Despite the incredibly high rate of retiring drivers, this was a race for the books. It didn’t feature the race long, wheel to wheel battles reminiscent of the Rosberg/Hamilton or Alonso/Schumacher, but it was thrilling nonetheless.
The Fight for the Title is On
Ferrari have officially shown to the world that they mean business: 2 wins, 1 2nd place, and a lead in both the drivers and constructors championship going into the European leg of the season has officially solidified Ferrari as, once again, a title contender. Vettel seems all at once to be more relaxed and more tenacious than he has ever been behind the wheel. His racecraft is cool and calculated. We are no longer seeing the fits of rage and childlike outbursts that were characteristic of the German this time last season. Granted, it helps not being punted around by a mad Russian, but still, Vettel is back to his old winning ways. And he’s giving us quite a show in the process.
Hamilton is close behind him, however, the prime example being his late race push to overtake the Ferrari after exiting the pits. The Mercedes is faster when it needs to be, as proven by their unblemished qualifying record thus far. It seems (and it has been reported by the BBC) that Mercedes does indeed have a special engine mode for qualifying and for pushing during the race that vastly the Ferrari by a few miles per hour. But as with mosts such systems in F1, they cannot run it all the time due to reliability concerns. As such, Mercedes appears to be still close with Ferrari, but may be able to turn up the wick when needed. They are better over one lap whereas the Ferrari may have edge in race pace.
Did Ferrari Win or Did Mercedes Lose?
Once again, we saw a race that, despite fantastic wheel to wheel action, was ultimately decided in the pits, and not I’m not talking about Hamilton’s five second penalty for holding up Daniel Ricciardo during the safety car (more on that later). No, what I am talking about was Ferrari’s decision to, once again, bring Vettel in for a stop early, thus allowing him to get out on fresher, faster rubber and begin reeling in the leaders. It seemed like their plan may have been folly when the safety car was deployed for Stroll and Sainz’s accident, but it proved worked well for them and gave us fans some fantastic wheel to wheel action as Vettel attempted to get around Bottas going into turn 1.
But, as was the case in Australia, it seems that the masterminds of Ferrari out thought the masterminds at Mercedes. Even without the safety car, Vettel would have come out ahead of Hamilton as the Mercedes driver struggled with tire wear yet again in the heat of the desert. Mercedes’s late race stop allowed for Hamilton to begin to close the gap to Vettel, pushing hard on fresh rubber. But the call from Hamilton to the pits suggested that me may have, indeed, been a better option for him.
On his first stint, Hamilton did 13 laps on used super soft tires. His times had not begun to significantly drop off when he came in, suggesting that he could have gone longer on them had the team not decided to pull him in under the safety car and save time lost on track. When Hamilton came on for his last stop he was 16 laps from the end. With the data we have, it stood to reason that he would have been able to make it to the end on a fresh set of super softs, but instead the team placed him on the softs. Now, he was able to close the gap to Vettel significantly, but he was not able to get close enough to pass him. Had they placed Hamilton on the super softs, he could have closed the gap to Vettel in more of a rapid fashion and pulled off the kind of come back drive Hamilton excels at (think back to Canada in 2012, for example). Mercedes was able to walk away with a good slew of points, but, like Australia, I can’t help but think that if they had been able to call the race better, they could have walked away with a win rather than a simple double podium.
Now About That Penalty
Sad as it is, penalties are a part of F1 that can dramatically change the state of a race. They are nothing new to the sport and are nothing to title fights as well (think back to James Hunt and McLaren’s disqualification following the Spanish Grand Prix in 1976). While I do have to commend the stewards for being far more lenient when handing out penalties this year, Hamilton’s penalty for holding up Daniel Ricciardo in the pitlane is one that strikes me as far too heavy handed.
When the safety car was deployed, Mercedes knew they had to double stack their drivers in the pits. To hold one out for another lap would have proved disastrous and would have handed the race more to Ferrari than they already did. Now, while double stacking is not ideal, it can work when you have a perfect pitstop. Mercedes did not have that. They were late in getting the wheels on Bottas’s car, keeping him stationary for longer than normal. Hamilton saw that and began to slow in the pitlane (he had already slowed on the track to give himself more of a gap to Bottas, but that was not what he was penalized for). He did not slam on the brakes. He did not drop to a snail’s pace, instead he slowed very slightly, allowing the team to have more time to service Bottas, something he is allowed to do in the rulebook. But, because Ricciardo was right behind him and had to slow as well, the FIA determined it was impeding the progress of another car and penalized Hamilton for it. An unfair penalty, if you ask me.
Was it pushing the boundaries of what is legal and what is not. Oh yeah. It was. I’ll be the first to admit that. But this is the kind of thing that distinguishes good drivers from great drivers. Hamilton recognized what was going on in front of him and made a decision to not only help himself but do what he could to equalize the playing field around him. It is exactly the kind of thing that Schumacher or Senna would have done.
Stroll and Sainz
I’ve made my opinions on both of these drivers pretty clear thus far. I am NOT a fan of Lance Stroll as he has done little or nothing to prove he actually deserves his seat with one of F1’s greatest teams (even if they are going through a bit of a drought right now). And I am very much onboard the Carlos Sainz hype train. That said, the coming together of these two drivers in Bahrain was one where, frankly, both driver’s made bonehead, rookie mistakes that show both of their ages.
For Stroll, as a driver, you have to be hype aware of everything that is going on around you. He is not. Stroll should have known that drivers were entering and exiting the pits. It was around the time in a race where pitstop windows open up. And even if it wasn’t, as a driver when you pass by the the pitlane, especially a pitlane that opens directly into the apex of Turn 1, you should check you mirrors to see if any cars are exiting the pits in a close enough position to challenge you into Turn 1. These cars have mirrors for a reason, use them! Stroll clearly did not. Simply looking at the onboard shows that he did not so much as think about the possibility of a driver leaving the pits as he did not glance into his mirror to check. As a result, he turned in like he normally would and found himself smacking right into the tire of Carlos Sainz. Had Stroll actually looked in his mirror, he would have seen the Toro Rosso and, as a result, altered his approach into Turn 1 so as to not cause an accident.
Sainz, on the other hand, is not faultless either. He had no right contesting that corner. No right at all. He was too far back, on cold tires, and had to know that any attempt to contest the corner as he did would end with either himself or Stroll colliding with each other. I’m not saying he shouldn’t have been aggressive, however. No, if he wanted to contest, what would have worked far better would be to flick to the outside of the track, pressure Stroll and line himself up for a pass coming into Turn 4. The kind of late braking, balls out driving Sainz exhibited is perfectly acceptable in most cases, but not in this one. He acted recklessly and paid the cost for it.
Red Bull and Everybody Else
Spain cannot come soon enough for Red Bull Racing. Verstappen’s brake failure not withstanding, the team showed that once again they are good, but not quite good enough to compete for wins. Who knows what would have happened had Verstappen been able to finish the race (he was running 2nd at the time of his accident), but I seriously doubt if he would have been able to fend off Vettel, Hamilton, or even Bottas. The car just simply isn’t doing as well as it should, with the powers that be admitting that for the first time in the team’s history they are experiencing major discrepancies between the data on track, the data in the wind tunnel, and the data from computer generated models. They have, by the sounds of it, a completely redesigned chassis ready to roll out by the time Spain comes along, so there is still hope that a late resurgence from Red Bull could turn this season into an even more exciting title fight, but for now, don’t expect them on the podium in Russia.
Force India put in yet another strong double points finish with both Perez and Ocon enjoying a relatively incident free race. They are, for the second year in a row, solidifying their position in 4th place in the constructors championship. The real shame of that is, however, the looming potential battle between them and Williams that never seems to materialize, owing in part to Lance Stroll’s inability to finish a race. We could be on for fantastic mid field scraps between the two teams, but we just haven’t gotten it. Williams is essentially running a one car team, spearheaded by Felipe Massa, and until Stroll gets his act together, they will not be able to keep close to Force India, despite Massa’s consistency.