Bernie Ecclestone called it “unacceptable”. Luca di Montezemolo said Formula 1 racers have been reduced to “taxi drivers” keeping both eyes on the fuel gauge.Lewis Hamilton, this was “a real racer’s race”.
He prevailed in a dogged battle for victory that was conducted exclusively between the two Mercedes drivers. Time and again Nico Rosberg stole past Hamilton on the inside only for his tenacious team mate to conjure up some means of scrabbling by once more.
“The time that I went round the outside or got back, just timing it right, you know it’s a fantastic feeling to be able to do that,” Hamilton beamed afterwards. “It’s one of the greatest feelings when you obviously come out on top.”
The day began with two of Formula One’s most powerful men telling the world urgent changes were needed to fix a broken sport. By the time the chequered flag fell it was a point of view that looked utterly absurd.
Hamilton hits the front
Several things fell into place to make the 2014 Bahrain Grand Prix a classic. The first was that Rosberg, who had found a crucial edge over his team mate just when he needed it during qualifying, was beaten to turn one by Hamilton.
Rosberg made an immediate bid to regain the lead but Hamilton forced him wide onto the exit kerb at turn four. This was a move he might have thought twice about making on his own team mate, had the savage kerb which had been there on Friday not been removed.
It took Hamilton until lap four to get out of range of Rosberg’s DRS. But towards the end of the stint Rosberg made his next attempt to get past. A successful move at this moment would have given him the chance to pit first and potentially gain a significant strategic advantage.
At this stage Rosberg seemed able to bring the gap down as he pleased. By lap 16 he was back within DRS range and two laps later went for a move down the inside of turn one. Hamilton crossed back at the exit of the corner and again made no concession to the fact he was racing his own team mate, leaving Rosberg little option other than the cede the ground.
The very next lap Rosberg tried again and this time succeeding in holding the lead as far as turn four. But again Hamilton responded, crossing behind his team mate at the exit and reclaiming the lead.
Having regained the initiative Hamilton took the opportunity to be the first Mercedes into the pits, taking on another set of soft tyres. Rosberg came in next time around and took the mediums – a decision which promised to pay off later in the race.
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Force India overhaul Williams
Meanwhile the action behind the two silver cars was no less intense. A superb start propelled Felipe Massa from seventh to third. Sergio Perez held onto fourth, despite locking his front-right tyre hard at turn one, having failed to get enough heat into his brakes on the formation lap.
But the Williams pair were over-stressing their tyres, and after a dozen laps Perez was on Massa’s tail and out-accelerated him as they exited turn four. Massa came in at the end of the lap for his first of three stops while Force India banked on pitting just twice.
That went for the sister car of Nico Hulkenberg as well. Having gained three places at the start he’d taken Fernando Alonso on lap five, and now had only Jenson Button’s McLaren separating him from his team mate.
Sebastian Vettel’s Red Bull was next in the train but his DRS had stopped working and behind him Daniel Ricciardo was getting impatient. On lap three Ricciardo urged his team mate to move Vettel aside and he complied, letting Ricciardo by at turn 11.
Having failed to reach Q3 Vettel had started the race on the medium compound tyres, which he got rid of after 16 laps. Ricciardo came in two laps later and opted for the harder tyres. The Force India pair made their first stops around the same time.
This put the three-stopping Williams pair back into the ‘best of the rest’ position behind the Mercedes drivers. Only now Valtteri Bottas was the lead car, having jumped Massa by pitting earlier. In a reversal of the situation last week, Bottas was holding Massa up, and the two Force Indias were bearing down on them.
When Hulkenberg made an unsuccessful attempt to get past Massa on lap 26, Perez made his move. He got alongside Hulkenberg as they came out of turn four and claimed the place, giving his team mate no more room to work with than he had done for Button in this race last year.
One lap earlier Bottas arrived on the pit lane for his second stop – well before half-distance. “I had too much wheelspin and that lost me a few positions which is frustrating,” he said. “We had issues with the tyres that were worse than expected.” Massa made it three more laps but after their latest stops both fell behind the Red Bulls.
Vettel was still struggling with his DRS problem but had found a way past Kimi Raikkonen outside of the DRS zones and was up to sixth by half-distance. When Ricciardo caught Raikkonen he was surprised by how early the Ferrari driver braked for turn one and nearly hit him.
A few laps later Bottas arrived on the scene and almost did the same thing to the Ferrari while trying to slipstream past Ricciardo on the straight. He took to the run-off to avoid ramming his compatriot. Raikkonen was not having a good grand prix, having been hit by Kevin Magnussen shortly after the start, just as he was in Malaysia, though with less serious consequences.
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Maldonado flips Gutierrez
Using the medium tyres for the middle stint hadn’t worked out as well as Rosberg had hoped. He had fallen almost ten second behind Hamilton by lap 40. But Pastor Maldonado was about to commit a grievous error, albeit one that would indirectly lead to a thrilling end to the race.
This was good news if you weren’t Esteban Gutierrez, who Maldonado ran into at the first corner, rolling the Sauber over. It was a completely avoidable and potentially dangerous accident, and not the first one Maldonado has caused. The stewards duly handed down a trio of penalties, though Maldonado insisted Gutierrez had been at fault.
Those with pit stops left to make took care of them during the ensuing Safety Car period, and those yet to use the mediums had to take them. That left Hamilton leading (on mediums) ahead of Rosberg (soft), the Force Indias and Button (medium), the Red Bulls (soft), Williams and Ferrari (medium).
The risk-averse nature of modern race strategy means the true performance of the Mercedes W05 has often been disguised. But with a dozen laps to go and the gloves off between its drivers, its true capabilities were finally revealed.
Once the Safety Car came in, Hamilton and Rosberg scorched away at a stunning rate of up to two seconds per lap. And they did it while fighting tooth and nail for victory.
No team orders
Some might say it would have served Mercedes’ interests to put on a show and help shield the sport from the critics who spoke up before the race. But if this tyre-locking, wheel-to-wheel brawl was stage-managed then Hamilton and Rosberg can act every bit as well as they drive.
Nor was Paddy Lowe’s identical message to both drivers during the Safety Car period – reminding them to bring their cars home – an order to call off the battle. After it they fought harder than ever, Rosberg’s engineer telling him which engine modes to use to attack, while Hamilton’s advised him on how to shadow his team mate’s settings to ensure he wasn’t vulnerable.
“I was well aware that the whole world was thinking ‘here we go, Silver Arrows team orders, finally they’re there’,” said Rosberg afterwards. “That was clear to me but it wasn’t that at all, it was just ‘guys, make sure that you get these cars to the finish. Don’t break them, don’t crash.'”
“The team played it as fair as they possibly could today, let us race flat out,” he added. “I don’t think you need more evidence than you saw that we’re here to race this year and there’s no team orders.”
Well aware his softer tyres gave him an advantage of more than half-a-second, Rosberg went on the attack as soon as the Safety Car came in. But try as he might, every time he put a move on Hamilton his team mate came off the corner quicker and re-took the place.
But until the flag fell on lap 57 there were seldom separated by more than a second. It had been one of the most intense contests for a win for a long time, and those who enjoyed it had Mercedes to thank for having confidence in their drivers and resisting the temptation to issue a “Multi 446” or “Nico is faster than you”-type instruction.
Fighting to the finish
Aided by their soft tyres – and perhaps the opportunity to save fuel during the Safety Car period – the Red Bull pair were closing on the two Force Indias. After Button’s clutch-hobbled McLaren dropped out of contention, Ricciardo squeezed between his team mate and the pit wall to claim fifth place.
“It was hard but fair and we left each other room,” said Ricciardo. “That’s what we want from each other and we discussed it beforehand, we’re racers and that’s what we enjoy doing.”
He enjoyed it even more when he caught and passed Hulkenberg three laps later. The Red Bull driver then went after Perez, taking up to a second per lap off him, but at the flag he was less than half a second behind.
Their team mates took the next two places followed by the Williams pair and the Ferraris. It had been a horrendous day for the Maranello cars. Luca di Montezemolo could only watch as his cars’ poor straight line speed meant they were passed with cruel ease.
His misery was no doubt capped by the fact that the race was an absolute stonker, which shot to pieces his argument for knee-jerk rules changes which could help lift his team out of the doldrums.
For the neutral – and probably most of the non-neutral – this had been a race to savour. The only thing missing from the race was the kind of roaring applause F1 gets at venues like Melbourne.
Bahrain’s first floodlit night race had a new look, and the darkness had an added benefit of disguising the usual poor turnout in the grandstands. This is, after all, a country where a huge security operation is mobilised when F1 comes to town.
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Hamilton claims second win of 2014
Hamilton’s second win in a row was a gem of a drive – an unlikely victory snatched from a team mate who was clearly quicker on the day. The two drivers who first paired up at TeamMBM.com in 2000 drove as if they were back in their karts again.
There was action throughout the field, but this fair and hard-fought battle for victory between two team mates was what made the 900th world championship race one to remember.
It will take a huge effort on the part of Mercedes’ rivals to prevent one of these drivers from becoming world champion this year. And it was another world champion who put the best perspective on the arguments over the sport’s new rules earlier this week.
It is to Fernando Alonso’s credit that he has not toed the Ferrari party line that Formula One has gone to hell in a handcart. The two-times world champion reminded us earlier this week that it is in the nature of sport that some fixtures are more exciting than others.
“Just like in football, where you can see a terrible nil-nil game,” he said, “and the next one is an exciting five-four which you enjoy so much”.
So it was that after an unremarkable race in Malaysia the Bahrain Grand Prix produced a sublime sporting contest – and hopefully reminded F1’s detractors just how good it can be.
2014 Bahrain Grand Prix
- Mercedes’ Bahrain battle “too dangerous” – Warwick
- Hamilton wins Driver of the Weekend again
- Thrilling Bahrain GP gets best rating since 2012 finale
- 2014 Bahrain Grand Prix team radio transcript
- Top ten pictures from the 2014 Bahrain Grand Prix
2014 F1 race reviews
- Hamilton clinches championship in style, Rosberg accepts defeat with dignity
- Rosberg wins, Hamilton spins – but keeps points lead
- Hamilton can cruise to title after tenth win
- Sport and politics collide amid dreary Russian race
- Bianchi’s crash overshadows Suzuka race
Images © Ferrari/Ercole Colombo, Force India, Sauber, Daimler/Hoch Zwei