Issue 54: 2015 Bahrain Grand Prix Post-Race Analysis

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6 May 2015

Race Summary: Lewis Hamilton won a lights-to-flag victory at Sakhir ahead of the marauding Kimi Raikkonen in second. Nico Rosberg claimed third after being overtaken by Raikkonen in the dying laps. Valtteri Bottas held off a recovering Sebastian Vettel who required a front wing change mid-race. Daniel Ricciardo’s motor hit the self-destruct button as he crossed the line in sixth place after yet another Renault power unit failure.

Hamilton supreme in Sakhir

I expected more from Ferrari. I anticipated a stronger challenge to the Silver Arrows in the first half of the race in particular. True, Vettel got ahead of Rosberg twice as Ferrari used the undercut to take advantage of grippier tyres and gain track position, but it quickly became clear that the former world champion did not have the legs to stay ahead. The pace of the Mercedes meant that Rosberg could come back fighting each time. It’s also true that a contrarian tyre strategy enabled Raikkonen to pressure Rosberg and steal second place in the closing laps when Mercedes’ brake-by-wire system failed. However, any repeat of the Malaysian Grand Prix when Ferrari undercut Mercedes and stayed comfortably ahead was dashed because Mercedes’ pace on the Soft tyre was faster and as consistent as the Ferraris. The lap chart shows that Hamilton was quicker than Vettel on most laps in the first two stints of the race when both drivers were on the Soft compound tyre. Meanwhile, Rosberg was more or less a match for his countryman in the opening two phases. Unlike in Malaysia, Ferrari did not hold an advantage over Mercedes on the softest tyre compound.

It is interesting that on a rear tyre-limited track with an abrasive surface and a few fast corners adding to thermal degradation on the tyres, Ferrari could not pull out a win. However, Raikkonen could just maybe have won on pace had he been given another couple of laps on the Soft tyre at the end. The secret of his race was making the Medium tyre work in the second phase when his lap times more or less matched those of Lewis Hamilton in the 1 minute 39 seconds range. He drove smoothly and consistently on the Medium tyre followed by an electrifying final stint to hunt down the Mercedes. However, Ferrari had probably kept the Finn out for too long on the Medium tyre as he lost roughly 8.5 seconds to Rosberg in the final two laps before he pitted (Lap 39 and Lap 40). That gave the Finn more time to make up when he attacked on the Soft tyre. So in truth, passing Hamilton and winning on pace alone would have been a long shot. However, as it turned out, had there been another racing lap, Raikkonen probably would have had the brake-less Hamilton. Oh so close!

Vettel, on the other hand, was compromised several times – or rather he compromised himself. In fact, I thought he drove a careless and error-strewn race; his costliest error was running off the track at Turn 14 and damaging his front wing on Lap 35. This ended his challenge for the podium and ensured he spent the rest of the race failing to find a way past Bottas’ Williams with whom he almost collided under braking for Turn 1 on Lap 53.

I don’t understand why Nico Rosberg got some people’s vote for Driver of the Race. Sure, he put in three good overtaking manoeuvres on Vettel, but these were only necessary to wrest back a second place that should have been his from the beginning. Rosberg’s first pass on Vettel enabled him to recover from a poor qualifying session while his second and third overtakes were needed because, unlike his team-mate, he hadn’t built a big enough gap to Vettel to edge clear of the undercut. Rosberg was unlucky to lose second place at the end to Raikkonen. Nevertheless, in my opinion, Rosberg drove like a number two driver under pressure in Bahrain. He dug deep and attacked, but he was still nowhere near Hamilton. To give him some credit, at Sakhir at least, Rosberg managed to match Hamilton on fuel usage, something he did not achieve last season. He has clearly worked on his driving style.

Incidentally, Raikkonen was my Driver of the Race for his performance on the Medium tyre and for giving us an edge-of-the-seat finale!

However, it is the world champion that is the real star of the season so far. Hamilton has no challenger for the title currently. He has dropped only seven points. And although he had three wins in the bag at this stage last season, unlike in 2014, he is now 27 points clear of his team-mate. This advantage is not insurmountable, however. Indeed, Rosberg and Ferrari should not be written off. Although the world champion is sweeping all before him, title battles can turn quickly. A reliability problem in qualifying or the race for Hamilton or a freak accident with a back-marker and the battle is back on. In the next few rounds, Hamilton and Mercedes can expect a challenge. Barcelona’s sweeping fast corners will probably cause Mercedes some rear tyre degradation problems, enabling Ferrari to gain. While the return of the Supersoft/Soft Pirelli tyre compound combination for Monaco, Canada and Austria will aid Rosberg’s challenge if last season is still a reliable guide (Rosberg had the advantage on this tyre combination as he out-qualified Hamilton 5-1 and out-raced him 3-1). Then there is Ferrari’s planned engine upgrade for the Canadian Grand Prix, rumoured to be worth another 20-30 prancing horses. The Scuderia will surely move closer to Mercedes.

Hamilton reigns supreme for now. But this fight is not done.

Renault under extreme pressure

The French manufacturer experienced their fourth engine failure in a race this season in Bahrain. Things are looking pretty dire for Renault. They have been overtaken on power by Ferrari, McLaren-Honda are beginning to snap at the heels of Toro Rosso and Red Bull and Renault are less reliable than in 2014. What first appeared to be small issues in testing are fast turning into a disaster. Like all the powertrain manufacturers, Renault has spare tokens available to fix and improve unreliable parts, but the complexity of these engines means there are unlikely to be any quick fixes. And all the time Renault are searching for reliability fixes they are not concentrating on adding horsepower, unlike Honda, Ferrari and Mercedes. Who’d be a Red Bull driver now?

@TheWheelspinner

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