Six conclusions from the 2018 Bahrain Grand Prix

Maybe Ferrari have the pace to compete for the title after all…

Despite Vettel’s win in the opening race in Australia I was a little concerned that Mercedes had a decisive pace advantage, but after this weekend’s race that appears to not be the case. We still need to see a few more races before the pecking order becomes clearer, but for those of us who want to see a multi-team battle at the front it was heartening to see Ferrari match Mercedes over the course of the weekend.

In fact, if anything Ferrari had the edge over the reigning world champions from Friday onwards and they converted that advantage into a front-row lockout on Saturday. Bottas was able to jump Raikkonen on the run down to turn 1 but he was unable to threaten Vettel during the first stint. Both Ferrari cars swapped onto the soft compound and surprisingly Mercedes didn’t respond immediately, instead choosing to wait a few more laps before putting Bottas on the mediums, followed by Hamilton a few laps later.

At the time this looked like a tactical masterstroke by the champions – they could now run to the end while their only rivals for the win seemingly had to pit again. Vettel would have been looking to build a gap but Mercedes’ strong pace on the mediums held the gap relatively steady, effectively forcing the German into a one-stop strategy. With Hamilton well behind, Ferrari had the option to split their strategy so they brought in Raikkonen on lap 35 with the aim of putting him on super-softs – sadly a botched pit stop left one of the crew with a broken leg and Kimi out of the race.

Vettel now had no choice but to run to the end and try to hold on. He was able to stretch the lead out to seven seconds at one point but with ten laps to go Bottas started to reel him in, breaking into DRS range on the penultimate lap. He made a half-hearted attempt at an overtake heading into turn 1 on the final lap and that was his last chance gone, leaving Vettel to take a second successive win despite his heavily worn tyres. Hamilton had too much ground to make up after his gearbox penalty but still finished less than seven seconds behind Vettel, suggesting he had the pace to win.

There were two schools after the race – one that the Merc’s poor performance in dirty air stopped Bottas from taking the win, and the other that the Finn was not decisive enough in the crucial moment. Certainly his first sector on the last lap was a little half-hearted – he neither fully committed to the move at the first corner, nor did he try to set up a move for later in the lap. This is purely speculative but I feel if Hamilton, Ricciardo or Verstappen had been second, they would have given Vettel a much harder time. One thing we can be a little more sure on is that Ferrari are kinder on their tyres and at least appear to have a wider operating window than Mercedes. Bahrain is notoriously tough on tyres, as is the next race in Shanghai, so that will be a real test for the German manufacturer. There’s still a long way to go, but the early signs are promising for a close championship.

…but Red Bull’s unreliability could push their stars out of the door

Red Bull’s race was over within five laps leaving Ferrari and Mercedes free to battle without having to look over their shoulders. Ricciardo was only a few tenths off in qualifying and could have potentially competed for the win had his car not shut down on the second lap of the race. By this point Verstappen had already had the incident that would force him to retire, naively trying to squeeze out Hamilton on the exit of turn 1 which led to the Brit’s front wing puncturing the rear left of the Red Bull. Max tried to hobble back to the pits but his differential was ruined and he retired shortly after. He had been recovering from an unfortunate accident in the first part of qualifying, when his Renault engine had a spike of power and caused him to spin on the exit of turn 2. The incident with Hamilton was avoidable and followed his spun at turn 1 in Melbourne, so it’s been a poor start to the season for the Dutch superstar.

Christian Horner said after the race that he believed his drivers could have challenged for the win, but once again reliability, and clumsy driving from Verstappen, left both drivers pointless and already well adrift in the championship. With a high chance of seats at Mercedes and Ferrari becoming available for 2019, Red Bull need to up their game if they want to keep hold of their star drivers.

Toro Rosso and Honda dazzle in the desert

The new partnership of Toro Rosso and Honda didn’t get off to the best start in Melbourne with a retirement and a last place finish, so everyone in the paddock will have been astounded by their turnaround in Bahrain. Few would have been surprised to see them near the back of the field in Melbourne, with the car lacking pace and proving to be unreliable, so their performance under the lights is both a surprise and a cause of optimism for both Toro Rosso and their beleaguered engine supplier.

Pierre Gasly was rightly voted as driver of the day, backing up his stunning qualifying effort with a mature, controlled drive on Sunday, racing wheel-to-wheel with Ricciardo in the first few corners and comfortably coming home in fourth. This gave Honda their best result since returning to the sport in 2015, and Toro Rosso’s equal-best result since their one and only race win in 2008. The contrast in pace between the first two races makes it difficult to gauge their true standing in the pecking order, but this will be a huge boost in morale for everyone at the team, especially after many predicted a torrid season for the Red Bull junior team.

Haas show Melbourne pace was not a one-off

The Haas team were gutted after their double non-finish in Australia but their performance this weekend has proven to everyone that they will be at the front of the midfield battle for some time to come. Having brushed aside accusations from some quarters of copying Ferrari’s 2017 car, they were back on the pace again in Bahrain and picked up ten points thanks to Kevin Magnussen’s fifth place. He wasn’t able to keep up with Gasly but the gap back to Hulkenberg and the McLarens will be encouraging for the American outfit.

Romain Grosjean, on the other hand, had a disappointing weekend. While his teammate cruised through to the final part of qualifying, the Frenchman couldn’t put a lap together and was the shock casualty in Q1. He couldn’t make up for it in the race and eventually came home in an underwhelming 13th, when the car was more than capable of finishing in the points. He also incurred the wrath of Magnussen when he didn’t move aside for him, despite the two drivers being on contrasting strategies. The team will have been pleased to bounce back so convincingly from their double pit-stop blunder in the opening race, and they look set for their strongest season since entering in 2016.

Midfield battle is tighter and harder to predict than ever

Behind the top three, the pecking order after Australia appeared to be along the lines of Haas, McLaren/Renault, Force India, Toro Rosso, Williams, and finally Sauber. Bahrain was tightly fought again but suggested a rather different order, suggesting that 2018 could see the closest midfield fight in years. As discussed earlier, Toro Rosso were far stronger in Melbourne, Haas showed good pace again and both McLaren and Renault were in and around the points once more.

McLaren suffered the ignominy of qualifying behind both Honda-powered Toro Rosso cars, leading to an emergency debrief on Saturday evening. Much like in Melbourne they improved on Sunday, with both drivers moving up six places to finish in seventh and eighth. Stoffel Vandoorne was particularly impressive, recovering from a dreadful first lap to fight his way through the field to finish directly behind his more illustrious team-mate. Alonso has repeatedly talked up his car’s performance but he must be a little concerned about finishing behind a Toro Rosso, a Haas and a Renault. If it wasn’t for the unreliability and back luck of Raikkonen and the Red Bulls then he would most likely have finished out of the points, so there’s plenty of work still to do for the Woking-based squad. Renault had a quiet weekend, with Hulkenberg coming home in sixth and Sainz a disappointing 11th. They’ll be quietly happy with the rest of their season but will also be looking to progress further when the F1 circus reaches Europe.

Force India have significantly overperformed in the last two seasons in particular but the early signs in 2018 are not good, with only one point picked up in the first two races. Esteban Ocon at least managed to sneak into Q3 in Bahrain, an improvement on their showing in Melbourne, but he didn’t have the pace of his midfield rivals on Sunday and slipped back into 10th. Sergio Perez was wiped out on the first lap by Hartley’s Toro Rosso and he was playing catch-up from there. The team have slipped behind Haas, McLaren and Renault over the winter and quite possibly Toro Rosso as well, though their inconsistency makes their pace a little harder to gauge. The plight of both Force India and Williams would suggest that the advantage of the Mercedes engine is smaller than at any other point in the V6 turbo era.

Sauber had become the whipping boys of F1 but the opening weekend showed clear signs of improvement, but they went a step further in Bahrain and put a couple of early points on the board, thanks to a clever strategy and a superb drive from Marcus Ericsson. This was the Swede’s first points finish in fifty races and went some way to countering the criticism he has faced from those who believe he is only on the grid due to the money he brings. Both he and Leclerc dropped out in the first stage of qualifying but showed much improved pace in the race, moving forward eight and seven places respectively. The Swiss team are finally able to compete and if they can improve their one-lap pace, there’s no reason why they can’t score plenty more points and possibly match their eighth place finish in 2015.

Unusually there is only one team that was failed to score so far this season. Williams took a gamble with two inexperienced drivers and a vastly different car for 2018 and the early signs are this has backfired badly. Both Stroll and Sirotkin failed to make it out of Q1 again and things got even worse on Sunday, as they trailed home in 16th and 17th, the last two cars to finish. Their pace was even worse than in Melbourne and Sirotkin was scathing after the race, saying “we look like idiots” and it’s hard to argue with the Russian. Even worse for the team is that, by their own admission, they’re struggling to understand exactly why they’re performing so poorly. They’ll be some frantic work going on back in Grove to identify the key problems and hopefully start making steps forward during the European season, if not before.

Strategic variation makes for a thrilling race

Melbourne has rarely produced an exciting dry race but this year’s offering was even worse than usual, with almost no overtaking and little in the way of on-track battles. F1’s bosses even held a meeting at Bahrain to discuss possible changes that could be made to improve overtaking in 2019, though that was ultimately unsuccessful. Bahrain’s higher temperatures and more abrasive surface meant tyres were more marginal than two weeks previously, and that led to varied strategies and a much more exciting race. All three tyre compounds played a part and the different strategies used by Ferrari and Mercedes directly led to the thrilling finish, while also giving the opportunity for the likes of Ericsson to jump up the order.

Pirelli stated before the season they were aiming to return to two-stop races and they achieved it this time, but time will tell whether they can do the same consistently over the rest of the season. The track layout and increased of DRS also helped make for a more entertaining race. China has produced a number of good races over the last few years, hopefully next week will live up to the thriller we witnessed in Bahrain.

 

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