Sunday 16 April 2017

Bahrain GP Report - Returning to the theme

Come back to what you know, as the song went. F1 returned to already familiar themes in the Bahrain Grand Prix today. Valtteri Bottas's interloper performance to get pole position proved just that - again things distilled to the Sebastian Vettel versus Lewis Hamilton game for two players. And it was another thrilling one.

For the second time in three rounds, Sebastaian Vettel
and Ferrari got it right to win
Photo: Octane Photography
It was one of strategy, on the watch, not wheel-to-wheel. But no less gripping for that. And for the second time in three it was Ferrari and Seb that got it right to triumph. The Scuderia's calls were both aggressive and spot on - something that seemed a world away last season. Seb meanwhile was fast and immaculate in converting it all to a win under pressure. That bit is altogether less new.

There were echoes of previous rounds of the fledgling 2017 season everywhere in the Sakhir race. Just like round one in Australia, Vettel having been outpaced in qualifying looked the quickest thing in the race. Just as in Australia too - after vaulting Lewis at the first turn (something Seb aptly called "crucial"), later on the brakes - he apparently was happy to sit on the leading Mercedes's gearbox, this time that of Bottas, in the opening stint.

Then just like round two in China, Seb and Ferrari was the first to roll the strategy dice by pitting first, this time after 11 laps. Just like in China a safety car a few laps later for an accident far down looked like it might scupper the plan, but then we got a variation. After everyone halted under caution Seb indeed got the lead this time. Merc revealed later that it had a wheel gun problem which slowed its stops, which may have aided the Ferrari on its way.

Herein we had a crucial - self-inflicted - dent of Lewis's day too. The two silver cars entered the pit in order. Lewis though, minded of queuing behind his stable mate, backed up to the tune of five seconds to keep Daniel Ricciardo behind, even wiggling his car a bit as if he thought a few of us watching on hadn't noticed what he was up to (and dropping his pace as low as 57 kph). Any driver would have been minded to back up in that situation, but the rules are clear and Lewis wasn't in the least subtle. His five second penalty to be added at a later pit stop was, in the parlance, a 'slam dunk'.

Lewis Hamilton was quick, but made a rod for his own back
Photo: Octane Photography
Irony abounded - Lewis lost the place he was seeking to protect in the pits anyway. Then he got it back pronto as soon as the safety car went in. Ricciardo indeed struggled from then on the soft tyres ("it felt like the tyre was never switched on," noted the Aussie) and faded from contention. The other Red Bull of Max Verstappen also by now had binned it with brake failure. A promising weekend for the team therefore popped.

It left us with an intriguing strategy battle. Vettel after repelling an initial attack cleared off quickly from Bottas - both on the supersofts. Lewis in third however had the softs on, putting him on a contra-strategy. And even on the theoretically slower rubber cruised quickly onto is team mate's tail.

Come lap 27 Mercedes ceded to the inevitable and ordered Bottas to let Hamilton by, which he did immediately and with little rancour ("it's one of the toughest things you can hear as a racing driver," said the Finn later, "[but] I understand...I'm a team player"). Three laps later Lewis was four seconds up the road, underlining the pragmatism.

Lewis edged in on Seb too, shaving the gap from six seconds to four, before Seb pitted for the last time on lap 34. Hamilton pressed on but it was clear he too would have to stop again. He did on lap 42 (taking his penalty then too). This left him third with two cars - first his team mate Bottas then the haughty Seb - to pass on track if he was to prevail, as well as nine seconds to make up on the Finn and 19 to Vettel, with just 15 laps remaining.

To the surprise of many, not least the man himself, Lewis was put on the soft rather than the supersoft tyre (his engineer said, enigmatically, that the choice was based on 'data') plus they were used so he had only four laps' offset on Seb. Whatever, the Englishman started to tear upwards of a second a lap out of the cars ahead, and Bottas for the second time was asked to not get in Lewis's way, which he didn't.

Vettel still had a comfortable gap
on the closing Hamilton at the end
Photo: Octane Photography
That left only Seb ahead. And it was one of those that looked for a time that it would end with a dead heat; indeed with seven left Lewis took a whole 1.8 seconds out of the gap on a single tour as the Ferrari hit traffic. But from then on he could only claim seven or eight tenths each time - it was clear he would run out of laps. Indeed still six seconds adrift with three tours remaining Lewis appeared to give up. Seb indeed won by roughly the same distance.

One was only left to wonder what would have been without the penalty. A few noted also that if Lewis had not been pipped for pole, after a marginally substandard lap, he would likely have had no need to back up in the first place... Then again given the earlier safety car Vettel too was not without bad luck today. Plus as Murray Walker used to love to remind us: closing is one thing, getting past is quite another.

"Really great day, I don't know what to say," said an appropriately jubilant Seb afterwards. "The last half of the in-lap, with the fireworks, it was just...I love what I do.

"The car was really amazing to drive. I could control the pace in the end. Lewis was a threat towards the end and with the traffic you never know, but it was a controlled race."

Lewis also held his hands up on the 'backing up' incident, "The pit lane [situation] was really my fault, so apologies to the team for losing time there," he said. "But we still got good points for the team and still had a great fight."

After his stunning pole, Valtteri Bottas had a frustrating race
Photo: Octane Photography
He however took his turn to be enigmatic on what might have been without his penalty. "Where I got to was as close as I could get to," he said. "Of course if I didn't have the five second penalty then I think I would have been [closer].

"And also we lost a bit of time, I think, in the pit stops. Lots of different things could have happened today but it didn't. We'll assess it and try to figure out how to move forwards."

And as touched upon, today also appeared to confirm that both Ferrari and Merc have clear A and A minus pilots. Bottas finished 14 seconds shy of Lewis even with the penalty (and finished third); Kimi Raikkonen finished 22 shy of Vettel (and finished fourth). Such things are hard to deny. "I think the picture's already formed," noted the as-ever sage Martin Brundle.

Bottas meanwhile later bemoaned his rear tyre management, as he had for much of the race. "It was a really tricky race for me, struggling for pace throughout," he admitted. "In the first stint we had a bit of an issue with the tyre pressures. Every stint after that I was rear-limited and out of tools on the steering wheel. It was just oversteering all through the race.

"For sure it's a real shame. The target was a lot, lot higher."

Merc boss Toto Wolff added that a problem with a generator on the grid meant that Bottas's rear tyres couldn't be bled for the correct pressures. Then again, the Finn's pace in the second and third stints didn't look all that much better.

Sergio Perez was quietly effective to bag seventh
Photo: Octane Photography
In fairness to him he was sober and honest as ever afterwards. "I didn't have enough pace today and we need to find the reasons why that was," Bottas said.

Of the rest, Ricciardo trailed in a distant fifth, and was in turn about as far clear of Felipe Massa in sixth, who took advantage of his fine car and at a track where he tends to go well. Sergio Perez meanwhile continued his quietly impressive campaign, this time by finishing seventh having started 18th. He wasn't seen much on TV - in keeping with the quietly impressive theme - but it must have been a heck of a drive.

Romain Grosjean, another with a good record here, got eighth, completing an impressive turnaround in a weekend where he looked all at sea for a day-and-a-half. Nico Hulkenberg too converted a surprisingly strong weekend, in his case by finishing ninth.

Esteban Ocon meanwhile scored the final point for tenth for the third time in three rounds, despite in his words being "screwed" by the early safety car. And kudos to his fellow Merc protege Pascal Wehrlein, who has rather been a pariah lately but now that he's actually sat behind the wheel he's reminded us what he's all about - starting 13th in Bahrain, finishing 11th, leaving his stable mate far behind in both.

McLaren meanwhile continued its rather nightmarish time. Stoffel Vandoorne couldn't start with what was thought yet another MGU-H problem, while Fernando Alonso was spirited as always but he too parked it late with his own engine malady (so he said, anyway...).

But to return to a theme of yesterday, whatever happens in F1 this year it seems to have a charmed existence. Even the familiar comes with a frisson. Our Seb versus Lewis battle for the ages is well and truly on. Mercedes for the first time in however long has a real challenge. The fight will be one to relish. "Yeah, yeah, don't worry," said Merc's Niki Lauda afterwards on that very prospect.

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