Tyre strategy played a crucial role in the outcome of the Bahrain GP as Sebastian Vettel and Lewis Hamilton mixed it up, setting up a thrilling chase and a victory for the Ferrari driver.
Under the lights, Formula 1 witnessed an early five-way fight for the lead of the Bahrain GP with Valtteri Bottas led ahead of Vettel, Hamilton, Max Verstappen and Daniel Ricciardo. All separated by less than three seconds and all unable to overtake. "We are quicker than them but I'm stuck," Verstappen told his Red Bull team.
Vettel was the first of the front-runners to pit, swapping supersofts for supersofts meaning a two-stop strategy, with Verstappen in shortly after. However, his race was over corners later as his "brakes failed" and he went straight on, through the gravel and into the barrier.
A lap later the Safety Car was out and the race order was shaken up as Lance Stroll and Carlos Sainz crashed as the Toro Rosso driver exited the pits. Mercedes took advantage of the Safety Car to swap tyres – Bottas onto another set of supersofts and Hamilton onto soft tyres thus opening the door to a one-stop strategy – but had to double stack which allowed Ricciardo to leapfrog Hamilton.
Hamilton was investigated for holding Ricciardo back at the pit entry as he tried to slow the field to make the most of Mercedes' double stack, penalised five seconds.
Top ten on Lap 16 when the SC pitted: Vettel, Bottas, Ricciardo, Hamilton, Felipe Massa, Kimi Raikkonen, Nico Hulkenberg, Marcus Ericsson, Sergio Perez and Romain Grosjean. Hamilton, Massa and Raikkonen all made short work of Ricciardo, who was also on the soft tyres, while Bottas' challenge on Vettel saw him run out of road and back off.
With Vettel building up a lead over Bottas, Hamilton wanted his team-mate to move over only for the Finn to up his pace, extending his gap over the Brit to more than a second, thus negating that plan. Vettel's advantage was over six seconds when Mercedes asked Bottas to let Hamilton through on lap 27.
On lap 31 Bottas was the first of the two-stoppers to pit with Vettel in three laps later. He came out P3, 18.3s behind Hamilton with only Raikkonen between the two. With Vettel 11s behind Hamilton on lap 40 of 57, Mercedes finally confirmed that the Brit would in fact be two-stopping. He came in on lap 41, served his five-second penalty, and came out P3, 10s behind Bottas.
Hamilton immediately began to close in on Bottas, encouraged by Mercedes who informed him that he had the pace to "win this", passing his team-mate with 10 to go. With seven to go the gap was 9.4s, 7.5 two laps later, 6.3s with two laps remaining, and 6.6s at the line as Vettel won the Bahrain Grand Prix ahead of Hamilton.
Bottas was third ahead of Raikkonen and Ricciardo while Massa was best of the rest in sixth place. Perez, Grosjean, Hulkenberg and Esteban Ocon completed the points.
Stoffel Vandoorne's race was over before it even began with his MCL32 pushed back into the garage while he stood stoically for the Bahrain national anthem. It was a Honda power unit problem, the same MGU-H issue that the team suffered earlier in the weekend.
Kevin Magnussen was the first retirement from the race, parking his Haas on Lap 9 at Turn 8. Marcus Ericsson was out on lap 52, reporting a gearbox issue, while Fernando Alonso was once again a late retirement. "Engine problem, engine problem," was the cry.
1 Sebastian Vettel Ferrari 1:33.53.373
2 Lewis Hamilton Mercedes 6.6
3 Valtteri Bottas Mercedes 20.3
4 Kimi Raikkonen Ferrari 22.4
5 Daniel Ricciardo Red Bull 39.3
6 Felipe Massa Williams 54.3
7 Sergio Perez Force India 62.6
8 Romain Grosjean Haas 74.8
9 Nico Hulkenberg Renault 80.1
10 Esteban Ocon Force India 82.2
11 Pascal Wehrlein Sauber 1 lap
12 Daniil Kvyat Toro Rosso 1 lap
13 Jolyon Palmer Renault 1 lap
Did not finish
Max Verstappen Red Bull
Lance Stroll Williams
Carlos Sainz Toro Rosso
Kevin Magnussen Haas
Did not start
Stoffel Vandoorne McLaren