Sebastian Vettel won the Bahrain Grand Prix from pole after a tense tactical battle with Mercedes, who had tried an alternate strategy to take the fight to their rivals but which ultimately proved unsuccessful. Valtteri Bottas was second, with Lewis Hamilton making a fine recovery drive from ninth on the grid to claim third place. The British driver and his team might have been hopeful of going for the win but Ferrari’s decision to take a chance and switch to a one-stop strategy mid-race proved inspired and remarkably successful in Vettel’s hands as he skilfully nursed his worn tyres to the take the flag.
However, Ferrari’s success was overshadowed by Kimi Raikkonen’s collision with a mechanic during a pit stop on lap 36. Raikkonen was given the signal to leave the pits when only three of his tyres had been replaced. As the Finn pulled away, he collided with the mechanic who suffered a leg injury and was subsequently rushed to hospital, while Raikkonen retired from the race.
Up until that point, the race had been going as planned for the Italian team.
The Ferrari worked superbly across the weekend in Bahrain – well-balanced, with great pace and working its tyres well in the high temperatures and Vettel made the most of their advantage. But although the race opened as expected, it became increasingly tense as it progressed.
Vettel took off cleanly to hold the lead into the first turn but Bottas did what was required and jumped Raikkonen to claim second. Behind them Fernando Alonso had made a superb start from 13th and passed Hamilton. The British driver was then lucky to escape damage after a charging Max Verstappen came up the inside of turn one. They touched but it was the Dutch driver who took a puncture and had to retire.
Hamilton fought back strongly, however, re-passing Alonso and taking Nico Hülkenberg and Esteban Ocon, claiming three places in one move on lap five up the inside of turn one. He promptly repeated the move on the Haas of Kevin Magnussen a lap later. It was bravura stuff but Vettel was already 14 seconds clear up the road.
Pierre Gasly’s Toro Rosso, no match for the Mercedes, fell to Hamilton on lap eight as the British driver moved up to fourth and his lap times were mighty impressive on the harder soft tyres – with the team clearly opting for a one-stop race.
Vettel came in on lap 18 to take the soft tyres; Raikkonen followed suit two laps later, with Bottas also doing so on lap 21 but taking the medium tyres – also opting for one stop. Hamilton, meanwhile, had inherited the lead.
Vettel, needing to open a gap over Hamilton, caught him on lap 25 and was through to retake the lead a lap later. Hamilton then made his only stop on lap 27, taking the medium tyre and emerging still in fourth but looking to go to the end. As a consequence, Ferrari were forced to switch strategy to see if Vettel could do the same on his much older and softer tyres. The German had been expecting a two-stopper and had to adapt to the new scenario mid-race.
Vettel had to make the rubber last 39 laps and while he was managing his tyres, Hamilton and Bottas tried to close the gap to the German. Hamilton, however, appeared to be having communication problems with his team and did to have the pace to put Vettel under pressure. Bottas did close to within a second on Vettel at the death but did not have quite enough to pass. Ferrari had taken a chance that Vettel could make the rubber work to the end and it proved to be an inspired decision and the German brought his car home to claim the win. It was Vettel’s 49th career victory on the occasion of his 200th race start and importantly, with his second win of the season, he extended his world championship lead over Hamilton to 17 points.
Meanwhile, Gasly completed a superb weekend for Toro Rosso to claim a remarkable fourth place in front of the Haas of Magnussen. Renault’s Hülkenberg was sixth, with Alonso’s McLaren in seventh ahead of his team-mate Stoffel Vandoorne. Sauber will also be hugely pleased with a ninth place for Marcus Ericsson. Ocon in the Force India was in tenth.