The Mercedes duo of Lewis Hamilton and Nico Rosberg may have been the most dominant we’ve seen this season, but the Bahrain Grand Prix proved to be one of the most exciting races in a number of years. Here’s how it all happened.
Just as was the case in Malaysia, tires were the big talking point of the race. The tradeoff between two and three stops was difficult to discern, but the cooler temperatures characterizing the night race tilted the preferred strategy towards two stops. Indeed, the top six finishers all stopped just twice.
The fight for the win was always going to be between the two Mercedes drivers, so the focus on the fight for third place was intense. The key teams of this battle were Force India, Williams, Mclaren, Ferrari and Red Bull, with the former most team looking the safest bet to pull off the feat. Long run times from FP2 suggested that the Force India was the second fastest team with Red Bull, Williams and Mclaren close behind followed by Ferrari. Reliability would be the only thing to separate all of these teams.
Williams’ decision to put their drivers on three stop strategies added some intrigue (as if it didn’t have enough) to the podium battle. When Valtteri Bottas pitted on lap 10 with Felipe Massa following suit three laps later, their strategic fates were sealed. The Bahrain International circuit is a rear-limited track, with multiple traction events dictating the life of the tires. Williams has suffered with rear downforce so far this season, so it was already expected that they would suffer in this department. That left the door open slightly for other teams, like Force India, who were kinder to their tires to make headway early on in the race.
The two Ferraris, also on three stop strategies, were close behind, but their hopes of a podium finish faded relatively quickly. That the two Force Indias of Sergio Perez and Nico Hulkenberg were able to go several more laps than their competitors only cemented their position as best of the rest behind Mercedes.
Pirelli’s two stop prediction was to start of softs and change to another set of softs on lap 22, then to mediums on lap 44. The racing was so intense, both between Lewis Hamilton and his teammate and then the rest of the field with themselves, that everyone was pitting earlier than these suggested intervals. This put a two stop strategy in jeopardy, but there was nothing anyone could do. The cars were just so close to each other in performance this weekend that everyone was forced to race each other the entire time. Not exactly anything to complain about.
Unlike the first race of the season in Australia, and even the second in Malaysia, fuel consumption took a backseat relative to tire wear. This is an encouraging development for both the teams and the fans watching at home. Lewis Hamilton was told early on in the race that he no longer needed to “lift and coast”, a popular method of saving fuel going into corners, and could push for the rest of the race. Fears that the new-for-2014 regulations would transform the races into economy runs have been firmly put to bed this season. The racing is hard and intense, and the drivers are enjoying it.
Williams’ second round of stops for Bottas and Massa came on laps 25 and 28, respectively. On a three stop strategy, the Williams duo was able to keep their pace up and stay in contention. Should everything go to plan, they could use their newer tires to make a charge for the podium in the closing stages of the race.
Sebastian Vettel, though, was unique in his strategy, as he was the only frontrunner to start the race on medium tires. However, the opening stanza to his race was such that tire life took a backseat to racing. He could only make it to lap 16 before he pitted for a new set of soft tires.
At the front, the battle for the win between Hamilton and Rosberg was shaping up to be quite the tussle. The former was on the primary strategy of soft-soft-medium, while his teammate was on the alternative strategy of soft-medium-soft. This meant that even though Hamilton had more than a 10 second lead going into the final 20 laps, Rosberg still had a good chance of taking the victory given the nearly one second difference in lap time between the two tire compounds.
The late safety car only helped Rosberg in his pursuit of the win.
With 10 laps to go and the safety car heading into the pits, Rosberg was on the faster tire. He would have to negotiate Hamilton before he could call the race his. What resulted was one of the most hard-fought battles for victory between two teammates that the world has seen for quite some time. Just before the safety car period ended Mercedes asked their two drivers to bring the cars home in one piece, but we can be thankful neither of them listened. They were both extremely mature and never once touched or endangered the team’s chances of finishing (though Paddy Lowe and company may have thought otherwise).
Behind the two leaders the fight for the podium only got more intense. The two Williams were out of luck at this point. The one thing that could have happened to spoil their chances of finishing on the podium happened. Because of the safety car, those on a two stop strategy were able to eke out a few more laps on their tires and negate most of the late-race advantage the three-stoppers had over the rest of the field. With similarly worn tires, Bottas and Massa had little chance of climbing the four or five places necessary to reach the podium.
This left the fight down to the Force India duo of Perez and Hulkenberg and the Red Bull duo of Ricciardo (who was finally enjoying some luck) and Vettel.
The Mercedes-powered cars enjoyed a stark advantage in straight-line speed over the rest of the field. Even with the DRS deployed, nobody could even dream of getting past. Most of the overtaking on Red Bull’s part was done on the exit of turn 11 and up the hill to turn 13. These long, fast sweepers were well-suited to the Red Bull chassis and provided them with an opportunity to overtake should one of the Force India’s make a mistake. This type of advantage could define Red Bull’s season if Renault is unable to improve its engine sufficiently.
Daniel Ricciardo finally got past Nico Hulkenberg for fourth place with just a couple of laps to go, ensuring the Australian’s first points of the season, but he was unable to overtake Perez to complete the podium. Hulkenberg’s third top-six finish this season secured him third place in the championship.
Missing out on valuable points, though, was Jenson Button who was in a solid fifth place after the restart. Clutch problems for him and his teammate Kevin Magnussen meant both McLarens were absent from the points for the first time since Silverstone last season. Had he stayed in the race, Button reckons he had the pace to take the fight to Force India.
Mercedes may have run away with this race in dominant fashion (they would have won by more than a minute had the safety car not intervened), but after the spectacle we saw its hardly the first thing on my mind. There may still be naysayers in regards to this new era of Formula One; I, for one, still had some reservations. But after witnessing the most exciting race in years, I don’t really care anymore. I love this new Formula One, and its about time people realized that its existence is only a good thing. We will look back on this race for quite some time and know that this is where the current era of Formula One made its case and told us it was here to stay.
Images courtesy of Mercedes AMG F1 Team and Sahara Force India F1 Team