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View from the Pit Lane: Bahrain

Could Mercedes introduce team orders to fend off Ferrari?
By Karun Chandhok
C4F1 technical analyst

Hold onto your hats folks because the rollercoaster Formula 1 season shows no signs of slowing down. 

What a fantastic race we had in Bahrain – the third race in a row where F1 2017 has delivered a really engrossing battle and strategy won the day for Sebastian Vettel and Ferrari.

There’s no doubt about it, the Ferrari vs Mercedes battle is going to go down to the wire.

Baking in Bahrain

I’ve been going to Bahrain since 2007 and I can conclusively say that Friday was the hottest day I’ve ever experienced on the island.

The temperature was up to around 39 degrees Celsius but in the pit lane it felt a lot hotter as the sun was reflecting off the concrete. I’d been through five and a half litres of water before FP2! 

The Bahrain Grand Prix was also the C4F1 team’s first live event of 2017. 

Everyone has got a bit more of a bounce in their step on a live weekend because you know you have to get it right first time. All the on-screen team – with the exception of “Zen Ben” Edwards who never swears anyway – are very conscious not to swear because there’s no second take!

The story of Qualifying

I was really pleased to see Valtteri Bottas getting his first-ever pole position at the Sakhir circuit. I’ve known him for many years and he’s a nice guy but, more importantly, it underlined the belief that Mercedes had to bring him into the team. 

To out-qualify Lewis Hamilton is no mean feat. Bottas talked me through his lap on Saturday evening for the C4F1 Sunday show. It was a really good effort, a couple of little moments, really on the edge but I think overall he was very pleased. 

I know he was disappointed at the end of the day on Sunday but he should still come away from Bahrain feeling better about himself after a tough weekend in China.

Ferrari were the real surprise in qualifying. I was surprised by how far back they were compared to Mercedes and I think they were as well. Vettel was third but still 0.478 seconds off Bottas’ pole lap with Kimi Raikkonen back in fifth. 

In the first two races Ferrari were right up there on Saturday but in Bahrain nobody could really pinpoint whether it was down to temperature, the nature of the circuit or another reason why they were off the pace. We haven’t got enough of a data-set yet to start establishing a trend and need to see a few more races.

We must remember the cars are also continuing to evolve, which keeps moving the goalposts, for example Ferrari had a new front wing which we saw debuted in Friday practice. 

Red Bull delivery

Red Bull did a good job in practice and qualifying and were definitely closer to the front than in Australia and China. 

When I flew out of London on Wednesday night there was a guy from Red Bull checking into the flight next to me and he had the porters lined up with huge boxes of bits that he was carrying out to Bahrain – so that’s evidence that they are really pushing on with development as well. 

It would be remiss not to mention Nico Hulkenberg as another star of Saturday as he qualified in seventh. Since joining Renault, he’s given technical director Nick Chester and trackside director of operations Alan Permane some set-up direction and guidance on which way they want to head with the car to unlock its potential.

To be best of the rest on the grid, backing up his seventh place in Shanghai, was a very good effort from Hulkenberg.

How the race was won

The cars lined up for the race on Sunday with Bottas and Vettel on the front row and Hamilton hampered by starting on the dirty side of the grid in third.

After the race, Mercedes revealed they weren’t able to set the right tyre pressures on Bottas’ car at the start and that hindered his first stint. But even beyond that first stint he didn’t seem to have the pace of Hamilton or Vettel.

That’s interesting for me. Is that a clear sign that Mercedes need to start favouring Hamilton when it comes to those strategy calls and decision making? We’ll come back to that later!

In the opening phase of the race, Bottas certainly didn’t have the pace to pull away and five of them, all the way down to Daniel Ricciardo, were in a train. 

Ferrari bit the bullet and on Lap 10 they went for the undercut. You do wonder if Bottas had the tyre pressure issue why didn’t they pull him in, or why not pit Hamilton early and give him the undercut to jump both Bottas and Vettel?

When Vettel pitted, Bottas’ time on that lap was a 1:37.6 and Vettel came out 23.2 seconds behind.

But then Mercedes left their cars out and over the next couple of laps the gap came down to 20 seconds, 18 seconds and, by the time the safety car came out on Lap 13, Bottas was only 16.1 seconds ahead of the Ferrari.

If there hadn’t been a safety car, and the stops had been completely as normal, Vettel would have come out seven seconds up the road. So, in fact, the safety car actually helped the Mercedes drivers close up.

Despite the safety car, Ferrari still managed to get track position; that three-lap phase and that decision making around the first pit stop was the critical moment of the Grand Prix.

Vettel keeps Hamilton at bay

Once he was in front, Vettel did what Vettel does best – he was gone! That’s why he’s won so many GPs, he knows how to win races and he managed the gap to Hamilton on the hunt in second.

Hamilton did what any racing driver in the world would have done when it came to backing up Ricciardo in the pit lane but the mistake he made was not backing him up enough before he came to the pit entry line.

Ricciardo explained to C4F1 in an interview with Steve and DC after the race that before the pit entry lane you can slow down but once you go beyond that line then you can’t, and that’s why Hamilton was penalized. 

In hindsight Mercedes will wonder whether they could have gone for a more aggressive undercut, especially as the soft tyres were hanging on. 

That’s something they need to think about going forwards. There are some extremely clever people on the pit wall like James Vowles, Andrew Shovlin, race engineers Pete Bonnington and Tony Ross and I’m sure they will work it out.

But fundamentally I believe it’s a philosophical issue of ‘do we carry on being fair and let the driver in front have first call or do we start to favour one driver and use that tactic to combat Vettel?’

Will Toto introduce team orders?

Mercedes are very conscious of being unbiased, they’ve done that in the past, always trying to be fair and equal especially when Hamilton was fighting Nico Rosberg.

But this year the enemy is no longer within, they are in a different world championship battle against Ferrari.

You do wonder if they need to start rethinking their approach. It’s a hard decision and so early in the season to resign one driver to a number two status but maybe that’s what it’s going to take to defend their world titles.

Think back to 1986 when Williams teammates Nelson Piquet and Nigel Mansell were fighting each other for the title and Alain Prost snuck the championship for McLaren.

We’ve seen drivers in the same team taking points off each other in the past and the danger is it it can allow someone else to come through. 

Best of the Rest

Felipe Massa had a very good race finishing sixth for Williams and he had a very cheery chat with Lee after the race, basically joking there’s life in the old dog yet!

His teammate Lance Stroll was unfortunate to get taken out of the race by Carlos Sainz, who when he watches the replay may slightly regret that manoeuvre.

Hulkenberg had a tough time in terms of race pace. It’s interesting to see that the Renault car doesn’t seem to be able to match its qualifying speed in race pace. That means they can’t match Williams and Force India and that’s something the team need to work on.

Sergio Perez was another star for me. He had a tough qualifying as he was knocked out in Q1 when the yellow flags were unfurled at the wrong time and he didn’t get his last lap in.

Perez turned it around on Sunday, doing a great job in the first two or three laps with solid pace to go with it. He hauled himself up to seventh from 18th on the grid and for me he was the driver of the day. 

Next stop Sochi

We’ve got a couple of weeks before we head to Russia for the next race on the calendar.

The teams, and many of the drivers, also have a two-day test in Bahrain after the GP weekend. Testing under the blazing sun in Bahrain means that the track temperatures aren’t really representative to the rest of the upcoming F1 calendar, perhaps only Malaysia, by which point the cars will be very different anyway.

The teams will be looking to resolve reliability issues they may have had in the first few races and they will also be able to do some back-to-back tests on aerodynamic parts for example, but holding the test in the evening under lights could have been a lot more useful and relevant to the rest of the season ahead. 

Sochi is a very different place to Bahrain when it comes to the weather and track temperatures – which will both be a lot cooler. The track surface is also fairly unique so the tyre characteristics will also be different to Bahrain.

The circuit’s signature corner - Turn 3 – should be easily flat with the 2017 cars. In the past the races in Russia haven’t exactly been thrill-a-minute but from what we’ve seen so far in 2017 that could change this time around.