Six things we learned from the Bahrain Grand Prix

The teams and drivers of the Formula 1 circus visited the Sakhir Circuit last weekend to do battle in the desert of Bahrain. The focus was always likely to be on the continuing battle between Sebastian Vettel and Lewis Hamilton, with the higher temperatures expected to favour the red cars rather than the silver.

In the end it was Vettel who was crowned King of the Desert, but there was a great deal happening up and down the field. As such, there were several things to learn from F1’s visit to Bahrain…

In 2017, it comes down to the finest of margins
It was clear from the moment the lights went out that Vettel and Ferrari meant business. The German aced his start from P3 on the grid, got past Lewis Hamilton, and then immediately went on the attack to put pressure on early leader Valtteri Bottas. Ferrari opted to go aggressive and make the first strategic move, pitting Vettel earlier than the other frontrunners.

The four-time champion took a no-nonsense approach to scythe his way through the slower cars in front of him, and when all the early pit stops had played themselves out under the Safety Car, he was the new race leader.

Hamilton, by contrast, earned himself a five-second time penalty for driving unnecessarily slowly while heading into the pits under the Safety Car. The penalty would cost the Briton dearly as he ultimately fell just 6.66 seconds short of catching Vettel at the end of the race, despite making enormous inroads with each passing lap.

It would be too easy to assert that Hamilton may have won if he had not been penalised, because it is unknown how much pace Vettel was holding in reserve.
Even if Hamilton had caught the Ferrari man, it would have been another matter entirely to pass him. In the end, it was Ferrari who delivered the perfect race in terms of pace, aggressive strategy and sharp pit stops. Mercedes, by contrast, were just a shade under their best, and that is what made the difference in the end.

Triumph and tragedy for Bottas
Coming into the high-pressure environment of being a Mercedes driver and teammate to Lewis Hamilton was never going to be the easiest job for Valtteri Bottas, but the Finn did a solid job in Australia to finish just behind his more-fancied teammate. After a poor race in China, Bottas underlined his potential in style in Bahrain by edging out Hamilton to claim the first pole position of his career. Come Sunday, however, things fell apart.

The new man at Mercedes showed modest pace in the opening stint of the race and came under pressure from a queue of cars, before ultimately losing his lead to Sebastian Vettel during the pit stops.

As the race entered its closing stages, Mercedes came on the radio to order Bottas to let Hamilton pass without delay, in an attempt to get the Briton to hunt down Vettel for victory. While Hamilton ultimately had to settle for P2, Bottas will be disappointed with his third-place finish as he finished a healthy 13 seconds adrift of his teammate. The Finn is slowly but surely being left behind in the battle for the 2017 title, and a strong response in Russia will be crucial to him getting his campaign kick-started.

Renault and Hülkenberg show some fight
After their return to F1 as a full works team in 2016, Renault were under no illusion that success would come quickly. The team endured a trying and transitional 2016, but attacked the 2017 season with more hope for glory. Bahrain provided a useful stepping stone to better things for the Enstone-based squad as both Nico Hülkenberg and Jolyon Palmer managed to progress to Q3 on Saturday, the first time the team has been able to do so.

On race day, Palmer’s fortunes would soon fade as he ended up fighting the likes of McLaren and Sauber, while Hülkenberg kept his nose clean and his foot flat to cross the line in a well-deserved P9. The result opens Renault’s account for the season, and they can look forward to making further progress from here. Hülkenberg is an experienced campaigner with a solid reputation, and with him leading the team, Renault can be hopeful of more good weekends in 2017.

Fernando Alonso: flawless, frustrated, forever waiting for better days
There are no two ways about it: McLaren-Honda are in dire straits on the performance front. They are nowhere near where they need to be. Thank goodness then, for the talents of one Fernando Alonso.

The Spaniard was on fire yet again in Bahrain, flogging the living daylights out of an MCL32 that seems to spend more time up on the jacks than out on track. The two-time world champion fought for every inch, even as matters became more and more hopeless around him, before ultimately retiring with power unit problems. That a driver of Alonso’s quality hasn’t been provided with any decent machinery since 2013 is enough to drive neutral observers to tears. It is no secret that McLaren are eager to keep hold of their lead man for 2018 and beyond, but how long can the present situation continue before Alonso reaches the end of his tether?

Wehrlein does his talking out on track
Several observers were critical of Pascal Wehrlein’s decision not to race in Australia in China as a result of a back injury. During his Sauber debut in Bahrain, however, the 2015 DTM Champion gave the paddock something more positive to talk about. First he progressed to Q2 on Saturday, which his teammate and Sauber incumbent Marcus Ericsson failed to do.

On Sunday, Wehrlein did the best job possible with the tools at his disposal to cross the line in P11, which was about as much as Sauber could have hoped for. His Bahrain performance ticks an important box for the German youngster. After being overlooked for a seat at Force India in favour of Esteban Ocon, Wehrlein will need to make his mark at Sauber in order to ensure that his F1 career takes another step forward. If he can constantly leave Ericsson in the shade, he will have done as much as could reasonably be expected of him.

There are several drivers up and down the grid who are out of contract at the end of the season, and while it is far too early to speculate on who is going where, you never know where the German could land up if he does his part in the races to come.

Tough times all round for Vandoorne

Stoffel Vandoorne didn’t even manage to start in Bahrain after power unit issues meant that his McLaren was forced to return to the garage, where it would stay. On the face of it, the Belgian is facing the same frustrations as Fernando Alonso, in that his car is both slow and not very fond of running for long periods of time. Under the radar, however, the new McLaren recruit is being handily out-paced by the more experienced Spaniard. That Alonso is dominating the battle might not be apparent, given that McLaren isn’t really in the spotlight at the moment, but even in qualifying last weekend, the two-time champion left the rookie behind by a neat 0.3 seconds. The saving grace for Vandoorne is that McLaren have far bigger problems right now, which keeps the pressure off of him for the present. He will, however, be eager to improve.

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