Gearbox woes for Hamilton handed the momentum to Ferrari and they took full advantage in the desert with Vettel on song to make it two out of two
In-depth reports from Bahrain, China and Baku
How quickly a mood can change in Formula 1. From despair to hope; from fatalistic resignation to renewed fascination.
Amid the shifting sands of a desert kingdom, F1 came to realise that maybe – despite the coldest fears born of Mercedes dominance in winter testing – we’ll have closely fought races this year and a championship battle to relish.
QUALIFYING A Ferrari front-row lockout in Bahrain: what sorcery was this? Could it be that the paddock presence
of Bernie Ecclestone, that ghost of F1 past, on the very weekend that Liberty Media revealed an outline of their plans for the sport’s future direction, had been enough to conjure his alwaysfavourite red cars to P1 and P2?
No, alas, the truth was rather more prosaic. Mercedes’ W09 had encountered a tendency to overheat its tyres, while the Ferrari SF71-H, though still not as ‘dialled’ as either Seb Vettel or Kimi Räikkönen might wish, was nonetheless proving to be a wieldy machine in which both drivers were beginning to feel more confident.
Vettel’s 51st pole had been the result, he said, of a better front-end feel and the completion of a race distance in Australia that granted deeper insights into his chassis’ behaviour. There was substance to his sentiment: Vettel’s 1m 27.958s was the only tour in the 27s.
Räikkönen, who’d been quick throughout the session and held provisional pole until Seb’s final flyer, mumbled about “traffic” and ended up oneand-a-half tenths shy of Vettel.
Valtteri Bottas led the Mercedes charge, happily shunt-free after his Melbourne qualifying misdemeanour, with a 1m 28.124s almost a tenth clear of Hamilton’s 1m 28.220s best.
Lewis would be further hindered by a five-place grid penalty incurred after a pre-race gearbox change. So a Ferrari front row with the Mercs third and ninth… who’d have predicted that?
“ANOTHER LAP MIGHT HAVE BEEN ENOUGH FOR BOTTAS; ANOTHER FIVE WOULD HAVE BROUGHT A STAMPEDING HAMILTON INTO THE VICTORY FIGHT
No surprise to see Dan Ricciardo next up in fifth, though 0.178s from Hamilton and half a second from pole. MIA, though, after a Q1 shunt on the exit of Turn 2, was Max Verstappen. He would start P15.
Ricciardo would, though, enjoy the presence of another Red Bull-liveried car alongside: the Toro Rosso of Pierre Gasly, powered by Honda. Yep, the same Honda who were dissed then dumped by Mclaren. Bitter, that, for Mclaren, who were the slowest Q2 runners.
Kevin Magnussen underlined the strength of the Haas chassis, with P7, both Renaults made the top 10 – Hulk P8, Sainz P10 – and there was relief for Force India as Esteban Ocon secured P9.
Knowing how to win is the mark of a great champion and twice on the bounce Vettel has conjured victory somewhat against the odds.
In Melbourne a Mercedes strategy error allowed Vettel to mug Hamilton; in Bahrain he was again able to profit from a Mercedes failure. Ahead of the race Merc announced they would have to change the gearbox on Hamilton’s car – which incurred a mandatory five-place grid penalty. That left Lewis languishing in P9 at the start and with a racelong charge ahead. Vettel, meanwhile, was able
to command and control from pole and – just – contain the challenge of a Bottas-driven Mercedes.
His final advantage was a scant 0.7s after
57 laps on a chancy supersoft-soft strategy. By Pirelli’s own modelling Vettel had pushed his second set at least eight laps beyond their useful life; had it been Hamilton chasing him down, not the less aggressive Bottas, surely Lewis would have made more of any late opportunity.
Bottas’s last victory shot came into Turn 1 on the final lap. With DRS deployed, he feinted inside into the right-hander, but half-heartedly. He was neither committed enough to make the pass, nor was his line sufficiently optimised for the perfect exit that might have allowed him to out-drag the Ferrari.
Vettel, breathless and on spent rubber, was off the hook and able to hang on for a famous, tense and stunningly mature win.
Bottas’s second was a boost after Australia, not least because he outpaced Hamilton in qualifying. But the thought lingers that a Ricciardo or an Ocon, both tipped as possible 2019 Merc drivers, would have made more of any last-gasp victory lunge.
Another lap might have been enough for Bottas; another five would have brought a stampeding Hamilton into the victory fight.
The result left Vettel with a perfect ‘50’ at the top of the drivers’ table, as the first Ferrari driver since Michael Schumacher in 2004 to have won the first two races of the season.
The trio were in a race of their own at the head of the field, after Räikkönen had been eliminated during his second pitstop. Confusion over the switch of the left-rear soft to a supersoft left the wheel unchanged as he was released and an unfortunate Ferrari mechanic with a broken leg.
Red Bull were also out of the equation. Max Verstappen did for himself with a too-bold lap two move on Hamilton that resulted in a clash of his left-rear with Lewis’s front wing. Result: puncture, a broken driveshaft and retirement. Ricciardo, meanwhile, was also out on the same lap having suffered a total electrical failure. “This sport can rip your heart out sometimes,” he said.
The toll was all to the advantage of the remarkable Gasly. In only his seventh race, the 2016 GP2 champ delivered brilliantly on the promise of his P5 starting position for fourth.
Magnussen eased Haas’s Melbourne woes with fifth, while the combatitive Fernando Alonso was seventh. The oft-lamented Marcus Ericsson was a deft, single-stopping ninth for Sauber.
Quite a race then, all-in-all. It looks like being quite a championship.
Seb made the best of pole for win number two (above, left & below). Lewis (above, centre) had no answer while Kimi’s woes were in the pits (above)