I’M typing this listening to some Bruce Springsteen before heading to Shanghai. He’s known as The Boss of course and that succinctly sums up Sebastian Vettel’s outstanding drive in Bahrain.
In the face of an attack from both Mercedes drivers, probably in faster cars and definitely on a better tyre strategy, Vettel eked enough speed and durability out of his tyres to cover the last 39 laps on a set of tyres which were expected to expire at 30 laps, to head off the challenge.
Vettel got lucky in Melbourne when basically a lack of performance left him out on track when a Virtual Safety Car situation fell into his lap. In Bahrain he was utterly brilliant, delivering one of his best ever races.
Ferrari were rather duped into pitting early by Mercedes, something which became a possibility when Valtteri Bottas was able to split the two Ferraris down to turn one. Merc then opted for a one-stopper with Bottas, and continued a one stop with Hamilton, on the more durable white marked medium tyre.
A quick ‘well done’ to Pirelli here, the tyre durability and degradation appeared well defined and linear, and the compounds well chosen to give us a marginal one stop, possible two stop scenario. That usually makes for a good race and a bit of a cliffhanger.
Ferrari eventually had no choice but to convert to a one-stopper for Vettel and just hope. Although it didn’t stop them bringing Kimi Raikkonen in to try to destabilise Mercedes and give them an option if nobody else could make the one stop work.
Very sadly that stop would result in a failed removal of the left rear and the car being released anyway, immediately running over Francesco Cigarini and badly breaking his leg. Kimi can’t be blamed, he can only drop the clutch when his light goes green, he can’t have a little check round in front and in the mirrors just in case all is not well.
Don’t for one moment think he should be able to feel such a problem developing. When the car is rocking on jacks, high-powered wheel guns churning, and wheels coming off and going on, a driver tightly seat belted to a rigid carbon chassis with rigid suspension can only feel a general frenzy of activity while doing his own housekeeping in the cockpit.
I feel very sorry for Kimi. Due to an unlucky safety car in Melbourne and a failed pit stop in Bahrain he’s probably already consigned to be Vettel’s F1 equivalent of a Tour de France ‘domestique’ for the rest of the season. Maybe the luck will play back into his hands shortly.
Two-second pit-stops are putting highly trained and competent but ultimately fallible human beings under extreme pressure. Which one of those Italians, for example, do you think fears most to be the one who fumbled the pit-stop on a leading Ferrari?
As that boiling hot missile arrives at head level at 50mph while you’re knelt down in a live pit lane the pressure must be overbearing. The trouble is that two-second pit-stops are just the kind of ‘wow’ that makes F1 compelling. Enriching the FIA’s coffers by 50,000 euros in a fine is not the answer, I’d rather some of that money went to Francesco and his family to help with the misery of the next few weeks.
Introducing minimum pit-stop times will look rather mundane and boring and still won’t guarantee zero risks, and let’s not forget that the vast majority of stops are just fine. I think the teams have to back off on this one and go for consistently rapid rather than impossibly fast stops.
Once on his fresh tyres from lap 20, Bottas took off like a scalded cat and was soon politely reminded from his pitwall that he was running to the end of the 57-lap race. That was probably an error because they simply weren’t applying pressure to the ballet dancing Vettel out front.
I remember saying in commentary, if Merc wanted to ensure Vettel wore out his tyres then they needed to wear out his mirrors too. There was a fallow period when Vettel could just get his head down and drive efficiently.
Similarly, Hamilton went through a strange phase when he was getting angry with his pit wall for not being clear enough about some radio details he had already to confirmed back to them over a dodgy transmission. He was a bit clumsy through traffic and his moody demeanour simply wasn’t driving the car forward for a while at the required pace.
Hamilton finished only 6.5 seconds away from the winner, had he been able to follow instructions he might have won. No wonder Merc boss Toto Wolff said they had the race 90 per cent won after the pit stops. Vettel simply outsmarted them all.
Pierre Gasly was outstanding all weekend for Toro Rosso Honda, always well inside the top ten and then delivering a terrific run in fifth under pressure race long from Magnussen and Hulkenberg, which would become fourth when Raikkonen retired.
That Honda result to an extent was salt in the wounds for McLaren who were outqualified by both Toro Rossos on Saturday. However, after a great drive from Stoffel Vandoorne who had a poor start and was plumb last in the first corner, once again both McLarens were in the points, and with Red Bull’s demise they left the paddock a remarkable third in the Constructors’ Championship and fourth for Fernando Alonso in the drivers’.
Among other great drives was from Marcus Ericsson in 9th for Sauber with a one-stopper. There were some great battles all through the field, although those ready to declare that the overtaking issues don’t exist need to recognise that the extended DRS zone on the pit straight was too effective for the following car.
Max Verstappen is going to need to play more of a percentage game with his aggression. It was a great move on Hamilton but he should have left more space on the outside if possible. It was pretty tight down there with Alonso on their noses too. It was simply a racing incident, but Max is having too many incidents of late. He’s a bright boy, he’ll sort it out.
It’s an interesting stat that Vettel, Button, Hamilton, Nico Rosberg and Michael Schumacher all won their 200th Grand Prix start. It underlines the integrity and safety of today’s cars and tracks, and the athletic and professional preparation of the drivers.
Can Ferrari make it three in a row on Sunday in China?