Three races into the season and it’s all been about Sebastian Vettel and Lewis Hamilton; Ferrari and Mercedes trying to one-up each other. Heading into Bahrain, the two drivers, both multiple-time champions, were locked in a tie atop the championship standings. Largely billed as the “Duel in the Desert,” the titanic battle between Vettel and Hamilton lit up the night race at the Sakhir International Circuit. It’s been back-and-forth between the two drivers, with Vettel again emerging victorious while Hamilton finishes at second place.
As it stands, it seems that there are no real threats to these two at the moment, not even Valtteri Bottas in the other Mercedes, who scored his first career pole position. Despite his favorable starting position, the Finn struggled with tire pressure right from the get-go, unable to build a commanding lead up front and instead heading a five-car train with Vettel and Hamilton right behind, followed closely by the two Red Bulls of Max Verstappen and Daniel Ricciardo. For the first ten laps of the race, this close leading pack was the predominant image, and I could only hope that the racing continue to be that close for the rest of the year.
Vettel peeled off from this group to make his first pit stop at Lap 11, electing to switch to a fresher set of the same Supersoft tire compound. On the following lap, Verstappen would experience rear brakes failure, sending him lightly into the wall at Turn 4 but it was enough to curtail an otherwise strong race. The Dutchman had good reason to be frustrated because he had a good start and ran well at fourth place to keep up with Hamilton.
Very soon after this, a respite came along when a collision at Turn 1 between the Toro Rosso of Carlos Sainz and the Williams of Lance Stroll triggered a Safety Car deployment. This period gave the opportunity for the two Mercs and Ricciardo to make their first pit stops without losing too much time. Surprisingly, Vettel had actually made enough time to inherit the race lead from Bottas at this point. Moreover, Mercedes planned to “double-stack” their cars in the pits and because of this, Hamilton visibly slowed down too much while approaching his pit area, holding up Ricciardo, who was right behind him when they all simultaneously went into pit lane. Hamilton was given a five-second time penalty for this, which he served in his next pit stop and arguably, prevented him from setting up a real late-race battle with Vettel for the win.
When the race restarted, Vettel pushed with his faster tire compound while Bottas fell back due to more tire pressure problems. At one point, Bottas was finally instructed by his team to yield second place to Hamilton, who clearly had more pace and was the bigger threat to the leading Ferrari.
On Lap 33, Vettel finally made his second pit stop, putting on the Soft compound tires that will see him through to the end of the 57-lap race. Naturally, Hamilton took the race lead but the big question was whether or not he could do a one-stop race and make his Soft tires, which he put on during the Safety Car period, last until the end. The reigning champion ultimately made another pit stop to serve his five-second penalty and switch to fresher Soft tires on lap 41. Mercedes mentioned that the Softs were a better choice than the Supersofts at that stage of the race. Nonetheless, Hamilton re-emerged in third place and found great pace, causing Mercedes to again ask Bottas to yield second place.
The final ten laps were tense, as Vettel was merely nursing his tires to protect his lead while Hamilton was charging on fresher rubber. Lap after lap, Hamilton relentlessly trimmed the gap to Vettel, just as the leader encountered some back-markers. Undeterred, Vettel locked down his victory with a calm drive to the checkered flag as Hamilton’s pace plateaued during the last few laps.
The expected season-long duel between Vettel and Hamilton is a narrative that continues to solidify after each race weekend. Right now, the two men and their respective cars are very evenly matched, but one thing that I’ll remember from all the post-race analyses is Alex Yoong mentioning on the Fox Sports Asia coverage that over the course of the season, Mercedes does car development better than Ferrari. It’s definitely something to keep in mind as the season progresses but presently, we are getting some neck-and-neck racing that makes Formula One once again a compelling spectacle.
The Russian Grand Prix at the Sochi Autodrom awaits in two weeks.