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Opinion: Bahrain Produces an Absolute Thriller

Feature writer Nigel Chiu gives his thoughts on the recent Bahrain GP where Vettel again held off a Mercedes attack.

Credit: Steve Etherington / Mercedes-Benz

On a day where I had been awake for nearly a full 24 hours to watch various motorsport series such as Indycar from Phoenix, V8 Supercars from Tasmania, BTCC from Brands Hatch and an F2 race; I honestly thought the day couldn’t get any better and the Bahrain Grand Prix would disappoint. There was too much hype and too much hope with cars out of position and a track which would create strategical battles for the drivers and the engineers on the pitwall. But I was so wrong and it was one of the best F1 races in a long time.

Lets set it all up. Mercedes probably knew that Lewis Hamilton would have to take a 5 grid place penalty as they did a lot of running and long stints on the soft tyre in practice. They clearly didn’t want to give away any information to their rivals that Hamilton would be severely compromised for the weekend. When it came to qualifying, Max Verstappen had “a power surge” which caused him to spin into the wall at an awkward angle with the lightest of touches but heavy consequences. Ferrari looked so good with a car that did exactly what Sebastien Vettel and Kimi Raikkonen wanted on the Sakhir circuit. Even with “party mode” Mercedes could only qualify 3rd and 4th with Bottas ahead of Hamilton. A mistake from Vettel on his first Q3 lap put him under pressure to deliver next time round and he very much did. He took a 51st pole as Ferrari locked out the front row.

There were so many potential strategical options as well. One stop, two stop, what tyres do you use for which stints, it was all “too good” and I usually think when the potential for a classic race is on the table, it turns out to be the complete opposite. Well, we got what has to be the best F1 race since Baku last year.

Bottas crucially split the two Ferrari’s and closed in on Vettel towards the end of the first stint, thus showing that he had good pace. Now, Mercedes had the chance to try to undercut Vettel and take the lead but they decided that it would have been too risky because if it didn’t stick, they probably wouldn’t get a better chance. Instead, it was Vettel who pitted first and Mercedes opted to go for a one stopper with a long stint on the medium tyres. At the time, I think we all thought Ferrari were going for a 2 stopper and it would have been a fascinating prospect with Vettel chasing down Bottas in the closing laps. It proved to be very different.

Hamilton started on soft tyres and ended up in the lead and holding up Vettel as the German tried to make a gap over Bottas so he would have less to make up after his 2nd stop. For a few minutes, we had two 4-time world champions duking it out for the lead. They didn’t race each other too hard but it was still a great sight. Vettel probably lost 2-3 seconds in behind the turbulent air of Hamilton but he did drive passed with relative ease down the main straight.

Sebastian Vettel was forced to manage severely worn tyres until the end (Credit: Ferrari)

The job for Vettel then was to make a gap of at least 12 seconds to help him later in the race; but it never happened. Bottas in fact, closed the gap to around 5 seconds and the gap never went to more than 8 seconds. A very good job from Bottas on what are meant to be slower tyres. It was then when Ferrari realised that the only way they were going to win the race was to somehow make the soft tyres last an extra 10 laps than they were meant to. It didn’t help that Vettel had pushed hard on the first few laps thinking that he was on a 2 stopper.

It’s like if you’re trying to save fuel to get to the end of a race. You don’t do it halfway through the race, you do it throughout the race to maximise your lap speed. The same is with the tyres. If you’re trying to nurse the home, the best way to do it is to not go too hard on them at the start of the stint. Mercedes realised that Vettel was going to try a 1 stopper far too late. They needed to push Bottas harder and earlier to make Vettel use his tyres harder so give them a better chance of the win.

It left us with the fascinating situation of Bottas in the Mercedes charging at the end with better tyres and closing in on Vettel in the Ferrari on tyres that were really starting to make him loose traction and slide through the corners. We’ve seen Ferrari try this before with serious consequences. Last year at Silverstone, they went over the limit on the tyres and both of their cars punctured. Vettel’s rear right tyre exploded in 2015 as well. This was such a risky strategy from Ferrari but it paid off.

A seventh place finish for Fernando Alonso has left McLaren with dreams of a return to the podium. (Credit: Steven Tee / McLaren)

Bottas closed in and made some minor errors which all added up and only gave him one opportunity to have a go at Vettel. On the last lap into turn 1, he had a look but didn’t have a real go. Had Hamilton been in Bottas’s position in the last 10 laps then he would have closed in earlier and gave himself a much better opportunity to make a move for the lead. If you look at the average stint pace on the medium tyres, Hamilton was faster even with radio communication issues and lapped cars getting in the way (which he had the worst of). Daniel Ricciardo surely would have made one of his trademark late braking manoeuvres and may well have taken the lead and who knows what other drivers on the grid would have done. What I will say is that Bottas wasn’t aggressive enough. Cars have made overtakes from the position he was in and made them stick. He closed in at a rate of knots down the main straight but wasn’t bold enough. However, had he collided with Vettel and took himself out of the race or hit Vettel etc. we would all be very hard on Valtteri and throwing our hands in the air that he shouldn’t be in a Mercedes.

Perhaps it was the right move after all. He is a racing driver and he should know best.

For me, Vettel won the race when he really shouldn’t have. It was one of his greatest every drives and one that showed why he’s a multiple world champion. No mistakes were made when the pressure was at its highest in those final 10 laps. He hit all of his apexes, he used every bit of the tyre to its maximum potential and did an excellent job in the traffic. Had he made a 2nd stop, he would have finished 3rd. Instead, he picked up an extra 10 points.

Hamilton said he “lost it at the start” when he was blocked by Kevin Magnussen. It meant he made no progress on the first lap when that’s the best time to move up the order. Max Verstappen made a “controversial” move on him into turn 1. Hamilton wasn’t happy and called him a “di****ad” in the cool down room. The move was very similar to what Rosberg did to the Ferrari’s in 2015 yet he got away with it. A racing incident but the contact made caused a puncture and Verstappen’s race was all but lost. It was then lost when he stopped out on track due to the damage he sustained.

Verstappen’s collision with Lewis Hamilton marked the start of the end of the Dutch driver, with Hamilton coming away with bitter language for the Red Bull driver (Credit: Steve Etherington / Mercedes-Benz)

A disaster for Red Bull quickly escalated into a nightmare as Daniel Ricciardo stopped at turn 8 with an electrical engine issue. The car just switched itself off and I really felt for him because the race would have been even more intense with Red Bull and they would have been very aggressive on the strategy. This was the first time in 8 years that both Red Bull Racing drivers retired from a Grand Prix. Where they are on pace compared to Ferrari and Mercedes remains to be seen but they must get on top of their reliability woes. Their qualifying pace does look very promising though.

The driver of the day and the weekend is without question, Pierre Gasly. The 2016 GP2 champion qualified 6th and backed it up with a 4th. Where has this pace come from? It’s partly down to their Honda engine but the car looked planted in the corners. The Sakhir circuit is a power circuit so Honda have clearly got over the worst. Gasly was on rails all weekend. He was in the top 10 in practice sessions and I was thinking that once everyone turned up the motors for qualifying, he would just drop back. It didn’t happen and it was an unbelievable result. The elation of the team and the cheeky “now we can fight” (copying Fernando Alonso) was just great to see. His teammate Brendon Hartley has done hours of racing on the track from his WEC career but Gasly was simply on another level. The 10 second penalty for Hartley for hitting Sergio Perez didn’t help of course.

Marcus Ericsson finally scored his first point since Monza in 2015. It was his best F1 race ever. A one stop strategy opposed to most of the midfield going for a 2 stopper worked magnificently. The Swede didn’t fight cars too hard when being overtaken knowing that he could get them back later in the race. His race pace was just stellar. His teammate, Charles Leclerc pitted far too early under the VSC which came out on lap 3. We await if the F2 champion will shine.

Toro Rosso’s fourth place marked their highest finish since SIngapore last season. (Credit: Honda Racing Media)

Kevin Magnussen gave Haas a deserved 5th place and was ultra aggressive. He’s such an attacking driver and a real character. If you look closely at the start, you can see that he would have none of Nico Hulkenberg’s overtake on him at turn 1/2. He just loves a good scrap and with safe pitstops from the crew, Haas finally hit the ground running.

Fernando Alonso is 4th in the drivers’ championship as he finished 7th. Their seems to be a lack of pace from the car but Bahrain is one of McLaren’s worst tracks of the year. His move on Hamilton showed that he is ready to battle with the big guns. He just desperately needs the car to do it.

Speaking of Ocon, he had an excellent start but his race pace was lacklustre. He finished behind Ericsson who started 17th and I’m worried that the Force India and Williams teams will be battling for the last spot in the constructors’ championship. It doesn’t look good for them and they both tend to develop slowly. Points from Ocon will show Mercedes that he can get a bad car into the top 10 and he should be considered as a Mercedes driver in 2019.

More on F1 this week and the Bahrain Grand Prix as I talk about Ferrari’s horrible pit stop incident, overtaking and a look ahead to the Chinese Grand Prix. Stay tuned for that and for more opinion on F1, check out the latest Monday Motorsport!

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