Sebastian Vettel, pulling incredible pace from nearly unusable tyres, repulsed Valtteri Bottas rapidly closing Mercedes for victory in the Bahrain Grand Prix for his second win in two races. Lewis Hamilton rose from ninth to third.
It was Vettel’s 200th career start and 49th victory of his career as well as his second consecutive win in the Bahrain Grand Prix and his fourth victory at Bahrain International Circuit. This is the first time since 2004 that Ferrari has won the first two Grands Prix of the season.
The decisive moment came on Lap 36 when Vettel’s teammate Kimi Raikkonen’s crew ruined his pit stop, leaving him on one Pirelli soft tyre and three super softs. His unsafe release then left a crew member with a double fracture. The Finn retired on the spot.
Ferrari ordered Vettel to instantly switch to a one-stop strategy on Lap 38, as it was painfully clear that he would lose position to Bottas and likely Hamilton if he pitted for new tyres.
The team’s decision left Vettel to single-handedly baby his set of soft tires for the final 39 laps on a track known for its abrasiveness and high tyre stress. His re-structured race-saving pace allowed Bottas to slice into what had been Vettel’s advantage of more than eight seconds. Mercedes saw the victory as inevitable. They apparently believed it would only be minutes before Vettel’s tyres gave up the ghost, and one lap from the finish, Bottas made his move under braking at the final corner but was forced to pull up as Vettel closed the door. It was both Bottas’ only and last opportunity. When the checkered flag dropped, Vettel’s margin of victory was a mere 0.699 of a second.
As if Ferrari’s Bahrain practice and qualifying pace wasn’t a testament of how far the Scuderia has advanced from their tentative SF71H Melbourne debut, then Sebastian Vettel’s superb use of the car’s best attributes should serve as proof. With the car’s new design direction Vettel rapidly diagnosed a “driving” solution for tyres with only enough rubber to have a semblance of grip. Had he been running the troubled 2017 car, Valtteri Bottas would have taken the win.
This season Vettel’s SF71H has a sweet spot for managing tyres so worn they would not be able to pass a safety test let alone still hold air and where to give it his full boot. From today, Mercedes must revise its race strategy to account for Ferraris that make superb use of every last atom of Pirelli rubber.
The new SF71H is indeed the faster, more forgiving and more race-able car the Scuderia strived to create. It just took Bahrain’s pressure cooker of a race to speed up the assimilation process.
The weekend at the 5.412-kilometer (3.363-mile), 15-turn Bahrain International Circuit in Sakhir began with Ferrari’s instant single lap and long-run pace domination in practice. Mercedes released news that Lewis Hamilton’s car would take a five grid spot starting penalty for a gearbox change; both Hamilton and Bottas would remain on their back foot the rest of the weekend.
By FP3, Kimi Räikkönen’s fast lap of 1:29.868 was 0.525 of a second better than his nearest pursuer, Max Verstappen of Red Bull.
In qualifying it was the four-time champion Vettel who put down a lap of 1:27.958 to win the pole by 0.143 of a second over his teammate Räikkönen. The track record lap, which smashed the previous record of 1:28.769 by .811 of a second set last year in Q3 by Valtteri Bottas; this year the Finn could do no better than third, followed by Red Bull’s Daniel Ricciardo.
Max Verstappen crashed in Q1. A 150-hp power surge from his Renault engine sent him into the Turn 3 wall; he would start 15th. Hamilton’s grid penalty put him in the ninth starting slot. The surprise of Qualifying was Toro Rosso-Honda’s rookie, Pierre Gasly, in the fifth spot.
Bahrain is a power track with fast straights connected by tight stop-start corners. As the drivers waited for lights out, the questions to be answered over the next two minutes were: Would Bottas’ Mercedes “power mode” jump the Ferrari duo on the very long run down to the ferociously tight Turn 1? Further, as in nearly every start in Bahrain since 2004, who would survive the no-holds-barred banging match as the cars braked for the first corner? Finally, should rookie Pierre Gasly, starting fifth, come through intact, would his Toro Rosso-Honda hold up the remaining field, producing another snooze-fest like the season opener in Melbourne two weeks ago?
Thankfully, Bahrain delivered some surprises for the second Grand Prix of the young 2018 F1 season.
Vettel held the lead at the start with Bottas slicing in front of Raikkonen. Behind them, Force India’s Perez hit Harley’s Toro Rosso and spun while Nico Hulkenberg hit Magnussen’s Haas. By Lap 2, Verstappen had worked his way up to Hamilton and tried to outbreak him into Turn 1. Hamilton held his ground, forcing Verstappen to dodge Stoffel Vandoorne’s McLaren and in the move Hamilton slashed Verstappen’s left rear tyre. The Dutchman headed for the pits just as Daniel Riccardo’s Red Bull rolled to a stop with no power. Both would retire ending the Red Bull challenge.
By Lap 10 the pace was already manic compared to Melbourne, with 42 passes recorded. The Aussie opener, on the other hand, saw just five passes the entire race.
Vettel pitted from the lead on Lap 18, followed a lap later by Raikkonen. Bottas took the lead but pitted on Lap 20 for his tyres. By Lap 26 Vettel retook the lead from Hamilton as the Brit headed for his tyre stop on Lap 27.
Following Raikkonen’s retirement, the race transitioned into a chess game; how long could Vettel’s Ferrari stay on its tyres? By lap 50, Vettel’s was sure his tyres had given up, as he lost ground to Bottas; by Lap 53, the Ferrari is shaking, but the German still finds speed enough to hold off Bottas until the Finn’s final lunge under braking for Turn 15. It was a case of too little too late, as Vettel somehow kept his tyres inflated on their rims for the last lap.
On the podium, the mood shared a common word if not emotion; giddy disbelief from Vettel – crushing disbelief from the Mercedes duo. The loss of both Red Bull drivers allowed Toro Rosso’s Gasly to run a lonely but very rapid fourth for the remainder of the Grand Prix. Magnussen’s Haas ended up fifth, followed by Renault’s Nico Hulkenberg, McLaren teammates Fernando Alonso, seventh and Stoffel Vandoorne eighth. Ninth fell to Sauber’s Marcus Ericsson, getting his first points since 2015, with Esteban Ocon’s still-developing Force India taking the last point in tenth.
Next week, the Grand Prix circus moves to the Chinese Grand Prix in Shanghai, with an aura of competitiveness not seen in years. See you there.