So, with a good old-fashioned gloves-off scrap of a race, Formula 1 gave a timely rebuff to the notion that the fuel flow era is a ‘taxi-drivers’ contest.
Even before a moment of Pastor Maldonado madness gave us a late safety car, that made the last 10 laps a brilliantly vivid flat-out contest through the field, this had been a great race, at the heart of which was a fantastically close contest between Mercedes’ Lewis Hamilton and Nico Rosberg.
“No,” Lewis had said irritated, on Friday, when asked if he expected his advantage over Nico from Malaysia to carry through to here. “He’s had a chance to look at my telemetry there and understand how I was doing it.”
Yet into the long runs of Friday Practice 2, Lewis had still been able to turn the same lap time as Rosberg whilst using less fuel. For much of that session he was using just 1.6kg per lap compared to 1.75kg for the sister W05, promising Hamilton a race day advantage.
For a 57-lap race of the second-highest fuel demand circuit on the calendar – lots of high-speed braking into slow corners followed by lots of low-gear acceleration – that calculated out to just over 91kg for Hamilton and 99.75kg for Rosberg.
Being better able to live with a bit of corner-entry rear instability seemed to be at the heart of it, enabling Lewis to carry more momentum just like at Sepang and therefore needing less acceleration on exit and less fuel.
“Into Saturday Rosberg was looking, if anything, slightly the faster of the Merc drivers.”
But as the weekend progressed that advantage started to evaporate. The track evolved, the balance became ever more understeery and into Saturday Rosberg was looking, if anything, slightly the faster of the Merc drivers, this the prelude to his taking pole by 0.3s, Lewis flat-spotting into turn one on his final attempt and abandoning.
Nothing else was even on the same planet as the works W05s and without a wet track to disguise its advantage, it was over 0.9s clear of best of the rest – Daniel Ricciardo’s Red Bull, though Danny would take a 10-place penalty carried over from Malaysia and in his place, third on the grid, was the Williams of Valtteri Bottas, heading a closely matched group that comprised Sergio Pérez’s Force India, Kimi Räikkönen’s Ferrari, Jenson Button’s McLaren and Felipe Massa’s Williams.
With 20 minutes to go before the 6pm race start, the shadows cast on the desert scree by the floodlight pylons were getting long and the track temperature had already started to plummet. As the cars sat on the grid, it was down to 29 degrees from its earlier 54 degrees.
This was to have a significant bearing on the shape of the race for it reduced the prime tyre’s disadvantage over the option (medium/soft respectively) to way less than the two seconds it had been in the sunlight. The superior startline performance of the softer tyre was still the dominant consideration even for those not obliged to start on it by having qualified in the top 10.
The Red Bull of 11th-fastest Sebastian Vettel (restricted in qualifying by a downshift problem) would, however, start on the prime, getting the slower tyre out of the way when it was expected he’d be slowed by the traffic around him anyway. The cooling of the track through the evening was expected to further reduce the prime’s disadvantage, pushing teams towards two rather than three-stop strategies.
The race start
In the opening split seconds of this race Hamilton turned things crucially in his favour, with a superior start that allowed him to squeeze into the space between Rosberg and the pit wall, converting this into the lead. Hamilton’s wasn’t as good a getaway as Massa’s sensational effort that vaulted him from the fourth row to third place before turn one, but it was more important.
The potentially faster Rosberg was behind him – he now had a fighting chance. “I didn’t have the pace today,” said Hamilton later, “and that’s in the back of my mind. I’ve got to really go and work to find out what it is because it wasn’t the case in the last race.”
Up they raced through the newly named Schumacher turns of one-two, Hamilton getting sharply over to the right of the track as he exited the kink of three, getting a snap of oversteer as he did so, defending hard from Rosberg as they screamed up to the tight right of four, Nico trying to sit it out around the outside, Lewis holding him out wide and forcing him to tuck back before the single-file entry of the fast, interlinked downhill sweeps and the super-hard, awkwardly off-camber braking into the hairpin of nine-10.
The Mercs were clean into and out of there, already many car lengths clear of Massa, Pérez, Bottas, Button and the Ferrari of Fernando Alonso who had aggressively dived inside team-mate Räikkönen into turn One, with the latter then taking a bodywork-damaging hit from Kevin Magnussen’s McLaren.
As Hamilton got himself out of DRS range before the feature was enabled on lap three, Rosberg just settled into a groove of conservation and the pair pulled out 0.5s per lap on the field without really extending themselves.
Losing the start triggered a fall-back plan of action for Rosberg. He would concentrate instead on having stronger end-of-race performance. It had all been discussed pre-race: whoever lost out at the start would be given a set of mediums for the middle stint, putting them on the faster options at the end when the other guy would be on primes.
It was the best way of trying to equalise their chances whilst still allowing them to race, giving the guy behind a second bite at the cherry. With Rosberg now identified as the guy behind, so he looked to invest early for stint three by keeping Hamilton in sight whilst saving more fuel.
From as early as lap three he was asking his engineer Tony Ross for a comparison on fuel consumption with the sister car. Hamilton meanwhile was pushing harder, right up to being warned by Peter Bonnington to look after the left-front as he was generating more understeer than Rosberg.
The others faded away into their own private dices: Massa and Pérez, then Bottas, Button and Nico Hülkenberg’s Force India, a small distance ahead of the two Ferraris and Vettel then further back and Magnussen under relentless attack from Ricciardo. The differing strengths and weaknesses of each car framed these contests.
The Force India was kind to its rear tyres, the Williams was tough on them, the McLaren somewhere in between. So Bottas lost fifth to Button on lap 10 (triggering Valtteri into being brought straight in and converted to a three-stop), and three laps later Massa lost third to Pérez.
The Red Bull meanwhile – so short-geared to compensate for its lack of grunt that it was the only car using eighth gear – was super-fast through the high-speed aero sections, enabling Ricciardo to simply go around Magnussen’s outside at turn 12 using a part of the track that was simply not accessible to the McLaren.
Danny then closed quickly on team-mate Vettel (who was running the slower prime tyres). “We’re losing time like this,” reminded Danny. “I’ll move over for him at turn 11,” said Seb, thereby minimising his momentum loss.
By this time all the Williams and Ferrari drivers had pitted early and been converted to three-stop strategies, Bottas’ earlier stop jumping him ahead of team-mate Massa, but with Valtteri using up the rear rubber quicker than Felipe. The Ferrari, as well as proving similarly hard on its rears to the Williams, was in addition hopelessly slow on the straights. Mercedes, Force India, Button and the Red Bulls remained on two-stops.
Button and Hülkenberg had together been gaining on Pérez. Hülkenberg was the first of them to pit – on lap 15 – this undercutting him ahead of the other Force India, even though he’d had to pass both Räikkönen and Magnussen on his out-lap!
They rejoined not far behind the Williams pair and quickly closed up on them. Button in his 250th Grand Prix continued until lap 17 and this dropped him around seven seconds behind the Force Indias, but with stronger end-of-stint pace and shorter subsequent stints he was confident he could be fighting with them by the end.
Magnussen in the sister McLaren was not able to maintain the same pace or tyre duration and had been converted to a three-stop. Vettel ran out of rear grip on his primes relatively early and was brought in before the option-tyred Ricciardo, leapfrogging Seb back ahead, a few seconds behind Button. Danny was fitted with primes for his middle stint, to give him a more attacking late-race option tyre.
Hamilton vs Rosberg
But that was all just incidental to the main action: the thrilling battle between the yet-to-stop Mercs of Hamilton and Rosberg. Nico, despite using less fuel and thereby giving himself potentially more horsepower in his final stint, had managed to keep the gap to Hamilton and now appeared in better shape – if only he could pass.
From having assumed he’d be the one trying the fall-back plan, now it was looking like maybe he could pass on-track thereby getting the strategic benefit of coming in first. The first of the Merc stops was scheduled for lap 19. Going into lap 18, Rosberg got the DRS flap open down the pit straight and made an audaciously late braking move on his team-mate into turn one.
It got him past for a few yards, but forced him to run wide, Lewis still ahead as they exited. On the next lap – Nico’s final chance of getting to pit first and thereby leapfrog ahead – he tried a variation of the same move. This time he was still just ahead as they came out of the right-handed turn but Hamilton hung desperately on, behind but alongside enough that he could claim the inside for the left-hander of two, chopping ruthlessly across Rosberg’s bows to prevent him getting a proper run at him up the straight to four. Nico was on the radio complaining at this point and there were some distinctly nervy people on the Mercedes pit wall.
In clawing so tenaciously onto the lead at this time, Hamilton had possibly just bought himself the victory – despite actually being slower. He was doing it all on street fighting and the positioning his better start had gifted him. Hamilton was called in at the end of the lap for his fresh option tyres.
Rosberg stayed out for a further couple of laps before being fitted with his slower primes. With Hamilton’s two-lap fresh rubber boost, he was six seconds clear as Rosberg rejoined – and on faster tyres. Hamilton needed to pull out a good gap in this middle stint if he was to have the margin to stave off what was sure to be a mighty Rosberg option-tyre challenge in the final stint. Within the next 10 laps Lewis extended that gap to over nine seconds.
The battles behind Mercedes
Attention switched back to the battles about half a minute behind that of the Mercs. Bottas was still hanging on in third ahead of Massa but with his rear tyres fading fast the pair were being caught by the two Force Indias. Valtteri was brought in for his second stop, freeing Massa up – but still Felipe was under big pressure from Hülkenberg and Pérez.
Alonso, on his three-stop, was temporarily ahead of a tight little battle between Button and Vettel, both having passed Räikkönen on track. Jenson had done it straight forwardly into turn one with DRS, Vettel without the straightline speed to do that, had to do it with big commitment between turns four and five, just before the downhill plunge. Soon Ricciardo would also be trying to find a way by Kimi’s compromised car so he could join his team-mate again.
“Nico was complaining on the radio that Sergio hadn’t left him enough room.”
Massa pitted at the end of lap 25 and immediately the Force India pair launched into a hard intra-team battle. Pérez got a run on Hülkenberg as they went up to turn four, slipped to his inside on the approach, then hung him out to dry over the exit kerbs to take third place. Nico was complaining on the radio that Sergio hadn’t left him enough room and it brought to mind Pérez’s similarly feisty battle here last year with his then team-mate Button.
Bottas on his fresh tyres came rushing up to the Räikkönen/Ricciardo dice, sliced to the left of the Red Bull into turn one but was then taken by surprise at how early Räikkönen braked, having to steer left off the circuit to avoid a collision – this allowing Ricciardo back ahead. Bottas quickly caught up with them again.
On lap 32 Hamilton, having been preserving his tyres while still pulling out a gap over Rosberg on his slower tyres, suddenly pumped up the pace on the 32nd lap, leaving Rosberg unable to respond. He had the gap out to around 10 seconds with just 17 laps to go.
Would that be enough to combat Rosberg on faster tyres in the final stint? The options Nico would be on were reckoned to be around one second faster than the primes Lewis would be on. Assuming they stopped soon, it still seemed like game very much on between them.
Behind the two Force Indias and Button, the two-stopping Red Bulls weaved in and out of phase with the three-stopping Ferraris to finally emerge in front – and on the faster option tyre for their final stints. They were only seven seconds or so behind Button, 10 seconds off the Force Indias and may have been able to have challenged them even without the safety car that wiped those margins out.
The safety car
That safety car was to clear the debris from Esteban Gutiérrez’s Sauber after it had been rolled, as Lotus’ Maldonado, exiting the pits, failed to acknowledge that it was already turning in and making for the apex. He tried to get there before it, misjudged it – and the Lotus and Sauber interlocked wheels, flicking Gutiérrez into a scarily fast roll-over.
This came after Maldonado had moved Jean-Eric Vergne to say of their first lap accident: “He tried to kill me.” The Lotus driver got a drive-through and points on his licence for the Gutiérrez incident.
The Mercs immediately made for the pits together for their final stops, the Ferraris following for the same thing some time later. For six laps they circulated line astern. It appeared for all the world that the safety car – in wiping the 10-plus-seconds buffer Hamilton had over Rosberg – had just ensured Rosberg, on faster tyres and no margin to overcome, would win.
But he needed now to burn off some of that fuel he’d so conscientiously saved – which was good for Hamilton, who didn’t need to burn off as much. As they restarted, Hamilton’s car was a few kg lighter.
“We could have been fighting with them for a place on the podium.”
The safety car period was bad news for Button whose McLaren suffered a clutch problem. Magnussen had just retired for the same reason, though Jenson would continue for a while before having to call it a day. “It’s a shame because we were stronger at the end of the stints than the Force Indias and we could have been fighting with them for a place on the podium,” he said.
Hamilton was guided through a few diff tweaks by his engineer to combat an understeer he had felt building. Paddy Lowe came onto the radio of both guys and reminded them they needed to finish. As the safety car pulled aside the pack was let loose for 10 wild laps into the floodlit night.
Hamilton, Rosberg, Pérez, Hülkenberg, Button, Vettel, Ricciardo, Massa, Bottas, Alonso and Räikkönen and the rest let loose. Hamilton defended the inside down to turn one, Rosberg getting a better line through there and two-three as a result. He again tried for the outside of four – and was again held out wide by Hamilton. Behind them Pérez was as hard as necessary in fending off team-mate Hülkenberg, while the Red Bulls got by the limping and soon-to-retire Button.
Remarkably, Hamilton was hanging on despite his tyre disadvantage. “Well, it’s difficult to be precise about the lap time difference of the tyres in the race,” said Pirelli’s Mario Rivola, “because so much is determined by energy usage. But in general it was down to about one second in Q2 and we feel it would have still been around that in the race. There would not have been any significant warm-up issues for either tyre.”
“Ricciardo cheekily dived out of the DRS zone to scythe past Vettel into turn one.”
But there was little doubt the option was the faster tyre – as the Red Bulls were about to prove. Ricciardo cheekily dived out of the DRS zone to scythe past Vettel into turn one on lap 50. Danny then set about attacking Hülkenberg’s Force India – this rather giving Pérez some breathing space.
While the dicing Mercs sprinted clear, with no fuel worries and two drivers absolutely flat-out, we saw the true extent of the car’s superiority for perhaps the first time this season. Within three laps they were six seconds clear of Pérez.
Rosberg concentrated on energy harvesting for a couple of laps but remained in Hamilton’s shadow and with DRS enabled at the end of lap 49 his lap of 1m 37.0s was a tenth faster than Hamilton’s – and two seconds faster than the best of the others.
Going into lap 52 Rosberg again sliced outrageously late down the inside, again Hamilton simply waited until Nico ran wide before turning in, still ahead. This was truly fantastic racing, with beautiful judgement from both drivers. Next lap, Rosberg tried again at the same place, and again Hamilton had to get very defensive down to turn four.
“I thought I had him about nine different times,” said Rosberg. “But he’s a great driver and he made it work. Hybrids sometimes have more power than at other times [depending upon battery store] and so it’s difficult to be in the right place [relative to the other car] coinciding it with when you have the power. Many times I just didn’t even know where he was because there’s a big dead angle when you’re this close. So many times I didn’t know where he was and then he’d suddenly reappear again.”
After five laps of perfectly holding Rosberg off, sitting right on the balancing point of defensive and aggressive, Hamilton was seeing off the challenge. Rosberg had taken the best from his tyres. “They just got a bit too hot,” Rosberg explained, “from sitting in the slipstream and from trying so hard.” Hamilton had contained a guy that was the faster driver on the day and on faster tyres, by sheer racecraft and desire.
“It was fantastic,” thrilled Lewis. “I haven’t had a race like that since Indianapolis 2007. To have a real racer’s race and to be able to use whatever skills I’ve acquired over the years since karting, pulling them all out the bag and using them again just feels fantastic, one of the greatest feelings you can have.”
On the 54th lap Ricciardo once more used the Red Bull’s fantastic grip to drive clean around the outside of Hülkenberg between turn 11 and 12 for fourth place. Next in his targets: Pérez. Vettel meanwhile was coming under strong attack from Massa. He scraped ahead into turn four but Vettel’s raw desire was on show again as he held on to retake the place before the top of the hill. Bottas then attacked Massa, but stayed behind.
Nico knew already he’d lost going into the last lap. The tyres were too hot, the extra electrical boost had been spent. Hamilton’s 24th Grand Prix victory – equalling the tally of Fangio – was safe.
“I strongly dislike coming second to Lewis,” Rosberg said, “but it was definitely the most exciting race I’ve ever done in my whole career. Today was a day for the sport.”
Bahrain Grand Prix results
1. Lewis Hamilton, Mercedes 1h38m42.743s
2. Nico Rosberg, Mercedes +1.085s
3. Sergio Pérez, Force India-Mercedes +24.067s
4. Daniel Ricciardo, Red Bull-Renault +24.489s
5. Nico Hulkenberg, Force India-Mercedes +28.654s
6. Sebastian Vettel, Red Bull-Renault +29.879s
7. Felipe Massa, Williams-Mercedes +31.200s
8. Valtteri Bottas, Williams-Mercedes +31.800s
9. Fernando Alonso, Ferrari +32.500s
10. Kimi Räikkönen, Ferrari +33.400s
11. Daniil Kvyat, Toro Rosso-Renault +41.300s
12. Romain Grosjean, Lotus-Renault +43.100s
13. Max Chilton, Marussia-Ferrari +59.900s
14. Pastor Maldonado, Lotus-Renault +1m02.800s
15. Kamui Kobayashi,Caterham-Renault +1m27.900s
16. Jules Bianchi, Marussia-Ferrari +1 lap
17. Jenson Button, McLaren-Mercedes +2 laps
Kevin Magnussen, McLaren-Mercedes 40 laps
Esteban Gutiérrez, Sauber-Ferrari 39 laps
Marcus Ericsson, Caterham-Renault 33 laps
Jean-Eric Vergne, Toro Rosso-Renault 18 laps
Adrian Sutil, Sauber-Ferrari 17 laps
1. Nico Rosberg 61
2. Lewis Hamilton 50
3. Nico Hulkenberg 28
4. Fernando Alonso 26
5. Jenson Button 23
6. Sebastian Vettel 23
7. Kevin Magnussen 20
8. Valtteri Bottas 18
9. Sergio Pérez 16
10. Daniel Ricciardo 12
11. Felipe Massa 12
12. Kimi Räikkönen 7
13. Jean-Eric Vergne 4
14. Daniil Kvyat 3
1. Mercedes 111
2. Force India-Mercedes 44
3. McLaren-Mercedes 43
4. Red Bull-Renault 35
5. Ferrari 33
6. Williams-Mercedes 30
7. Toro Rosso-Renault 7
The next race (all times BST/GMT)
More from Mark Hughes
Malaysian Grand Prix report
Australian Grand Prix report