Race Review: Bahrain 14th-16th Of April, Round 3

Introduction

The Sakhir circuit is famously a power-track, with long sweeping corners and long straights which test the engines to the extreme. The heat of the desert is also incredibly harsh on tyres unless they are managed properly; as such a car with a good chassis and a driver with a light touch are needed to get the most out of each stint. Therefore, I can say that this weekend is the most illuminating in terms of the actual pecking order of the paddock. Furthermore, with 3 races gone we are now beginning to get into the area where we have seen enough to make more concrete judgements: as such our comments are beginning to stack up, creating narratives for drivers and teams alike which will develop throughout the season. This race will of course add more judgements to the state of racing in these new regulations, so in my review of the state of the whole race I will reflect on that also. Additionally, the starting grid was very mixed up this week so in some areas I will have more to add on qualifying mentions. This weekend I am without the photos and advice of Jos Matthews, so would just like to say that all photos and logos are of course the intellectual property of their respective sources.

F1 Grand Prix of Malaysia
Race winner: Sebastian Vettel.

Ferrari (1st & 4th)
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Sebastian Vettel, P1:
Another imposing drive from Sebastian Vettel means that he opens the gap at the top of the table to 7 points between himself and Hamilton. Sebastian’s win from 3rd on the grid came most notably from his decision to make an aggressive strategy and pit his car early for fresh tyres: his resulting pace ensured that he jumped both Mercedes when they pitted a few laps later under the safety car. Vettel also saw off an eager Bottas when the race got under way again, in what was really the first wheel to wheel action we have seen between the two leading teams this season. However, if anyone out there thinks that the German only beat Hamilton to the chequered flag because of the safety car or the Brit’s penalty, then they are gravely mistaken: The Ferrari simply was just faster out in front and had really already jumped Hamilton before the incidents actually came into play. Had Lewis pitted with no safety car he’d have obivously been further from Vettel than was actually the case.

Kimi Raikkonen, P4:
Fourth place is becoming a rather unwelcome familiarity for Kimi this season: at least this time out he rose a position from 5th on the grid, so that is a positive. But whilst his team-mate has 2 wins, Kimi is yet to even take to the podium at the end of a race. I had backed Kimi for a strong showing in Bahrain, given that he has 8 podiums here throughout his career including last year, but he rather underwhelmed again. Kimi once more complained of understeer in the car throughout the weekend and I am beginning to wonder whether this car was actually built around Sebastian Vettel’s driving style, as the German does not seem to be having any issues at all: if that is the case then Raikkonen has been playing second fiddle from the start. But what is not speculation is that Raikkonen already has only half the points of Vettel and unless he picks up his form very soon he will doubtless be Ferrari’s number 2 driver, assuming of course that he isn’t already.

Team Summary:
Simply put, Ferrari have retaken the lead of the championship this weekend and they can be very happy. Chief among reasons for celebration is that once again they had the raw pace to dictate the strategy of the race; giving them an inherent advantage over their rivals. Indeed, President Sergio Marchionne has broken the team’s relative silence for the first time this season to say that he “expects the team to be right in the championship fight all year” now that it has been proved the Australia win was not a one-off. However, Ferrari would do well not to start assuming things just yet as Mercedes will doubtless be developing furiously behind the scenes. This fight isn’t over by a long-shot.

Mercedes (2nd & 3rd)
Mercedes-AMG-Petronas-F1-Team-LogoLewis Hamilton, P2:
Hamilton rather ruined his own race today. When his team ‘double-stacked’ in the pits under the safety car he backed into Red Bull’s Daniel Ricciardo in the entry to the pit-lane in an attempt to make sure he wasn’t held up with his change of tyres. The resulting 5 second penalty was served at his second pit-stop later in the race and due to that he really had no chance of catching Vettel at the end of the race. He will also be slightly concerned that he was out-qualified by pole-sitter Bottas on Saturday, but the events of the race will negate those concerns: the Brit was simply just much faster than his team-mate and he knew it. Hamilton doesn’t quite have Bottas beat yet but he can smell blood.

Valterri Bottas, P3:
Bottas overall had a much better weekend than his 6th place last time out in China, but under the surface he might actually be more concerned than before. Whilst the fact he recorded his first ever pole position is likely to have filled him with hope and relief, the race on Sunday was very worrying. The Finn complained desperately of a lack of grip in his tyres throughout the race and the result was that he had to move aside for Hamilton, not once but twice, under team orders. Whilst he is not yet the de-facto 2nd driver behind Hamilton, he will need to fight back quickly to prove his championship credentials: a win would go such a long way right now.

Team Summary:
To and fro, to and fro at this stage of the season: Mercedes back into second place in the championship after their lead last race, but only by the slim margin of 3 points. Mercedes will be very happy at the half second margin at which both their cars out-qualified Ferrari, but the points are not handed out on Saturday. Whilst Mercedes are rumoured to have an extra-powerful engine mode for qualifying that their rivals do not, it currently seems that the Ferrari is just as quick as them, if not faster in actual race conditions. As it stands the Italian team are able to call the shots on any strategy decisions. If the Germans go long on stints Ferrari can go short and undercut as shown today, but if Mercedes go short to undercut instead the Scuderia have the pace to go long to keep track position, as shown in Australia. Mercedes will obviously want to fix this problem and stop playing catch-up as soon as possible. If they actually can.

Red Bull-Renault (5th & DNF)
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Daniel Ricciardo, P5:
A relatively quiet race for Daniel today as he swapped places with Kimi Raikkonen, falling from 4th on the grid to 5th over the course of the race. The major positives for Daniel are that he out-qualified his team-mate by a couple of tenths and also that Max failed to pick up points. Red Bull are aiming to join the duel between Ferrari and Mercedes up top as soon as they possibly can; if it turns out they actually can then Ricciardo may come to be very grateful for these 10 points today.

Max Verstappen, DNF:
A very short race for Verstappen today could have been very different. Max came over the radio, following Vettel’s impressive pace after an early pitstop, saying “we need to try something like Ferrari” and so the team pitted him to try to undercut the some cars ahead of him. Unfortunately for Verstappen, on the very next lap his brakes failed into the heavy braking zone at turn 4 and he slid slowly into the barrier and out of the race.

Team Summary:
Christian Horner will be glad that his team were able to split the two Ferrari’s in qualifying this weekend, especially as the Sakhir circuit is very power dependent and therefore not especially suited to the Red Bull. However, the race was rather more chastening: only picking up 10 points mean that they already have a massive 52 point gap to second-placed Mercedes. But there is a lot of the season to go and the Sochi Autodrom at the next race weekend might prove a more lucrative hunting ground for their more aerodynamically suited car. There are meant to be huge aerodynamic updates coming for Red Bull before the Spanish Grand-Prix, so as we stand they are on a programme of damage limitation until that “new car” is pushed through.

Force India-Mercedes (7th & 10th)
SaharaForceIndiaSergio Perez, P7:
This is Sergio Perez’ 13th points finish in a row, which is of course highly impressive. Having started the race in 18th position on the grid after a pretty awful qualifying, Perez did more than make up for his mistakes as the inherent pace in the Force-India shone through and the team’s strategy guided him through the interruptions in the race. I have a feeling that Perez will be wanting to move to a more competitive team next season; he will likely once again have his eye on Raikkonen’s Ferrari seat, but he will have plenty of competition for that role. His last stint at a top team in McLaren didn’t exactly fill anyone watching with confidence, but that was a long time ago and he has certainly matured: he deserves another shot in a top side.

Esteban Ocon, P10:
Another man who might well be wanting to transfer to a top side in the further future will be Esteban Ocon, especially if he builds on his impressive consistency. It is the young Frenchman’s first full season in the sport and he has recorded three 10th place finishes. He also out-qualified his more experienced team-mate this weekend by around half a second, which he should be very happy with indeed. The next goal will of course be keeping closer pace to Perez in the race.

Team Summary:
Force India will be very happy that they scored double points yet again, despite an apparent “correlation problem” between their aerodynamic data and performance. On top of that the car is allegedly 10 kilograms over-weight which cannot help when every ounce of fat is scraped off these cars. The team are setting out to fix both problems in the coming races and then adapt accordingly, so are another team who are currently in a bit of a ‘damage limitation’ mode for the time being. Yet, even the current performances are not bad at all; so I can’t wait to see their pace when they feel they have solved the issues.

Williams-Mercedes (6th & DNF)
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Felipe Massa, P6:
Massa, the elder-statesman of the grid, had yet another quality race today. The Brazilian rose two places up the field courtesy of winning an exciting tussle with Daniel Riccardo and Nico Hulkenberg after the safety car period. Williams will once again be very grateful for Massa’s experienced presence at the team, given the troubles Lance Stroll has experienced at the opening of his career.

Lance Stroll, DNF:
Poor Stroll cannot catch a break at the moment. Whilst people who don’t know much might find this very funny I don’t think that Stroll is anywhere near as bad a driver as Pastor Maldonado, he has just had a very steep learning curve. This retirement was certainly not his fault: he was pretty much shunted by Carlos Sainz as the young Spaniard was leaving the pits and trying to make up a position. However, Stroll will still be concerned by his inability to match Massa in qualifying: he was beaten comprehensively again by his team-mate.

Team Summary:
Whilst Williams may not be returning the kind of form I expected from my predictions, I do still think that they will be the 4th fastest team come the end of the season as I expect them to beat their main rivals Force India to that spot with better development throughout the season. They will also start to reap more rewards once Lance Stroll comes up to pace and begins to haul in respectable points like Felipe Massa. The midfield is going to be very very tight this season: probably some positions in there will be decided solely on how reliable their respective cars are and how often both drivers can finish. Williams will be experienced enough to get their elbows out and lead that midfield pack.

Toro Rosso-Renault (12th & DNF)
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Daniil Kvyat, P12:
Kvyat will be very happy with his weekend, despite not getting points. He has rather laid out his stall to rival his team-mate in the opening few races: qualifying above him in the last two races and keeping his cool this weekend in the desert where Sainz could not. He will be concerned that Sainz is beating him by 8 points at this early stage, but he has showed that he is not a push-over for his highly rated colleague. He also provided his part of this race’s entertainment in an almost race long battle with Fernando Alonso and Hulkenberg, so we should thank him for that.

Carlos Sainz, DNF:
This weekend was rather a return to earth for Carlos Sainz following a good 7th placed showing last week in China. Free Practice was turbulent for Sainz but really there is no excuse for how much the young Spaniard underperformed in qualifying, only coming 16th whilst his team-mate Kvyat was up in 11th. In the race, his desire to make up for that performance translated into an impatience and naivety that took him out of the running. Upon exiting the pits he attempted a desperate lunge into turn 1 on the distant Lance Stroll, perhaps expecting the Canadian Rookie to give way. Stroll had right to take the corner and Sainz pushed his luck, thus taking both drivers out of the race in a clumsy collision. To add to his pain Sainz will receive a 3 place grid drop in Russia next time out. Carlos needs to be careful, he is obviously frustrated that he is still in the Toro Rosso whilst his old team-mate Max Verstappen now has a race win with Red Bull and is challenging for podiums. But such rash moves will not do him any favours in either trying to get into the Red Bull senior team or another leading team.

Team Summary:
Toro Rosso dropping 2 places in the standings due to the result of this one race just goes to show how congested the midfield will be this season. The Italian bulls will be disappointed to not pick up points, as they know every little will help this season. But their car has shown that at less pace-sensitive circuits they have a good chance of racking up good results. Kvyat’s home race in Russia will provide a good opportunity for them next time around.


Haas-Ferrari (8th & DNF)
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Romain Grosjean, P8:
Grosjean will be happy to have emulated his team-mate’s result in China at the next time of asking. Now tied with Magnussen on 4 points, Romain will want to put his head down and consistently show his quality, especially if he still has ambitions to move to Ferrari before his career ends. In this weekend’s qualifying his 9th place was years beyond Magnussen’s confusingly poor last place, which will give him further cause for hope ahead of the following races this year.

Kevin Magnussen, DNF:
Magnussen’s weekend was rather poor in truth: whilst his retirement due to an electrics failure obviously cannot be his fault, his poor qualifying form will certainly raise a few eyebrows within the team. Whilst I praised him last week and still believe he is a good driver this is the second time, along with Australia, where his qualifying pace has been bizarrely off from Grosjean’s. The team need them both on the pace in the tight midfield battle and Kevin has proved he can do exactly what is required; consistency is key though.

Team Summary:
Haas seem to be a bit of a weird team this season: their car seems to be either completely competitive or massively off the pace and unreliable. Often this happens simultaneously over a weekend between their two drivers: indeed both of their drivers have identical stats of one 8th place finished and 2 DNF’s. What Haas need is to have both drivers scoring points consistently like Force India do, instead of this cycling of form that has happened so far between the two of them. Haas are changing their brakes from Brembo to Carbone Industrie, so whilst they did not get the chance to test them this weekend as planned, that could be a positive step towards solving the unreliable brake issues that have plagued them since joining the sport.

Renault (9th & 13th)
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Nico Hulkenberg, P9:
Finally points for Renault! Hulkenberg had an eventful race in the midfield tussle for position, but in the end he lost a few positions on his starting position of 7th. Nico will feel happy for getting his first points for the team, but he will probably not be too over-joyed that his old team are consistently scoring points where he has not so far. He will take more hope from the stats against his team-mate who he has beaten everytime both in qualifying and the races.

Jolyon Palmer, P13:
A much more solid showing from Jolyon on the face of things this weekend. This Saturday he clocked his first ever Q3 appearance and showed a bit of fight in the race against Daniil Kvyat and Pascal Wehrlein. However, if you read into the numbers a little more Jolyon is likely still not meeting the expectations that Renault have of him: he finished last of the finishers in the race down in 13th and in qualifying he was actually a whole second off his team-mate. Talk is that he had the wrong engine mode in qualifying which accounts for his lack of pace, but that is his job to get right and clearly he did not. He probably is not very happy that rumours are already circling that his seat might be in question with Fernando Alonso linked to Renault for 2018, as I suggested. Given that Palmer was offered his seat very late last season I have said before that Renault probably want a different driver for the future.

Team Summary:
Renault will be a much happier with this showing than their previous weekends, solely on the account that they got points and also put both cars into Q3. However, the team’s race pace will still be concerning them for the season ahead and they will look to rectify that situation as soon as possible before they are cut adrift from the midfield and are knocking around at the back. As a factory team that should be entirely possible.

Sauber-Ferrari (11th & DNF)
sauberPascal Wehrlein, P11:
This was Wehrlein’s first race in the Sauber this season after cancelling his race appearances due to fitness concerns following his race of champions crash in the summer. Whilst his replacement Antonio Giovinazzi had a mixed stay in the seat, Wehrlein’s return was pretty triumphant: qualifying a magnificent 13th ahead of some much superior cars before running in the points for a handful of laps in the race. Whilst he will be disappointed that he could not claim Sauber’s first points of the season he did very well indeed.

Marcus Ericsson, DNF:
Ericsson will be irritated that he was out-performed by his less experienced team-mate this weekend. He was trounced in qualifying by a whole second and then was on course to finish below Wehrlein before he was forced out by a gearbox issue. A weekend that he will want to bounce back from quickly in Sochi, as whilst points may be beyond the Sauber car, beating his team-mate should not be beyond Ericsson.

Team Summary:
Sauber will feel incredibly miffed that they could not chalk up a point in this race, as they still have the looming certainty that their 2016 Ferrari power-unit will soon become uncompetitive as the newer engines are developed. However, they are still above the McLaren team due to having higher finishes, but that more says something about the terrible state of the Honda engine that the Woking team runs than anything else.

McLaren (14th & DNS)
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Fernando Alonso, 14th:
Whilst technically Alonso did not finish the race, he was still classified as 14th due to completing over 90% of the race distance. However, the cause of the retirement seems a little clouded; rumours are that it was a fuel issue but Ted Kravitz claimed on the Sky notebook that his “Spanish colleagues have suggested that Fernando has a habit of giving his absolute best effort but retiring the car on the last lap if he is not in the points” which he might have done this race. There is of course a larger story to explore here in terms of team dynamics but what is certain is that the McLaren is slow, unreliable and thirsty to boot: so Fernando yet again did very well to get into Q2 and run as high as he did. Fernando’s frustration upon eventually being over-taken by both Jolyon Palmer and Daniil Kvyat was clear: the Spaniard shouted “they were 300 metres behind me at the beginning of the straight, I have never driven a car with less power in my life” down the radio. His pending adventure in the Indy500, which I touched upon in my review of his career so far, cannot come soon enough for him. In that very post this week I also suggested that he might want to look at driving for his old team Renault next season: rumours are indeed now circling that Fernando might be talking to the French team. In terms of the immediate future Alonso will be glad that his car at Indianapolis will have some more grunt than the pathetic McLaren.

Stoffel Vandoorne, DNS:
From bad to worse for McLaren and Stoffel this weekend after his DNF in China. Only qualifying a lowly 17th, well behind Alonso who made it to Q2, was the best it got for the Belgian. His car’s engine gave up the ghost before even setting off for the formation lap with the same MGU-H issues which plagued him in FP1. Very disappointing for him indeed and another embarrassing low for Honda and McLaren.

Team Summary:
I am quickly running out of words to describe the start to McLaren’s season: it is of course pretty much a disaster. However, from what I have heard they have aims to ensure that Honda sort all of the issues over the coming months. Perhaps they will be in a better position after Monaco when Alonso comes back from America. I think what is pretty clear is that Fernando Alonso will not be driving for them next season if he can help it; Jenson Button is contracted for 2018 but I doubt he has any aspirations to take over this seat either. As for today, the McLaren Bahraini shareholders will not have been given many positives to take away from the money they are investing.

Race Review & Analysis

This race was simply a fantastic watch. It is unusual for the safety car to be deployed in Bahrain, but the moment of madness from Carlos Sainz was in retrospect very welcome: it allowed the field to implement bold strategies, chief of whom were Ferrari. However, whilst Vettel certainly benefitted from the safety car unlike last time out in China, his main advantage came from being aggressive in his strategy and Hamilton’s stupid mistake in acquiring his penalty. But to be honest the Ferrari was just quicker again in race trim today and it seems that is going to be a recurring feature of this season: no longer do we have to despair when the Mercedes boys lock out the front row, as they often have and probably will continue to do with their extra engine mode.

I obviously don’t want to discard either Finn of Valterri Bottas or Kimi Raikkonen from the championship fight at this very early stage of the season, but it doesn’t seem promising that both are already at least 20 points behind their team-mates. But whilst it is true that they could mount a fight back and climb the standings, we have to admit that their respective teams will soon have to begin prioritising their lead drivers in the championship. Even though Toto Wolff has said “I don’t want to decide yet” it does not bode well for Bottas that twice today the faster Hamilton was allowed past him in team orders. As for Raikkonen, as I discussed above the car doesn’t seem to be built to suit him currently, meaning that he already has only half of his team-mates points: it would not be silly to suggest that any updates on the car might be built to suit Vettel’s driving style as the season develops. But things happen quickly in F1 and that will provide both drivers some comfort in the long season ahead; they have plenty of time to get involved in the fight for the title.

There was over-taking and strategy intrigue a plenty today: most notably we had the tussle between Massa, Raikkonen and Ricciardio and the race long midfield battle concerning Hulkenberg, Kvyat, Wehrlein and Alonso. The fight at the front was more a battle of minds and strategy rather than straight wheel to wheel racing, which we were denied due to Hamilton’s penalty, but there were brief moments of that as Bottas and Vettel got away after the safety car came in. The race was also punctuated with some pretty exciting incidents such as the crash between Lance Stroll & Carlos Sainz and Verstappen’s unfortunate break failure. Certainly the best race of the season so far. So far the season as a whole has also been very positive: two teams are definitely at the front and it seems that the drivers are learning to over-take under these aero-heavy regulations by being bolder on the brakes.

Constructor & Driver Tables (BBC infographics)

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Next Time Out: Russian Grand Prix

The Sochi race will be more of a test of downforce for the cars, especially in the 3rd sector of the track, which in the past has been compared to a street circuit. Additionally it will be interesting to see how flat out the cars are in the long semi-circular turn 4 and that will certainly test the drivers. As for the championship: again we have seen a ‘tit for tat’ interchange between Mercedes and Ferrari. As we can see above only 3 points separate the teams with only 7 points between their leading drivers as well. Both titles seem to be incredibly in the balance and I hope that we can say that for the whole season: it looks like it is shaping up to be a classic year and we all wait with baited breath for the next Grand Prix where the next chapter will be written. I hope to see you then.

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