Flood-Lit Bahrain Has Proved To Be A Good Advertisement For F1

Lewis Hamilton wins the 2019 Bahrain Grand Prix Formula 1 Race
The Bahrain Grand Prix has often delivered what we call as the ‘best advertisement’ for the sport of Formula 1 since many years.

The race might not have much appeal locally, but for the global audiences, the Sakhir International Circuit has hosted some memorable races in recent times ― especially after the circuit switched to hosting races at night.

The 2019 Bahrain Grand Prix was no exception ― Charles Leclerc claimed his maiden Formula 1 pole position in only his second race with Ferrari. And while Leclerc dominated headlines all through the weekend, there were ample stories of success and failures that made the weekend a memorable one for Formula 1 and its fans.

Ferrari ― fast, but fragile?

After a disappointing outing in the opening round of the season in Melbourne, Ferrari proved more than a point after they comfortably outpaced their rivals through all official practice sessions and qualifying. In driver terms, Leclerc seemed more comfortable of the two but for those who have followed Vettel’s progress through a Grand Prix weekend know that the German driver is able to go a notch faster in qualifying. However, come qualifying, Leclerc’s lap time was two-and-half tenths faster than Vettel’s and three-and-half tenths faster than Mercedes’ Lewis Hamilton ― the record-holder for the highest number of pole positions in Formula 1.

In the Q2 session of qualifying though, Ferrari made an error with Vettel by releasing him in traffic ― one that cost him an extra set of soft tyres and more importantly, leaving him with just one attempt to set his fastest lap time in Q3. Under these circumstances, Vettel did well to claim P2 and score a front row lock-out for Ferrari ― but did the team’s error in Q2 bring back memories for Vettel of the team’s multiple goof-ups from last year? But the more important question after qualifying was whether Ferrari would use team-orders in the race to swing the race result in the favour of Vettel. Mattia Binotto, Ferrari’s Team Principal, was quick to quash concerns by confirming that Leclerc would be allowed to win the race if he was leading all through.

In the race, Leclerc lost his lead to Vettel at the start and fell further back as Bottas mustered his way to P2. However, a few laps in, Leclerc did well to reclaim P2 from the Mercedes driver and began to hunt down his senior Ferrari teammate for the lead of the race. It was only in the last race in Melbourne when Ferrari had denied Leclerc’s request to overtake Vettel ― one wondered if a similar situation would re-occur. However, to everyone’s surprise and delight, Leclerc challenged and overtook Vettel for the lead of the race on lap 6. This was when the Ferraris were expected to disappear into the distance, but that wasn’t to be.

Leclerc seemed more comfortable to be able to pull out a gap, while Vettel was struggling for pace and lost second place to Hamilton after the first round of pit-stops. The German driver made good use of Ferrari’s straight-line speed advantage to reclaim 2nd place, but it was the duel that followed that brought the race alive.

After their second round of pit-stops, Hamilton was chasing Vettel for position and after a few attempts, the reigning World Champion made a move around the outside at the in-famous Turn 4 (where Rosberg vs Hamilton entertained us in 2014). While Hamilton pulled off the move cleanly, Vettel spun on his own at the exit of the corner ― a strong indication that the Ferrari driver delivered more power than his rear wheels could handle. However, the gap to the rest of the field was sufficient enough for Vettel to resume the race in third.

But the spin resulted in a flat-spot on Vettel’s tyres and the vibrations from the flat-spot saw the front wing of his Ferrari get knocked off on its own in dramatic fashion. Vettel pitted for repairs and rejoined the race just outside the top-10. The comparative pace advantage over the mid-field rivals helped Vettel recover to 5th place. But given Ferrari’s early weekend form and pace advantage, it would be hard to argue that the team gave up on what should have been an easy 1-2 finish for them ― a perfect result to resurrect their campaign for 2019.

The failure in Leclerc’s energy recovery system (resulting in an approx. loss of 40kmph in straight-line speed) could be linked to multiple factors. Could it be down to the cooling issues that Ferrari reportedly faced in Melbourne? Clearly, Ferrari are pushing their car to the limits and beyond as they hope to snatch the World Championships from Mercedes. But we are reminded of a wise saying from the world of motorsport ― to finish first, you need to first finish. And while both Ferraris finished the Bahrain Grand Prix, they certainly didn’t do so in the positions they would have hoped to do so. Also, can you imagine the furore and talk of conspiracy theories had Vettel not spun and inherited Leclerc’s win?

Mercedes have a solid showing

The unexpected beneficiary of Leclerc’s reliability woes was Lewis Hamilton and Mercedes. Hamilton scored his first win of the 2019 Formula 1 season despite not running an ideal race ― he lost positions at the start and then was put on the wrong tyre strategy by Mercedes. The Briton complained for grip through various stages of the race, but ensured that he remained in contention for the win should it come by and it very much did.

While welcoming the unexpected 1-2 finish in Bahrain, Mercedes know that they have a car to fix. In Bahrain, Ferrari had the edge over one-lap pace; as for race trim, Leclerc’s pace was untouchable ― this is despite the Ferrari driver finishing nearly a minute behind race-winner Valtteri Bottas in Melbourne. However, we expect the pace advantage to swing between the two teams depending on what circuit suits their package better. At the moment, Ferrari might have the pace advantage, but Mercedes score higher in reliability.

Valtteri Bottas scored 18 points for a relatively lacklustre race. He made some bold moves at the start and pulled off an overtaking move on Max Verstappen; the Finnish driver retains his lead in the Drivers’ Championship over Hamilton by one point. And ironically (for all you critics!), this additional point was the one that Bottas earned for registering the fastest lap of the race in Melbourne!

Red Bull Racing would be pleased as three of their four drivers — Verstappen (4th), Gasly (8th) and Albon (9th) — scored points in Bahrain. In qualifying though, it got perilously close between Verstappen and Haas’ Kevin Magnussen in the fight for 5th place ― the difference being less than a tenth.

As for Gasly, an exit in Q2 and yet another race where he failed to break out of the battle of the midfield teams would only be adding to the extra pressure. Let’s hope Helmut Marko is able to instill confidence rather than drive fear into the young Frenchman ― whose best Formula 1 finish was a fine fourth place at this race last year.

The best of the rest

The midfield of Formula 1 is where there is an overdose of entertainment and excitement. The margins are getting closer with each passing race. Renault’s Nico Hulkenberg, who was the shock exit of Q1, drove a fine race to find himself fighting for the best of the rest position in the first half of the race. Daniel Ricciardo, who started 11th and with the benefit of a free choice of tyres, was victim of a strange tyre strategy by Renault. His one-stopper saw him needing to overtake his mid-field rivals twice ― all of this before both Renault mysteriously parked themselves in the run-off area outside of Turns 1-2 on the same lap!

The other team that was in contention for the best of rest position was Haas. However, both their drivers failed to finish after Grosjean suffered from a retirement and Magnussen failed to convert a P6 starting position into championship points. The surprise claimant of the ‘best of the rest’ in Bahrain was McLaren’s rookie driver, Lando Norris. Norris, who started 10th, drove a gritty race filled with plenty of overtakes to finish ahead of the mid-field pack. Kimi Raikkonen raced his Alfa Romeo to the chequered flag in 7th place ― the Finnish driver clearly seeming to enjoy his scraps in the mid-field while Racing Point’s Sergio Perez scored the last championship point in 10th.

Ricciardo’s stricken Renault brought out a Safety Car for the last 3 laps of the race ― offering an anti-climax to an otherwise unpredictable race. The down-on-power Ferrari of Leclerc was being fast approached by Verstappen and would have certainly lost 3rd place, but the Safety Car was a blessing in disguise for the Ferrari driver as he scored his first-ever podium in Formula 1. However, for the midfield drivers like Perez, the Safety Car meant that they were unable to better their positions in the last few moments of the race.

Yes, two races into a 21-race calendar would be too early to talk about the championships, but Mercedes (87 points) are nearly double of Ferrari’s tally (48 points) after scoring to back-to-back 1-2 finishes. Alfa Romeo are surprise 4th, courtesy Raikkonen’s 8th and 7th place finishes. McLaren and Haas are joint 5th (with eight points), followed by Renault (six points). Toro Rosso and Racing Point are both tied in 8th place with three points while Williams are yet to score a single point. In the Drivers’ Championship, Bottas leads the table with 44 points, double of Vettel’s tally (22 points) in 5th. Verstappen is 3rd with 27 points, a point ahead of Leclerc. Along with the two Williams drivers, Giovinazzi, Sainz, Ricciardo and Grosjean are the drivers yet to open their championship account for the season.

As we look forward to China, one wonders if Vettel is still stuck in his spinning ways from 2018. We’ve seen the quadruple World Champion not react too well to younger (and possibly, faster) teammates, but for someone who is out to repeat Schumacher’s winning ways with Ferrari, championships seem a long way off. For now, can we start with error-free races, please?

This post was first published on Firstpost

Kunal Shah is an FIA-accredited Formula 1 journalist who has been reporting on Formula 1 for nearly two decades. He worked with the Force India Formula 1 Team for 6 seasons in Marketing, Sponsorship and Commercial roles. As a former single-seater racer, he was responsible for Force India's grassroots talent program, One from a Billion Hunt. Presently, he co-writes a regular Formula 1 column for Firstpost, speaks on Inside Line F1 Podcast & Pits to Podium and produces broadcast/OTT content for NENT Group (Viasport & Viaplay).

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