SAKHIR, Bahrain — If there was any doubt about whether this year’s Formula One World Championship would be a back-and-forth battle of the titans, those misgivings were erased by the end of Sunday’s Gulf Air Bahrain Grand Prix.
While Mercedes’ Valtteri Bottas started from the pole, it was co-championship leaders Sebastian Vettel and Lewis Hamilton who stole the show, putting on a race-long battle that saw Vettel emerge with his second win of the year.
The German took the lead for good on lap 42 of 57, when Hamilton pitted for a set of soft tires in an effort to chase down Vettel and also overcome a five-second time penalty, copped during the race’s lone safety car period when Hamilton impeded Daniel Ricciardo on entry to the pit lane.
Though Hamilton closed to within six seconds, he was no match for the Scuderia’s performance, as Vettel drove on to his 44th career win and record-tying third in Bahrain.
“This was a really great day,” Vettel smiled. “I don’t know what to say. The last half of the in-lap … with all the fireworks and the track being lit up, I was just … loving what I do. I couldn’t find the words. It was just a really great team effort all race long.”
“Right after the start, I could feel that we were quick. I felt like I could stay with (Mercedes) and that we had a shot. I really tried to put Valtteri under pressure, but he didn’t make any mistakes. It was difficult down the straights, but we went for the undercut with our early pit stop … and the safety car came and we got out in front. I think I was lucky, because the others couldn’t really benefit … but the car was really amazing to drive. It was a dream today.”
Bottas was racy from the start, beating Hamilton off the line as Vettel split the two Mercedes, pushing Hamilton back to third early on.
Red Bull’s Max Verstappen began to challenge Hamilton as well, but just when it looked like the Dutchman would be moving into a podium position, a brake failure on lap 11 sent him into the runoff area, where he nudged the barriers and ultimately retired from the race.
Vettel pitted on lap 12, but then the safety car came out due to an incident involving Lance Stroll’s Williams, who was t-boned by Toro Rosso’s Carlos Sainz as Sainz was exiting the pits.
That tipped the scales into Vettel’s favor as Mercedes was forced to pit in, double-stacking Bottas and Hamilton in the process. Bottas’ stop was slow, holding up Hamilton and allowing Vettel into the lead.
At the restart on lap 17, Bottas went after Vettel with a vengeance, going wheel-to-wheel through Turns 4 and 5, but ultimately gave way to the Ferrari driver.
From there it was a case of playing out pit stops, with Hamilton sweeping by into the lead when the Ferrari driver pitted on lap 33, but eight laps later Hamilton made his final pit stop and the die was cast.
Though a 19-second margin was reduced to 6.6 seconds at the checkered flag, Hamilton saw his race fall short with a runner-up finish.
“Congratulations to Sebastian; he did a fantastic job today,” the Brit admitted on the podium. “The pit lane (incident) was really my fault. Apologies to the team for losing the time there. I tried my hardest to catch up, but it was a long way to go. I gave it everything I could. We’ll gather together as a team and come back fighting.”
Bottas completed the podium in third, followed by the sister Ferrari of Kimi Raikkonen and Ricciardo’s Red Bull.
Williams’ Felipe Massa, Force India’s Sergio Perez, Haas’ Romain Grosjean, Renault’s Nico Hulkenberg and the second Force India of Esteban Ocon were the rest of the top 10.
Sauber’s Pascal Wehrlein celebrated his return to fitness with a finish just outside the points in 11th.
After announcing plans to run the Indianapolis 500 this May, Fernando Alonso had another long day in his McLaren-Honda, with an engine problem two laps from the end dooming his day after running on the fringes of the points-paying positions.
Vettel now has a seven-point lead over Hamilton heading into the first European race of the season, the Russian Grand Prix, on April 30 in Sochi.
Full race results can be found on the next page…