If Sebastian Vettel claims this championship by seven points or less, he can look back on the Bahrain Grand Prix with even more satisfaction than his 49th win must already generate.
While welcoming surprise and excellent results stretching from P4 to P10 on Sunday, it is easy to overlook a winning drive from the very top drawer. Knowing a momentary lock-up would spell the end of tyres long past Pirelli’s use-by date, Vettel somehow maintained his momentum with delicate use of the brake pedal and clever harvesting of enough energy to keep Valtteri Bottas at bay on the straights.
But here’s the question: would Seb have been so calm (outwardly, at least) had it been Daniel Ricciardo, Lewis Hamilton or Max Verstappen in the pursuing car? On the basis of their history, never mind the collision between Hamilton and Verstappen at the start of lap 2, Mercedes #44 and Red Bull #33 would somehow have found the impetus to come steaming down the inside even if their tyres were, like those on the back of Mercedes #77, offering no grip worth talking about.
While credit must be due to Bottas for putting the Melbourne qualifying mistake behind him, you couldn’t help but notice an air of disappointment in the Mercedes garage that probably went beyond losing a race they had every right to believe was theirs about an hour before the finish.
When Vettel failed to pull away on the soft after his stop, the diminishing option of making another pit visit was ruled out completely by Kimi Räikkönen’s disastrous second stop in which a mechanic sustained a broken leg after taking the full impact of the prematurely departing Ferrari.
With Räikkönen having responded to a green light, there have been calls for a return to ‘lollipop’ control rather than continuing with an automated system that saves as much as 0.00001s. An exaggeration, maybe, but this incident, following on the heels of the Haas problems in Australia, highlights yet another of F1’s misguided priorities.
Without repeating the points made in a previous column [available here: http://www.theinsideline.com/story/f1-2018-news-maurice-hamilton-does-f1-need-pit-stops] is it worth asking if Sunday’s race provided yet more evidence in favour of pit stop procedures being made slower?
(As an aside: there seems to be divided opinion over Haas’s decision to have the names of the pit stop crew prominent on their backs. Personally, I’m in favour of the guys who work so hard receiving credit even if, in the even of a mishap, they may regret having their identity revealed.)
What the Bahrain race definitely showed is that we have an intriguing season on our hands, stretching from the front to the back of the field. Who would have believed that Fernando Alonso would be fourth on the drivers’ table after two races – only to have the McLaren story (great drive, by the way, from last to P9 by Stoffel Vandoorne) blown away by Pierre Gasly’s Toro Rossa-Honda (#Awkward for McLaren and their UAE shareholders) and Haas? Not to mention a great start and implementation of a one-stop strategy by Marcus Ericsson and Sauber-Alfa Romeo.
Some pundits say Mercedes let this one slip through their fingers. That’s hardly the case when Vettel and Ferrari put one hand on the trophy with a clean start from pole, and then held on with the softest and most gentle of grips you’ll ever see from a worthy winner being forced to race extremely hard.