In pre-season testing all indications were that Ferrari had turned a significant corner. All indications were that Mercedes would finally, after three years of dominance, have a challenge on their hands. Despite this many couldn’t believe their eyes and were sure that Mercedes were sandbagging. But three races into the 2017 season have proven that pre-season testing was no fluke and that Ferrari are more than capable of challenging for the titles.
Under the floodlights of the Sakhir International circuit Sebastian Vettel scored Ferrari’s second win in three races while Lewis Hamilton and polesitter Valtteri Bottas completed the top three. Bottas led cleanly off the line as Vettel got the jump on Hamilton and proceeded to stalk the back of the leading Mercedes for the duration of his first stint. The Ferrari’s ability to stick as close as it does to the car in front is a significant revelation of the strength of its aerodynamic package. Contrastingly, several others drivers including Max Verstappen and Lewis Hamilton have deemed it impossible to follow closely in their cars.
While Vettel was able to stick close it was clear that he lacked the ultimate edge to overtake Bottas. It is at this point that Ferrari called Mercedes’ bluff by diving into the pitlane first. Here, unlike in China, Vettel was able to make the undercut work and with fresh tyres set a handful of laptimes appreciably quicker than both Mercs and took over the lead of the race. Mercedes had been caught out by Ferrari’s aggressive strategy and seemed flustered by it.
It wasn’t long after the first round of pitstops that Max Verstappen suffered a brake failure, which ended his race. Soon after a coming together of Williams’ Lance Stroll and Toro Rosso’s Carlos Sainz brought out the safety car for only the third time in the history of the Bahrain grand prix. Merc were genuinely rattled too. As they attempted to service both Bottas and Hamilton on the same lap the latter was given a five second penalty for driving unnecessarily slowly at the entrance to the pitlane. Ultimately, Hamilton finished roughly seven seconds off Vettel with Bottas trailing home in a disconsolate third after being instructed to give way to his teammate twice. In fairness, Hamilton was closing on Bottas at a rate of two seconds per lap and the pass would’ve been inevitable.
Meanwhile, despite an expected brake-by-wire issue Kimi Raikkonen showed a better turn of pace in the second half of the race and finished fourth. Perplexingly, the Ferrari pitwall again botched the Finn’s strategy by leaving him out for too long. Nevertheless, it is quickly becoming clear that unless Raikkonen wants to be considered the second driver within the team it’s about time that he start unlocking the promise of his Ferrari.
In fifth Daniel Ricciardo had a fairly anonymous race as he trailed home nearly forty seconds adrift. Felipe Massa finished a solid sixth for Williams ahead of Force India’s Sergio Perez, in seventh, and Haas’ Romain Grosjean in eighth. In the Renault Nico Hulkenberg scored two points for ninth while Esteban Ocon finished tenth for a third consecutive time in the Force India.
It was nearly impossible to imagine that McLaren’s situation could get any worse, but it has. Not only did Stoffel Vandoorne not make the start of the race but also Fernando Alonso retired on the final lap with an “engine problem”. The announcement that Alonso will skip the Monaco Gp in favour of the Indy 500 seems the only bit of good news for the embattled team at the moment.
As Seb Vettel now leads the driver championship by seven points its clear that the 2017 season is primed for a battle royale between the prancing horses and the silver arrows which takes up again in Russia in two weeks time.