It takes two to tangle: 2022 Bahrain GP

The Bahrain Grand Prix boiled down to a straight fight between Ferrari and Red Bull. Mark Hughes gives a drivers’ eye view

2022 Saudi Arabain Grand Prix start

Leclerc made good his escape at the start, leaving Verstappen to manage rising brake temperatures behind

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Amid the many intricate technicalities of the first race of the new F1, with its ‘easy passing’ ground-effect aero and bigger tyres, with the difficulties of keeping those Pirellis in shape and stopping the brakes from overheating away to nothing, amid all that – there was a race. A race for the win, human and emotional, and Charles Leclerc won it, giving Scuderia Ferrari its first victory since 2019. Max Verstappen made him work for it, and it wasn’t entirely clear which was actually the faster car. Leclerc had shaved pole 0.123sec ahead of Verstappen but the latter’s preparation lap had been a little compromised by traffic, his tyres not quite in the temperature window at the beginning of the lap. Leclerc had then won the start too, giving himself the big advantage at Bahrain of clear air. Clean air to keep the aero loads even and the tyres from being abused. Cool air to keep the brakes and PU in their happy place. For Sakhir is brutally hard on brakes and tyres. The layout allows no respite and temperatures can oh-so-easily get out of control.

So getting in front makes the winning of a race here so much easier. Yes, the new aero does seem to allow drivers to run closer to the car ahead. But that’s not of much use if the tyres or the brakes object to that. Sakhir is too severe a test to know whether that’s going to be the case everywhere (see column, p17) but this weekend that was the pattern. The tyres still had a lot of thermal degradation and the brakes were always on the verge of oxidisation.

But in between those hardpoints of definition there were slivers of opportunity to actually race – and Verstappen prised them apart. The Red Bull has had a more hurried preparation than the Ferrari, with lots of 11th-hour performance developments added – right up to the last day of testing. Ferrari simply arrived with a very well sorted new car and set about running it for as long as possible, racking up the miles and getting to understand it. It has a nicely driveable chassis and a potent power unit with a beautiful delivery from low down. It was only as qualifying unfolded that we found there was almost nothing in lap
time between the two cars regardless of how differently they behaved.

Carlos Sainz and Charles Leclerc on the 2022 Bahrain GP podium

Ferrari may have been fortunate to secure its 1-2 after Red Bull’s capitulation, but it still has a quick car

And that was the backdrop to the briefly fantastically intense struggle between Leclerc and Verstappen, Ferrari and Red Bull. Let’s pick it up on the eve of the first pitstops, after Leclerc had out-dragged the Red Bull off
the startline and edged out a 4sec lead over the next 14 laps, helped by the fact Verstappen had to do much of the first stint lifting and coasting to bring his brake temperatures under control, much to his irritation.

Carlos Sainz and Sergio Pérez in each team’s respective second cars were some way distant in third and fourth, just occasional specks in the mirrors under the floodlights. Mercedes is nowhere, Lewis Hamilton and George Russell an increasingly distant fifth and sixth. We start with how things are looking from Leclerc’s cockpit amid the whine of ERS motors and the chatter of the floor over the bumps, interspersed by crackles of radio conversation.

View from Ferrari: The gap to Verstappen behind is 3.7sec. There’s a bit of porpoising on the main straight.  A lot of lock is needed for the slow turns as the tyres are getting near the end of their life. “Stay where you are in the higher speed,” says engineer, Xavier Marcos. “You are doing a good job there.”

View from Red Bull: Although Leclerc’s tyres are degrading, Verstappen’s have degraded more. Leclerc is edging away. The pitstop window is open. It’s time to bring him in before he’s too far back to apply any undercut pressure on the Ferrari. Engineer Gianpiero Lambiase calls him in at the end of the 14th lap. A good 2.9sec stop (these big new wheels mean no more sub-2sec stops). Look after the tyres on the out-lap, Lambiase reminds Max. They hate being pushed hard from cold – and the blanket temperatures this year are only 70°C, not the previous 100.

Verstappen bristles at the instruction. Damn it, really? Take it easy on the out-lap? The very moment when Leclerc is at his most vulnerable on those degraded old tyres? Yeah, he knows the theory. It would just destroy his new tyres. But at least he could take his track position and fight afterwards. No, OK. The mind can overrule the heart this time. Like it so often has to. But damn, he wishes they could properly RACE.

Red Bull pitstop at 2022 Bahrain GP

Ferrari: “Verstappen is boxing this lap. Verstappen pitting now. And mode Box.” Leclerc had already made the switch change. He’s more animated on the steering now, pushing on, not worrying about abusing the tyres any more. He knows Verstappen is somewhere behind, going much faster. He cannot afford to lose anything. Those 4sec he led by will quickly be eaten up in this old vs new tyres lap. Exiting the pitlane: “We will be 1sec ahead; 1sec ahead of Verstappen.”

Red Bull: From inside the Red Bull’s cockpit, it’s a whole lot less than 1sec, Max carrying so much more momentum as Leclerc accelerates up to speed that there’s almost a possibility of just running straight around the Ferrari’s outside through Turn 1. But not quite. Leclerc wouldn’t allow him to do that. This much he knows. He’d run him out over the kerb, just like Max had done to him that time in Austria in 2019. No, stay calm. The Ferrari’s harvesting lights are flashing on as they go through Turn 4 and then down the hill through the sweeps.

Ferrari: Keep him behind but don’t abuse the new tyres. “SOC 8,” from the radio. That’s state of charge, the ERS setting determining deployment/harvesting rate. SOC 8 is quite heavy harvesting. “Verstappen behind with DRS.” Yes, that’s fine. Leclerc’s comfortable here, been racing Verstappen since they were kids, knows him of old.

Red Bull: Oh, Leclerc’s deliberately slow on this out-lap, just like he himself had been the previous lap. He almost crawls to a stop at Turn 8 and it’s hard not to swarm all over the Ferrari even though there are no passing o pportunities here. Same through 10. OK, just do the same. The opportunity is going to be with DRS on the pit straight, not here.

The Red Bull is running less downforce and is up to 4mph quicker even without DRS. With it, it will be more like 15mph and there’ll be no contest. Concentrate on timing it right, on not getting too close, too early through Turn 13 and onto the penultimate straight, because the focus is on getting a clean run through Turns 14/15 onto the pit straight. Don’t want to be doing that tight in the Ferrari’s slipstream. The new aero regs do seem to make it easier to stay close. But this move is going to be all about having greater momentum rather than slipstreaming.

“OK Max, I think we will have one go at it before we have issues with the brakes again.” It’s almost like Gianpiero is reading his mind. He knows he’s going to have a go at it. Good exit onto the straight – it feels like an age waiting for that DRS line. Deploy, and there’s that satisfying sight of the car in front almost being sucked up to you, so quickly does it increase in size. Leclerc’s in the middle of the track but favouring the outside. Steer calmly and unambiguously to the inside, foot flat to the floor over the bumps by the exit of the pitlane, floor chattering along the ground.

Sparks fly as Max Verstappen battles Charles Leclerc at the 2022 Bahrain GP

Sparks fly, both literally and figuratively, as Verstappen makes a dive inside Leclerc’s Ferrari

Ferrari: Here he comes slicing down the inside, spectacular as ever. Stay calm, let him do the extravagant stuff, place yourself perfectly so you’re close behind at the DRS detection point which lies actually in the braking zone for Turn 1. It’s so easy to try defending a place that’s already lost here by braking late but on the outside, getting to the DRS line ahead but losing the corner – and then having no DRS with which to retaliate because you were ahead at the detection line. But he doesn’t do that. He remains calm and gets Verstappen back with DRS as they race up to T4, passes him around the outside, cutting across his bows hard but clean.

Red Bull: The Ferrari, partly ahead but on the outside, veers a little towards the Red Bull as they arrive at the point of decision, Leclerc making his intentions clear. Verstappen doesn’t fight it. No point in having contact. This isn’t Hamilton at Silverstone. Leclerc then moves back out to give the space as he retakes the lead around the outside.

Ferrari: Max is still there, that yellow-tipped nose in his mirrors, pushing hard, and the Ferrari battery is now draining as Leclerc
has eaten into his ‘savings’ fighting the Red Bull on the out-lap. “SOC 10,” he is firmly instructed, maximum harvest, meaning minimum deployment.

“Verstappen behind with DRS.” As if he needed reminding of that fact again. He’s sure to come at him again. This is Max, after all.
OK, stay calm.

Red Bull: “He’s down on SOC, Max. He’s down on SOC.” Excellent. We’ve still got plenty of battery. No-one’s talking of brake temps. Good. Max won’t be interested anyway. He’s going to try it again.

Ferrari: “Gap to Verstappen behind, 0.9sec,” as they exit the final turn onto the pit straight. Stay hard left, on the outside, let him come – he has DRS, no point in fighting it. Let him by before the DRS detection line again. There he goes. Same as before, use the DRS to grind ahead up to T4, passing down the inside this time, an easier pass as now it’s Max’s turn to be out of battery. But he’s still there, buzzing around behind him like a troublesome wasp, and the Red Bull is quicker into the two hairpins Turns 8 and 10.

Red Bull: Into Turn 11. “Eyes on the dash, Max, for the brakes. We need a lift-off at this stage.”

Ferrari: “Verstappen has been asked to do a lift-off.” Yep, his brakes will be getting mighty hot after all that out-braking.

But what’s this? Here he comes again! Down the inside into T1 like before – only this time it’s so late that Leclerc actually crosses the DRS detection line first. He’ll be without DRS up to Turn 4. It’s only briefly alarming though because the Red Bull’s hot brakes aren’t having it and Verstappen locks a front wheel, pushing him out wide, losing him momentum, and it’s a simple matter to hook back around him through Turn 2. “Let me change the SOC. Come on!” pleads Leclerc. He must have enough battery charge now, surely? “SOC 8,” comes the reply. Some but not much. But it’s OK in fact – the moment of crisis has actually passed. Even Verstappen has to accept the laws of physics, and his brakes are just way too hot now.

Max Verstappen locks up alongside Charles Leclerc at the 2022 Bharain GP


With overheating brakes and tortured tyres, Verstappen locked up on his best chance to snatch the race lead

Red Bull: “The Turn 4 pass is available too, Max,” advises Lambiase. “Yes, but I can’t stay close enough to him through Turn 1.” Exactly. The Ferrari, with its lower gearing and beautiful engine delivery, is just too fast out of the corners for the Red Bull. The Red Bull is faster at the end of the straights but the Ferrari is getting there quicker. That defines the passing place as Turn 1,
not Turn 4.

Ferrari: “Gap to Verstappen behind 1.2.” Ah, good. That should be enough. He’s out of the DRS zone now. No more late DRS-assisted dives from him for a while.

OK, let’s get on with running this next stint, hammering home that advantage. Which in this era doesn’t mean pushing on. It means keeping it efficient, taking as little from tyres and brakes as possible while still maintaining good momentum.

Red Bull: Verstappen meanwhile is raging against those limitations. Raging against the machine. Why can’t F1 racing be like karts, where the harder you push, the faster you go? That way his limitless desire and attacking style would allow him to fight properly. “Impossible to race like this,” he tells no-one in particular. Just shouting it out to the world.

So they race on in this stalemate of tyre and brake temperatures, Leclerc building up his lead to around 4sec again by the time the second pitstop window opens. Verstappen has run out of tyre grip. “Understeer on entry, no traction on exit.” Later: “I’m completely stuck with my tools. I can’t get a balance with the car.” It’s time to come in.

Again Red Bull goes for the undercut, bringing Verstappen in on the 30th of the 57 laps. Again he’s told not to push the tyres too hard on the out-lap. “What was the gap to him?” he asks on the out-lap. “Too big for the undercut,” comes Lambiase’s reply. Translation: don’t even try it. You will destroy the tyres.

Again Ferrari pits Leclerc a lap later and again the red car exits the pitlane just ahead. So it wasn’t too big for the undercut! Which just infuriates Verstappen even more. “OK, this is now two times that I take it easy on the out-lap and I could easily have been in front. I’m never, ever doing it again.”

Max Verstappen walks away from Red Bull after retiring in 2022 Bahrain GP

Red Bull’s hopes were finally dashed when the team’s fuel pumps failed

Sergio Perez walks away from broken down Red Bull at the 2022 Bahrain GP

Pérez trudges away from his stranded Red Bull, which failed on the last lap

He says that now. But he’ll be calm later after the race, smiling and philosophical
even after being cruelly robbed of a finish a few laps from home. Red Bull had gambled on a third stop, but the new tyres didn’t bring him enough extra pace that he was going to catch Leclerc before the end. Then there was
a safety car for Pierre Gasly’s burning AlphaTauri (an electrical fire from the ERS-K) and Leclerc pitted for new tyres and exited still leading. He won the restart, with Verstappen hobbled by a strange pull on the steering and a delay between turning the steering and the wheels actually responding. A track rod may have been damaged as the car was dropped off the jacks. Sainz was all over him but not finding a way past, but was then gifted the place as the Red Bull’s fuel pump stopped delivering fuel to the engine. Still plenty in the tank, just none of it getting to the engine. The team hadn’t had time to do run-dry tests, like most of the others, or it might have discovered this problem earlier. Which is how a historic Ferrari 1-2 finish was locked into place.

Going into the last lap Pérez’s engine did the same as Verstappen’s, locking the rear wheels and spinning him out. Which is how Hamilton ended up taking a somewhat fortunate third place.

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