2015 Bahrain F1 Grand Prix puts a dark horse in the desert [spoilers]
At the front, nothing has changed so far this year: four races, four pole positions for Lewis Hamilton. Instead of teammate Rosberg next to him, though, he'll look over to see the scarlet Ferrari of Vettel, who took advantage of Rosberg's cautiousness to snatch second place on the grid. In Q2, Rosberg tried to conserve the tires he'd start the race on and said he couldn't get into a groove in Q3, putting in a time 0.147 seconds slower than Vettel. The second Silver Arrows will share his row with the second Ferrari, Räikkönen – yet again – saying he might have left some time on the table during his hot lap but getting around just one tenth off Rosberg's time.
Williams is established as the best of the rest behind two teams this year instead of just one last year, Valtteri Bottas claiming fifth ahead of Felipe Massa. Daniel Ricciardo of Infiniti Red Bull Racing said he wants to fight with the Williams', he'll be helped with a good start off the line for the first time this year. Nico Hülkenberg got Force India into Q3 for the first time since the Italian Grand Prix last year and into eighth on the grid, ahead of Carlos Sainz in the Toro Rosso and Romain Grosjean putting in another excellent day's work for Lotus. Come race time, it turned into Mercedes power against Ferrari strategy.
When Sky F1 commentator Martin Brundle talks about the Mercedes-AMG Petronas team he often mentions how their engine advantage leads to other advantages throughout the car. Not having to use aerodynamic changes to make up for power unit deficiencies, for instance, means they can run the aero setup they want, which optimizes speed and tire wear throughout a lap. It equates to advantage on top of advantage on top of advantage.
That's where Lewis Hamilton is right now, so fundamentally dialed in to his car and his racing that he run the races he wants to run. From the front spot, the Brit ripped off another perfect start and led the field into Turn 1, relinquishing the lead only during pit stops. His pace was so strong that when he emerged from his second pit stop in second place, he caught leader Räikkönen – who was on old tires – on track, before Räikkönen pitted. His only real incident came on the last lap of the race when his brake-by-wire system malfunctioned, but it wasn't enough to keep him from crossing the line in first place at the end of 57 laps, a little more than three seconds ahead of Räikkönen.
Ferrari made him earn it, though. Räikkönen overtook Rosberg at the start, stealing third place by the end of the Turn 2. He lost it on Lap 4 when Rosberg slid underneath into Turn 1 and pushed him wide to retake the spot, and it looked like he'd drive to another lonely fourth place. But the Ferrari did much better on the medium tire than everyone expected, so in the middle stint – while his teammate Vettel was on the soft, option tire – Räikkönen began taking time out of the three men ahead of him. Doing a long run cost him time when his tires went off, but switching to the option tire for his last spurt put him on the hunt. On Lap 41, when he came out of the pits the final time, he was 16 seconds behind Rosberg. Ten laps later he was three seconds behind Rosberg. When Rosberg's car suffered the same brake-by-wire fault as Hamilton, but 1.5 laps earlier, the German ran wide into Turn 1 and Räikkönen got by for second place.
Rosberg – no, make that "The new improved ultra-aggressive Nico Rosberg," as Martin Brundle put it – came third. After playing nice-nice for the first couple of races this year, the team told him to stop it and be himself. The German watched video of last year's Bahrain GP to figure out where he could make up time this year, and combined with an upgrade to his intensity package, he laid into this race for a fight. He passed Vettel on Lap 9 just as he did Räikkönen earlier, going underneath into Turn 1 quite hot and pushing the Ferrari well to the outside, then claiming the position. Falling a few seconds behind Hamilton, he never challenged for the lead but he kept it game until a few laps from the end of the race. That's despite his fuel- and tire-saving measures, and having to pass Vettel's Ferrari three times. If Rosberg hadn't had the brake problem, we'd have seen quite the scrap between the half-Finn and the full-Finn.
Valtteri Bottas came home fifth after showing his steel yet again, holding off Vettel's Ferrari for nearly 16 laps to the checkered flag. Vettel, who made three unforced errors in running wide during the race, damaged his wing on Lap 36 and had to pit, emerging behind Bottas. The Ferrari probably would have walked away from the Williams if Vettel could have got by, but the Williams pulls so strongly of corners that the German couldn't ever get around. Over that final spell Bottas locked up his brakes once, otherwise not putting a wheel wrong to get some good points for the Grove team, Vettel just behind.
Daniel Ricciardo finished sixth with a finish more spectacular than his race, when his Renault engine blew a nasty white cloud just ahead of the line. It was a good finishing spot, but it won't be much longer before that team has a harder time getting so close to the front because of engine penalties.
Romain Grosjean secured another haul of points for Lotus, the team slowly emerging from the wilderness of last year. They would have had two points-taking cars, but Pastor Maldonado retired from seventh place on Lap 43 while in the pits having his tires changed with the message, "The engine's done."
Sergio Perez put Force India back in the points for the first time since Australia with an eighth-place finish, ahead of Daniil Kvyat in ninth. Felipe Massa, who started from the pit lane after an electrical gremlin attacked his car before the parade lap, took tenth. Just behind him came Fernando Alonso in the sole McLaren to start the race, after Jenson Button's car gave into the electrical recovery system problems it had been suffering all weekend. The Woking team has improved enormously in every race and isn't far away from the points now.
Hamilton's third win out of four races this year gives him 93 points in the Driver's Championship, ahead of Rosberg with 66 and Vettel with 65. Mercedes has stretched its lead in the Constructor's Championship, going to 159 points, ahead of Ferrari with 107 and Williams with 61. The next race in May 8 in Spain, meaning a long break and a return to Europe that will bring major upgrades for every team, and perhaps an even better battles between The Three-Pointed Star and The Prancing Horse. We'll see you then.
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