Sebastian Vettel won the Bahrain Grand Prix with a beautifully judged drive ahead of Lewis Hamilton and pole sitter Valtteri Bottas.
The result gives Vettel the championship lead alone by seven points over Hamilton. Ferrari have a three point lead over Mercedes.
It was his 44th career F1 win, the same as Hamilton’s race number, his second this season and his third in Bahrain.
Hamilton and Mercedes were under pressure; he was hit with a five second penalty for blocking Ricciardo on the way into the pits and that played a significant part in costing him the win, after he had served it at the final stop.
It was a day that showed once again the clear pattern of this season where the lead drivers of the Mercedes and Ferrari teams had a clear race pace advantage over their team mates. From pole, Bottas was well off Hamilton’s pace and was asked to let his team mate through just before his second stint as only Hamilton had the pace to mount a challenge to Vettel. Meanwhile Raikkonen had a scrappy start and then complained of further problems with the car during the race. But he was fast at the end of the race, when he almost caught Bottas for third place.
Mercedes said that they gave Bottas too high tyre pressures for the first stint due to the generator not functioning properly.
It also showed another trend for this season; that the Mercedes struggles on the softer compound tyres like the supersoft, so much so that Mercedes opted to leave a set of new supersofts in their blankets for Hamilton’s final stint, preferring to use instead a used set of Softs. The data from Bottas’ new tyres in the second stint told them that.
It was a good race from the point of wheel to wheel action, allaying fears that these F1 cars would struggle to overtake even on a proper race track.
It was also a great race from a strategy point of view with the leading cars taking different strategies on the tyres. Ferrari were bold again on strategy, undercutting Mercedes at the first stop, making the use of the pace of the car in a sure footed performance from the pit wall. Bottas didn’t have the race pace, while Hamilton’s five second penalty meant that Vettel had the edge.
Bahrain is traditionally one of the better tracks for the number of overtakes, especially since it became a night race, so this is something of a high water mark, but encouraging nevertheless.
Start – Hamilton loses a place
At the start Vettel got ahead of Hamilton as the Mercedes driver had a slower getaway off the dirty side of the grid. He positioned the car perfectly THat said, Verstappen also started on the dirty side and he managed to pass Raikkonen and Ricciardo in the opening turns, the pass on the Australian being particularly robust into Turn 2.
The order across the line at the end of Lap 1 was Bottas, Vettel, Hamilton, Verstappen, Ricciardo, Massa, Raikkonen who had dropped down to 7th from 5th, Hulkenberg, Grosjean and Ocon. Palmer had dropped from 10th to 13th. Perez had a great start from 18th up to 12th.
Once the DRS was enabled, the Ferrari closed in on Bottas and Verstappen got close to Hamilton. Bottas got a radio message from the pits to say that there was some overheating but not serious, Vettel continued to shadow him, clearly faster at this stage of the race. Hamilton closed up, making it a leading trio.
After 10 laps the leading five cars were separated by just 3 seconds, meanwhile Raikkonen managed to get ahead of Massa for 6th place, with fours seconds gap to the car ahead he had free air to go in and set a mid 1m 36s lap, while Bottas was holding Vettel to 1m 37s at the front.
Bottas said that his tyre tyres were losing performance and was told that the pressure were high, Vettel went for the undercut on Lap 11. He went for the supersoft tyre, following the strategy Haas had great success with last year. He rejoined into a gap ahead of Palmer.
Verstappen was calling for the same, “I think we should do something like Ferrari” he said. Red Bull pitted him a lap later. Hamilton moved up to the tail of his team mate.
Vettel made great progress on the supersofts, putting a big chunk of time between himself and Verstappen, but the Dutchman went off on Lap 12. The car went straight on with a brake failure. It was bad luck as with what transpired soon after he would have been second at the Safety Car deployment.
Raikkonen pitted on Lap 13, but was not fast enough to to be in the game once again, as far as Ferrari’s strategy challenge on Mercedes was concerned at this stage.
All change as Stroll triggers a Safety Car once again
Mercedes did not cover Vettel who was lapping 2 seconds faster than the Mercedes then once again the Safety Car was deployed for a collision between Stroll and Sainz.
This looked like bad luck for Ferrari, with Vettel 18 seconds behind Bottas, but a slow stop for Bottas lost him the lead and with hamilton stacked behind him, he dropped behind Ricciardo. Bottas was put onto supersofts, to cover Vettel, while Mercedes split the strategy with Hamilton on softs, which was the same as Ricciardo.
Hamilton had held up Ricciardo as they entered the pit lane under the Safety Car and was given a 5 second penalty.
Marcus Ericsson had been put onto Soft tyres at the start by Sauber and was up to 8th. He quickly dropped back.
At the restart Hamilton jumped Ricciardo, while we had a great wheel to wheel scrap between Bottas and Vettel, which Vettel survived. Ricciardo lost further places to Massa and Raikkonen. His second set of supersofts not working for him.
Lap 19 and Vettel got his head down, building a lead over Bottas. Hamilton ran third with Massa doing a great job in fourth on soft tyres. Williams had looked good all weekend and Massa was really making the most of it.
Vettel was told that Ferrari expected Mercedes to instruct Bottas to let Hamilton through so as not to hold up his progress given that they were on different strategies and Hamilton would have the penalty. These were anxious moments for the Mercedes team, who had needed to contain Vettel, given that the Ferrari was always likely to race more strongly on a track where looking after the rear tyres is the name of the game.
Perez had worked his way up to 7th, another strong performance from the Force India driver, who had jumped Hulkenberg and Grosjean.
On Lap 20 Raikkonen passed Massa again for fourth, he was no2 7 seconds behind the leading trio.
Vettel had a 3.5 sec lead over Bottas and it was all about the gap to Hamilton, the leading driver on soft tyres
Fernando Alonso was passed by Kvyat and Palmer and said candidly, ” I have never raced with less power in my life.”
Hamilton passed Bottas on Lap 27, with all the hallmarks of an order from Mercedes, with the gap to Vettel now 6 seconds, but realistically 11 seconds behind given his added five second penalty.
Bottas said that the supersofts were not working for him and that the soft would be the better tyre. Hamilton closed on Vettel, trying to judge how much to take out of the tyres, given that he was trying to make it to the end of the race on them.
“Keep your head down, this is an important phase of the race, focus!” Vettel was told by his engineer.
Vettel was working to build a gap to Ricciardo to be able to stop without dropping behind the Red Bull driver. He needed 24 seconds.
Raikkonen said something ‘really disturbing’ was happening to the car and was given some instructions to try to rectify the problem.
Hamilton was really fast on the soft tyres, Vettel had the gap on Ricciardo to pit, but he now found himself 18 seconds behind Hamilton with a 20 lap tyre offset and 23 laps to the end. Perez meanwhile was doing a stunning job on 21 lap old supersofts.
Vettel was now over a second a lap faster than Hamilton, but knowing that he did not need to overtake him at the end, due to Hamilton’s time penalty.
Perez and Hulkenberg pitted together on Lap 37 and Perez rejoined eighth.
Raikkonen had been calling for new tyres and was given them on Lap 38. Vettel closed in on Hamilton to 8 seconds.
Hamilton pitted on Lap 41 for soft tyres and served his time penalty. He went onto used softs, but questioned why he hadn’t been given new tyres? Mercedes said it was due to data, meaning the poor performance of the supersofts on Bottas’ car in the second stint. With 14 laps to the end, they felt Hamilton had shown better pace on the softs and that it was the correct tyre.
Hamilton scythed past Bottas on Lap 48, a humiliating situation for the Finn after scoring his first pole position. Hamilton was told he had the pace to win the race and having served the penalty it was all to play for with ten laps to go.
Vettel responded, measuring his pace, with a tyre offset of just 5 laps in Hamilton’s favour. Vettel caught traffic, Hamilton closed by almost 2 seconds on Lap 50 with seven laps to go.
Ericsson broke down with five laps to go, but no Virtual Safety Car or Safety Car was required to be deployed that would have given Hamilton a lifeline.
Raikkonen found some pace at the end of the race as he closed on Bottas for the final podium position.
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