Red Bull misery, a Mercedes performance that was equal parts masterclass and confusing, a safety scandal and a rookie relishing the spotlight – after the mundane affair in Australia, Bahrain had it all.
Lewis Hamilton, starting in ninth, suited up on softs while the Ferraris and his team-mate Valtteri Bottas were on the supers.
Nevertheless, he reeled them in on the first stint, including a sensational swoop down the straight that saw him edge past three cars simultaneously.
At the changeover, Vettel put on the softs and then the Mercedes went to mediums after Hamilton had held up the championship leader. It was tactical perfection – and it didn’t last.
Bizarrely, Mercedes did not seem to press home their advantage in grip when Vettel was skating around in slippery softs. There was confusion over the radio as a peeved Hamilton claimed he was ‘driving to target’ times in a bid to catch Vettel, but he finished six seconds off the pace in the third.
Second-placed Bottas had one nibble at Vettel’s Ferrari on the last lap yet couldn’t finish off the German. An opportunity missed for Mercedes after a well-executed race.
Forget points and podiums – safety must be paramount in Formula One. It’s why they’ve brought in the halo, and a raft of other changes since Jules Bianchi passed away three years ago.
Why is it then that the FIA gave Ferrari a measly 5,000 euro fine for an unsafe release during free practice, as Kimi Raikkonen was forced to pull over with a loose wheel.
Sunday brought a similar type of incident in the pits – one that had dire consequences. Raikkonen was released with an untightened left rear, and in the way of that tyre was a poor mechanic’s leg.
It looked like a nasty break and someone now surely faces a fight to get walk again. What is the price of safety, be it a driver or his support team? An example needs to be made.
Lay off Max
The spin in Australia and a crash in qualifying here – turning the airwaves blue over the radio – would have caused Max Verstappen pain, but it turns out the 20-year-old hadn’t even hit the nadir.
The Dutchman stormed out of the traps from 15th place and cosied up to Hamilton in the process, only to clip the Mercedes man while making the overtake.
It destroyed Verstappen’s left rear and more as the Red Bull brass ordered him to retire the car a lap later. The TV director captured the team’s misery in a nutshell, as Verstappen limped past a marooned Daniel Ricciardo – who was also forced to retire due to mechanical failure.
His occasional petulance and rashness makes it all too easy to point the finger at Verstappen, but two races in, there’s nothing to blame but dumb, bad luck.
In Melbourne, Verstappen damaged his car merely by running wide while chasing Kevin Magnussen, and a freak surge of horsepower apparently cooked his goose in qualifying on Saturday.
On Sunday, Verstappen refused to give Hamilton room, and Hamilton refused to yield. A pure racing incident.
Formula One cars should be thrown around a bit – instead questions need to be asked why these Red Bulls are so fragile.
Perhaps it was just McLaren after all. The Honda engine clinched their first bit of good PR in a long while with their best-ever finish in the turbo hybrid era as Pierre Gasly masterfully steered his Toro Rosso to fourth in just his seventh grand prix.
The Frenchman capitalised on the Red Bull meltdown, of course, but he was in such a position after a blistering Q3 that saw him qualify in – ahead of all of his team’s second-tier rivals in Haas, Renault and Force India.
It’s one thing to qualify so well but another entirely to make it stick in a race that did not lack for the overtaking that was so sorely lacking in Australia.
He was helped out a little by Romain Grosjean, who inexplicably held his Haas team-mate Kevin Magnussen up at a crucial point in the race, but Gasly was calmness personified and clever, too. He was unwilling to engage in a scrap for places with Hamilton early on and ran his own race – very, very well.
Despite his victory in the season-opening Australian Grand Prix, the four-time champion arrived in Bahrain on Thursday to play down hopes that it will be a straightforward task to win again on Sunday.
“If you look at the pace in testing and at the first race, it’s pretty clear that Mercedes is fastest, probably with a three- or fourth-tenths’ gap,” he said.
“That’s what we saw in the race. Obviously, Lewis was controlling his pace in the beginning and then he pushed when he had to. He had time in hand. I think that’s the fair answer.”
Hamilton secured his 73rd career pole position in Melbourne with a luxurious advantage of six-tenths of a second ahead of Vettel’s Ferrari team-mate Kimi Raikkonen.
Vettel, however, said he did not believe that was a representative lap time advantage. He said he felt the gap was bigger than it should have been.
“Overall, I think in qualifying the gap there looked a bit bigger than it probably should have been.
“I think if you look at the session again, it’s pretty clear that in Q2 in particular Mercedes and Lewis didn’t get the lap together and then in Q3 he did.
“And I think Max (Verstappen, of Red Bull) had a small mistake in Q3 and I had a small mistake so we should have been a bit closer.”
— Scuderia Ferrari (@ScuderiaFerrari) April 5, 2018
“Ultimately,” he added. “We need to have the pace to win and, as I said before, we have to look at ourselves and improve.
“I’m confident that we can. I think our car has potential, but we need to make progress and catch up quickly to fight for wins.”
He added: “It’s also a no-brainer that we’re not quick enough yet and Mercedes is quicker.
“But we go racing. It’s not that we live in simulation land and rely solely on numbers.
“We go racing, as you saw a couple of weeks ago, in Australia, as you saw many times over the past years.
“And that’s the excitement of what we do — that you never really know what happens even if you have a guess.”
Overtaking was a missing vital ingredient at Sunday’s season-opening Australian Grand Prix and Formula One supremo Ross Brawn says it will take years to rectify the problem.
“Think of how much wheel-to-wheel dicing we missed out on,” the former Benetton and Ferrari technical director and Honda, Brawn GP and Mercedes team boss said.
“The point is that, until we take a structured approach to the problem, we won’t really make any progress.
“One of our aims, which we are looking at with the (governing) FIA and the teams is that, for 2021, we want to have cars that allow drivers to really fight one another on track,” he added.
Brawn, whose current role is as F1’s managing director for motorsports, says the FIA and teams are conducting extensive research to help improve car designs to make for better overtaking.
“We need to evolve a car design that achieves close to the level of performance we now see, but permits wheel-to-wheel action,” Brawn explained.
Melbourne’s Albert Park street circuit is notoriously difficult for overtaking, and fans were treated to a couple of stunning passes by home favourite Daniel Ricciardo in the lead Red Bull. However, in general, car performance reduces when too much time is spent right on the tails of another car, a problem that many drivers have highlighted.
“My best friend was on the edge of a cliff and I couldn’t get to him to save his life today, that’s how hard it was to overtake,” Lewis Hamilton said after finishing second, with his Mercedes dropping off significantly after reducing the gap to Sebastian Vettel‘s Ferrari to just about a second at one point.
Hamilton started on pole but Vettel getting past him was down to a strategy call rather than a direct battle on track, as the German jumped his rival during a pit stop while the Virtual Safety Car was in place.
Red Bull’s Max Verstappen said he had no doubt fans watching on TV would have found Sunday’s race boring.
“Completely worthless. I would have turned off the TV,” the Dutchman was quoted as saying.
“(It was) very boring. You do your best to try something, and I was in DRS range all the time, but there is nothing you can do.”