Bahrain Grand Prix – While an engine issue cost Charles Leclerc a near-certain victory in Bahrain, it was Lewis Hamilton there to pick up the pieces. Just how did the reigning Champion steal victory?
It’s a statement of fact, rather than opinion, that the Ferrari SF90 was the car to beat around the dunes of Sakhir International Circuit. From the get-go on Friday, the Ferrari looked supple and fast in the hands of both Charles Leclerc and Sebastian Vettel, with the young Moneqasque looking a little bit more comfortable with his steed than his veteran teammate. It didn’t seem to matter whether it was the sweltering hot daylight sessions or the cooler, floodlit evening sessions – it was the SF90 that led the way.
Mercedes found their feet as the weekend progressed, and this was particularly evident in qualifying. 0.8 seconds off Charles Leclerc’s time in Q1, Hamilton closed to 0.5 seconds in Q2 and then just 0.4 seconds in Q3, finding more speed than the Ferrari in each session. However, straight line speed was on Ferrari’s side with Vettel & Leclerc consistently at the top figures through the speed trap. While Mercedes weren’t far behind, Hamilton highlighted this straight line speed advantage as making the crucial difference for pole position.
However, single lap pace and race pace are two different things. Friday’s laptimes suggested there wasn’t much to choose from between Ferrari and Mercedes and this quickly became evident. A slow-ish getaway from Charles Leclerc saw him fall behind Sebastian Vettel into Turn 1, before a scrabble for grip exiting Turn 2 meant the fast-starting Valtteri Bottas was able to pounce to relegate the Ferrari to P3. With Hamilton down to P4, it seemed we were in for a Vettel romp as the field came around to complete Lap 1. The complexion of the race changed again moments later. Valtteri Bottas, caught out by some errant wind at Turn 1, ran a little wide and this allowed Leclerc to regain position, as well as give Lewis Hamilton the momentum to sweep past his teammate and move back into P3.
Charles Leclerc, 1.9 seconds behind Vettel on Lap 2, was just 0.5 behind three laps later and pulled off a ballsy outbraking move to take the outside line of the first corner. This set him up for the inside of Turn 2 and he took the lead, although Vettel did his best to try coming back at him into the next braking area. From there, Leclerc just pulled away and increased his lead to 3.5 seconds by Lap 11 and his first pitstop. Vettel followed suit a lap later, both Ferraris taking on fresh Medium tyres for the second stint with the aim of making it to the end of the race. The earlier stop meant Leclerc came out around 6.5 clear of Vettel, with the gap stabilising between them as both lapped similarly.
Lewis Hamilton had tried something a little different to the two Ferraris, though. Coming in at the same time as Leclerc, he took on a fresh set of Soft tyres with the aim of running a two stopper. Having been able to keep up with Vettel through the first sting, he emerged ahead of his long-time rival due to his undercut. While Ferrari needed to try being a little more conservative to get to the flag, Hamilton could attack with wild abandon. Initially closing to around 3.5 seconds behind Leclerc after the stops, Hamilton’s pace didn’t look particularly good. The expected grip advantage wasn’t there, and Hamilton quickly fell to around 7 seconds behind Leclerc and into the clutches of Vettel. At this point, it appeared the Medium tyre was the right call and Hamilton was doomed, particularly as Vettel powered past the Mercedes on Lap 23 to make it a Ferrari 1-2.
It was the next section of the race that proved decisive. Leclerc, out front, unleashed a series of 1:36s, with only four of thirteen laps even glancing off a 1:37. Behind him, Vettel couldn’t quite maintain that pace and consistently lost around 0.3 seconds a lap to Leclerc. But it was Hamilton’s pace on the Soft tyre that was eye-catching. After Vettel caught and passed him with ease, Hamilton only lost around 3.5 seconds over the course of ten laps. Losing bigger chunks of time as his Soft tyres cried enough, he dived into the pits on Lap 34 to take on the Medium tyres. He was around 4.5 seconds behind Vettel at this point.
With over twenty laps remaining, Ferrari obviously felt that their pace wasn’t strong enough on the Medium tyres and they opted to bring their drivers in. Responding to Hamilton’s stop with Vettel first, they got him back out in front of the Mercedes, but only just. Hamilton’s outlap of 1:53.602 was some 1.5 seconds quicker than what Vettel had managed on the same compound on his outlap twenty laps previously, showing how much pace had been unlocked as the fuel burned away. Now just 0.8 seconds behind the Ferrari, within DRS range, and back on level terms with tyres, Hamilton attacked. Heading into Turn 4, he attempted to squeeze around the outside of the Ferrari; Vettel resisted and pushed the Mercedes out wide and used his momentum to take back the initiative into the next corner. Hamilton wasn’t to be resisted, though, and attacked again using the next two DRS zones.
Hamilton said afterwards that a strong headwind played a part in the decisive pass. Coming alongside the Ferrari again, Hamilton braked later than Vettel, relying on the wind to slow the car more. This worked out perfectly, with Hamilton able to hang around the outside better than his previous attempt. Vettel, trying with all his might to apply all the sheer force of the Ferrari engine into his new and sticky rear tyres…..ran out of grip. For whatever reason, be it a gust of wind, a slight lack of downforce from the Mercedes being alongside and slightly ahead, Vettel’s throttle application was too ambitious and his spin destroyed the tyres and his race. Hamilton, now into P2, was through but consigned to that position with Leclerc’s pace continuing unabated up front.
As dramatic as it was unexpected 🔄💥
— Formula 1 (@F1) March 31, 2019
We all know what happened after that. Leclerc, having made a safe pitstop for Mediums for a straightforward canter to the line, suffered an engine problem. His laptimes plummeted from 1:33s/1:34s to 1:39s and 1:40s and Hamilton caught and passed him with ease, raising his hand in a consolatory and gracious gesture as he overtook the Ferrari that had unquestionably defeated him.
The fact that it was Hamilton, and not Vettel, in the position to capitalise on the Ferrari issue was due to the initial pace at the beginning of the second stints. While Leclerc was able to continue to grow a lead over Hamilton, Vettel was unable to pull away approaching the first stops. This shuffled him behind the Mercedes and, while he was able to pass, he wasn’t able to be far enough ahead of Hamilton at any point to escape him once the second stops came about. Especially once Hamilton’s second undercut allowed him to come out directly within the DRS range of Vettel’s car.
“Ultimately you want to pass someone because you’re quicker than them and through a fight.” Hamilton explained afterwards. “I went past Charles down the back straight and I raised my hand to him because there’s nothing I could do, obviously I didn’t have any problems, so it definitely feels weird and, honestly, you can’t believe your luck in those scenarios, but what can you do? You can’t deny yourself it. You just have to keep doing what you’re doing and pushing ahead.”
“As I was saying, I’ve been in positions like that: we’ve been in the lead many a time when the car has stopped and I know how it feels. But it’s always good to look at the glass half full because today he still got some great points even though he had that problem and he was an outlier all weekend – even to his team-mate, he was so much faster than his team-mate all weekend so he has so many positives to take from it and we have a lot of work to do to try and keep up with him!”