Pace and stealth zig-zagged their way through this race, each vying for the primary route to victory. Sebastian Vettel and Ferrari ultimately had both covered – but Mercedes, Valtteri Bottas and a confusing tyre picture made them work oh-so hard for it.
Mercedes were not the quickest in Bahrain – but they believed there was still a way they might beat Ferrari: by cunning and stealth. That plan got off to a great start as Bottas went around Kimi Räikkönen’s outside to slot straight into second as Vettel ran off into the floodlit night.
All looked routine as Vettel made his first stop to prevent Bottas getting within undercut range. But as soon as Mercedes fitted Bottas with the white-walled medium tyres, implying a one-stop strategy, the trap seemed set. Ferrari, in pitting first, had given Mercedes the chance of throwing the dice, helped by the fact there were no Red Bulls around to complicate matters, with Max Verstappen having damaged his car after a niggly collision with Lewis Hamilton, this just seconds before Daniel Ricciardo pulled over with no electrical power.
As Bottas chased but Vettel did not sprint away, so it began to dawn that Ferrari really was going to try to eke out 39 laps on a set of softs. It was all set for a nail-biting finale, which was duly delivered, Vettel performing the most remarkable trade-off of pace, tyre conservation and nerve. But not before an unpleasant incident in the Ferrari pits in which mechanic Francesco Chigarini received multiple fractures to his left leg after Kim Räikkönen’s car was given the green light to go before the left-rear wheel had been changed.
The rear tyre degradation imposed by this track’s layout enforces a set-up that makes the car a little unwieldy over single lap. A strong rear end to give the rubber there an easier time makes for a car that doesn’t rotate very readily early in the corner and which needs a bit of steering manhandling. The Ferrari appeared to resolve this conflict better than the Mercedes. As soon as the wheels started turning on Friday, the Merc drivers could be observed struggling to get the front turned in, then when it did it would be nervous at the rear through the next part of the turn. This was all happening at grip levels most of the others could only dream of, but was in contrast to the red cars which looked lithe and drama-free. Given that both Mercedes and Ferrari now agree there is virtually nothing between their ultimate qualifying engine modes, it really did appear as if Mercedes was on the back foot.
Ferrari had been trying to finesse the SF71 more to Vettel’s liking. Small aerodynamic tweaks included a new Mercedes-like vortex generator at the foot of the barge boards and small changes to the contouring of the diffuser. But of perhaps more Sakhir-specific note, was a small detail of the front wing. It was shaped exactly as the one used in Melbourne, but a metal stiffener between two of the elements had been deleted. As could be observed from forward-facing on-board footage shown on Friday, it allowed those elements to squeeze together as the speed rose, effectively bringing a small measure of stall to the front wing. This would allow a more forward-biased aero balance to be used at low speed to help with the understeer, in the knowledge that this would not make the car too unstable at higher speeds, when the stalling front wing would help maintain neutrality.
It all seemed to work beautifully, though it took Vettel some time to tune into it as well as Räikkönen, who had a consistent small advantage right up until the final Q3 runs. Kimi was on provisional pole after Vettel had run off-track at the final turn on his first run. They had a consistent 0.1-0.15sec advantage over the Mercs – and more than that over Ricciardo’s Red Bull on account of an extra 35bhp over the Renault in Q3 mode. Max Verstappen had crashed the other RB14 in Q1 when a sudden power spike spun him into the Turn 2 barrier – “It felt like an extra 150 horsepower coming in like a switch,” he explained. The team was experimenting with engine settings at the time and it seems the two things might’ve been related. Whatever, it left Max starting 15th.
Back to the final Q3 showdown. Unless either Hamilton or Bottas could conjure a spectacular lap from the not quite as sharp Mercedes, these final moments were going to be an in-house Ferrari contest, and so it proved. “I knew if I could just copy and paste my first lap but without the error at the end, I was in with a chance,” said Vettel. He proceeded to do just that with a beautifully precise and committed final effort under big pressure. Not for the first time, Räikkönen appeared to choke at the crucial moment, his final run not as good as his first which was good for second, 0.143sec adrift of his team-mate. “Far from ideal,” he shrugged, “but with the traffic on the last run. I thought there is a lot we can improve but obviously, it was such a messy thing in the end, I was passing people and doing this and that, so it’s disappointing.” Both times, he was sent out behind Vettel and that invariably makes you more vulnerable to a traffic-compromised tyre preparation lap and he may have been hinting at his irritation at that policy – but it’s difficult to know with Kimi. Despite all that, there seems a feistiness to Räikkönen this year, like he is more explicitly competing with Vettel rather than just accepting his support role. He’s lost weight over the winter (under instruction, as Ferrari knew the car was going to be heavier), this car seems to suit him and he just generally seems hungrier.
But despite all that Vettel had still delivered when it mattered – and this after having missed a big chunk of third practice to an electrical problem. He’s building the jigsaw of the SF71 and although he’s still not as at home as he was in last year’s car, it’s coming. “Across the weekend you don’t have that much time to understand things,” he pointed out. “You go to the first race in Australia, it’s a tricky track, it’s improving a lot throughout the weekend, it’s very bumpy so it’s difficult to draw conclusions. But with that race distance completed, I think we had a very good understanding and feel and obviously we’ve been talking about it and looking into it and overall I’ve been happier this weekend with how the car has been responding, how the front end was responding.”
There did a seem to be a measure of surprise at Mercedes that they weren’t quite there. After the Ferraris had proved fastest on Friday, Toto Wolff had been quick to point out that their GPS analysis confirmed Ferrari was running its engine in a higher mode than Merc. But even with the motors in comparable modes on Saturday, it was still that crucial bit adrift. “We went in a different direction, trying things on Friday,” said Bottas, “but it was the wrong way and we came back today but [Ferrari] are just that little bit faster around here.” He went quicker than an out-of-sorts Hamilton, but fell 0.262sec short of pole. Hamilton was taking a five-place hit for a gearbox change, the original unit having damaged a bearing during the race in Australia after a fluid leak. He did Q2 on softs rather than supers (and produced a spectacular lap there) so as to get a longer opening stint that might save him a pitstop on his rivals.
Ricciardo was encouraged to be within a couple of tenths of the Mercs despite the Q3 power handicap. The Red Bulls had been the fastest of all in the race stint simulations of Friday and he was very bullish about his Sunday chances.
Although there was the usual big gap (around 1sec) between the top three teams and the rest, heading that second group represented a remarkable performance from Pierre Gasly and Toro Rosso-Honda. Historically, Toro Rosso goes well at this track (Ricciardo qualified sixth for the team here back in 2012), but nonetheless this represented remarkable progress since Australia. A new aero package (comprising extensively reworked, much more intricate, barge boards) proved to give spectacular gains. Gasly had it on the car throughout the weekend with Brendon Hartley initially still on the old spec but getting the upgrade from Saturday. The Honda motor was working nicely and it’s now reckoned to be on power parity with Renault in qualifying. Gasly was revelling in it, fast, neat and error-free, and his confidence was soaring, as if able to spread his wings for the first time and finding he could fly. Hartley just failed to make Q3 – and the reason for that could be traced to his having collided with a bird on his first Q1 lap, damaging his wing. It entailed using another set of super-softs, meaning he didn’t have the extra set for Q2, where he was 0.25sec adrift of his team-mate. Both Hondas were ahead of the McLarens…
Toro Rosso’s progress had demoted Haas from its ‘best of the rest’ status, but Kevin Magnussen nonetheless was well satisfied to have secured a place in Q3 and gone seventh fastest there. “The tyres here have been really difficult to switch on,” he explained. “You either don’t switch them on or you overheat them. It’s a very narrow window. To get that right and keep a good rhythm was what it was all about and I don’t think there was anything more to get from it today.” Team-mate Romain Grosjean fell foul of that tyre conundrum and failed to graduate from Q1 after a messy effort that left him 16th.
Renault got both cars into Q3, with Nico Hülkenberg shading Carlos Sainz by 0.4sec and two places, lining them up eighth and 10th, Sainz feeling the car to be too nervous for his tastes. They were split by Esteban Ocon. This represented great progress for Force India, which had spent the Friday sessions evaluating a whole raft of different components, including floors and a new front wing. “We tried four different floors on Friday!” said deputy team boss Bob Fernley, “the guys did an incredible job in getting those pieces on and off so we could evaluate the best combination.” It was a reflection of the team’s rushed start to the season. The optimum solution for the moment did not include the new wing but the car came together well and is now beginning to show its true level. Sergio Pérez was 0.15sec slower than Ocon at 12th fastest, but that was still ahead of both McLarens.
McLaren’s was an embarrassing performance in front of its major shareholders, made all the more acute by the performance of the Honda-powered STRs. Fernando Alonso and Stoffel Vandoorne were 0.4sec and 0.7sec respectively adrift of Gasly’s pace in 13th and 14th. Alonso felt they had perhaps over-compensated in trying to protect the rear tyres, giving him a set-up whereby he couldn’t rotate the car enough into the slow corners and which was slowest – by a massive margin – through the speed trap. But the traction wasn’t great either – an important element of the lap time around this track. Emergency meetings were being held…
Charles Leclerc had been making good progress with the Sauber in the practices, significantly quicker than his team-mate, but when it mattered he spun away his second Q1 lap, leaving him in penultimate place, 0.4sec off Marcus Ericsson. But the Saubers generally had an edge on the Williams FW41s which looked terrible out on track, ill-balanced and gripless. Sergey Sirotkin shaded team-mate Lance Stroll who was anchored solidly at the back, lapping 0.4sec slower than he managed here last year…
Music over, pomp and ceremony completed, the Gulf Air display done. Floodlights twinkle on shiny race cars in the warm desert evening air, the swarm of people leave the grid at the sound of the siren, the drivers finally left alone, strapped in, just the routine countdown to the start now before the proper business gets under way. Two red cars at the front of the grid.
The hustly-bustly shaping of the race
So spectacular and action-packed was this opening stint that it distracted from the tactical shaping of the race – but this was when it was all decided, when the three team fight for victory distilled down to two, Vettel and Bottas, when the pieces were locked into place for the agonising strategy call that would need to be made later. But all by way of a thrilling spectacle, cars cascading sparks as they passed and repassed, sometimes three-abreast, helped by the elongated DRS zone on the pit straight.
From the clean side of the track Vettel’s getaway was perfect. Räikkönen from the dustier right-hand side got nothing like the same traction and was out-accelerated by Bottas from the row behind, sufficiently for the Mercedes to be able to jink around Räikkönen’s outside into the tight first turn. A crucial part of Mercedes’ plan had just slotted into place, for Ferrari now could not use Räikkönen to control the lead Mercedes.
Gasly and Ricciardo bustled through next, with the Red Bull diving back ahead of the Toro Rosso into Turn 4. Behind them was the first of a flurry of territorial fisticuffs. Hülkenberg and Magnussen had rubbed wheels through Turn 2, sending the Haas briefly onto the run-off before rejoining aggressively, chopping across Ocon’s bows then diving inside the Renault into four. Hulk tried sitting it out around the outside but was always going to be bundled onto the kerbs – which Magnussen didn’t hesitate to do, this losing Hulk a further place to Ocon.
Hartley had locked up into four and slid into Pérez, the Force India briefly on two wheels and spinning, rejoining at the back with a heavily damaged floor. Hartley would later be penalised 10sec for the incident. Pérez would get a 30sec penalty of his own for having passed Hartley on the warm up lap and thereby not held his grid position. Behind Hartley ran Sainz, the fast-starting Ericsson, Stroll-Grosjean (these two making contact, damaging the Williams’ front wing and the Haas’ barge boards), Leclerc, Vandoorne (an awful start) and Sirotkin. So bad is the Williams, its drivers were finding it almost unraceable – both reporting that if you tried braking at all hard behind another car, it would simply lock up its front tyres.
Hamilton had a ringside seat to the Magnussen/Hulk/Ocon Turn 4 shenanigans but was being careful not to get involved. His caution was seized upon by Alonso, who dived down the Merc’s inside into Turn 8 at the bottom of the plunging downhill sequence.
Verstappen was thrusting through already and after slicing inside Hartley into the Turn 10 hairpin was tight in Hamilton’s slipstream.
Vettel was 1.5sec clear of Bottas as they crossed the line for the first time, with Räikkönen and Ricciardo equally spaced behind, Daniel noting how easily he was catching the Ferrari already and feeling he’d be putting a pass on it very soon. Verstappen was feeling similarly good about the Red Bull, had got through the final turn significantly quicker than Hamilton (who seemed to be struggling in Alonso’s dirty air) and was slipstreaming furiously down the pit straight. Into Turn 1 Verstappen made a bold move down the inside, sparks cascading into the night air from the Red Bull floor, Hamilton hanging on around the outside as they turned in. Verstappen, in order not to get boxed in by Alonso, moved across on Hamilton to make it even tighter. Essentially though, Verstappen had completed the move and was ahead of the Merc, but Lewis was stubbornly refusing to surrender it, they touched and the Red Bull’s left-rear was instantly punctured. Hamilton’s car was undamaged and he was later overheard commenting to Bottas in the green room that Max needed to show some respect.
As Verstappen was limping pitwards on three tyres he passed the stationary sister car of Ricciardo, which had pulled off to the side. The battery had malfunctioned, going DC to DC and rupturing itself – not a unique occurrence with this particular Renault component over the years. Verstappen would shortly after pull off with a damaged diff from the three-wheeled 5km ride to the pits. Two potentially race-winning cars were out of the equation – simplifying the tactical tasks on the Ferrari and Mercedes pit walls.
The quickest way to run the race from the front was with a two-stop – and that was Ferrari’s favoured strategy for Vettel. It didn’t appear as if Bottas’ Mercedes could live with him on the super-soft tyre they were both on and so it seemed to be shaping up into a straightforward Ferrari win. Hamilton, on his soft tyres, would be able to go longer and thereby gain track position from his penalised position by stopping only once. But it seemed he’d already lost too much time to be threatening either Vettel or Bottas before the end. “By the time I got past that group of dicing cars ahead of me I was already 15sec off the lead,” he pointed out, “and that’s where the race was lost really.”
Up to Turn 11 for the second time and Magnussen, having come out on top of his earlier brawl with Hülkenberg, tried for the outside of Gasly but the youngster was having none of it, held his line even as they rubbed wheels – this sending Magnussen onto the run-off for the second time in as many laps.
The VSC was imposed as marshals moved Ricciardo’s car to a safe place. This was lifted on the third lap as Vettel headed the pack up to Turn 11 – and he again left them all behind. Gasly was caught napping slightly and came under renewed attack from Magnussen but again held him off. Hülkenberg went for the outside of Ocon into the final turn but ran wide onto the kerbs, allowing the Force India to slipstream back ahead down the straight.
Hamilton completed a spectacular three-in-one pass going into the first turn on lap six. After making a DRS-assisted pass on Alonso, he went down the inside of Ocon into Turn 1 but the Force India was itself inside Hülkenberg. The Mercedes passed them all. Ocon switched sides, but locked up – allowing Hülkenberg and Alonso past. So Hamilton was now sixth, but 13sec off the lead. He was gaining fast on Magnussen and Gasly and duly dispatched them over the next couple of laps.
So it looked as if the race had now settled into a shape. The first stops for the two-stoppers who’d started on super-softs was set to be around lap 17-20. The Ferraris that sandwiched Bottas were having to save fuel more than the Mercedes, but still Vettel was able to stretch out his lead to around 3sec by the 10th lap. The floodlights made visible just how much oil was being vented into the air (as required by the this year’s regulations) by the Ferrari engines, oil that was presumably being fed into the combustion chambers last year. Could that reduction in burnable calories be why Ferrari is struggling with consumption so much? That said, Renault was struggling too – both Hülkenberg and Sainz having to back off significantly to keep things on schedule. As a generality the cars have more downforce – and therefore drag – than last year, which extracts a cost in fuel consumption. But in addition to that, the three engines per season rule means they are being run richer to prolong their lives. The 105kg limit is reckoned now to be about 4kg too stringent to prevent fuel save measures.
Vettel’s 3sec margin remained steady until around lap 14, but then Bottas began to make gains. Surprisingly, the Merc seemed to better on the tyres late into the stint. This was awkward news for Ferrari rather than devastating. They were still in control, but by lap 17, with the gap down to 2.2sec, Vettel was going to have to come in next lap to avoid Bottas getting to within undercut reach. In he came. To prevent Bottas staying out and thereby getting an advantage with fresher tyres later in the race, Ferrari brought Räikkönen in next lap to apply undercut pressure – this obliging Bottas to come in at the end of lap 20.
But then the tactical Mercedes masterstroke. Mediums for Bottas, the slowest but most durable of the three available compounds. This strongly implied that they’d switched him to a one-stop. There was a risk to this – the tyre might simply have been too slow to prevent Vettel getting the 23sec gap needed for his extra stop, especially as the track temperature cooled into the night, and Räikkönen could thereby have got ahead too. But Red Bull’s absence meant the downside risk was much reduced. Furthermore, Mercedes had noted that when Alonso and Ocon had switched to the medium a few laps earlier, their pace on it was initially pretty good.
Hamilton now led on his old soft tyres, but with Vettel just 5sec behind and going over 2sec per lap faster on his fresh versions of the same. Hamilton delayed the Ferrari for as long as he could, trying to compromise its assumed two-stop strategy, but Vettel DRS’d his way back into the lead on the 26th lap. At this point Hamilton made for the pits and had his mediums fitted. Both Mercs on a one-stop, both Ferraris on a two.
Or were they?
The Game Of Strategic Nerve
If Ferrari was indeed staying with the two-stop plan, to win would involve Vettel extending his 5sec lead over Bottas to 23sec within the following 25 laps or so – an average of over 0.7sec per lap faster. Maybe possible, but far from certain. The alternative – to convert to a one-stop – involved trying to make his set of softs last 39 laps and have Bottas – and probably Hamilton too – coming at him strong in the closing laps and fending them off. Also possible, also far from certain. But that indeed is what Ferrari had already decided. Vettel was on Plan B, a one-stop. He knew as soon as he rejoined what the game was, how carefully he would have to monitor his resources.
All of which left Mercedes trying to guess what Ferrari’s plan was. They didn’t believe he could get 39 laps out of a set of softs, that surely he’d be coming in around lap 40-45. So they found themselves in a very finely-poised dilemma. To a) back off, retaining enough tyre life to defend against a two-stopping Vettel or b) not let the gap grow too much in case Vettel wasn’t going to stop again. They initially veered towards the former. Which in hindsight was a mistake. Had they let Bottas off the leash sooner, he’d surely have been able to pass. As the laps passed and Seb’s pace didn’t increase dramatically, so it became clear what the game was.
There was still time for Ferrari to change its mind. This was why Räikkönen remained on a two-stop and came in on lap 35. That way Ferrari would be able to monitor his pace to judge if Vettel should do the same, after all. They never got to find out. The left-rear stubbornly refused to come off even as the other three wheels were changed. Ferrari uses a traffic light system, the green light automatically showing as soon as sensors establish contact is made between wheel and hub. But because the left-rear never came off, the green was triggered – and Kimi accelerated away. A mechanic, Francesco Chigarini, had his left leg twisted horribly as he was scooped up by the accelerating car and received multiple fractures. Räikkönen was stopped by the team immediately. He climbed out and retired as the mechanic received emergency medical attention.
The three laps during which the Ferrari pits were not available as the man was attended to just pushed Vettel even further into staying out. Mercedes finally understood that Vettel wasn’t coming in. They could have taken advantage by switching Bottas to a two stop and getting three laps’ worth of undercut on Vettel – but those on the pitwall just couldn’t do it, felt it would have been too callous to do a live pitstop a few metres away from the wounded man being attended to when Ferrari was powerless to defend itself.
Meanwhile, in the contest far behind the Ferrari/Mercedes battle Gasly was having a dream race in fourth place. At one point, after he’d made his second stop but before Alonso had abandoned his one-stop plan and made a second stop, the Toro Rosso was about to pass the McLaren on the road despite having made an extra stop, having got within DRS reach. But McLaren pulled their man in before that could happen. Gasly went on to secure that fourth place, Honda’s highest finish in the hybrid era.
Magnussen was a few seconds behind and Hülkenberg, next up, was amazed at how much faster the Toro Rosso and Haas were than his Renault. Alonso emerged behind Hulk and kept the pressure on, but both had to repass the one-stopping Ericsson who was doing a great job keeping the Sauber in the points. Ocon and Sainz had both been passed by the recovering Vandoorne and of that group only the McLaren would make it past Ericsson. Ocon would go on to pass the fuel-saving Sainz on the last lap for 10th place.
So the last 20-odd laps played out as the silver cat chased the red mouse. Hamilton was well distant of this pair, his race not helped by a microphone problem that made communication with his team almost impossible. There was a crucial three-lap phase (lap 37-39), which in hindsight probably lost Bottas the race, when Vettel and he encountered lapped traffic. Seb made up 2sec on his pursuer as he found a cleaner route through. The team felt afterwards it could have informed Bottas of the situation better.
Vettel was keeping up a remarkable pace for the age of his tyres but with 10 laps to go there really was very little grip left in them. Bottas, 6sec behind, began closing down on him down fast. With five laps to go the gap was just 1.7sec. Just the slightest lock-up from Vettel and these tyres would be finished – and Bottas would be through. With three laps to go, Bottas failed by just a thousandth of a second to be within range at the first DRS detection point. He finally got DRS two laps from the end on the back straight but still Vettel held his nerve. Going into Turn 1 for the last time Bottas took a look down the inside, but it wasn’t a very committed one. Helmut Marko afterwards suggested if it had been either of his drivers in that moment, they’d have made the pass. By this time Bottas’ tyres weren’t in great shape either and it was he, rather than Vettel, who locked up. But it was too late by then anyway. There were no more passing opportunities – Vettel hanging on for a fantastically finely-judged victory under the most intense pressure. His character shone through.
He was consumed by elation. “Yeah, I came on the radio with about 10 laps to go and said, ‘I have everything under control.’ I don’t know if they broadcast that. But it was a lie; there was nothing under control! When they told me the pace of Valtteri at that time, there was no way I could do that. I was making the maths inside the car with 10 laps to go – at that pace, he’s going to catch me! I tried to keep it as clean as possible. Both Mercedes at the end of their stints were very strong, already in the first one. When they went onto the medium I thought that’s check-mate, because we had to come in again. That was the original plan, but then we diverted obviously, and the tyres, I tried to make them last, nursed them as much as I can, and it worked. But just!”
Bottas stood politely, smiled ruefully.