2017 Bahrain Grand Prix report

by Mark Hughes on 17th April 2017

Mark Hughes reports from Bahrain 

The contest rages on and for the third time in three races it was close enough between the red and the silvers that only outside factors decided it – in this case in favour of Sebastian Vettel and Ferrari. We still have no clear answer as to which car can actually beat which in a straight uninterrupted race, but again it looks suspiciously like the Ferrari is the better, more flexible car on a Sunday, the Mercedes ultimately faster at its peak over one lap on a Saturday. Ferrari’s pace on the super-soft tyre in the race was significantly better than Merc’s and that looked likely to have given Vettel the edge regardless of how it had played out. 

Because Vettel has now won two races from three and his team-mate Kimi Räikkönen continues a lacklustre run, Mercedes’ policy of trying to provide its drivers with equal opportunities is beginning to hurt them in what already looks like a tight championship fight. Valtteri Bottas narrowly eclipsed Lewis Hamilton in qualifying to set his first pole but for a variety of factors didn’t have good pace on race day. Merc’s initial reluctance to move him aside for Hamilton after Vettel had undercut his way past Bottas for the lead lost Lewis valuable time that ultimately might have cost Mercedes a victory. They eventually had to make the call, and Bottas moved aside, but for the previous three years such calls have only usually decided which of its own two drivers might beat the other. But now that delaying such calls are potentially losing it races to a rival team, it would seem there are some hard choices coming up. “It’s a call you don’t want to make,” admitted Toto Wolff, “and it’s only when the moment comes that if you do nothing you are definitely going to lose the race that you are forced into this unpopular action.”

The way it played out, Bottas (with over-pressured tyres because of a generator failure on the grid preventing the excess being bled off) led away, Vettel immediately got between Bottas and Hamilton, which left Mercedes tactically disadvantaged. After circulating together at Bottas’s compromised pace, Ferrari pulled the undercut plug aggressively early, bringing Vettel in on the 10th lap. This was pretty much guaranteed to have bought him the lead but then a safety car (for a Lance Stroll/Carlos Sainz collision) put that lead in jeopardy, just as in China. But on this occasion delays in the Mercedes pits (a malfunctioning airgun) ensured Vettel retained the lead regardless. With Merc double-stacking, Hamilton backed off to delay Daniel Ricciardo behind him – but excessively so. For this he was awarded a 5sec penalty.

After the restart Vettel on another set of super-softs quickly pulled time out on Bottas, who on super-softs simply didn’t have the pace to live with the Ferrari. “He needs to go faster,” urged the soft-shod Hamilton from right behind. “We can’t let the Ferrari get away.” In the laps it took for a decision to be made to ask Bottas to allow his team-mate past, Hamilton lost around 4sec to Vettel. As his tyres held on longer than the softer rubber on the Ferrari, Hamilton took chunks out of Vettel’s lead. Ferrari brought Seb in for a second time before it was too late. His pace was then such that Hamilton couldn’t get anywhere near enough of a margin to make his second stop without losing the lead and so stayed out long enough to maximise the final stint tyre advantage he would have. On tyres eight laps newer than Vettel’s he chased the Ferrari back down – Bottas obliged to move aside to ease his passage for a second time – but ultimately fell short by a few seconds.  

It looked closer than it probably was, as Vettel drove a masterfully controlled race in the fastest car on the night. Bottas finished a dispirited third 14sec behind his delayed team-mate, but surely will take great sustenance from his pole. The pace still wasn’t there in the final stint, even on the soft that the Merc seemed to prefer. His rubber was just not getting into the temperature window and as he struggled with oversteer it was all he could do to fend off a late-charging Räikkönen who’d had a busy race getting past various Red Bulls and Felipe Massa’s Williams after another mediocre qualifying. 

Qualifying

On the one hand the Sakhir track is more power-sensitive than either of the previous two races – and it therefore offered more lap time reward for the Q3 engine mode power advantage that Mercedes holds over Ferrari. That decided the all-Merc front row – the Ferrari’s closest lap more than half a second adrift of pole.

On the other hand, as Vettel pointed out, it was more like qualifying from the last few years in that achieving the best lap involved some tyre management. It wasn’t your standard 2017 push flat-out for the whole lap. The circuit is just too abrasive, too many low-gear acceleration zones following in too quick a succession, for even the tougher ’17 tyres. That, in hindsight, decided which Merc driver was on pole and which was a few hundredths behind. Thus did Valtteri Bottas secure the first pole of his F1 career.

In Q2 and the first Q3 attempt, Bottas was taking more from the tyres than Hamilton on the out-lap and in the first two sectors. It was giving him slightly faster times in sectors one and two – but overworking his tyres to the extent that Hamilton could overcome all the deficit just in the final sector. The overall difference was tiny, but suggested Bottas needed a slightly softer initial approach. He is slowly but surely putting together the pieces of getting the best from a complex piece of kit as he becomes more familiar with it. For his final lap he was much gentler on the out-lap, particularly through the sweeps of the middle sector where he was 7sec slower than before. It made the crucial difference; marginally slower than before through the first two sectors, he more than made up the difference from the improvement in tyre grip at the end of the lap. It shaded Hamilton’s first Q3 run by 0.02sec and with Hamilton overcooking things slightly on his second run, Bottas secured his career first pole.

Like most of his race, Valtteri is not over-demonstrative but his delight was nonetheless obvious. “Really, really happy,” he insisted. “It’s my fifth season of F1 and finally I have my first pole. I think we did a really good job with the team this weekend, really focussing on the [cooler] evening conditions. With the set-up we managed to get a lot of cool track lap time out of it. It’s not an easy track to get everything right. It’s quite technical, quite a few braking points and turn ins where it’s easy to have a lock-up or just miss the apex slightly.”

On his final run Hamilton suffered an oversteer snap out of the long uphill Turn 10, costing him almost three tenths. Contest over. “I knew after the first run I had a fight on my hands,” said Lewis. “The first lap felt great and I looked up at the screens and saw how close he was and I thought, ‘Wow, he’s going some…’"

The advantage that Mercedes gets from its Q3 engine mode over Ferrari was always going to be bigger here than around Albert Park or Shanghai – but Vettel wasn’t expecting it to be in the order of 0.4sec. “We tweaked the balance for today after a few problems yesterday,” he said, “and the balance was good. In Q2 [where he was on the same tenth as the Mercs] I thought, ‘OK, this will be tight’ and I was very happy with my first Q3 lap. I looked up, saw they were both ahead and then when I got the times, yeah I was a bit down. On the next run obviously if I went a tenth quicker it wasn’t enough so I tried to do a bit more and I had a good gap to the cars behind so I risked a bit more but it didn’t work. I just went slower.”

Räikkönen in the sister car was yet again in understeer hell and failed to get the car balanced. He was two places behind, almost 0.3sec slower. He’d lost much of Friday morning to an overheated turbo and so was still trying to find that elusive one-lap balance. He reckoned it was much better than in the first two races, but the lap itself wasn't great. Splitting the red cars, marginally faster than Kimi, was Daniel Ricciardo’s Red Bull who pulled it out the bag on his final run, having trailed team-mate Max Verstappen up until that point. The RB13's weak front end wasn’t punished anything like as badly at this rear-limited track than at the two front-limited previous events and Ricciardo’s fourth-fastest time was within 0.8sec of pole.

Max Verstappen put the other Red Bull sixth, frustrated that he’d been forced to trail slowly on the out lap in order to build a gap to Massa’s Williams ahead, this allowing the tyres to cool below their optimum, in turn costing him a couple of tenths in the first sector.

Nico Hülkenberg again unleashed an excellent couple of laps – the first of which put the Renault into Q3, the next slotting him seventh on the grid just a couple of tenths off Verstappen despite only having the tyres for one Q3 run. “That was one of my best qualifying laps together with my pole in Brazil 2010,” he said. “It’s quite a tricky track to get a perfect lap, b­­­­ut I think I extracted the maximum possible today.” Jolyon Palmer, having gone the wrong way on set-up in the practices, came back and acclimatised to the new feeling of the car to get through to Q3 for the first time (though he was still 0.7sec adrift of his team-mate). In Q3 he selected the wrong engine mode, thereby failing to match his Q2 time, leaving him 10th.

Massa’s Williams and Grosjean’s Haas slotted in between the Renaults, Felipe a couple of tenths adrift of Hülkenberg while Romain professed himself much happier with the Haas than in morning practice when he’d given his crew a busy time to get his car ready in time after spinning and crashing on the exit of Turn 14. Both Haas cars continue to be troubled by locking front brakes. Team-mate Kevin Magnussen failed to make it out of Q1, a solid last after his second run fell victim to yellow flags for the stationary car of Sainz. Massa’s team-mate Lance Stroll went 13th fastest, with his single set of super-softs (the other two having been used in getting through Q1). Tyre preparation was tricky on Saturday evening and contributed to his caution, which left him 0.5sec adrift of Massa.

Kvyat’s Toro Rosso just failed to make Q3, after he locked up at the final corner and he’d start 11th. Sainz had just set the fastest sector one time of all – and looked set for P7 after two sectors – in Q1 when the power unit failed as he approached the final turn. He was distraught to be starting only 16th on a day that promised so much more, this after having missed much of Friday to a broken exhaust having melted a wiring loom.

Pascal Wehrlein made a great comeback in the Sauber by slotting it into Q2 and going 13th fastest there. Team-mate Marcus Ericsson was 0.5s slower in Q1 and in the penultimate place.

Force India’s form at this track had deserted them. The downforce drops off the rear of the car in the transient part of the turn in a way that isn’t happening in simulation. Esteban Ocon was 14th, a couple of tenths adrift of Wehrlein’s Sauber. Sergio Pérez was another to get caught out by the yellow flags at the final corner of Q1 for the stationary Toro Rosso and lined the other Force India up 18th.

On this power track the McLaren was the slowest car in the place. Fernando Alonso scraped his into Q2 where he failed to record a time after another MGU-h failure. Stoffel Vandoorne was a couple of tenths adrift, suffering brake lock ups and back in 17th. He had suffered two MGU-h failures during practice that had limited his track time.   

Race

The floodlights came on as dusk descended, the grid a crazy activity of people going about their tasks in between the cars, film crews and the racks of blanketed tyres. But there was one car not pictured in the scene, secreted away in its garage, its cockpit empty. Stoffel Vandoorne would be taking no part in the race, the Honda having blown another MGU-h unit, its third of the weekend.

A generator failure meant the final tyre pressure adjustments couldn’t be made to the pole-sitting Mercedes of Bottas and he’d be starting with higher than ideal pressures. Everyone apart from Ericsson would start the race on the super-soft, the expectation being a two-stop race, the track layout ensuring the rears would degrade quite quickly.

Bottas had no difficulty maintaining his position in the rush down to the first turn, Hamilton bogged down slightly and Vettel was able to get around his outside into there, grinding ahead on the inside into two. Verstappen out-accelerated Räikkönen and Ricciardo, squeezing around his team-mate through 1-2, the pair then leaning on each other up the short chute to Turn 4, sparks cascading from the underbodies, Räikkönen getting momentum on them and trying for a run around the outside, but locking up, allowing Massa to nip by the second Ferrari between the exit of four and into five. Down the hill screamed the pack, Hülkenberg’s Renault now on Räikkönen’s tail and chased by Grosjean, the squabbling Ocon/Kvyat/Sainz, then Palmer, Perez, Stroll, Alonso, Magnussen, Wehrlein and Ericsson. And so the game began, early desperate skirmishes down the pack, Sainz blocking his team-mate after they crested the rise of Turn 12, Kvyat locking up in avoidance and running off the track, rejoining near the back, Palmer and Perez rubbing tyre sidewalls, the Force India making it past.

They weren’t spreading out at the front, Bottas’ compromised pace keeping Vettel, Hamilton and the two Red Bulls tight in his train. Vettel began to get a good feeling. The SF70H was giving him good messages, he could see the Merc drivers wrestling with their cars more than he needed to, the tyres felt fine at this pace. This was beginning to feel a little like Melbourne. Another feeling good at this time was Ricciardo. “I was at the back of that first pack and I could see everyone else in front of me. They were sliding and looked like they were struggling more. It was quite easy for me to stay there and I was looking after my tyres, so at that point I was thinking it could be on today, not only for a podium but for a win.”

By the time Räikkönen had found a way back ahead of Massa, diving out of the Williams’ slipstream under DRS into Turn 1 on lap eight, he was 3sec off the back of the leading quintet. Magnussen retired at this time as the Haas’ engine cut out and Stroll made for the pits to replace his flat-spotted tyres.

Ferrari had Merc in an invidious position, with Vettel sitting between their two cars, clearly in better shape, easier on the tyres and therefore with more strategic options open. A standard first stint on the super-softs was expected to be in the region of 15 laps, in order not to have too many laps to cover in the remaining stints. But Ferrari was confident it could use its tyre range to dare to go way earlier on the first stop than Mercedes – and brought Vettel in for the undercut on Bottas at the end of the 10th lap, as soon as there was a nice gap to drop into. He was fitted with another set of the super-softs. There was no point Mercedes responding – the position had effectively already been lost and they were now running a net 2-3 once they made their stops.

Verstappen came in a lap after Vettel, going for the undercut on Hamilton, just underlining how vulnerable Bottas’ compromised pace was making everything. The Red Bull undercut move never got to play out as Verstappen’s rear brakes failed on his out-lap up to Turn 4 and he skated off into retirement.

Räikkönen, Grosjean and Sainz came in on the next lap but the latter made an error of judgement as he exited back onto track just as Stroll was flying by on his left, braking hard for Turn 1. Just as with Maldonado on Gutiérrez a couple of years ago, Sainz failed to anticipate that Stroll would be at the apex by the time he arrived at the same place and Stroll would have no way of seeing him. They collided heavily, the Williams flipped up onto two wheels, steam pouring from ruptured radiators. The Toro Rosso pulled off with broken suspension. This brought out the safety car and Vettel’s heart sank, thinking back to how he lost out last week.

Everyone who had yet to pit would obviously now do so and with Vettel restricted to safety car speeds just like those making their way to the pits, his earlier time loss to the Mercs when he’d made his stop potentially wouldn’t be paid back. Bottas headed the line of cars peeling off into the pitlane. Hamilton knew he needed to back away 5sec from Bottas so as to keep Ricciardo off their back (otherwise a queuing Hamilton would be overtaken by a non-queuing Ricciardo, and possibly others) and managed to get about 4sec back before entering the pitlane. Once in there, he continued to back the Red Bull up – and that’s not allowed. He was awarded a 5sec penalty for the offence.

But Bottas had suffered a delay of his own, with the wheelgun problem and then had to wait to be released as Ricciardo was about to cut across his bows to get to his box. All this allowed Vettel to maintain his lead as the pack lined up behind the safety car. Bottas lay second ahead of Hamilton (who’d suffered the same wheel gun delay as Bottas), Massa, Räikkönen (who’d lost out to Massa by having stopped a lap before the safety car), Hülkenberg, the non-stopping Ericsson, Pérez, Grosjean (who’d lost out to Pérez through stopping before the safety car), Ocon (similarly disadvantaged by the safety car), Alonso, Palmer, Kvyat and Wehrlein.

Alonso, Palmer and Kvyat would later proceed to have a ding-dong battle lasting for many laps, with bits of bodywork and tyre rubber exchanged – and Alonso ranting on the radio that he’d never driven with so little power. In his life! He pulled out with an unspecified problem near the end when it was evident he wasn’t going to finish in the points.

Up front Vettel sprinted off when the safety car came in at the end of the 16th lap, but on his cold tyres he was a little understeery through turns 1-2-3, putting him on a compromised exit onto the short straight. Bottas, having warmed up his super-softs more, was ready to pounce. With Vettel defending the inside up to four, the Mercedes went for the outside, but locked up as he tried to turn, just missing the opportunity. Thereafter, with his tyres up to temperature, Vettel left the Mercedes easily behind. Even with the correct pressures in his new set, Bottas still could not get the Mercedes working on the super-soft and as he coped with oversteer the Ferrari edged away by up to half-a-second per lap. Hamilton, on the soft tyre, had immediately passed Ricciardo into Turn 1 and was being held up now by Bottas and was acutely aware that Vettel was escaping. Ricciardo on new softs just couldn’t get them switched on and after being passed by Hamilton lost a further place to Massa up to Turn 4 and to Raikkonen at Turn 11. “We just never got that tyre working all day,” rued Daniel. “No grip, front or rear.”

Mercedes had split its tyre choice between the two cars in order to assess which would work better. In theory it was the super-soft. But there was nervousness about committing to it with both cars because of the stint Bottas had just had. Had that been just pressures, or was the Merc simply not able to get that tyre into its sweet spot? Bottas adjusted his diff and as many of the other controls as he could to bring a better balance, but still the car was a handful. Hamilton urged the team to get Bottas to go quicker and a message was relayed to him that Hamilton was on a different tyre strategy. Lewis was suggesting that he be allowed past to attack Vettel and if he couldn’t make it past the Ferrari he’d hand the place back. Bottas picked his pace up – but it wasn’t by enough. Vettel continued to pull away and was 6sec in front by the 26th lap. There was then a specific instruction to Bottas to allow the other Mercedes past – and this happened coming into the final turn to begin the 27th lap. On his first lap in clear air Hamilton was 1.3sec faster than Vettel and for the next few laps Hamilton on full attack reeled the Ferrari in.

Bottas was left far behind, running out of rear grip and was brought in for his softs on the 30th lap. Three laps later Hamilton had got to within 4sec of Vettel and Ferrari brought the leader in for his second stop – when a set of softs were fitted. He exited behind his yet-to-stop team-mate but Räikkönen – who had long-since repassed Massa and left him well behind – soon made way for him.  On his new tyres Vettel was lapping a second or more faster than the leader Hamilton. The Mercedes was nowhere near far enough ahead to be able to stop without losing the lead. Was any thought given to leaving him out there on a one-stop? “It was considered for a few seconds,” answered Toto Wolff, “but the degradation rates meant he would have been passed not just by Vettel before the end but probably several others too. It was never a realistic strategy.”

Räikkönen was on the radio suggesting he be brought in before he was undercut by Ricciardo. Ferrari finally relented on the 37th lap. Hamilton was left out until lap 41 to give a final stint on new softs of 16 laps. That was calculated as the optimum trade-off between the time initially lost by staying out longer and time gained by running the new tyres harder for the shorter final stint and giving him half-a-chance of still having a grip advantage over Vettel by the time he reached him. “Why am I on these tyres?” he queried the choice of new softs. But the super-softs were deemed just too risky after the nightmare stints of Bottas. Hamilton’s late stop (and the 5sec penalty there) ensured he’d fallen back behind his team mate and would soon require his co-operation again as he set chase for Vettel.

After everyone had made their second stops, Räikkönen lay a distant fourth, a few seconds clear of Ricciardo, with Massa, Pérez and Grosjean equally spaced behind. The latter two had managed to undercut their way past Hülkenberg’s Renault, which was proving hard on its tyres.  

With 10 laps to go Hamilton, having been allowed a second free pass on Bottas, was 13sec behind the leader. He was going quicker – but not enough so. He was going to run out of laps, and that’s the way it played out. He finally called off his attack three from the end, by which time he was 5.8sec adrift. Without the 5sec penalty it would obviously have been closer, but who is to say how much Vettel had in hand. Even without the Mercedes mishaps, the Ferrari again looked the faster, more raceable car – and Vettel made clinical use of it to rack up his 44th career win.

A distant third for Bottas was poor follow-up from the breakthrough pole the day before, with Räikkönen bearing down fast on him by the end. Riccardo’s fifth was about par for a Red Bull on the day, Daniel having earlier fought his way back ahead of Massa who was quite satisfied with his sixth. Pérez yet again raced strongly and pulled a result out of the bag for Force India – seventh from 18th having been aided a little by luck but he’d capitalised well. Grosjean, Hülkenberg and Ocon completed the points scorers.

“At the beginning of the stints I didn’t really push at all,” claimed Vettel, “and just responded to what those [Mercedes] guys were doing, which obviously helped me in the end because I had a lot of tyre left… Things have started to click here and hopefully the success we’ve had in these early races helps us build up some sort of momentum that maybe these guys had in the past. It’s a long season but I’m looking forward to tonight.”

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