SAKHIR, Bahrain – Ferrari’s Sebastian Vettel held off Mercedes’ Valtteri Bottas in an electric finish under the floodlights on Sunday at Bahrain Int’l Circuit, driving to victory in his 200th Formula One start.
Vettel, who started on pole and led 50 of the 57 laps, was forced onto a one-stop strategy during the second half of the Grand Prix of Bahrain, after teammate Kimi Raikkonen hit one of his mechanics while leaving pit lane following his final stop at lap 36.
The change in strategy meant that Vettel had to nurse his set of soft-compound Pirelli tires for a 39-lap stint, with the German’s lone pit stop coming at the end of the 18th circuit. Meanwhile, Bottas drove his final stint on the harder, medium-compound tires and had much more grip in the closing stages.
Despite fading tires and a hard-charging Bottas, who sliced a six-second deficit into mere car lengths after clearing lapped traffic with seven to go, Vettel fended off three separate slipstream pass attempts by Bottas in the final two laps en route to his fourth win in Bahrain.
The victory was the 49th of Vettel’s F-1 career and his second in a row to open the season.
“I had to work for that one,” said Vettel from the podium. “I think I came on the radio with 10 laps to go and (told the team, ‘I’ve got it all under control,’ but that was a lie … I had nothing under control! (laughs) They told me the pace Valtteri was running and there was no way I could do that. Doing the math inside the car, I knew he was going to catch me.
“I tried to keep it as clean as possible; obviously at the end of the stint, both Mercedes were very strong. They saw what we did and went on to the medium tires, and I thought it was checkmate because we would have to come in again. That was the original plan before I had to make the tires last. It worked, but only just. There wasn’t much left at the end.”
Botta tried valiantly to pass Vettel at the end, but couldn’t quite get close enough in either of the two DRS zones around the track to make the pass.
“I was seeing red,” Bottas joked about what he saw during the final laps. “We just ran out of laps. I knew that being on the harder compound, there would be a chance to overtake … and he was really starting to struggle! I was trying to hit every corner perfectly trying to catch him, but it just wasn’t quite enough. Being second with such strong pace at the end is really disappointing, but we’ll press on and try to get him next time.”
Bottas’ teammate Lewis Hamilton completed the podium in third, driving forward from ninth after a five-place grid penalty for a gearbox change during Friday’s practice sessions.
However, the unsung hero of the day was Pierre Gasly.
The 22-year-old Frenchman – making just his seventh grand prix appearance – started fifth and drove a clean race all the way through, overtaking Kevin Magnussen on the initial start to move into fourth and holding steady in the top five throughout the entire distance.
Gasly ceded a position to Hamilton on lap eight, but picked the spot back up after third-running Raikkonen’s pit lane issues forced an early retirement for the second Ferrari. Gasly held serve to the finish, taking the checkered flag in fourth and scoring Honda’s best result as an engine manufacturer since the Japanese marque re-entered Formula One racing in 2015.
Magnussen finished fifth for Haas F1, followed by Renault’s Nico Hulkenberg, who was a distant sixth and the last car on the lead lap at the finish.
The McLaren duo of Fernando Alonso and Stoffel Vandoorne, Sauber’s Marcus Ericsson and Force India’s Esteban Ocon rounded out the points.
Red Bull had a horrific outing that saw both cars fall out during the first four laps, marking the team’s first double retirement since the 2010 Korean Grand Prix.
Daniel Ricciardo’s car lost power on-course just moments after Max Verstappen picked up a left-rear tire puncture due to contact with Hamilton in turn two on the second lap, with the combined incidents triggering a virtual safety car.
Verstappen limped back around and attempted to continue after repairs, but stopped on-course at the lone restart of the race on lap four and quickly departed his stricken race car.
Of note, Ferrari officials later confirmed on Twitter that the mechanic struck in Raikkonen’s unsafe pit release suffered fractures of both his shin bone and fibula.
Leaving Bahrain, Vettel carries a 17-point margin over Hamilton in the driver’s championship, while Ferrari holds a 10-point cushion over Mercedes in the constructor’s standings despite the Silver Arrows’ double points finish on Sunday.