing ourselves for a year of Mercedes domination. Somehow Ferrari, and Sebastian Vettel, has won the campaign’s opening two rounds. The first time the Scuderia has done so since its pomp of 2004.
It’s not been quite as simple as those days of demonstration runs in red. The Melbourne win owed much to external events. This time in Bahrain though it all of a sudden was down to pace, mixed on race day with some seat of the pants strategy. F1 whatever else happens never loses its capacity to surprise.
Quite where the Ferrari potency came from isn’t clear, but Bahrain is a very different challenge in temperature and layout to Australia; the Italian team also had worked on its troublesome front end between rounds. Add in F1’s capacity for voodoo and the Ferrari was the car to beat here.
It locked out the front row of the grid, Vettel ahead, and looked hard to stop. A recent F1 truism is that the usually haughty Mercedes is less happy relatively on softer tyre compounds, as well as when the temperatures go up. The combination of these in Bahrain led to it struggling with overheating the supersoft rubber in qualifying. Adding to its woe, gearbox damage from Melbourne meant Lewis Hamilton had to add five to his starting slot from the fourth place he managed in quali. But of course Mercedes is never to be counted out, and it sought to make a virtue of its vices.
It therefore selected a one-stop strategy, when two was expected for most, with the medium tyre taking the brunt of the distance. And it very nearly worked, giving us a classic finish with the sort of strategy variation converging in the late laps that the Pirelli formula is designed to create, but doesn’t always manage.
For a time after the first round of stops Vettel on the soft tyre looked high and dry with Valtteri Bottas near behind and unlike Vettel not planning to stop again. So Ferrari went for the approach of hanging on to the lead for grim death, aiming for 40 laps on a compound reckoned to only last for 30. And Vettel did hang on. Barely.
Bottas was Merc’s lead this weekend and he cleared Kimi Raikkonen off the line, sat in second in Vettel’s fumes and never gave him peace at any point of the race. Once the strategy game became clear the gap between the pair varied. Vettel stretched it to seven seconds with 20 laps left, but from then on Bottas cut Vettel’s lead time after time. With a handful of tours left he was taking a second out every lap and Vettel was snaking conspicuously in most turns. It looked a Bottas slam dunk.
As usual though the gains got more modest as he neared Vettel’s turbulence. Yet still he was just about within striking distance on the final lap and Bottas had a half-lunge for the lead at the first turn; he might though have been better to line himself up for turn four. As it was he lost momentum and there was nowhere else to pass on the lap. It was Vettel’s day.
And he was suitably exhilarated. ‘Those tyres were done, they were done, for the last few laps,? he exclaimed on his team radio.
‘I came on the radio with 10 laps to go and said I had everything under control. That was a lie, I had nothing under control?,’ he continued on the podium.
‘When they told me the pace of Valtteri at that time, I said no way I can do that.
‘I did the maths in the car and thought he was going to catch me. I tried to keep it as clean as possible.
‘[Bottas] going onto the medium tyre I thought that was checkmate as we had to come in again. That was the original plan but we diverted again and tried to make them last and nurse them as much as I could. And it worked but only just. There wasn’t much – Valtteri had a bit of a sniff but fortunately he ran out of laps so I am really happy.’
Bottas meanwhile was rueful. ‘I knew because we were on the harder compound that there was a chance they would struggle in the end, and he was starting to struggle,’ he said.
‘I was trying to get every lap and every corner perfect to catch him, but it was not enough. Being second with such close margin in the end is extremely disappointing.’
Hamilton was able to salvage third and provided typical fireworks climbing the order quickly, including passing Fernando Alonso, Esteban Ocon and Nico Hulkenberg in one go on lap five. He’d cleared all non-Ferraris and Mercs by lap eight, but even so he was 14 seconds off the lead and therefore there was nothing more to be done, even with the Mercedes master strategy.
Raikkonen was in the mix too, though he was removed when Ferrari sought to split its ticket by bringing him in for a second time, and he somehow was released even though his left-rear wheel hadn’t yet been removed yet let alone replaced. Kimi with a mixed set stopped immediately. A Ferrari mechanic has a broken leg.
The Red Bulls were out early. And desperately.
Max Verstappen – starting 15th after binning it in qualifying – looked racy as always but removed himself after just a lap, pushing things a little too far when passing Hamilton and getting a puncture from the resultant contact which put him out. And within seconds Daniel Ricciardo also was parked with some sort of electrical shutdown. Nil points. We yet await to see where Red Bull’s potential, strongly hinted at in 2018, actually lies. Practice here suggested it had the strongest race pace of all.
‘Frustrating for everyone because we genuinely felt like we had a good car coming into the race,’ said Ricciardo. ‘Only did a lap and a half, could see Kimi in front, looked like he was already sliding on the rears, felt like we were in with a chance.’
Toro Rosso meanwhile in Bahrain underlined in even thicker ink F1’s capacity to surprise. After tooling around off the pace in Australia, and having a familiar Honda failure, here it showed a level of pace in Pierre Gasly’s hands that even the team struggled to understand – even with its aero upgrade between times.
Gasly started fifth and finished a place higher in an astonishing result and performance. He showed fine willingness to battle too, including passing Ricciardo in the opening turns that no doubt will have caused Helmut Marko palpitations. The car even, Honda power unit and all, topped the speed traps.
‘I don’t know if we will be as fast in other races,’ Gasly added, betraying the disbelief around.
While for McLaren things also were desperate, being well off the midfield pace in qualifying – and a second off the similarly-engined Renault – in a way that again all struggled to explain. And that’s without mentioning what its old engine partner was up to. Or that it had just spent a cool $100m to get out of the relationship. Or that this is the home race of the folks who signed that cheque?
It did better in the race with a double points finish of seventh and eighth with Alonso ahead. Alonso indeed ran close behind Hulkenberg all the way, who got sixth. A combative Kevin Magnussen maintained Haas’s strong start to the year with fifth.
The under-rated Marcus Ericsson in the improving Sauber and then Esteban Ocon’s Force India completed the scorers.
We have but a week until the next instalment, in China. And given what we’ve experienced so far in 2018, you’d be advised not to predict what will happen next. A simple 2018 F1 season got a lot less simple this weekend in Bahrain.
Author: Graham Keilloh
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