Well, the Mercs still have it – Lewis Hamilton took his third win from four and the Ferraris never had quite the raw pace needed to beat him – but this was a far more marginal victory than it looked. In hindsight, a different Ferrari strategy would likely have seen Kimi Räikkönen emerge as the winner, rather than close runner-up.
The Ferrari threat has Mercedes under pressure, and that pressure directed a key choice on brake duct cooling for Mercedes, one that made it vulnerable in the race. Both Hamilton and Nico Rosberg were managing brake temperatures throughout as the brake cooling levels chosen for what is a notoriously tough track on brakes were aggressively skewed towards all-out peak pace. Had Ferrari’s pace not spooked them during the practices, Mercedes probably wouldn’t have done that.
Ferrari were less adventurous in this choice and as a consequence both its drivers were able to push harder. Sebastian Vettel, who’d qualified on the front row through an under-performance from Nico Rosberg, was the initial cutting edge of Ferrari’s challenge. But Seb was as scrappy in the race as Kimi had been in qualifying. By contrast, on race day Räikkönen was flawless, making no errors, taking less from his tyres and proving more relentlessly fast as a result.
By the end of the first stint – with Hamilton leading from Rosberg, but both metering out their performance sparingly – Räikkönen was on the radio pointing out that he was being held up by Vettel. This was clearly a bit awkward for the team. It’s said that Vettel negotiated number one status in his contract when he joined the Scuderia and maybe that had something to do with how Ferrari chose to resolve its Bahrain dilemma.
It decided to offset tyre strategies, leaving Vettel on the conventional soft/soft/medium sequence but switching Räikkönen to the medium for a long middle stint. This entailed leaving him out in the first stint for four laps longer than Vettel in order not to over-extend his middle stint while still keeping the final stint short enough for the less durable but faster softs. Had they brought him in the lap after Vettel and kept him on the conventional tyre strategy, he’d probably have been close enough to take fuller advantage of the late brake-by-wire failures that afflicted both Mercs. As it was, he was able to pass Rosberg two laps from the end.
Vettel finished fifth, unable to pierce the impregnable defences of Valtteri Bottas, having been forced to pit for a new nosecone after clattering his car over the final corner kerb while trying to fend off Rosberg. It was the biggest of several errors he made in the race and he apologised to the team on his slow-down lap. If he does indeed enjoy contractual number one status, it rather got in Ferrari’s way here. Hamilton meanwhile continues to hold off on re-signing for Mercedes. Does he want number one status in his contract? On current form he’d be justifying it.
The circumstances of the fight for pole were framed around tyre usage and race strategy. That and Nico Rosberg’s season to date led him to make a couple of key choices that backfired on him as he sought to out-flank Mercedes team-mate Lewis Hamilton. The world champion remains on the crest of a confidence wave, expressing himself in the car freely, just letting everything flow to devastating effect. We’ve seen it before: when a driver of this calibre reaches such a zone in a front-running car, it seems to carry an energy of its own, making it virtually impossible for his team-mate to compete.
Rosberg remains generally level-headed and composed, but in the heat of the moment, when competitive decisions have to be made, he called it wrong – as he freely admitted afterwards – thereby just increasing Hamilton’s advantage further, this just feeding further into the upward spiral of his confidence.
Because the soft tyre was expected to be much superior to the medium even on race day, even those teams with two new sets of softs available for Q3 were generally doing an initial run on used sets so as to save a new set for the race. This put the pressure on to deliver on the single new tyre run at the end.
Rosberg had been expecting both Mercs to do two new soft tyre runs in Q3 and not bother to save a fresh set for the race. But the pace of the Ferraris had pushed Hamilton towards saving a set after all – as they might have been crucial in beating Ferrari on Sunday. Because Hamilton was before Rosberg in the running order and Rosberg and his engineer Tony Ross could see what Hamilton had chosen to do, they felt obliged to follow the same strategy.
“I was thinking about the race too much,” said Rosberg afterwards. “I wanted not to take too much from my race tyres [which are those used to set the time in Q2] so I didn’t push too hard in Q2. Then in Q3 once Lewis went out on used for the first run then I had to do the same, otherwise I’d be at a big disadvantage to him in the race because there’s a big offset between new and used. But the grip on the used was so bad, so much less than I was expecting that I couldn’t get a feel for the limit at all. So the first time in qualifying that I’d pushed at all hard was in the final run – and I just couldn’t find the rhythm at all. I’d thrown myself out of my rhythm with my choices. Not very clever. It would have been an acceptable trade-off if I’d qualified second to Lewis but with better tyres for the race. But Seb beat me as well, and that’s not an acceptable trade-off.”
So, helped by Rosberg beating himself, Hamilton took his first pole in eight attempts around the Sakhir circuit and Nico failed to clinch it for the first time since 2012.
Rosberg’s troubles meant that a well-driven Ferrari – that of Sebastian Vettel – was able to get between the Mercs. At 0.4sec adrift of Hamilton it was nonetheless Vettel’s second front row start in three races, but achieved in the dry this time. “We haven’t brought any new parts to the car here,” he said, “but we are using it better as a team.”
Kimi Räikkönen in the sister car again struggled with the Ferrari’s reluctance to generate full tyre temperature within one lap and qualified fourth. Conversely, by the end of the lap the rears were overheating. So on his crucial lap he had oversteer at turns one, two and 14, albeit for varying reasons. In general running he seemed at least as fast as his team-mate, but yet again Seb was more on top of dealing with the troublesome details of the car’s tricky one-lap tyre usage.
Valtteri Bottas, who has been playing down the effects of his back injury, seemed at something close to his best and qualified the Williams faster than his team-mate for the first time this year, slotting in fifth over 0.3sec faster than sixth-fastest Felipe Massa.
Daniel Ricciardo was the sole top 10 runner to use both new sets of softs for Q3 and used this to get his Red Bull within 0.1sec of Massa.
There is something about the Force India which is well-suited to this track. It was on the second row here last year and finished on the podium. What is essentially the same car has of course now been surpassed by several other teams, but it remains faster here than at other tracks – enough to allow both Nico Hülkenberg and Sergio Pérez to have by far their most competitive outing of 2015.
Hulk produced a demon lap to make Q3, and another to go eighth-quickest there, shading the Toro Rosso of Carlos Sainz and the Lotus of Romain Grosjean, the latter under-delivering in Q3 with a time that was 0.3sec off his Q2 effort, a lap that would have put him seventh had he repeated it. “Yes, as the track temperature fell we just had less grip. It was at its best in Q1, OK in Q2 and difficult in Q3.”
Pérez was quickest of those not making it to Q3, ahead of the Saubers of Felipe Nasr and Marcus Ericsson, separated by 0.3sec. On the same tenth as Ericsson was Fernando Alonso, the McLaren making it through to Q2 for the first time and marginally faster there than Max Verstappen’s Toro Rosso. In addition to the non-running Button and the two Manors – Will Stevens again out-qualifying Roberto Merhi – the others failing to graduate from Q1 included Pastor Maldonado, who ran his Lotus off the track exiting turn 13 and Daniil Kvyat’s Red Bull which suffered an electrical problem that robbed him of power. It was only the dramas of Maldonado and Kvyat that had allowed McLaren through to Q2.
The desert skies were already black, the bright floodlights doing little to slow the plummeting track temperature. It had settled into the low 30deg Cs by the time the cars lined up. Jenson Button’s McLaren was not among them. After its two cut-outs over the previous two days, the wiring loom had been changed, along with virtually every other electrical component. Still the data was showing an electrical problem, one which threatened to create mechanical carnage. A call was taken to scratch from the race rather than destroy a third engine from the seasonal allocation of four.
Felipe Massa’s Williams then failed to get away from the formation grid, a sensor shut-down cutting the Mercedes engine. He was pushed through the gap in the pit wall where the crew re-booted the system, this bringing the sensor back online, and the engine to life. He eased the car down to the end of the pitlane and prepared to start his evening from there rather than the third row.
Up front, two-stop strategies, using a sequence soft/soft/medium tyres, was the standard choice. A three stop was comparably quick in theory. It left you vulnerable to delays in traffic but could be attractive from the midfield if stuck behind a slower car. The medium tyre – with a lower working temperature range than the soft – was ostensibly around 1.5sec slower than the soft at the track temperatures expected early in the race, but as that surface continued to cool it was expected to come into its own. The switchover wasn’t expected to occur until late in the race, hence its planned use for the last stint.
Only three-stopping Pastor Maldonado – starting from further back than his potential pace in the Lotus warranted and therefore likely to be losing time in the first stint anyway – began the race on this tyre, everyone else on softs. He’d damaged his chances before the race even began, however, by lining up outside of his grid position, for which he was awarded a 5sec penalty, to be served at his first pitstop.
The suspicion was that the Mercedes had the legs of the Ferrari, despite what Friday practice had suggested – and so the main hope of a closely-fought contest was going to be if Vettel could somehow get ahead of Hamilton at the start. It didn’t happen that way and the shape of the race was essentially formed – Hamilton made a great getaway and was unimpeded through the quick-fire right-left-right of the first three turns, with Vettel forced to focus upon fending off an aggressive Rosberg trying to find a gap on the inside up to the first turn.
1 L Hamilton Mercedes 1hr 35min 5.809sec
2 K Räikkönen Ferrari +3.38sec
3 N Rosberg Mercedes +6.033sec
4 V Bottas Williams +42.957sec
5 S Vettel Ferrari +43.989sec
6 D Ricciardo Red Bull +61.751sec
7 R Grosjean Lotus +84.763sec
8 S Pérez Force India +1 lap
9 D Kvyat Red Bull +1 lap
10 F Massa Williams +1 lap
11 F Alonso McLaren +1 lap
12 F Nasr Sauber +1 lap
13 N Hülkenberg Force India +1 lap
14 M Ericsson Sauber +1 lap
15 P Maldonado Lotus +1 lap
16 W Stevens Manor +2 laps
17 R Merhi Manor +2 laps
DNF M Verstappen Toro Rosso
DNF C Sainz Toro Rosso
DNS J Button McLaren
Räikkönen’s racing instincts served him perfectly in this moment; ignoring the spectacular flying sparks thrown up by the two cars ahead of him as they hit the bumps in the braking zone, he stayed out wide and swept across the nose of Rosberg to grab third place, the pair of them fending off the Williams of Bottas as they raced up to turn four.
“Although I’d lost position to Kimi, I could feel the car was awesome, so I went full on the attack straight away,” reported Rosberg. Awesome though it may have felt, the team was already seeing a telemetry trace that told of a potential problem with his brake-by-wire system. Separate from this, both Mercs were running brake temperatures higher than was comfortable. The pace of Ferrari through the practices – and in recent races – had definitely played its part in a racy choice of brake duct cooling levels. Was this going to prove their downfall? The Merc drivers were going to need to control their pace.
With no-one crowding him, Hamilton had been able to go through turn three on the optimum line, getting full traction out of there to extend his advantage up to four. From 187mph, braking down to 65mph, carbon discs glowing orange in the night, the tyres were not fully up to temperature, the fronts locked and he ran wide. Only the gap Hamilton had opened in the first few corners prevented Vettel from being able to capitalise. But, that drama aside, Lewis was now on his way, intent on pulling out of Seb’s 1sec DRS range before the feature was enabled at the end of lap two. He was successful in this, the Merc 1.4sec ahead of the Ferrari as they crossed the line to begin lap three.
Vettel/Räikkönen/Rosberg screamed by almost as one flashing red and silver blur, magnesium sparks from the undertrays rising spectacularly into the night sky, showering the distantly following Bottas, the Williams already out of reach of Ricciardo’s Red Bull, which would have a lonely race, always in turn clear of Grosjean’s Lotus.
Romain had prevailed over Hülkenberg through the first few corners, the Force India followed by the Sauber of Ericsson who had made a flyer of a start and led Sainz, Pérez, Nasr, Alonso, Verstappen, Kvyat and Maldonado, the latter having left the track several times on the opening lap as his mediums struggled to reach temperature. Behind him was Massa, who’d already accounted for the two Manors of Stevens and Merhi which were dicing closely. Stevens would eventually get ahead and pull away.
The two Ferraris were definitely not as quick as Rosberg behind them and the scrap this created only increased Hamilton’s advantage. Into the fourth lap, Rosberg got his DRS open down the pit straight, moved aggressively to Räikkönen’s inside and nailed a late-braking move on him into turn one, taking care to turn in late to hold Räikkönen out, thus preventing the Ferrari from trying to retaliate through the left of two.
Räikkönen tucked in tight behind the Merc as they raced up the slightly uphill straight to turn four, Rosberg blocking the inside, obliging the Ferrari to go around the outside. Nico was taking no nonsense though, and held his rival out wide over the kerb, just as Hamilton had done to him last year. Next in his targets: Vettel.
For a few laps Rosberg applied maximum pressure to the second-place Ferrari and eventually it paid off, with Vettel locking up under braking for the hairpin of turn eight and having to turn in very wide. This put Rosberg right on his tail, from where he used DRS to launch himself down the inside of turn one, being even more aggressive with Vettel in holding him out late. Now up to second, he’d taken plenty out of those tyres he’d been so careful with in Q2 and was just over 5sec adrift of Hamilton.
There wasn’t enough left in the rear rubber to pull out the necessary 2.5sec gap over Vettel to get himself out of undercut range – and sure enough Ferrari pulled in Vettel on lap 13, when he was still within 2sec of the Mercedes. A super-slick Ferrari stop of just 2.4sec was all it took to get Vettel’s brand new softs on, and although he gave it full attack on the out-lap it wasn’t particularly quick, as the Ferrari again proved unable to instantly achieve full tyre temperature. But it was still enough to be quicker than Rosberg’s in-lap pace on his old tyres. Together with a Mercedes stop 0.8sec slower than Ferrari’s, it ensured that the splash of red had already screamed by as Rosberg exited the pitlane. He’d have to attack all over again, and set about doing so with a purpose, showing the sort of fight that’s been missing from his game thus far in 2015.
The Mercedes necessity of bringing Rosberg in before Hamilton, in an attempt at defending from Vettel, disadvantaged Lewis against his team-mate. Together with a delay attaching a wheel – the over-hot brakes tend to expand everything to sticking point – that cost a further half-second, it meant he exited the pitlane only just ahead of the fast-approaching side-by-side Rosberg and Vettel, Nico having made a move down the inside, Seb leaning on him towards the pitwall, sparks flying from both cars as they closed down on Hamilton with a frightening speed differential.
It was less marginal than it looked from head-on, but thankfully Rosberg and Vettel were not a few metres further on as Hamilton exited. Hamilton was in front on his fresh softs as they rounded turn one, with Rosberg making his move on Vettel stick for the second time this evening.
The yet-to-stop Räikkönen led temporarily – and stayed out for a further two laps. He’d been within 1sec of Vettel when Seb had pitted and had been informing the team he was being held up. Kimi definitely was easier on his tyres than his team-mate, and watching them in action it was evident why. Räikkönen’s movement on the steering was far more subdued, yet he was maintaining similar momentum into the turns. He was into a beautiful rhythm and could almost certainly have pulled away if he’d been allowed to pass Vettel, his tyres holding up better.
This was awkward for Ferrari, who decided to offset the strategies. Kimi would be put on the medium, necessitating a long middle stint on them, so as to not have too long a stint on the less durable soft at the end. So they kept him out for as long as possible – this being lap 17, to prevent him being undercut by Bottas’s new-tyred Williams.
Kimi rejoined 10sec behind Vettel but was immediately super-quick, taking around 0.5sec per lap out of the three soft-tyred cars ahead of him. The medium, it seemed, was well within its working range already – at least on the Ferrari.
Behind the lead quartet, Bottas had put plenty of distance on Ricciardo who in turn remained out of Grosjean’s reach. “The Red Bull was definitely faster than us today,” said Romain afterwards. “It had better traction and that meant it was looking after its rear tyres better.”
Massa’s early recovery from his pitlane start had been brought up short on the fourth lap by Maldonado. Pastor had hit the back of the Felipe’s car at turn four, damaging the Lotus’ nose and the Williams’ diffuser, which immediately lost a lot of downforce and gave a severe balance change from understeer to oversteer. Maldonado would be in early for a new nose, destroying his strategy, but on new softs was briefly very fast.
Another who’d pitted early was Hülkenberg, who was eating through the tyres fast enough that Force India switched him to a three-stop strategy on the 10th lap. This was in stark contrast to team-mate Pérez who, as usual, was dramatically easier on the rubber and would be one of the last to make his first stop. Hülkenberg’s early stop forced Lotus into responding with Grosjean – who was undercut anyway. Romain quickly put an aggressive DRS pass on the Force India down to turn one.
The Saubers of Ericsson and Nasr, as well as Sainz’s Toro Rosso, had also switched to three-stops. This trio suffered various fates. Ericsson was driving strongly and keeping the pressure on Hülkenberg, and finally got ahead on the 15th lap under DRS down to turn one. Team-mate Nasr was a couple of places and a few seconds behind. Sainz dropped off the back of this pair and well down the field after having to take a 5sec penalty for having exceeded the allowed time taken for the reconnaissance lap to the grid. Struggling with strong understeer, the Toro Rosso had fallen off the delicate pivot of balance the team had struggled with all weekend, but had briefly found in qualifying. He was passed by the Red Bull of Kvyat, shortly after the latter had made his first stop.
Verstappen, in strong contrast to seven days ago, was just not figuring at all. He’d damaged his nosecone as Massa had passed him on the fifth lap, necessitating a stop for a new one and rejoined near the back. He would later retire with an electrical problem, not long after Sainz had been forced to pull the sister car to the side after realising a wheel had not been properly attached at his second pitstop.
Ericsson’s strong race should have gained him eighth place, but he lost 24sec and many places at his second stop because of a mechanical problem with his left front. This put him behind team-mate Nasr, though Felipe lost around 12sec to a power loss that was later rectified by changing a few settings on the steering wheel under instruction from the pits.
1 Mercedes 159
2 Ferrari 107
3 Williams 61
4 Red Bull 23
5 Sauber 19
6 Lotus 12
7 Toro Rosso 12
8 Force India 11
9 McLaren 0
10 Manor 0
Alonso was the beneficiary of these various dramas, the McLaren being pushed visibly hard. Though not particularly quick, it was at least reliable. Once Kvyat had passed Sainz he had quickly picked off the McLaren too and would spend the rest of the evening chasing, but never quite catching, Pérez. In general, the three-stop strategy didn’t work well and all those trying it finished out of the points, leapfrogged by the two-stopping Pérez, Kvyat, Massa and Alonso.
Meanwhile, Hamilton remained in command of this race. He eased away from Rosberg during the middle stint, re-establishing the small gap he’d lost to Nico stopping before him. Vettel kept the pressure on the second Merc, until losing a chunk of time by sliding well into the turn 11 run-off area on the 26th lap. This was developing into a scrappy race for Seb. By contrast, Räikkönen on his medium tyres was metronome-like and continued to edge closer to Vettel.
Ferrari pulled in Vettel from around 5sec behind Rosberg on the 32nd lap for his fresh medium tyres. This made things slightly awkward for Mercedes – for to respond with Rosberg would have threatened to undercut Nico ahead of Lewis. Keeping the brake temperatures in check on the Mercs – preventing the discs reaching the temperature threshold at which they begin oxidising themselves into thin air – was not allowing them to pull out the gap over Vettel that would have made their races straightforward.
In theory Hamilton had enough of a gap over Rosberg – just over 5sec – that Nico could again have been brought in first without undercutting ahead of Lewis. But playing on their minds was that problematical front wheel that had delayed Hamilton at the first stops. This seemed to be related to the high brake temperatures and if it happened again could easily be enough to jump Nico ahead. Besides, they’d already seen – twice – that even when Nico came out behind Seb, he could overtake him. Playing it safe for Hamilton, as the leader, they compromised Rosberg – by bringing in Hamilton first.
Only then could Rosberg be brought in – and again the Mercedes stop was significantly slower than Ferrari’s. This and the two extra laps on old tyres ensured that Rosberg again came out behind Vettel. Räikkönen now led the race but on his medium tyres would not be stopping for a while yet.
Rosberg again went into full attack mode as he set off for the third time in pursuit of Vettel. As he completed his out-lap he was tight into the Ferrari’s slipstream down the short straight between turns 13 and 14 and preparing to make a DRS run on it down the pit straight. Vettel was pushing hard and ran wide exiting the final corner, getting onto the kerbing and then the dusty run-off behind, great plumes of sand off the Ferrari’s tyres and diffuser thrown high into the air as he fought to bring it back on track, with Rosberg now alongside him and grinding ahead.
Now Vettel tucked himself tight into the Merc’s slipstream, but Rosberg’s third pass on him was essentially done. Nico was now around 7sec behind Hamilton, but his busier race had used up rather more brakes and fuel, and from this point he was focused just on bringing it home. The brake-by-wire fault code was still showing on the team telemetry, this in addition to continuing concern about brake temperatures.
After his wild ride over the kerbs Vettel could feel there was something amiss in the car. The nose support stays had broken and he radioed in for a new one. He was stationary for around 10sec and this, in addition to the 23sec lost just by pitting, put him well behind Bottas as he rejoined. “I just made too many mistakes today,” he later rued after catching but failing to pass Bottas who remained icily immune to many laps of pressure from a faster car as the team advised him on the best defensive harvest and deployment of his electrical energy.
Ferrari’s focus shifted now to Räikkönen, still circulating in the lead having only stopped once, but with his medium tyres now past their best. He was being caught quickly by Hamilton, who passed him into turn one at the beginning of lap 40. Räikkönen made his way in. For several laps he’d been in discussion with the pits about which tyres they were going to put him on for the final stint. “Options” he was told. Given how quickly he’d been going on the primes, he was questioning this. They remained adamant: the option would be the faster tyre for the short final stint. He later accepted they were right.
He rejoined – after Ferrari’s clean sweep of mid 2sec pit stops for both cars – 19sec behind Rosberg with 17 laps to go. But he was immediately going at a completely different pace. With the Mercs lapping in the high 1min 38s/low 39s, Kimi’s first flying lap was 1min 36.3sec. With Mercedes unable to respond because of the brake concerns, Räikkönen cut dramatically into their advantage and the crowd began to stir. It looked for a time that if he could dispose of Rosberg as soon as he caught him, he might be able to challenge Hamilton for the win.
“I was alerted,” said Lewis, “and I think I had things under control.” He upped his pace by 0.5sec on laps 49 and 50 – probably enough to keep him just out of Räikkönen’s range, but still Kimi hauled in Rosberg, arriving on his tail three laps from the end.
The way it worked out, Kimi didn’t even need to pull off a proper pass; Rosberg’s brake-by-wire finally failed as it had been threatening to all race and as he stood on the pedal for turn one, two laps from the end, it went very long. The Mercedes ran wide into the turn, Nico not even able to lock the wheels. He made the corner, but Kimi sliced past and was gone. Beginning his final lap Hamilton received a brake-by-wire failure message on his dash. He had just enough margin over Räikkönen to lift-and-coast it home for his 36th career victory. That was close.
But then so was Ricciardo’s finish in sixth. The Red Bull’s Renault engine blew spectacularly just before the line, Daniel crossing it in silence, leaving a spectacular smoke screen. Grosjean, Pérez, Kvyat and Massa rounded out the point scorers and Alonso just missed out.