(Photo credit: Habeed Hameed)
There is something theatrical about a night race in Bahrain: that moment when the lights go down, the stage is lit and the first performers emerge from the wings. The renditions are not always exhilarating but they are frequently intriguing. And despite being the second race on the calendar, it is often Sakhir not Melbourne that sets the tone for the season.
That was the case again here as Ferrari’s win in Australia, which had been labelled as lucky, was backed up with an impressive one-two in qualifying, Vettel pipping Raikkonen to pole.
Valtteri Bottas (Mercedes) and Daniel Ricciardo (Red Bull) were tucked in behind the Prancing Horses on row two, while Toro Rosso’s Pierre Gasly was the surprise name on this year’s cast list taking fifth place on the grid.
Former leading man Lewis Hamilton hoped to steal the show from a supporting role in ninth place, while Max Verstappen faced an even bigger task after a mistake in qualifying forced him to take a seat amongst the extras near the back of the grid.
As twilight descended, and the temperature dropped over the Persian Gulf, there was a feeling we were in for a night of high drama. And we weren’t disappointed.
The race for Turn One was as frantic as usual. Bottas squeezed past Raikkonnen to take second place behind Vettel, while Gasly continued his weekend heroics, grabbing fourth from Ricciardo.
Max Verstappen took advantage of some jostling at the back to rise to 12th and soon found himself lined up behind Lewis Hamilton. Unfortunately, in his eagerness to pass, he made contact with the world champion, picked up a puncture in his left-rear tyre and limped out of the race. Teammate Danial Ricciardo was seen parking up with an electrical problem soon after, prompting a virtual safety car and a lot of head-shaking in the Red Bull garage.
There was mixed fortunes for the McLarens as Fernando Alonso worked his way up to eighth while Stoffel Vandoorne found himself down amongst the back markers.
By Lap 10, Hamilton had powered his way up into fourth ahead of Gasly, although individual strategies were still not clear. Further up the track, teammate Bottas was battling hard to keep Vettel within touching distance.
After the first round of pit-stops between Laps 11 and 20, it became clear Mercedes were targeting a one-stop strategy to counter Ferrari’s two-stop plan. With cars right through the pack on different tyres and race strategies, a period of chopping and changing ensued.
Despite being on the medium tyres, Bottas was posting quick lap times forcing Ferrari to rethink their strategy. Their cause was not helped by Hamilton who held up Vettel before the Brit pitted himself on Lap 27. Advantage looked to be with Mercedes as the race transformed into a strategic contest in the third act.
Ferrari’s fortunes took a turn for the worse following a blundered pit stop which ended Raikkonen’s race and left a pit mechanic injured. Meanwhile, further down the order, Marcus Ericsson had worked his way up into eighth and found himself in a three-way battle with Hulkenberg and Alonso, while Gasly continued to hold his own in fourth place.
Vettel shows his mettle
With ten laps to go, the race was all about tyre management as Bottas slowly ate into Vettel’s advantage. However, he was running out of time to catch the German. The gap fell to below five seconds at the 50 lap marker and it looked like the race was Vettel’s to lose.
By Lap 52, Bottas had Vettel in his sights as both drivers struggled on worn tyres. But it was the Finn on the medium compound who still had the better pace. With just three laps to go, the Mercedes was coming into DRS range and the tension was electric - this was going down to the wire.
Going into the final lap, Vettel held the advantage but his tyres were finished and Bottas was right on his tail. But somehow, the former world champion kept the challenger behind him and crossed the line 0.6 seconds ahead.
In contrast to Melbourne, Bahrain’s production demanded a curtain call. Gasly and Ericsson provided the romance, while Bottas and Hamilton helped carry the action scenes, but ultimately, it was Vettel who delivered the final dramatic turn.
Has Bahrain set the tone for the season to come? Or will the momentum swing again in China?