Mercedes scored a double podium finish in Bahrain, but left the desert wondering what might’ve been…
Mercedes might have outscored Ferrari in the Bahrain Grand Prix but a gearbox penalty for Lewis Hamilton and a tight, strategic race combined to give Sebastian Vettel his second straight win with Valtteri Bottas just 0.69s behind at the chequered flag and the recovering Hamilton, third.
Friday's race evaluation runs proved what Toto Wolff has been saying since pre-season testing began - that this year promises to be a close contest between Mercedes, Ferrari and Red Bull. Saturday's qualifying session on the Sakhir circuit saw Ferrari lock out the front row of the grid but it was incredibly tight. Vettel took pole with 1:27.958, Kimi Räikkönen was second on 1:28.101, and Valtteri third, just 0.02s slower. Lewis was a tenth further adrift, meaning that he would start ninth after his five-place gearbox grid penalty was applied.
Pirelli brought its SuperSoft, Soft and Medium compounds to Bahrain Toto said: "You could see that on a track like Bahrain with a very abrasive surface and lots of heat, we struggled. On the Soft compound the car was much better but put the SuperSoft on and we were overheating it and not extracting the maximum grip."
The engineering department concurred: "Without question in qualifying we didn't extract the performance we should have done. Red Bull did, Ferrari did and we were the ones out of position relative to Melbourne and the Barcelona test. We need to understand why with immediate effect. Conversely, the race wasn't like that at all. It's about stabilised temperatures: while we might be in a poor region on one lap, by the time you do ten in a row everybody ends up in a similar position and the car is competitive again."
Knowing that optimum race strategy was likely to be a close call between one and two pit stops depending upon how the race and track conditions evolved, and that Lewis was going to have to come through the field, the team took the decision to put the four-time Champion on the slower Soft compound tyre in Q2, potentially giving him a longer first stint range.
When the starting lights went out, Valtteri made a better start than Räikkönen from the cleaner side of the grid and was able to slot into second place behind Vettel as the field plunged through Turns 1 / 2 / 3. Further back, Lewis had a great launch but, as everyone jockeyed for position at the first corner, he was delayed by contact with Max Verstappen. The incident ultimately ended the Dutchman's race and meant that Lewis was only tenth as everyone blasted across the line at the end of the opening lap.
"It was an unnecessary collision," Lewis said. "There needs to be a certain respect between drivers and ultimately it was silly for him because he didn't finish the race. He's tending to make quite a few mistakes recently, so it was just unnecessary for him to do that."
F1's midfield battle is tighter than ever in 2018 and, as Esteban Ocon's Force India battled Nico Hülkenberg's Renault and Fernando Alonso's McLaren, Lewis managed to pull a fantastic move and pass all three in one go down into Turn 1 at the start of lap 5.
'That was a great feeling. I got a great DRS slingshot from Fernando which put me right on the other two guys and I just went for it.'
"That was a great feeling," he grinned. "I got a great DRS slingshot from Fernando which put me right on the other two guys and I just went for it. I had been losing time up to that point and it was fantastic to get three in one go."
Next time around and Lewis took fifth from Kevin Magnussen's Haas, then, two laps later, was past an impressive Pierre Gasly in the Toro Rosso. Now in clean air for the first time, he was 14.3s behind Vettel's leading Ferrari.
Last year, after taking his first pole in Bahrain, Valtteri had struggled on the softest tyre in the opening stint but, this time, as the laps went by, he started to eat into Vettel's lead, bringing it down from 3.3s to 2.2s as the first pit-stop window approached.
Vettel dived into the pits for a switch to the Soft compound tyre after 18 laps and Ferrari pitted Räikkönen (running 5.5s behind Valtteri) on the next lap, effectively forcing the team to bring in car No.77 on the next lap in order to protect Valtteri from a potential Räikkönen undercut.
The team took the decision to maximise its strategic flexibility by putting Valtteri on the Medium compound Pirelli. With Lewis on the more durable Soft tyre, the team ran him until lap 26 before bringing in the No.44 car and bolting on another set of Mediums.
As half distance in the 57-lap Grand Prix approached, the race was delicately poised. Vettel, on his Softs, which the team had thought unlikely to be able to go the 39 laps to the end, led Valtteri by 5s, the Finn having actually reduced his deficit by almost 3s despite being on the harder compound Medium. Räikkönen, on Softs, was just over 2s behind Valtteri. Lewis, on his fresher Mediums, was 24s behind the race lead.
After just 16 laps on his Softs, Ferrari called Räikkönen in for a second stop onto the red-walled SuperSofts, likely to see how quickly they could go to help them to decide the best strategy to adopt for race-leader Vettel. Unfortunately, the stop went awry as the team was unable to remove the left rear. But, because the sensor was still attached, as soon as Räikkönen's other three SuperSofts were located, he received the green light to leave, knocking over and injuring a Ferrari mechanic working on the obstructive left rear.
With the injured man prone in the pit lane and receiving medical attention, Ferrari were effectively unable to bring in Vettel for a further few laps even if they had wanted to, potentially further pushing them towards attempting the one-stop that Valtteri's pace on the Medium was telling them may be necessary.
The team strategists now faced a dilemma. They could have brought Bottas in at that time for a second stop onto a set of SuperSofts, effectively taking advantage of a 'free' stop that Ferrari were unable to make due to being a crew man down. But, they didn't follow that path for a number of reasons.
Vettel had radioed in that he had everything under control but that was largely disinformation intended to stop Valtteri pushing!
First, there was the ethical question of taking advantage of an injured man and performing a scary live stop (Mercedes and Ferrari had adjoining pits) just metres from where he was receiving medical attention. Second, given that Valtteri was 5s behind Vettel at the time, Ferrari would have had two laps in which to react and protect Sebastian from an undercut, but that would have involved reorganising and having to move their injured crew member, potentially adding to his trauma. Third, it was a close call as to whether the second stop was the better strategy or not. Lewis would have been required to let Valtteri back past - not an issue in itself, but the evidence from earlier in the weekend showed that the W09 was more comfortable on the harder compound Pirellis.
In the intervening time when it was unclear whether Vettel would make a second stop or not, so it was tricky for the team and Valtteri to decide how hard to push on his Medium Pirellis. Some 7.8s behind when they were newly fitted, Valtteri had closed the gap to 4.1s over the next 10 laps but the gap was back out to 7.5s by lap 40 as it became obvious that Vettel was not going to stop and that Valtteri would need some tyres left to challenge in the closing stages. Some of that pace easing was intended but it did not help Valtteri's cause that he lost around 2.7s in traffic relative to Vettel through the back markers.
The team had initially thought it unlikely that Vettel would be able to get 39 competitive laps out of a set of Pirelli Softs that most estimated the useful life to be around 25-30 laps. But, having checked the wear of the Softs that came off Lewis' car after his 26-lap opening stint, they assessed that 33-35 laps was more likely. That was pretty close. Vettel had radioed in that he had everything under control but that was largely disinformation intended to stop Valtteri pushing!
Over the last five laps the race leader was in serious trouble with grip and Valtteri inexorably reduced the gap. It was 3.7s on lap 51, then 2.88, 1.70, 1.35, 1.02 and then, as they blasted across the line to start the last lap, he was finally within the 1s DRS range.
"I pulled out to have a try into Turn 1 but I was just too far back," Valtteri explained. "We were both short of grip and it would have been easy to lock up and crash. I did brake as late as I could and when I realised I was not close enough it was too late to change line and go back left (for a better exit.)
"Being second, so close, and having good pace at the end is extremely disappointing. In the braking zones, when you get close you lose some downforce because of the turbulent air. It mainly affects the front end so that's why it's easier to lock the fronts under braking."
There was indeed a little puff of smoke from Valtteri's left front as he did that at Turn 10 in a valiant effort to get close enough for the shorter second DRS zone on the last lap, but Vettel held on.
Lewis crossed the line just 6.5s behind the winning Ferrari, having closed in by 8s over the race from the point at which he was first in clear air.
'I pulled out to have a try into Turn 1 but I was just too far back.'
"I have to be pleased to start ninth and finish third," he said. "The time gain shows we had the strongest pace in the race and that's encouraging again. My view is that it's hard to see where you really stand until after a few races with lots of different climates and styles of track. But Ferrari have obviously done a great job. Their engine is definitely not weaker than ours and we'll have to see what it's like reliability-wise. The advantage may shift race to race but I can tell you, it's going to be a mighty close championship. There's a lot of pressure on all of us."
That was echoed by the team's engineering and strategy departments, which believed the team had opportunities at different points during the weekend. Without a gearbox penalty and two cars at the front, they believed the outcome could have been different. And, in hindsight, they may have chosen also to qualify Valtteri on the Soft rather than SuperSoft tyre, to add to his strategic flexibility. Third, they may have been slightly less conservative with tyre conservation on Valtteri's car in the second stint. A priority too, is to improve the in-race radio communication which saw Lewis a little in the dark due to sporadic radio "noise." Ultimately, though, that did not affect his result.
With two races down and 19 to go, Ferrari has a 10-point advantage in the Constructors' Championship and Vettel has 50 points in the Drivers' Championship to Lewis' 33 and Valtteri's 22. The aim is to reduce both margins as F1 heads for a very different kind of track in Shanghai in just a week's time.
The battle continues...