DE­BRIEF

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

F1 Racing (UK) - - CONTENTS -

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.

RACE

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)

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