The promise of red failed to materialise at a windy Bahrain F1 circuit as Lewis Hamilton & Valtteri Bottas in their Mercedes-AMG Silver Arrows shouldered aside the Ferraris of Charles Leclerc and Sebastian Vettel to win the 999th F1 GP. In a frantic start Vettel quickly took the lead, Leclerc struggled to make any advantage from his pole position start, and there was contact way back in the field inside the first lap between Lance Stroll and Romain Grosjean.
The evening start provided plenty of spectacle as the cars bottomed out across the circuit, and with sparks aplenty flying it was a photographer’s delight. What wasn’t a delight was the impact on lap four between Carlos Sainz and Max Verstappen. It was only a bare touch but enough for Sainz to lose support from his front right. Verstappen had clambered over the ripple strips and effectively squeezed the Spaniard who was on the correct racing line. Sainz, who would retire just laps from the finish with a failing gearbox, declared after the race: “I am still really angry about the whole situation.”Leclerc showed class to make a tight racing pass in the DRS zone on his team mate Vettel in lap 7 and would hold out Vettel and Mercedes for the majority of the race. Daniel Ricciardo and Nico Hulkenberg showed pace early, with the Australian into sixth by lap seven. Hulkenberg was two places behind.
Most teams opted for a two stop strategy and with red, yellow, and white rubber, effectively soft/medium/hard expected to degrade, the question would be which one to use for the second stop.
Tail runners Robert Kubica and George Russell found themselves elevated into 15th and 16th by lap ten, with Pierre Gasly and Alexander Albon getting caught in traffic momentarily. Albon regained his place on lap 12 with a cool pass on Gasly.
Verstappen pitted for medium tires on lap 12 and was well placed thanks to a slick pit crew. Antonio Giovinazzi and Danil Kvyat touched, thankfully with no damage but Kvyat’s Toro Rosso was unsettled and spun well off onto the outside of the circuit on driver’s right. This involved the stewards.
Lewis Hamilton pitted on lap 14 and went for the soft rubber, Leclerc pitted at the same time for mediums, and the Ricciardo Renault was suddenly up into second. Vettel was brought in a lap later and put onto mediums. The pit stop for Ferrari placed Hamilton ahead of the German in red.
Renault’s pit strategy suddenly looked weak; they’d decided on a one stop setup for Ricciardo and his tires were starting to go by lap 18. Grosjean was retired on the same lap as a result of his earlier impact with floor damage, whilst Ferrari and Leclerc were a huge 4.5 seconds ahead of Hamilton. Veteran Kimi Raikkonen was in and out of the top ten, being as low as 16th and on lap 20 up to 7th.
Newcomer Lando Norris also drove well. On lap 20 the rookie was inside the top ten, and nudging Hulkenberg for a place, Bottas was being the quiet achiever, well in the top five and staying out of trouble. Ricciardo continued his backwards slide and was 6th on lap 22. Kevin Magnussen was also untroubled by incidents, with a consistent run in 13th. The stewards also left things untroubled, with the impact incidents left as racing incidents, although Kvyat did received a five second penalty for excessive pit lane speed.
Half race point and Leclerc is showing a clean pair of rear tires to Vettel, with a gap of over eight seconds. Hamilton was a further 1.5 seconds adrift, and Bottas was well off at this stage. His Mercedes was another 8.5 seconds away from Hamilton. Surprisingly, there was only one retirement at the half way point, that of Grosjean. Sainz had had his front end issue sorted with some time in the pits and would be in 19th at the mid point. Norris passed Raikkonen and placed himself into 7th, ahead of the Finn.
The race was relatively quiet until lap 38. Vettel was dicing with Hamilton and in an effort to avoid a collision with Hamilton on his left, his Ferrari suddenly lost rear end traction and would snap into a clockwise 180 degree turn. Shortly after, support for his front wing failed as the damaged tires would vibrate the chassis, and forced the car into pits for a new nose. The irony here was that Vettel had pitted just two laps before.
Leclerc though was skipping away, as a lead of over 24 seconds was his over Bottas. Leclerc was reporting grip issues however, and would pit for fresh rubber. The swap over time was a mere 2.4 seconds, but Hamilton then set the pace by placing down the fastest race lap.
Suddenly the race was alive. Ricciardo was somehow up into sixth before a light touch with Hulkenberg, Hamilton had closed to within 11 seconds on Leclerc, Albon and Gasly were in 10th and 11th, and Vettel was now down to 6th. Lap 45 and Ricciardo’s day was just going nowhere thanks to the choice of a one stop strategy.
Norris passed him and quickly found pace to be ahead of the Renault by over a second. Hamilton continued to nibble away at the Leclerc lead, and would be just eight seconds shy with ten laps to go.
That gap would quickly be eroded as on lap 46 the Monaco born Leclerc reported a power failure in his Ferrari. It seemed to be the turbo that fed heat energy into the battery system. Hamilton took the lead and waved apologetically at Leclerc. Seven laps to go and Bottas was still 23 seconds adrift in third. Five laps to go and Hamilton has pulled away to a lead of 19 seconds, with Bottas closing on the ailing Ferrari with just 3.5 seconds the gap.
Renault would also suffer issues, but tragically for the team, both cars would retire with what appeared to be the same problem and within a short period of time of each other. With just three laps left, it appears that both cars suffered identical power train failures. Ricciardo exited his car and did not replace his steering wheel. It was later revealed that he was in danger of receiving an electrical backlash from his car if he had placed the wheel back in its hub.
Luckily for Leclerc, this double retirement brought out the safety car, bring some respite to the under siege Ferrari. Leclerc would also claim the extra point for the fastest race lap. The race finished under safety car for just the second time in history. Verstappen finished fourth whilst Vettel would rue his spin to finish in fifth. Lando Norris would claim his first ever F1 points for sixth, with Raikkonen slotting into seventh. Toro Rosso’s Albon claimed ninth behind Red Bull’s Pierre Gasly with tenth going to Sergio Perez.
A disconsolate Leclerc would display maturity beyond his experience, saying: “What to say? Of course I’m extremely disappointed like the whole team. But it happens in the season. You have to make the best out of it. A hard one to take but thanks to team for an amazing car all weekend long.” Hamilton was magnanimous after his 74th F1 win: “This guy here [Leclerc] has lots more wins coming in the future. I had to see Charles. He did such a great job, he had done the job to win race. We were definitely lucky today, but we have to take it as it comes.”
F1 heads to China, with the Shanghai race to be the 1000th F1 event. Mark April 12 to 14 in your calendar for this momentous event.