Vettel extends championship lead after pipping Bottas in intriguing Bahrain Grand Prix

Sebastian Vettel celebrated his 200th grand prix start in style by extending his championship lead over arch-rival Lewis Hamilton to 17 points after an incident-packed Bahrain Grand Prix.

The German led from pole to flag to record his 49th grand prix victory at Bahrain Grand Prix, holding off the Mercedes duo of Valtteri Bottas, Hamilton himself and the brilliant Pierre Gasly in what was an intriguing strategic race.

“I came on the radio ten laps before the end and said ‘I have everything under control’ but it was a lie, I admit!” said Vettel afterward. “I was making the maths inside the car with ten laps to go and thought with that pace he (Bottas) is going to catch me.

“I tried to keep it as clean as possible and both Mercedes at the end of the stint were strong already and by going onto the prime obviously they saw what we did going onto the medium tyre I thought it was checkmate because we had to come in again. That was the original plan and then we diverted to try and make the tyres last and I nursed them as much as I could and it worked. But only just! It wasn’t by much. Valtteri had a sniff but fortunately, he ran out of laps and I’m really happy”.

It was a frenetic start. Contact between Verstappen and Hamilton (who started ninth after a five-place grid penalty for a gearbox change) led to a left rear puncture on the Red Bull car. The Dutchman’s misfortune was quickly compounded by Daniel Ricciardo’s retirement due to a gearbox problem, bringing about the dreaded virtual safety car that scuppered Lewis Hamilton in Melbourne.

This time, however, it worked to the Englishman’s advantage, Hamilton making three quick places after scooting past Esteban Ocon, Nico Hulkenberg and former teammate Fernando Alonso before sailing past Kevin Magnussen under DRS.

His next target was the Toro Rosso of Gasly, the Frenchman backing up his stellar qualifying performance in the Honda-powered Toro Rosso with a hugely impressive race showing. His teammate Brendon Hartley was also heavily involved but not for the same reasons, colliding with Sergio Perez and forcing the Force India to pit. A resultant ten-second penalty effectively ended the New Zealander’s hopes of a points finish.

2018 Bahrain Grand Prix. © Steve Etherington.

The race, as so often, now rested upon the all-important pit stop windows. With Hamilton able to go longer than the Ferrari on his opening one-stop stint, the Mercedes strategy worked out as well as they could have expected. Valtteri Bottas soon found himself in with a great chance as he closed to within six seconds of Vettel.

But the drama wasn’t over yet. With Ferrari on a split strategy with Kimi Raikkonen pitting again for supersoft compound, a mechanic on the left rear tyre took a worrying tumble whilst trying to fit the remaining tyre, putting the Finn out of the race. The paddock held its breath and thankfully it later emerged that the mechanic escaped with nothing more serious than a broken leg.

Ultimately, Ferrari played their cards right yet again as Vettel held on by the skin of his teeth with just one set of soft tyres for an important win that leaves him one away from an incredible 50 career victories. Behind the top four came Kevin Magnussen’s Haas, Hulkenberg’s Renault and the McLarens of Alonso and Stoffel Vandoorne. Marcus Ericsson’s Sauber and Ocon’s Force India rounded off the points scoring finishes.

So, with all the pre-race talk surrounding Liberty Media and what could be done to spice up proceedings in terms of overtaking and entertainment, the Bahrain Grand Prix provided entertainment aplenty. It proved that F1 can excite in terms of strategy and drama, if not overtaking.

It is the first time Ferrari has won the opening two races since 2004 and they will go for the hat-trick in China in a week’s time. See 2018 F1 Calendar.

Top Image © Acronis.

Fraser Masefield

Sports news and features writer, web editor and author.