Sebastian Vettel comfortably claimed his 44th career victory under the lights of the Bahrain International Circuit after a strong race start and with assistance from Mercedes issues on both cars.
Vettel now leads Hamilton in the Driver standings and said after the race,
“We all had more or less the same start, and Lewis stuck with Valtteri so I could take a risk under braking and get the move done [around the outside of Turn 1].
After a couple of laps, I was on Valtteri’s gearbox for the first stint and not falling back too much. It was a good start – pace was key today to win. In the final stint we had quite a decent gap, plus the safety margin of Lewis’s penalty.
I tried to control the gap – he was very fast when he came out, I expected him to be quicker but not that quick.”
– Sebastian Vettel
Vettel crucially pitted early on lap 10 as Ferrari again opted for n aggressive strategy. Verstappen was the only car to mimic Vettel’s strategy, but the Dutchman was soon out of the race when his rear-brake failed shortly after leaving the pits. He would have challenged for the podium if the same circumstances of the race had played out in the same way had he remained in the race. Whilst the Mercedes pit-wall were number-crunching gaps to fall into and tracking Vettel’s pace after emerging 12th from the stop, a collision between Carlos Sainz and Lance Stroll brought out the safety car. It looked to be a hot-headed move from Sainz and saw both cars retire. Stroll still hasn’t finished a Grand Prix.
The safety car played massively into Vettel’s hands as Bottas, Ricciardo and Hamilton took to the pits. Mercedes were going to have to stack Hamilton, but the Brit tried to prevent this by going into the pits at a slower speed than the one set by the pit limiter, which held up Ricciardo behind and ended up costing Hamilton any contention for victory with a 5-second time penalty. He also suffered a slow stop, meaning that he emerged on track behind Ricciardo, who he’d been backing up seconds earlier.
At this point, Bottas was finally on some tyres that had the correct pressures after a generator failure before the start of the race had prevented the Mercedes mechanics from bleeding his tyres, hampering his pace in the opening stint.
On the restart, Vettel was able to pull away from Bottas as Hamilton cleanly dispatched of Ricciardo for 3rd. Bottas tried to pull a move around the outside of turn four, but the Finn was always going to run out of road as Vettel made the leading SF70H even wider.
On lap 27, Hamilton caught Bottas and overtook for 2nd and the Finn pitted again three laps later. On lap 33, Vettel boxed and dropped to third behind Raikkonen, who was yet to make his second stop and was having another anonymous race. On lap 36 Vettel caught Raikkonen and the Ferraris traded position, giving Vettel a clear road ahead to chase Hamilton.
It was at this point in the race that Mercedes appeared to be in two minds. They could either pit Hamilton immediately and try to climb from around 7th, behind a ferocious Sergio Perez. The other option for Hamilton was to try and run the soft compounds until the end of the race. If the Brit didn’t have the headache of a 5-second penalty on his next stop, the strategy would have been much simpler.
He stayed out until lap 40, with Vettel catching at a rate of one-second-a-lap. After rejoining in 3rd with a 10-second gap to Bottas ahead, Hamilton put together a strong string of laps with nothing to lose, reigning in Bottas at a humbling rate and getting by on lap 47.
He then continued to catch Sebastian Vettel, but ran out of laps. Had he not made the bad judgement call in holding up Ricciardo in the pits, he’d have firmly had Vettel in his crosshairs for the final couple of laps and under pressure, may have caught the German.
But it was Vettel’s day and the German picked up another 25 points for what is shaping up to be a strong bid for his fifth title. Hamilton finished 2nd after an eventful race in which he could have threatened more, and Bottas finished 3rd, unable to convert his maiden pole in what is starting to look like the number two Mercedes.
Raikkonen finished 4th but never looked like competing against the cars ahead and Daniel Ricciardo compounded what will be a frustrating opening half to the season for Red Bull with 5th.
Felipe Massa had another incredible race and secured 6th for Williams on Sir Frank Williams’ birthday, but the team are only scoring points with one car at the moment, which doesn’t bode well for their very important Constructors campaign in what is an incredibly competitive midfield.
Sergio Perez had an incredible race and came through the field to finish 7th with teammate Esteban Ocon 10th, meaning that Force India have managed a hat-trick of double points results, establishing a small margin in their defence of 4th in the Constructors.
Romain Grosjean collected the first points of his season with 8th and Nico Hulkenberg was a respectable 9th for Renault, picking up the French Manufacturers first points of 2017.
Vettel was back to his best in Bahrain and rekindled his ability to find incredible race pace in clear air. The slight errors at Mercedes, both in Bottas’ tyre pressures and Hamilton’s penalty are the fine details in which titles are won and lost. There’s a reformed looking Ferrari team congregating around one driver, with no strategic hiccups to speak of so far this season. The battle between red and silver continues at the Russian Grand Prix in two weeks.