Well, we all knew it was coming, but, even by their standards…that was quite some response, wasn’t it? I mean, whichever way you look at it, securing any kind of silverware in the cut-and-thrust world of motorsport is hard enough at the best of times, but the challenge often seems to be even greater when it comes to retaining a particular title, and, while some teams have the ability to make it look incredibly easy at times, it’s equally as interesting to see how quickly they can respond when somebody suddenly emerges from the pack and presents themselves as a genuine challenger…and that’s almost exactly what we’ve got here. OK, so it didn’t come completely out of the blue – in fact, the signs were there for all to see even before a wheel was turned in anger, and it generally doesn’t take much to work out who’s going to be quick and who’s not in this game – but, once you get used to it, that winning habit is difficult to get out of, and really, it was always going to be a case of ‘when’, not ‘if’, the pace-setters would show just what they were capable of. The fight for the 2017 Formula One World Championship already has the makings of more than a two-horse race, and, even at this very early stage…it looks like it could go the full distance.
After several years where the outcome of any particular race seemed to be little more than a foregone conclusion, the introduction of a brand-new set of technical regulations, specifically designed to make the cars faster and more spectacular, would stop the all-conquering Mercedes team – still reeling from the shock retirement of new world champion Nico Rosberg just a matter of days after finally taking the crown in Abu Dhabi – in their tracks, but their previous record meant it was no surprise that they were still seen by many as the team to beat before the season started. However, when it came to the business of actually getting the job done in a race situation, for once, the predictions turned out to be some way wide of the mark as, having shown encouraging pace in pre-season testing, the iconic red cars of Ferrari finally found themselves back on top, with former four-time world champion Sebastian Vettel executing a perfect strategic race to take victory in the season-opener on the streets of Melbourne in Australia.
Despite the difficult start to their title defence, though, the Silver Arrows were never likely to be kept quiet for long, and wasted no time in striking back last time out in China, with Britain’s Lewis Hamilton underlining his reputation as many people’s pre-season title favourite by producing a near-perfect display to kick-start his attempts to take a fourth drivers’ championship, which began by delivering the goods when it mattered in the final part of qualifying to secure pole by more than three-tenths, meaning Vettel had to settle for second on the grid despite being quicker than the Mercedes in the previous two segments. When it came to the start of the race, however, a brief rain shower threatened to throw a spanner in the works, but, once the field were able to get back onto dry tyres following a safety car period to recover rookie Antonio Giovinazzi’s battered Sauber from the pit straight, no one was able to get near Hamilton as the Mercedes led every single lap – even during the pit stop phase – to take the chequered flag ahead of Vettel, with the pair finishing a country mile clear of flying Dutchman Max Verstappen in third as the Red Bull driver recovered from a dreadful qualifying with a quite sensational drive to round out the podium.
In terms of the championship standings, Hamilton’s victory saw him move into a share of the early points lead alongside Vettel, with Verstappen moving up into third at the expense of the second Mercedes of Valtteri Bottas after the Finn endured a difficult race that saw him embarrassingly spin behind the safety car before recovering to sixth, leaving himself only a point clear of fifth-placed compatriot Kimi Raikkonen in the second Ferrari, while, after a dreadful weekend on home soil in Australia saw him forced to retire around half-distance, the ever-rapid Daniel Ricciardo moved straight into the top six after finishing right on the tail of Red Bull stable-mate Verstappen in fourth.
After the urban hustle-and-bustle of China, there was a very different feel to the third round of the season as the championship made its first visit of 2017 to the Middle East, with the desert setting of the Bahrain International Circuit providing one of the most recognisable backdrops on the current calendar. Having first played host to a Grand Prix back in 2004, the track – one of the earliest designs of legendary F1 designer Hermann Tilke – has enjoyed something of a chequered history, with the 2011 race having to be cancelled altogether following protests against the government in the country (which have continued, albeit on a much lower scale, ever since), but added another string to its bow in 2014 when it celebrated its tenth anniversary by becoming only the second night race in the sport’s history.
A typical lap of the 5.4km (3.3 miles) layout begins with a long run down the pit straight towards the first sequence of corners that are common to many of Tilke’s designs, with a tight right-hander at Turn 1 that turns back on itself before opening out through the left of Turn 2 and the right of Turn 3, which in turn brings the cars out onto one of several long straights around the lap that leads down to another sharp right-hander at Turn 4. From there, the track becomes a little more technical in the middle sector with a series of medium-speed ‘esses’ between Turns 5 and 7 that drop downhill on the exit before another heavy braking zone into the left-hand hairpin at Turn 8, with another short straight then leading over a slight crest into the two blind left-handers of Turns 9 and 10, where trying to turn and brake simultaneously can often result in sizeable lockups. The latter part of the lap, however, is all about top-end speed, with the track climbing uphill again into the left of Turn 11 at the end of the back straight and flowing through the flat-out Turn 12 to the 90 degree right-hander at Turn 13, before another long, downhill blast brings the cars back onto the pit straight by way of another tight right into Turn 14.
With so many long straights and heavy braking zones, there are plenty of overtaking opportunities around the lap, with the best tending to be with on the brakes into Turn 1 – where the added element of DRS makes it even more difficult for a car in front to defend against a potential pass – or, failing that, into the Turn 8 hairpin with a good run out of the ‘esses’ in the middle sector. Elsewhere, despite being preceded by the second DRS activation zone along the back straight, the relatively minimal loss of speed into Turn 11 means any lunge up the inside requires a degree of co-operation in the braking zone from the car being passed, while the short apex at the final corner often forces a passing car to take the tighter inside line, which can sometimes leave them vulnerable to being re-overtaken down the pit straight.
The corresponding race here last year – which was actually run as the second event of the season – provided an early indication of the way things were going to play out between the two Mercedes, with Hamilton striking first blood in qualifying despite an early mistake in Q3 to take pole by just 0.077s ahead of Rosberg in the second and final running of the much-maligned ‘elimination’ format, but any luck deserted the British driver in the race as a first-corner collision with new team-mate Bottas – who was then driving for Williams – dropped him down the order, leaving Rosberg clear to take yet another comfortable victory and extend his winning run from the back end of 2015 to six races. With Vettel failing to start after parking up with an engine failure on the formation lap, Raikkonen upheld Ferrari’s honour with a solid run to second ahead of Hamilton, who recovered well after his early incident to round out the podium in third, while, further down the order, with Fernando Alonso sidelined following his terrifying crash in Melbourne, McLaren super-sub Stoffel Vandoorne stepped up to the mark in style to score a point on his F1 debut.
So, with all that in mind, would the Silver Arrows once more turn out to be the class of the field this time around as the initial pecking order began to take shape in the early stages of the sport’s new era, with Hamilton looking to maintain the upper hand after his flawless performance in Shanghai; after showing they had the pace to stay on terms with the Mercs in the opening two races, could Vettel and Ferrari rewrite some of the wrongs from last year and show that their victory in Australia wasn’t simply a flash in the pan, or would the pair of them be knocked down a peg or two by the emergence of another potential challenger from the fiercely competitive chasing pack? Well, it’s time to find out – this is the story of the third race weekend of the 2017 Formula One World Championship, the 2017 Bahrain Grand Prix…
With the teams and drivers having to adjust to the very different challenge of driving under the lights, it was perhaps no surprise that the opening segment of qualifying took a little while to get going, but, once the leading contenders emerged onto the track, it wasn’t long before the Mercedes began to assume control, with Bottas initially setting the pace on a set of the harder yellow-walled soft compound tyres, but the Finn’s benchmark was quickly eclipsed by his team-mate as Hamilton became the first man to dip into the 1:30s to lead the way after the opening runs ahead of the super-soft shod Red Bull of Verstappen in second. Having left it a little longer before showing his hand, Vettel quickly slotted into third in the faster of the two Ferraris before being displaced by team-mate Raikkonen in the dying seconds after the Finn opted for a set of super-softs, with Bottas dropping down to fifth ahead of an impressive showing from Renault’s Nico Hulkenberg in sixth.
However, with many of the main contenders opting not to go for another run, attention soon switched to the identity of the five drivers that would fail to make it through into Q2, and there was a major surprise when the chequered flag fell as, having scored points in both of the opening two races, Force India’s Sergio Perez couldn’t produce the necessary speed to drag his way out of danger and was forced to settle for a lowly 18th on the grid, while a loss of power on his final flying lap cost Carlos Sainz dear as the Spaniard also missed out by just six-hundredths of a second. After scoring points last time out in China, Haas’s Kevin Magnussen was another unable to improve in the final moments and ultimately found himself consigned to the bottom of the timesheets, while a difficult start to the season for Vandoorne and McLaren continued as the Belgian bullet suffered a third consecutive Q1 exit to drop out along with Swede Marcus Ericsson in his Sauber.
Eliminated in Q1: 16th – Sainz, 17th – Vandoorne, 18th – Perez, 19th – Ericsson and 20th – Magnussen
The picture started to become a little clearer in the opening stages of Q2, and, once again, there was very little to choose between the two flying Silver Arrows as they made the early running, with Hamilton finding the speed in the final sector to go quicker than Bottas by just 0.020s, but the anticipated challenge from Ferrari saw the red cars gradually start to pose a greather threat to the Mercedes, with Vettel also getting within a few hundredths of the Brit in third and Raikkonen slotting in behind in fourth, albeit still more than three-tenths off the pace. Having shown reasonable speed on the super-soft rubber in Q1, the Red Bulls were unable to maintain the same level of performance as they found themselves in something of a ‘no-man’s land’ behind the leading quartet, but were still able to comfortably make it through, with Verstappen again holding the edge over a somewhat subdued Ricciardo, while a last-ditch improvement from Jolyon Palmer saw the Brit join team-mate Hulkenberg – who shot up to fifth after the chequered flag fell – in the top 10 as both Renaults made it into Q3 for the first time in 2017.
However, while there was an upturn in form for some, it turned out to be a difficult session for others, with yet another issue for the Honda power unit in the back of Alonso’s McLaren preventing the former champion from even setting a time in the session, while there was further disappointment for Force India as young Frenchman Esteban Ocon – despite having outqualified stable-mate Perez for the first time – also failed to make the cut. After missing the opening two races because of an injury sustained in the off-season Race of Champions, German Pascal Wehrlein immediately ruffled a few feathers on his first appearance for Sauber with a superb performance to take 13th on the grid, while, despite showing an improvement in pace, Canadian rookie Lance Stroll was another to miss out for Williams, with Toro Rosso’s Daniil Kvyat completing the quintet that would take no further part after a mistake at the final corner cost him any chance to improve.
Eliminated in Q2: 11th – Kvyat, 12th – Stroll, 13th – Wehrlein, 14th – Ocon and 15th – Alonso
There was something of a surprise in store as the remaining runners returned to the track to fight for pole in Q3, with Bottas pulling out a stunning opening effort to briefly go quickest of all – setting the fastest-ever lap in Bahrain in the process – and, despite having to contend with team-mate Hamilton then going even quicker as the two Mercedes started to establish a sizeable advantage over their nearest rivals, the Finn then found a fraction more time in the dying seconds to snatch his first-ever pole position in Formula One by a tiny margin of just 0.023s, with Hamilton having to settle for the outside of the front row after making a mistake on his final flying lap, but it turned out to be a difficult session for Ferrari as, having initially looked as though he had the pace to compete with the Mercedes in Q2, Vettel ended up the better part of half a second back in third.
Behind, a resurgent Ricciardo pulled out an excellent final lap to grab fourth on the grid in the better of the two Red Bulls ahead of Raikkonen, with the Finn having to settle for fifth in the end after struggling even more than his team-mate to match the front-running pace, while Verstappen rounded out the top six ahead of another starring performance from Hulkenberg in the Renault, with the German even able to match the pace of the Red Bulls midway through the session before being pushed back to seventh in the final frantic few moments. Massa was eighth in the sole remaining Williams ahead of an impressive showing from Grosjean as the Frenchman defied a recurrent brake problem to net ninth for Haas, while, despite finishing bottom of the remaining contenders after only going for one run towards the end of the session, tenth place for Palmer still secured the Brit his best-ever grid position in the sport.
Q3 – Top 10: 1st – Bottas, 2nd – Hamilton, 3rd – Vettel, 4th – Ricciardo, 5th – Raikkonen, 6th – Verstappen, 7th – Hulkenberg, 8th – Massa, 9th – Grosjean and 10th – Palmer
When the lights went out, pole-sitter Bottas showed no sign of nerves as he made an excellent start to hold onto the lead as the field streamed down towards Turn 1 for the first time, but a slightly tardy getaway from the dirty side of the grid by Hamilton allowed Vettel to immediately get alongside and then sweep around the outside on the brakes to grab second, while behind, the two Red Bulls almost made contact as the fast-starting Verstappen squeezed his way past Ricciardo on the exit of Turn 3 to move into fourth. Further back, there was almost drama before the opening lap was out when an out-of-control Kvyat nearly collected the back of Toro Rosso team-mate Sainz after locking up heavily into Turn 13, but, at the sharp end, the battle for the lead started to become interesting as, despite enjoying the benefit of two DRS zones that allowed him to get closer, Vettel was unable to find a way through against Bottas, with Hamilton also able to buy back into the fight in third as the Finn increasingly started to focus on his mirrors.
However, with the gaps between the leading runners remaining fairly static in the early stages – the Red Bulls of an impatient Verstappen and Ricciardo quickly making it a five-way fight at the front – it wasn’t long before the various ideas on strategy began to have an effect, with Vettel first to blink from second on lap 11 of 57 to switch to another set of super-softs before Red Bull reacted by bringing in Verstappen a lap later, but, almost immediately, the Dutchman was taken out of contention on his out lap when his brakes failed on the approach to Turn 4 and sent him sliding off into the barriers. The drama then continued soon after when Stroll was collected by Sainz as the Toro Rosso re-emerged from the pits, and, with the safety car having to be deployed to clear the stricken Williams from the inside of Turn 1, Mercedes chose to ‘double-stack’ their drivers having initially decided to stay out, but it wasn’t enough to keep them in front as Vettel (who had been noticeably quicker on his fresher rubber) grabbed the lead ahead of Bottas, with Ricciardo – who went against the grain by fitting a set of soft tyres – also snatching third away from Hamilton as the Brit was delayed slightly by a slow getaway by his team-mate.
On the restart, however, the Finn almost managed to retake the lead from the Ferrari after Vettel made a mistake at the first sequence of corners and initially left himself out of position before closing the door on the brakes into Turn 4, while behind, Hamilton wasted no time in sliding up the inside of Ricciardo to retake third, but the former champion’s joy turned out to be short-lived when he was given a 5 second penalty for driving unnecessarily slowly in the pit lane entry. Eventually, with Vettel beginning to establish a gap over the two Mercedes, Hamilton was allowed through into second by Bottas in an attempt to minimise the damage from his earlier penalty, with Raikkonen – who had already grabbed fourth away from former team-mate Massa with the benefit of DRS – also able to close in before the Finn finally pitted for a set of softs on lap 31, but, ahead, with Hamilton quickly closing in and the Ferrari starting to struggle on its tyres, it wasn’t long before Vettel was forced to make his second stop, with the German rejoining behind team-mate Raikkonen before quickly being allowed back into second into Turn 1 on lap 36.
Surprisingly, despite appearing as though he didn’t need to stop again, Hamilton then came in on lap 42 for a second set of tyres, and, despite rapidly slashing the gap to Bottas before passing his team-mate with a bold move into Turn 13 just six laps later, Vettel was just far enough ahead to manage his advantage – even with the potential hazard of lapped traffic – over the closing stages to record his second win of the season, meaning the Brit was forced to settle for second, while Bottas held off the late charge of compatriot Raikkonen to secure the final spot on the rostrum in third. Behind, Ricciardo was best of the rest in a somewhat lonely fifth ahead of Massa’s Williams in sixth, while Perez produced another outstanding drive for Force India to come through to seventh from the penultimate row of the grid to finish in front of Grosjean’s Haas in eighth and the leading Renault of Hulkenberg in ninth – the German securing the first points of 2017 for the team in the process – with Ocon taking home the final point for the third race in succession in the second Force India in tenth.
Esteban Ocon (FRA) – #31 Force India-Mercedes
RACE RESULTS – TOP 10: 1st – Vettel, 2nd – Hamilton, 3rd – Bottas, 4th – Raikkonen, 5th – Ricciardo, 6th – Massa, 7th – Perez, 8th – Grosjean, 9th – Hulkenberg and 10th – Ocon
Drivers – Top 10:
1. Vettel (Ferrari) – 68pts
2. Hamilton (Mercedes) – 61pts
3. Bottas (Mercedes) – 38pts
4. Raikkonen (Ferrari) – 34pts
5. Verstappen (Red Bull) – 25pts
6. Ricciardo (Red Bull) – 22pts
7. Massa (Williams) – 16pts
8. Perez (Force India) – 14pts
9. Sainz (Toro Rosso) – 10pts
10. Grosjean (Haas) – 4pts
1. Ferrari – 102pts
2. Mercedes – 99pts
3. Red Bull – 47pts
4. Force India – 17pts
5. Williams – 16pts
6. Toro Rosso – 12pts
7. Haas – 8pts
8. Renault – 2pts