With a Ferrari rookie on pole and a multifarious midfield line-up, the twilit Bahrain Grand Prix promised much. But could it deliver the thriller many expected?
The tone was set in qualifying as Ferrari proved their practice pace was bona fide, putting 21-year-old Charles Leclerc on pole with teammate Sebastian Vettel alongside. Despite being a little way off the Prancing Horse’s pace, Lewis Hamilton and Valtteri Bottas ensured there would be a chunk of silver in their rival’s mirrors.
The random make-up of the midfield laid the foundations for an intriguing battle and put a real emphasis on strategy. This looked set to be a race where every move on and off the track would count for those scrapping for the minor points.
The wind that affected so many in qualifying was present again – particularly at the exit of turn four – as the drivers settled into their cars for lights out. How would that affect proceedings?
“I’m just thinking about the race, the start, and turn off the external thoughts, keep them out of my head.” – Charles Leclerc.
Sebastian Vettel was quickest off the mark, beating teammate Leclerc to turn one. The Rookie struggled for grip in the first few corners also allowing Bottas to pass. Meanwhile, further down the track sparks were flying as Lance Stroll seemed to be having issues in the Racing Point.
Leclerc then found some grip and started outpacing the field. He soon took second place back from Bottas who was quickly demoted to fourth by Hamilton.
Stroll and Romain Grosjean both pitted on lap two after contact at turn two caused them both damage. With dust on the tarmac and the wind picking up, cars were sliding all over the track.
McLaren’s Carlos Sainz looked to have the better of Max Verstappen, but the Dutchman squeezed the gap causing contact. With damage to the right-hand side of his front wing, Sainz was forced to slow and watch the field fly by.
Leclerc was now gaining on his teammate and made his move on the straight, performing a stunning late braking manoeuvre. Vettel tried to respond immediately but the youngster maintained the driving line through the chicane and kept him behind.
At this point, there were seven cars in contention for seventh place. Renault would have been happy to see Ricciardo was up into sixth place and Nico Hulkenberg up into eighth from 17th.
Pierre Gasly pitted on lap 12, suffering from a slow puncture in the Red Bull. This prompted a flurry of pit stops. Mercedes spotted an opportunity to undercut Vettel and called Hamilton in on lap 14. The move paid off as Vettel emerged from his own stop behind the Englishman three laps later. Meanwhile, Leclerc retained the lead.
Hamilton’s advantage over Vettel soon evaporated as he reported issues with his tyres. By lap 23, the German was back in second place but still some distance behind his teammate who was cruising out front.
Ricciardo was the last to pit, coming in on lap 25 as Renault team-mate Nico Hulkenberg continued his rapid rise through the field, taking sixth place. He now had clean air ahead of him with fifth-ranked Max Verstappen 16 seconds further up the field.
Three laps later, Lando Norris slotted his McLaren in behind Kimi Raikkonen before gliding up the inside to claim seventh on lap 26. Meanwhile, Ferrari looked increasingly comfortable with Leclerc setting fastest laps for fun while Vettel put distance between himself and Hamilton.
Mercedes reacted by pitting the reigning world champion on lap 35 and he soon started posting some blistering sector times. Ferrari reacted, aware that their
Vettel recovered but vibration from a damaged tyre caused his front wing to detach and he was forced to pit. Meanwhile, Daniel Ricciardo and Nico Hulkenberg touched after jostling for fifth place in the Renaults.
Leclerc maintained a comfortable lead at the front of the field as Vettel fought his way back up to fifth in the second Ferrari.
But then, suddenly, the leader reported a loss of power and Hamilton started to gain. Within a lap, the lead was gone. With just eight laps left, the Briton eased passed the youngster to take the lead.
It was a heart-breaking moment for the Rookie who looked on course for his debut F1 win. And he was now in danger of losing a podium place as Bottas and Verstappen both began to gain at an alarming rate.
In a further twist, both Renaults were forced to pull up with power issues, prompting a safety car. With Leclerc now down in third, this was his last chance to grab a podium as the race looked on course to end under safety car conditions.
And that’s just what happened as the safety car came in and the chequered flag was waved. What looked like a nailed on Ferrari one-two turned into double joy for Mercedes thanks to a mistake from Vettel and a cruel twist of fate for Leclerc.
- Lewis Hamilton (Mercedes) 25pts
- Valtteri Bottas (Mercedes) 18pts
- Charles Leclerc (Ferrari) 16pts (fastest lap)
- Max Verstappen (Red Bull) 12pts
- Sebastian Vettel (Ferrari) 10pts
- Lando Norris (McLaren) 8pts
- Kimi Raikkonen (Alfa Romeo) 6pts
- Pierre Gasly (Red Bull) 4pts
- Alex Albon (Toro Rosso) 2pts
- Sergio Perez (Racing Point) 1pt