The race winner knew that if he was to win in Bahrain, he had to take the lead off the start. Vettel duly delivered, and by the time Alonso had squeezed Rosberg out, the gap was already over three seconds. This gave Vettel the buffer to put the hammer down, and it was already a race between himself and the Ferrari. Two DRS failures later, and it was Vettel’s race to lose. Raikkonen’s strategy meant that he had to be careful on his tyres, allowing the Red Bull to pull out a lead as great as 30 seconds at one point. Vettel did not need to push, and Rocky gave him the call to drop around one second per lap off his optimum pace. After pitting, the gap stood at around 10 seconds, and Vettel then put in the fastest lap for good measure with three laps left. It was a dominant performance from Vettel where getting the first stint right paid huge dividends later on.
So what about Lotus? To convert P8 and P11 on the grid to P2 and P3 is a great achievement, and it was, like Vettel, a case of staying out of trouble. Raikkonen and Grosjean both went deep before making their first stops, and therefore managed to avoid the traffic which crippled Webber, Button and Hamilton. Come the final round of stops, and this trio was the traffic, but Raikkonen was the right side of them, whilst Paul di Resta was stuck behind the group. Grosjean pitted (although he didn’t want to), and it paid off as he reeled in the Force India for P3. A really good team performance today.
Force India will also be delighted with its Bahrain Grand Prix. di Resta made a good start and even led part of the race, and although he will be gutted to have lost out on his first podium, it was the traffic that saw him fall back. The pace of the car through sector one was imperious, and he was difficult to pass even with DRS into the first corner because of this. Adrian Sutil was tagged on lap one and couldn’t really do much, but his times regularly turned purple at the back to underline the pace that Force India possess.
Unquestionably, the biggest loser this weekend is Ferrari. Having started P3 and P4, both drivers managed to get past Rosberg as they set about messing with Vettel at the front. Alonso’s DRS failure effectively ended his race there and then, and his pace suffered as expected. The high headwind meant that the power of DRS was increased; subsequently, so was Alonso’s disadvantage. The F138 was in a position to challenge Red Bull this weekend, so this will be a bitter pill for Ferrari to swallow. Massa’s race wasn’t ruined by the two punctures, but instead by his early stop. On the hard tyre (which was supposed to make him a contender for the win), he went just as far as Vettel who started on mediums. The punctures only compounded a miserable day. He may still have scored points, but most probably around the Hamilton/Perez/Webber battle that lent some excitement to the end of the race.
This excitement may have given Mercedes some relief, but nothing can really absolve a fall from pole to 9th as Nico Rosberg endured. The W04 has been brutal on its rear tyres so far this season, and Bahrain is the “rear tyre muncher” track. Therefore, a four-stop strategy should have seen him home with ease – but no. Not even four stops was enough for Mercedes to push, and the whole race was a disaster for the German driver. Hamilton had a poor start and then quite a quiet race before finally getting past Webber late on. Nothing special from the team though, and changes are required for the Spanish GP in three weeks’ time.
McLaren’s race was an interesting one. Both Button and Perez managed to leave their first stops until the majority of the field had stopped, yet they could not make a two stop strategy work. The inter-team squabble ended all hopes of a podium, and when they sat P8 and P10 after the stops, it all seemed to be over. Evidently, Perez had not read this script. He “stuck his elbows out” as Martin Whitmarsh had asked to push his way past Alonso and Webber to claim P6. McLaren have made a quiet comeback this weekend, and as Perez said over the radio, his critics “can shut up!”.
We enter the European season with the championship finely poised, yet Vettel’s lead already seems to be enormous. Raikkonen will be hoping to stick with the Red Bull in Spain, but Ferrari will be licking their wounds at the end of this weekend. Unless the upgrades brought to the Circuit de Catalunya are good, they will be playing catch-up to Red Bull at the next race, whilst Mercedes will also be looking back on a poor start to the season considering they have had two pole positions. Is this title race over? No, but it’s evident who is the favourite.
Images courtesy of Octane Photographic and Force India F1 Team.