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View from the Pit Lane: Bahrain

Sebastian Vettel celebrates his record fourth win in Bahrain. 

 By Karun Chandhok, C4F1 technical analyst

Our first live weekend of the season on C4F1 turned out to be an excellent Bahrain Grand Prix! It’s been a long time since we had a race with multiple strategies at play, combined with some amazing wheel-to-wheel battles at the sharp end of the pack, and I think everyone thoroughly enjoyed that!

Following the amazing pace that Mercedes showed in pre-season testing and Melbourne, this weekend threw up some major surprises for everyone in the paddock, with Ferrari showing that they are well and truly in the title fight against the defending champions as Sebastian Vettel claimed his second successive win.

Until this weekend, it seemed like the Silver Arrows were on a different planet to their rivals and there was genuine concern that this could turn into a season of dominance by Lewis Hamilton. Not anymore.

So how have Ferrari turned a significant deficit in Australia into an advantage in Bahrain?

If we look back to pre-season testing, the Barcelona circuit had been recently re-surfaced. Throw in the cooler conditions and we didn’t perhaps get as clear a picture on where the pecking order was. The tyre degradation was very low and the heat build-up in the rear tyres wasn’t a major problem for the softer compounds over the qualifying simulations.  

The asphalt in Bahrain is very abrasive and with some reasonably long corners and track temperatures in the low 30s even at night, the tyres take quite a beating. The drivers were all doing very slow out-laps on the supersoft tyres to try to ensure they still had life in them in the final sector of their hot-laps.

It did seem that in hotter conditions last year the Ferraris were better at managing the thermal degradation, and I wonder if this trend seems to have continued into 2018. We only have a very small dataset of information at the moment so let’s wait and see. If that’s the case, then Ferrari and the tifosi should be praying for a European heatwave this summer!

Ferrari also had a car that seemed more draggy than the Mercedes last year. In 2018 however, they seem to have addressed that and in fact despite some potential deficit in horsepower, being less draggy has made them more competitive overall.

Once again, Bahrain is a circuit with longer straights than Melbourne and I’m very interested to see if when we go to China next weekend, the Ferrari once again has a speed advantage on the long straights there.

Kimi Raikkonen was on great form all weekend but when it counted in Q3, it was Vettel who delivered the lap to take pole and crucially start on the clean side of the grid.

Once Seb shot off into the lead, he did an outstanding job of managing his pace, the fuel and the tyres to ensure that he had enough – just – to fend off Valtteri Bottas at the end. Seb’s a smart cookie and, while Mercedes were pacing Bottas, the German was also making sure he had enough fuel to use the high-power modes at the end of the race when he had to hang on for the 49th win of his career.

I believe this was one of Vettel’s best victories. They started off the race aiming for a two-stopper but when Bottas pitted for the medium tyres and started to reduce the gap, as I mentioned in the commentary, I immediately thought Ferrari would swap to a one-stop strategy because that was their only chance to win the race. It left Seb needing to do 39 laps on a set of softs and he drove brilliantly. There’s a reason the guy is a four-time world champion.

The Kimi versus Lewis battle would have been interesting at the end but it wasn’t to be. Following on from the Haas issues in Australia, I do wonder if it’s time the FIA looked into creating some form of safety measures so that the lights used to release the cars from the pit box aren’t used erroneously.

I was pleased to see Valtteri recover from a poor Melbourne weekend to out-qualify Lewis on pace here. It must take a lot of mental strength and self-belief to be team-mates with (statistically at least) the best qualifier in F1 history.

Being a Finn, Valtteri works hard and just gets on with the job he needs to do. He just needs to do it more often to make sure that he fends off the threats from people like Daniel Ricciardo and Esteban Ocon for his seat in 2019.

In the race, he was being paced by the team and I think it took them a few laps longer than he would have liked to work out that Vettel was on a one-stop strategy. He was closing Vettel down rapidly at the end and you can’t help but wonder if it was Lewis or Max in that position, they would have thrown the car down the inside and had a do-or-die lunge to try to take the lead into Turn 1 on the final lap.

Pierre Gasly and Toro Rosso proved to be the stars of the weekend. Qualifying sixth and ‘best of the rest’ behind the top-three teams is a remarkable achievement for the team and for engine supplier Honda. Having both the cars in front of both the McLarens on Saturday must have been a particularly satisfying moment for the Japanese car giants, who have had a rough ride so far on their return to F1.

The young Frenchman drove very well all weekend and in Sunday's race he was calm and composed. I’m sure everyone at Honda was feeling a little bit nervous after the reliability woes in Australia but Pierre’s race pace was very good and lap by lap he strengthened his hold on his position – albeit well behind Hamilton – and opened the gap to Kevin Magnussen and Nico Hulkenberg. It was unquestionably the most popular fourth place I’ve seen in a long time.

Conversely, one of the biggest disappointments of the weekend must be McLaren. The team took a huge financial hit, reported to be in the region of $100 million to go away from Honda to Renault power, and in the end the team only qualified 13th and 14th on the grid.

Being a second behind the Renaults and 1.3 seconds behind the Red Bull in Q2 with the same power unit in front of their Bahraini shareholders, who are the majority owners of the team, is something that would have hurt every single person at McLaren. The pressure is now well and truly on.

They did well to recover in the race with seventh and eighth for Fernando Alonso and Stoffel Vandoorne, albeit 13 seconds behind the works Renault of Hulkenberg. More points on the board was a good damage limitation exercise for the team but they will really need to start delivering on the Saturdays if they want to work themselves up into Red Bull territory.

Marcus Ericsson and Sauber did a very good job to make their tyres last with decent pace all through the race, securing ninth place on merit ahead of Ocon's Force India and Carlos Sainz Jr in the other Renault. That will certainly give the team a confidence boost at this early stage of the season, scoring their first points in 14 races.

On to China next, and once again a very different circuit.

Bahrain is quite a stop-start layout with a lot of emphasis on braking and traction. At the Shanghai International Circuit, you have a lot of long-radius, medium and high-speed corners, with a lot of emphasis on front-end grip, and a particularly high load on the left front tyre.

I’m very intrigued to see how the pendulum of performance swings between Ferrari and Mercedes after this weekend!

Read more: Bahrain Stat Wrap - Vettel vs Prost

Read more: Vettel holds off Bottas in Bahrain

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