The 2018 Bahrain Grand Prix

The desert can be cruel to those who underestimate it. It can reward those who fight. Welcome to Sakhir, Bahrain.

A dramatic race, considerably more exciting than Australia two weeks previously, provided sparks, spectacle and plenty of overtakes. The action started even before a wheel had been turned in anger, with Mercedes’ Lewis Hamilton receiving a five-place grid penalty for an unauthorised gearbox change. His best chance for a good race would depend upon the overall pace of his Silver Arrow, relative to the cars around him. A lot would therefore depend on qualifying, but the early pattern was of strong Ferrari pace – and, perhaps surprisingly, a very strong showing for Toro Rosso. In the end, Ferrari – headed by Sebastian Vettel – locked out the front row of the grid, with Valtteri Bottas managing third for Mercedes and Hamilton qualifying fourth, but due to his penalty, starting ninth.

Qualifying also went badly wrong for Red Bull’s Max Verstappen. A crash in Q1 ruled him out of the rest of the session, despite making it through to Q2. He therefore lined up in 15th. His teammate Daniel Ricciardo would line up fourth, with the very impressive Pierre Gasly starting fifth in for the Honda-powered Toro Rosso. With both McLarens failing to make it to Q3, having ditched Honda for Renault, it all looked rather embarassing for them. It set up an interesting start, with Hamilton, Verstappen and Fernando Alonso all occupying lower grid positions.

The start of the race saw Vettel get away well, but Kimi Raikkonen couldn’t perform a rearguard action, with Bottas getting by him in turn 1. Gasly had a good start too, getting by Ricciardo and surging into fourth. Hamilton tried to push forward but couldn’t get away cleanly, remaining in ninth and bogged down to begin with. He came under early pressure from Verstappen and Alonso, with the trio being at the centre of an entanglement early on that left Verstappen with a puncture on his rear left. No sooner had Verstappen’s tyre ended up shredded then the other Red Bull of Ricciardo was pulling over and retiring with a loss of power. For Red Bull, it was a quick double-blow, soon followed with Verstappen confirming his own retirement. At least for the Red Bull junior team, Gasly was doing well, keeping on course for a good points finish.

Slowly but surely Hamilton started to make his way up the order and Vettel was building a lead and controlling the gap over Bottas, who was in turn edging away from Raikkonen. The top three were running on supersoft tyres whilst Hamilton was on an inverted strategy, running on softs. At one point Hamilton was involved in one of the most exhilerating moments of the race, passing Alonso on the pit straight and diving down the inside of a duelling Ocon and Hulkenberg. However Hamilton would also cut a frustrated figure at times, as a poor radio left him confused as to what the team were asking of him.

Another man to get frustrated was Haas’ driver Kevin Magnussen. His ire was directed at his teammate Romain Grosjean, who rather abruptly chopped off Magnussen in the first couple of corners whilst pursuing Sergio Perez’s Force India. Magnussen was on much fresher tyres but Grosjean wouldn’t yield until a lap later, when he pulled into the pits. Magnussen turned the airwaves quite blue with his language!

Ferrari would have two untroubled pit stops to conclude the first of a planned two-stop race for their drivers, whilst Mercedes had opted for a one-stop race, putting the medium compound tyre onto both Bottas and Hamilton when the time came. This meant Vettel had to pass Hamilton on track to regain the lead, but at that particular stage Vettel had fresh tyres and Hamilton was still on old boots – it was all too easy.

As the permutations unfolded, there was a great deal of surprise for some. Marcus Ericsson, driving for the beleagured Sauber team, found himself in the points. Sauber have been well off the pace in recent years and if qualifying was a judge, had looked a very unlikely bet to score any points in Bahrain. Utlising a one-stop strategy, Ericsson had ended up on course for a points finish, albeit as the race entered its closing stages it was highly likely he’d come under pressure from several chasing cars. Gasly meanwhile, continued to shine, holding on in fifth, which would become fourth following a nasty incident that nearly unraveled Ferrari’s race.

Raikkonen had come in for his second stop and the mechanics set about swiftly changing his soft tyres for supersofts. Three of the tyres were changed but an error in communication meant the rear left hadn’t, yet Raikkonen was released with a mechanic still working on the tyre. The mechanic suffered a broken leg in the incident, which also made it impossible for Vettel to pit, forcing him into an unplanned one-stop race, with the soft tyres having to do a much greater distance than previously hoped. Mercedes were trying to get Hamilton to push but communication issues made that hard work, whilst Bottas only started to close the gap significantly in the race’s dying stages. It was too little, too late, with Bottas making only one meaningful attempt to get by Vettel, into turn 1 of the final lap – a move which failed. Despite worn tyres, Vettel held on to take his 49th career win, second in a row in 2018 as well, plus doing so on his 200th race.

Bottas and Hamilton both looked rather non-plussed on the podium, whilst Vettel, understandably, was quite pleased. The biggest celebrations were at Toro Rosso – Gasly finished fourth, a terrific result. Magnussen was fifth, a great result for Haas, with Hulkenberg putting Renault into the points with a steady performance in sixth and Alonso and Stoffel Vandoorne seventh and eighth for McLaren. Ericsson took a hard-earned ninth for Sauber and Esteban Ocon completed the points with tenth for Force India.

So where does that leave us? Vettel leads the championship on 50 points, with Hamilton second on 33, Bottas on 22 and Alonso on 16. Raikkonen completes the top five on 15 points. Next up is China, in a weeks’ time.

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