Sebastian Vettel cooly stalked Valtteri Bottas, rattling Mercedes with a calculated strategy and then controlled Lewis Hamilton’s late charge to win the Bahrain Grand Prix and the outright lead in the 2017 Drivers’ Championship.
Sebastian Vettel took advantage of cooler than normal temperatures to hold off Lewis Hamilton’s late race charge for a controlled win in the rough and tumble Bahrain Grand Prix. With his 44th career victory, his second of the 2017 season and his third in Bahrain, Vettel grabbed the outright lead in the Formula One Drivers’ Championship.
While pole-sitter Valtteri Bottas, Vettel and Hamilton all lead portions of the Grand Prix, it was Ferrari’s decision to pit unexpectedly early that put pressure on the Mercedes duo, forcing Mercedes to double stack its drivers during a Safety Car period pit stop. Knowing he would be forced to wait until leader and teammate Bottas had his tire change, Hamilton slowed dramatically in the pit lane, intentionally delaying Daniel Ricciardo. It didn’t go unnoticed. The stewards slapped Hamilton with a five-second penalty. In the late stages of the race, that ruling meant Hamilton had to wait an additional five seconds before Mercedes could exchange his worn tires. That time delay proved to be the critical element in Hamilton’s failed charge to reel in Vettel during the last ten laps.
After the new-formula uncertainty of Melbourne and the cold rain of Shanghai, the F1 circus knew they faced an even more formidable test in the heat of Bahrain. Friday’s two test sessions matched expectations with by far the hottest track sessions of F1 2017 with ambient temperatures approaching 40 degrees and track surface readings much higher. Ferrari believed the higher temperatures would benefit the SF70-H and focused on setting the early pace. Mercedes meanwhile tended to drill down on set-up and heavy fuel stints, feeling that their team cars needed much more data to keep their tires from exceeding Pirelli’s operating zone on Bahrain’s freakishly hot and sand-blown tarmac.
Paddock talk was of Ferrari’s new wing/floor combination, with whispers that perhaps Ferrari had engineered the floor to be “flexible” enough to curl down on the edges, thus creating a stronger “fence” to keep low pressure (read ground-effect downforce) from spilling out from beneath the car.
Expectations of high winds off the Persian Gulf proved correct, with driver’s experiencing their cars being seemingly lifted off the track while braking for corners. The cars’ new-for-2017 front wings providing plenty of downforce, so as the cars pitch forward under braking, the rear tilts up. The high winds filled the void as well as pushed horizontally on the airbox shark fin extensions. In FP3, the winds were blamed for launching Romain Grosjean into the barriers. Max Verstappen was luckier, catching an almighty slide in the same spot while setting Red Bull’s (and the session’s) fastest lap.
And then there was news that McLaren’s Fernando Alonso would forsake Monaco to race in the Indianapolis 500 with the Andretti team. With Honda once again failing again to provide dependable power for his McLaren for a third consecutive season, McLaren management was desperate to keep the two-time World Champion happy. The word that Honda believes it will take at least a month for the vibration issue which has destroyed McLaren’s form this year to be ironed out underlined Alonso’s disappointment; Sunday’s race would set it out in bold capital letters.
In the end, Mercedes took the pole, but it was the very controlled, very calm Valtteri Bottas who found the best solution for the sand-blown track. With 109 poles between Hamilton alongside in second and Vettel in third, Bottas was quietly ecstatic. The race was shaping up to be a battle to understand and handle tyre degradation due to the high temperatures and to control the rear of one’s car in the strong winds.
To everyone’s surprise, race day evening was much cooler than expected. With ambient temperature 20 degrees lower than Saturday, Mercedes felt more confident their tyres would avoid the worst tyre degradation while Ferrari believed their engine power would remain on par with Mercedes, while their tire wear would better their rivals. Continuing their string of woes, McLaren’s Stoffel Vandoorne was unable to start the race due to be a failure with the MGU-H on his Honda engine.
Off the line, Bottas had the best launch and streaked into the lead. Starting on the dirty side of the grid, Hamilton hesitated for an instant allowing Vettel’s SF70-H torque to push him ahead of Hamilton into the first turn. Verstappen seemed to ignore the dirty side’s disadvantage to pass Raikkonen and Ricciardo in the first few turns. At the end of Lap 1, it was Bottas, Vettel, Hamilton, Verstappen, Ricciardo, Massa, and Raikkonen who had slipped from 5th to 7th, Hulkenberg, Grosjean and Ocon. Palmer had fallen from 10th to 13th. Perez had an excellent start going from 18th to 12th. The fighting for position was vicious. It should be noted that the number of direct wheel-to-wheel contacts during the first few laps of Bahrain exceeded the total of the first two Grands Prix.
With DRS activated, Vettel’s Ferrari closed in on Bottas just as did Verstappen on Hamilton. Vettel was already sensing his SF70-H could stay with Bottas and ahead of Hamilton. Bottas received a pit message announcing he was overheating but it wasn’t serious. Within a few laps, Bottas realised overheating was the least of his problems. His tyre pressures had been set too high on the grid for the first stint due to the generator not functioning properly. The higher pressures were becoming progressively worse causing understeer that then contributed to even more ill handling; his tires were chewing themselves to bits. Vettel sat confidently in Bottas’ wake, biding his time as he was clearly faster. Hamilton tightened up the queue, making it a “Bottas train”. After ten laps the leading five cars were covered by just 3 seconds. Verstappen was quickly on the radio saying “we are quicker than Hamilton, but I am stuck”. It was time for Ferrari to pitch a wild card.
Vettel was called in for the undercut on Lap 11, coming out on the supersoft tyre and slotting into a gap ahead of Palmer. He immediately began lapping two seconds faster than the Mercedes duo.
Back in fourth place, Verstappen radioed, “I think we should do something like Ferrari”. He charged in a lap later, allowing Hamilton to close up on Bottas. Verstappen came out lapping two seconds faster as well but no sooner had his speed announced he would be a factor in the race, he was off into the barrier on Lap 12 with a total rear brake system failure.
Raikkonen had finally passed Massa for sixth and came in on Lap 13. He returned but seemed unable to find Vettel’s speed in his new tyres.
Carlos Sainz exited the pits on Lap 13 and promptly speared Lance Stroll’s Williams at the pit exit as they both steered into Turn 1. The damage was enough to trigger the Safety Car. As Mercedes hadn’t covered Vettel’s unexpectedly early tire stop, both Bottas and Hamilton now found themselves arriving at their pit in tandem, with Hamilton following Bottas. On his way down the pit lane toward his pit, Hamilton purposely held up Riccardo. Bottas chose supersofts; Hamilton, the softs. Riccardo came out ahead of Hamilton, but the Englishman passed him after the Safety car restart. Hamilton would draw a stewards’ five-second time penalty on lap 20 for his pit lane cleverness; it would cost him the race.
The slow Mercedes stops had put Vettel back in the lead, and he went about building a buffer. On Lap 21, Hamilton came on his radio saying he was worried Vettel was getting away. Vettel was six seconds ahead of Bottas when Hamilton knifed past on Lap 27. Counting his time penalty, Hamilton was 11 seconds behind Vettel, but still closing. Bottas, on the other hand, was having a worse time on his set of supersofts than his starting set, and pits on Lap 31. Vettel comes in on Lap 34. The order is now Hamilton, Raikkonen, Vettel, Riccardo and Bottas.
On lap 36, Vettel passed Raikkonen as if he was standing still, and in the process set a new Bahrain race lap record. Up front, Hamilton’s direction is clear; the only way for him to win is to stay out and drive as fast as he can. Unfortunately, Hamilton’s tyres are not up to the challenge. Hamilton dives in for tires on Lap 42, serving the five-second penalty as his mechanics wait motionless before fitting his tires. He exited knowing he would have to extract everything out of his softs. He was 19 seconds behind Vettel as he rejoined and instantly started attacking the Bahrain circuit, setting his own string of record laps. Hamilton knew Vettel was probably understeering by now and the right tires would allow him to catch the German. In the midst of a record lap, Hamilton asked Mercedes why he was on softs; he had wanted supersofts. Hamilton stated he was not happy, yet he was now down to 17 seconds behind Vet. By Lap 46, he was 15 seconds back. On lap 48 he passed Bottas, with his gap on lap 49 now 12.1 seconds to Vettel.
Hamilton needed to lap 1.1 seconds faster than Vettel for victory. Vettel caught and dispatched lapped traffic quickly, getting into clean air on Lap 54. Despite turning fast lap after fast lap, Hamilton was now behind that same traffic, and it proved to be too much. Vettel took victory followed 6.660-seconds later by Hamilton, then Bottas, Raikkonen, Ricciardo, Massa, Perez, Grosjean with his first points of the season, Hulkenberg and rookie Esteban Ocon, collecting his third point for Force India in as many races. Fernando Alonso was classified 14th even though he retired with engine failure two laps from the finish.
Sebastien Vettel looked in control throughout the Grand Prix, stalking Bottas, taking the lead, rattling Mercedes by chasing an unexpected strategy, playing his a surprising undercut correctly, and then staying calm and steady despite the rapidly closing Hamilton to take the outright lead in the Drivers’ Championship.
Under the stewardship of former engine chief Mattia Binotto since the departure of the highly-regarded James Allison last summer, Ferrari’s new SF70-H has become a two-race winner. As good as James Allison was, Binotto’s an engine man by trade who has guided his team to produce a superb, “flexible” and tune-able chassis that finally complements the Scuderia’s upgraded Power Unit.
In Maranello, the bells of the parish church are traditionally rung by Don Alberto Bernardoni to celebrate victories for the local team. Tonight, for the first time since the 2013 season, there will be two yellow Ferrari victory flags flying together to accompany the celebration.
Now, its on to Sochi for the Grand Prix of Russia on April 30th.