Formula 1 Grands Prix don’t come any better than this; at least not in this modern era of the sport. This is probably why they don’t come as often. The 2018 Bahrain Grand Prix was the perfect advertisement for Formula 1. The race was fought on a lethal mixture of pace and strategy, that too between many teams and it probably helped that there were three quick drivers out of their regular starting positions – Lewis Hamilton, Max Verstappen and Romain Grosjean (yes, the Haas is quick this season!).
This race will be remembered and referenced to for a long time to come. Ironically, it was at this weekend’s Grand Prix that the owners of Formula 1 had called for an urgent meeting of the teams to address the issue of ‘lack’ of overtaking in the sport. Maybe watching the re-run of the 2018 Bahrain Grand Prix could be good homework for this group before they decide to meet next. But of course, it would be absolutely impossible to ensure a repeat of such a Grand Prix at many of the other racing venues.
Sebastian Vettel, who started his 200th Grand Prix from pole position, clinched his 49th career win ahead of Mercedes’ Valtteri Bottas and Hamilton. After the pre-season tests and after a dominant display of racing in Australia, fans would have made peace with the fact that the 2018 Formula 1 season could be yet another Hamilton-Mercedes whitewash. However, Ferrari’s dominant display on track and on the pit-wall in Bahrain will definitely give everyone hopes of a Ferrari versus Mercedes repeat this season. Let’s hope this battle lasts season-long!
Ferrari set the pace all weekend in Bahrain. It was Kimi Raikkonen who led the way through the practice sessions while Vettel upped his game when it mattered the most – in qualifying and in the race. Ferrari’s pace advantage over Mercedes could be attributed to the warmer conditions in Bahrain, a characteristic that could be traced back to their racing car from 2017. For those interested in statistics, it was way back in 1982 when the driver who won the opening two rounds of the season failed to win the championship.
While Vettel’s win in Australia could be attributed more to luck than strategy, his win in Bahrain was thanks to his sheer talent and determination. In fact, his race craft and defence from a charging Bottas was a good reminder of why Ferrari and the Paddock hold him in high regard. The Pirelli soft compound tyre was expected to last approximately 30 laps in racing conditions and Vettel managed to extract almost 20 percent more life from them. The last few laps of the race were a treat to watch. Vettel, who was almost out of any tyre grip, saw his lead (over Bottas) of seven seconds be reduced to a little over seven-tenths within the span of a handful of laps. Bottas, aided by his powerful Mercedes engine, its mystical ‘party mode’ and the more durable medium tyres, was unable to overtake Vettel who was visibly struggling in the traction zones of every corner of the Bahrain International Circuit.
Mercedes started the Grand Prix on the back foot. First, a hydraulic leak on Hamilton’s gearbox after the Australian Grand Prix saw them take a five-place grid penalty in the race. This meant that their reigning world champion driver would start sixth or lower and he actually started ninth after qualifying in a lowly fourth place. Second, the sweet spot on their car from Australia had suddenly disappeared.
However, the reigning constructors’ champions must be credited for attempting a different strategy to outfox Ferrari and fight for the win. They knew that they couldn’t match Ferrari in pace, so they tried their best to beat them on strategy and they almost did. They pushed Ferrari onto a one-stopper with not the preferred combination of compounds and that set the race up.
The stranger part of the weekend was that Mercedes relied on the Pirelli medium-compound tyre for their key race stint and this was the one compound they didn’t test in the free practice sessions in Bahrain, but ran extensively in the pre-season tests. But such races are what Formula 1 has been attempting with Pirelli since the Italian tyre manufacturer’s entry – varied strategies that would allow cars with different speeds to compete with each other during different parts of the race.
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But despite having a quick car, Ferrari had to contend with only one car finishing the race. Raikkonen did not finish his race after a pit-error saw him accidently run over and injure his mechanic’s leg. In fact, Raikkonen faced a similar pit issue in Friday’s free practice. Formula 1 teams are always pushing the boundaries for faster pit-stops and this time, it was an evident and unexpected system failure for Ferrari that should prompt the FIA to step in and make pit-stops safer. While Raikkonen lost out on his ninth podium finish in Bahrain, Formula 1 fans were robbed of what could have been a Raikkonen versus Hamilton battle for the third step of the podium.
Hamilton drove a perfect race to finish six places ahead of his starting position, but this was a rare weekend when he was outperformed by Bottas in qualifying and the race. While this race may go a certain distance in helping Bottas with his contract negotiation talks with Mercedes for 2018, one wouldn’t be wrong in questioning if another top driver (Daniel Ricciardo?) would have tried better than a half-lunge on Vettel to claim the race lead – but that’s how it will always feel from the outside. To save his seat from Ricciardo or Esteban Ocon, Bottas will definitely need to do more, if not repeat performances like Bahrain. Also, Hamilton’s three-car overtake on Nico Hulkenberg, Fernando Alonso and Ocon will definitely be up for the season’s best overtaking move.
The Driver of the Day was rightfully awarded to Toro Rosso-Honda’s Pierre Gasly. The Red Bull Racing junior shocked everyone (Alonso-Mclaren the most!) by qualifying in fifth place. He followed up his form on Saturday with a strong drive to fourth place on Sunday that included race-long battles with Haas’ Kevin Magnussen (fifth). Gasly’s performance comes at a time when Red Bull Racing could be looking at Ricciardo’s replacement for 2019. While Carlos Sainz Junior, who is on loan from Red Bull Racing to Renault and finished 11th, may seem next in line for a long overdue promotion, it might not be unlike Red Bull Racing to promote Gasly out of turn, should his form continue through the season. But of course, for Red Bull Racing’s Honda power dreams for 2019, the Bahrain Grand Prix result would be a positive one.
The other strong contender for Driver of the Day was Sauber’s Marcus Ericsson who scored his first Formula 1 point after two seasons (2016 and 2017) of no-score. The Swede was one of four drivers who made a single-stop strategy work, the other three being Vettel, Bottas and Hamilton – the podium finishers. Importantly, Ericsson qualified and finished the race ahead of Ferrari’s prodigy, Charles Le Clerc, a performance that would hopefully have him win some credibility from his critics.
Renault’s Hulkenberg finished sixth, followed by the two Mclaren drivers (Alonso at seventh and Stoffel Vandoorne at eighth) and Ocon finishing tenth to score a solitary point for Force India. With Force India opening their account in Bahrain, Williams is the only team that is yet to score a championship point this season. Sergio Perez and Brendon Hartley were slapped with a post-race penalty for a rare offence. They failed to maintain decorum on the formation lap, an offence that saw 30 seconds being added to their race time. Since neither driver finished with the requisite points, their penalty had limited impact on the race results.
The biggest shock of the race was the twin retirement of the Red Bull Racing drivers on the same lap (No 2). Verstappen, who pulled off a bold move on Hamilton at Turn 1, saw his rear wheel unexpectedly clipped off by Hamilton. His limping back to the pits caused irreparable damage to his RB14 and led to his eventual retirement. This was not before he spun twice in two races and brought a premature end to his qualifying session. Is Verstappen trying too hard? As for Ricciardo, a system shutdown caused him to stop on track with tweets of his steering wheel with no display going viral.
Although early in the season, after two rounds Vettel leads the drivers’ championship with 50 points, 17 points ahead of Hamilton. Bottas is in third place (22 points) with Alonso (16 points) ahead of Raikkonen (15 points). As a result of the Bahrain Grand Prix, Gasly is equal on points with Ricciardo (12); four ahead of Verstappen. In the constructors’ championship, Ferrari (65 points) are 10 points ahead of Mercedes, followed by Mclaren (22) and Red Bull Racing.
The 2018 Chinese Grand Prix will be contested next weekend, with temperatures expected to be lower than Bahrain. Will this work in Mercedes’ favour or will Ferrari retain their form from Bahrain? Also, how soon it will be before Red Bull Racing fight for wins, or will this be a myth in 2018? We will have some answers in a few days. Remember to check back for more updates.
This post was first published on Firstpost