It’s only the second race of the season but the Sakhir circuit in Bahrain has been known to offer some truly dramatic races and that’s exactly what happened. But one man, in his Ferrari, was able to overcome the odds mounting against him and take the chequered flag – Sebastian Vettel.
Practice showed that the Reds were running a much quicker setup than the Silver Arrows, ahead of the Bulls, while Haas, Renault and the Honda-powered Toro Rosso brought up the middle order. Things didn’t look too good for defending champ Lewis Hamilton going into the weekend with a new gearbox that meant a five-place grid penalty but things didn’t get better when he qualified fourth fastest to start ninth on the grid. Teammate Valtteri Bottas managed to set a faster lap time to start third on the grid while the Ferrari’s locked out the front row with Sebastian Vettel on pole position and Kimi Raikkonen less than a tenth of a second slower. The Brit’s penalties moved Red Bull’s Daniel Ricciardo up to fourth on the grid followed by an astonishing performance by the young Pierre Gasly in the Toro Rosso Honda car starting fifth. Kevin Magnussen and Haas had another good qualifying and started sixth, ahead of Nico Hulkenberg and Esteban Ocon in that order. Carlos Sainz’s Renault filled the tenth spot on the starting grid behind the penalty-stricken Mercedes of Lewis. Max Verstappen meanwhile was starting the race in P15 after a technical error made him spin out in Q2. An unexpected burst of 150hp to the rear wheels while cornering would do that. Notably, Brendon Hartley in the Toro Rosso qualified quicker than Sergio Perez and both the McLarens.
When the lights went out on Sunday evening, things were hectic right off the line. Bottas went around the outside of Raikkonen in Turn 1 while Vettel made the most of his good start to stay in front. Behind them, Hamilton had managed to overtake two cars right away but was held back by the defensive inside line of Magnussen which put him back in ninth while Perez got spun around by Hartley and Gasly got past Ricciardo showing brilliant control. As they segued into the next turn, Hulkenberg pushed Magnussen off the track on the exit, but the Haas driver was having none of it and reciprocated in kind two corners later. Within the first lap, Lewis dropped down to 10th to stay clear of the chaos while Verstappen had moved up to 11th already. Down the start-finish straight, Verstappen made a lunge down the inside of Hamilton, made it stick but tried to force the Mercedes out wide through the exit making contact. The result was a puncture on the left rear of the Red Bull, leaving Verstappen to try and get the hobbled car all the way around to the pits on basically three tyres. Lap 2 was, in fact, the end of Red Bull’s run at Bahrain with one limping around the circuit and the other parked up along the side as Ricciardo suffered a gearbox issue and that was an early night for the team that could have had a chance at a podium finish.
The next few laps were under the restrictions of the Virtual Safety Car as Daniel’s car was recovered from the track and some teams made some last minute pit stops but things got intense real quick as the cars came down the start straight. Lewis Hamilton, in ninth, went to the extreme right lane to do a triple overtake running four cars wide to get past Alonso, Ocon and Hulkenberg in one swift manoeuvre. Vettel was still in front with Bottas a few seconds behind but the VSC meant he didn’t quite get to open a comfortable gap while Lewis was already up in P4 by Lap 8 even if he was more than 30 seconds behind. The front three were running on the Super Soft compound and would have to pit sooner than Hamilton who was on the Soft compound tyres. As Ferrari brought in Vettel to switch to the Soft set after Lap 18, Mercedes pulled a strategic feint but kept Bottas out on track. Kimi pitted the next lap to switch to Soft tyres as well, Ferrari running on a two-stop strategy and having the pace to make it work till the finish and the team seemed confident. But Mercedes got the drop on them when they brought in Bottas the next lap and put him on a set of Medium compound tyres which should last him until the finish. The pressure was on Ferrari and they knew it as Vettel and Kimi put the hammer down to make the most of the pitting changes while Hamilton briefly led the race having not made a pitstop.
Sebastian Vettel was able to catch up and pass him quite easily on his fresher tyres on Lap 25 while Lewis pitted on Lap 26, also to Medium compound tyres to make this a one-stop race and put himself back in contention. Bottas meanwhile was setting surprisingly quick lap times on the harder compound and keeping pace with Vettel and Raikkonen which did not allow the Ferraris to garner a big enough lead to pit again without potentially allowing Hamilton to get past them.
But as is the case in F1, in such high-stress situations anything can go wrong and that’s what happened in the red camp. Kimi came in on Lap 36 for his final set of tyres, running in P3 with a 20-second gap ahead of Lewis, to switch to the faster Super Soft compound for the final stint. It was supposed to be a routine pit stop but for some reason the left rear did not come off and a pit crew member was still working on it when Kimi drove off. Now, it is to be noted that the driver is supposed to look at a light in front of them and only drive when it turns green, and that is what Kimi did. But whoever switched the light to green to signal the Finn to drive off, did not see the problem at the rear end of the car. As a result, Kimi only had three new tyres and ended up injuring a pit crew member, having to retire his car in the pit lane just a few metres from their box. A disappointing moment for both Raikkonen and the team, who were also given a €50,000 fine for the entire incident.
This left Vettel running solo in P1 on degrading tyres, Bottas and Hamilton chasing him down on much more durable rubber, with another 20 laps to go. Ferrari engineers were furiously running the numbers for the best possible strategy as was Vettel in the cockpit and every Ferrari-Mercedes fan at home. The odds were in favour of Mercedes either way – Vettel could pit and settle for P3 or he could risk having a tyre blowout from pushing it too far and not finish anywhere near the podium. There were more active and engaging battles behind the top three who were almost 50 seconds ahead of P4, but now it was all down to skill. As it happens, Sebastian Vettel has an abundance of that and he used every ounce of it, focussing very hard to keep his Ferrari ahead of the rapidly catching Mercedes of Valtteri Bottas. Hamilton was still some way away in third and with Vettel not stopping as anticipated, he was pretty much out of the battle for the lead. The last five laps were particularly intense as Bottas closed the gap on Vettel, sometimes a second per lap as we saw the Ferrari tiptoe around corners trying to keep itself from sliding. As the two cars came down the start-finish straight for the final lap, Vettel did well to hold off Bottas (DRS enabled) and clung on. Every straight, every series of quick corners, the Ferrari was clearly clinging on for dear life on tyres that had been put through nearly twice the expected lifespan, and the Mercedes right on its tail, but it was not to be.
It was Vettel’s race, the man who started on pole position and essentially led the race from start to finish except for the pitting phase, and he’s the one who crossed the finish to take a hard-earned victory. Valtteri Bottas crossed the line in P2 just 0.7 seconds behind while Lewis Hamilton finished P3 after an impressive performance of his own. But the true driver of the day was Toro Rosso Honda’s young recruit – Pierre Gasly who drove impeccably, impressively and infallibly to secure a P4 finish and score his first ever points in Formula One.
Haas will be happy with Magnussen securing P5 after their disaster in Australia, getting them their first points of the season while Grosjean’s weekend was nowhere near as satisfactory. He qualified 16th fastest and finished in P13, but the team was careful with their pit stops even if it meant staying a second longer in the box to ensure both cars finished. Hulkenberg finished far behind his Haas rival in P6 getting his team much-needed points while Carlos Sainz finished just outside of the points in P11. The rest of the bunch were a lap behind the top three as Alonso and Vandoorne gave McLaren back-to-back double points finish as they crossed the line in P7 and P8 respectively, impressive after a relatively poor qualifying 13th and 14th fastest respectively. Another unexpectedly impressive performer of the night was Marcus Ericcson in the Alfa Romeo Sauber who started 17th on the grid and managed a P9 finish while his teammate in his debut F1 season, Charles Leclerc, started 19th and was in P12 as he crossed the chequered flag.
For any of you who saw the highlights or caught the race are wondering why the bottom half of the results seem different, it’s because Toro Rosso’s Brendon Hartley, who drove very well and crossed the line in P10, was given a 10-second penalty for an earlier altercation with Sergio Perez and hence is listed last in the final classifications. That helped Force India score their first points of the season as it moved Esteban Ocon up into P10 while Perez who crossed the line last gets a P16 classification. The Williams Mercedes team had a disappointing weekend after Lance Stroll qualified the slowest and finished in P14 while his teammate Sergey Sirotkin qualified 18th and secured a P15 finish.
The Formula One action will resume just next weekend as everyone heads to Shanghai, China for the third round of F1 2018. Ferrari and Vettel have won both races so far, and it’s been a LONG time since a driver who won the opening rounds didn’t end up winning the championship, unlikely Vettel will be looking to break that kind of statistic. With 19 races to go, it’s too early to call the season, but Mercedes and Ferrari seem to be more evenly matched this year. Will Red Bull be able to turn around their fortunes? Or will Haas become a top three contender? Can Pierre Gasly deliver another impressive performance next time out? There’s so much to look forward to so don’t forget to subscribe for the latest updates from F1 and Formula E too and share your thoughts in the comments below.
Final Race Standings:
- S. Vettel Ferrari – 1:32:01.940
- V. Bottas Mercedes +0.699
- L. Hamilton Mercedes +6.512
- P. Gasly Scuderia Toro Rosso Honda +62.234
- K. Magnussen Haas Ferrari +75.046
- N. Hulkenberg Renault +99.024
- F. Alsono McLaren Renault +1 lap
- S. Vandoorne McLaren Renault +1 lap
- M. Ericcson Alfa Romeo Sauber Ferrari +1 lap
- E. Ocon Force India Mercedes +1 lap
- C. Sainz Renault +1 lap
- C. Leclerc Alfa Romeo Sauber Ferrari +1 lap
- R. Grosjean Haas Ferrari +1 lap
- L. Stroll Williams Racing Mercedes +1 lap
- S. Sirotkin Williams Racing Mercedes +1 lap
- S. Perez Force India Mercedes +1 lap
- B. Hartley Scuderia Toro Rosso Honda +1 lap
- K. Raikkonen Ferrari DNF
- M. Verstappen Aston Martin Red Bull Racing DNF
- D. Ricciardo Aston Martin Red Bull Racing DNF