If Formula 1 in 2014 is a battle of the taxi drivers, as Ferrari president Luca di Montezemolo called it this morning, then it could catch on.
Lewis Hamilton and Nico Rosberg gave an exemplary display of close racing today to have a race-long battle in the Bahrain Grand Prix, with Hamilton claiming victory at the Sakhir circuit following an enthralling race, in which Sergio Perez completed the podium. He now has two victories to Rosberg’s one, but the German still leads the world championship.
It is the 24th victory of Hamilton’s career, equalling the tally of Juan Manuel Fangio, and gives Mercedes their second one-two in succession.
“It’s a long time since I had a race like that,” said Hamilton. “My weekend started off well but I didn’t really have great pace for qualifying and the race. I knew that I needed a good start and to go into the first corner in the lead was crucial to my race this evening.
“From there, it was such a battle. Nico drove fantastically well and, in all honesty, he had the pace on me today but I managed to hold on.”
Bahrain under lights produced a fascinating race, not just between the Mercedes drivers, but among team mates at Williams and Force India, and between Red Bulls and Ferraris too. There were DRS overtakes but many non-DRS overtakes too in a thrilling 57 laps.
The battles throughout the field culminated in a ten-lap sprint to the finish following a late Safety Car period following a spectacular roll for Esteban Gutierrez.
With Hamilton snatching the lead from Rosberg at the start line, the Briton established a one second lead as the pair disappeared from the following cars. As the first phase of pit stops approached Rosberg decided to attack and on laps 18 and 19 the pair staged a furious fight, with Hamilton on the limit to retain his lead.
A late braking manoeuvre in to turn one saw Rosberg momentarily take first place, only for his team-mate to switch back on the inside and regain the lead.
A lap later and Rosberg attempted the same move, holding the inside line as both cars locked up in the heavy braking zone. The German was more successful this time around, holding the lead on the run up to turn four as Hamilton switched sides behind.
The two raced wheel to wheel through the downhill chicane complex with Hamilton once again taking back the lead of the race, before pitting at the end of the lap for a second set of soft tyres with Rosberg staying out a further two laps before a switch to the medium compound tyre.
Mercedes were able to complete the race on two stops, with each driver opting for a different strategy. Rosberg went for the medium tyre in order to have a crack at Hamilton at the end on the faster soft tyre at a time when Hamilton would be on the medium. Then luck swing dramatically Rosberg’s way with the Safety Car, which cut Hamilton’s 10 second lead and seemed to turn the race in Rosberg’s favour as the two cars pitted line astern, Hamilton for mediums and Rosberg for softs.
At the restart, Rosberg attacked, knowing that he had to take advantage of the soft tyre’s 6/10ths of a second performance advantage straight away. Twice he made his way up the inside in to Schumacher corner, Turn One, only for Hamilton to once again switch back and hold position.
It was a remarkable display by Hamilton, who managed to hold off his team mate, despite having clearly the slower tyre.
After chasing each other around, Rosberg’s soft tyres began to overheat and he dropped back and followed his team-mate home to increase Mercedes’ lead in the Constructors’ Championship, with Force India on 44 points the closest to Mercedes’ 111.
Behind, the battle for third swung in numerous directions as Valterri Bottas lost the initiative at the start. Felipe Massa held the final podium spot in the opening phase of the race due to a brilliant start from seventh to third by the first corner.
He opted to pit two laps later than team-mate Valtteri Bottas, the Finn taking third place through use of the under-cut as the pair sat ahead of the Force India duo.
With two-stopping Perez and Nico Hulkenberg showing stronger pace as the race wore on, they were able to hold third and fourth position prior to the Safety Car, which could have wrecked their race when it came about as Pastor Maldonado exited the pits, tagging the Sauber of Esteban Gutierrez in the exit of turn one and flipping the Mexican in to a barrel roll.
At the restart, the closely bunched field gave Red Bull drivers on the faster soft the chance to move up after a quiet race at the tail end of the points positions.
Sebastian Vettel led his young team-mate, before the Australian made use of the DRS-zone to move past the world champion in to turn one.
We were in unfamiliar territory with Red Bull in this race; first the team instructed Vettel to let his team mate through in the first stint as he was on the faster tyre at the time, then in the final stint Ricciardo showed himself as the faster of the two as he passed the world champion and set about chasing the Force india duo, taking fourth from Hulkenberg before quickly hunting down Perez, eventually ending the race less than a second behind and taking his first points for Red Bull with a good drive from thirteenth place on the grid.
It was his first points finish of 2014 and nothing less than he deserved after a sensational start to his Red Bull career.
Vettel was unable to take fifth place from Hulkenberg, the two countrymen completing the top six.
After running third and fourth earlier in the race, the Williams pair eventually came home in seventh and eighth with Massa getting the better of Bottas.
They headed the Ferrari pair of Fernando Alonso and Kimi Raikkonen, who completed the top ten.
Hamilton has the trophy tonight and Rosberg is gutted to have lost to his old friend, especially after the safety car seemed to have given him an open goal.
But, if it’s not too much of a cliché, Formula 1 was the winner in this race. Against a backdrop of carping and criticism about it being “Formula Boredom” it was one of the most exciting races for a generation.
And with Rosberg and Hamilton in this kind of mood and no team orders from Mercedes, there is much to look forward to in the coming races.
Bahrain Grand Prix, Sakhir, Race, 57 Laps
1. Lewis Hamilton Mercedes 1h38m42.743
2. Nico Rosberg Mercedes +1.085s
3. Sergio Perez Force India +24.067s
4. Daniel Ricciardo Red Bull +24.489s
5. Nico Hulkenberg Force India +28.654s
6. Sebastian Vettel Red Bull +29.879s
7. Felipe Massa Williams +31.200s
8. Valtteri Bottas Williams +31.800s
9. Fernando Alonso Ferrari +32.500s
10. Kimi Raikkonen Ferrari +33.400s
11. Daniil Kvyat Toro Rosso +41.300s
12. Romain Grosjean Lotus +43.100s
13. Max Chilton Marussia +59.900s
14. Pastor Maldonado Lotus +1m02.800s
15. Kamui Kobayashi Caterham +1m27.900s
16. Jules Bianchi Marussia +1 lap
17. Jenson Button McLaren +2 laps