Thank the Lord that so many of Formula One’s detractors were present in Bahrain, where the 900th grand prix since the world championship was inaugurated turned out to be a humdinger that was easily the best held so far under the new regulations.
Lewis Hamilton closed the gap between himself and Mercedes team-mate and world championship leader Nico Rosberg to 11 points with the narrowest of victories.
With battles all down the field throughout the race, taxi racing it wasn’t.
Mystified by the way in which he had lost pace relative to Rosberg as the weekend progressed, Hamilton knew a good start was critical. Rosberg actually made a better one from pole position, but Hamilton hung tough on the run down to the first corner and grabbed the lead.
Within laps the two Silver Arrows had left their opposition for dead. But while Hamilton resisted further attack from Rosberg at the end of his first stint and then opted for another set of Pirelli’s soft tyres on the 19th lap, Rosberg went for medium compound tyres two laps later and planned to do a longer middle stint, then to attack again on soft tyres when it was Hamilton’s turn to run the slower mediums at the end. But by the 40th lap Hamilton had opened a lead of 9.7sec.
That was when Esteban Gutierrez’s Sauber went upside down at Turn One, necessitating deployment of the safety car.
“Whoa! What was that?” the groggy Mexican asked his team over the radio. ‘That’ was Pastor Maldonado, who had driven his Lotus out of the pits and then straight into the side of the Swiss team’s car. The Venezuelan enfant terrible was given a 10-second stop-and-go penalty, and a five-place grid drop for the Chinese Grand Prix; a one-race ban would have been more apposite for his latest spectacular gaffe.
The safety car threatened to ruin Hamilton’s strategy, as it seemingly played straight into Rosberg’s hands as they took their final sets of tyres on the 41st lap. Over their radios both were reminded by team technician Paddy Lowe that there were 10 laps left when the race resumed after the safety car period, and that the team wanted both cars to come home. But other than that, they were free to race mano-a-mano.
Several times Rosberg nosed ahead, only for Hamilton to salvage the situation either on the cutback or simply by hanging in there and refusing to concede defeat. Rosberg had the gap down to half a second on the 51st and 52nd laps, but all of his attacks were repelled by Hamilton’s spirited yet fair defence, and finally they crossed the line a second apart.
“That was one of my most difficult races ever,” Hamilton said, his face lit up by the euphoria of his first victory in Bahrain. “The last time was probably Indianapolis in 2007 against Fernando [Alonso]. Nico drove fantastically well, and it’s very hard to make the right decisions when you are racing a team-mate, especially when half the time you can’t see each other in the blind spot. Racing flat out against him, with his faster tyres, was really tough. That was a really exceptional race and we haven’t had one like that since our karting days. Back then he led the whole way and I overtook him on the last lap – and today I thought he was going to do that and get me back.
“It was great fun, but a huge relief when I got across the line first.”
Rosberg was in philosophical mood. “I didn’t have the best of starts, but that’s the way it went,” he said. “I was quicker today, which I’m pleased about, but when I tried to overtake at the end of the first stint I couldn’t make it stick. So we changed our tyre strategy to try and have another go at the end. We had another good battle again, but unfortunately I couldn’t make it happen. I thought I’d got him about nine times but it didn’t work out and he always got the run back on me.
“Lewis is very good at defending. But that’s what I’m here for, for racing like that.”
The pair embraced afterwards, and clearly enjoyed their duel. And because he is a very savvy young man, Rosberg couldn’t resist a swipe at all those, among them the spectating Bernie Ecclestone and Ferrari boss Luca di Montezemolo who already want things changed to make the racing more exciting, when he added: “This was a great day for the sport after all the recent criticism, so that’s a very good thing.
“I strongly dislike coming second to Lewis, it’s not something I enjoy, but that was definitely the most exciting race I’ve done in my whole career. Today was a day for the sport, and we put on a massive show for Team Silver Arrows.”
Amen to that!
As Sergio Perez just fended off Daniel Ricciardo for the final podium place, after the race was peppered by exciting wheel-to-wheel skirmishes, a stricken di Montezemolo was seen slinking away midway through.
An early flight, or could he just not bear to watch? he was asked by NBCSN. “To be honest, both,” he replied glumly. His beloved Ferraris had trailed home ninth and 10th. Perhaps there were some taxis racing after all.
Final Positions after Race (57 Laps):
1 Lewis Hamilton (Gbr) Mercedes GP 1hr 39mins 42.743secs, 2 Nico Rosberg(Ger)Mercedes GP 1:39:43.828, 3 Sergio Perez(Mex)Force India 1:40:06.810, 4 Daniel Ricciardo(Aus)Red Bull 1:40:07.232, 5 Nico Hulkenberg(Ger)Force India 1:40:11.397, 6 Sebastian Vettel(Ger)Red Bull 1:40:12.622, 7 Felipe Massa(Bra)Williams 1:40:14.008, 8 Valtteri Bottas(Fin)Williams 1:40:14.619, 9 Fernando Alonso(Spa)Ferrari 1:40:15.338, 10 Kimi Raikkonen(Fin)Ferrari 1:40:16.205, 11 Daniil Kvyat(Rus)Scuderia Toro Rosso 1:40:24.085, 12 Romain Grosjean(Fra)Lotus F1 Team 1:40:25.886, 13 Max Chilton(Gbr)Marussia 1:40:42.652, 14 Pastor Maldonado(Ven)Lotus F1 Team 1:40:45.546, 15 Kamui Kobayashi(Jpn)Caterham 1:41:10.643, 16 Jules Bianchi(Fra)Marussia at 1 Lap, 17 Jenson Button(Gbr)McLaren at 2 Laps
Not Classified: 18 Kevin Magnussen(Den)McLaren 40 Laps completed, 19 Esteban Gutierrez(Mex)Sauber-Ferrari 39 Laps completed, 20 Marcus Ericsson(Swe)Caterham 33 Laps completed, 21 Jean-Eric Vergne(Fra)Scuderia Toro Rosso 18 Laps completed, 22 Adrian Sutil(Ger) Sauber-Ferrari 17 Laps completed